Thursday, November 29, 2007
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
A multi-part essay on Art and what I think about it.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Over the several parts of this essay I’ve tried to explain just what I thought this grouping of “things” is that we create which is each artist’s view of how they look at their world. That I’ve dubbed it Art is only convenient for me to communicate my idea to you.
As we saw in the last installment though, there are times when we can’t be sure if something is Art even if were looking at it. We have to know the artist’s intentions and we don’t always know them. The water gets all muddy and suddenly we’re not even sure what’s real or imaginary, if Keanu Reaves is actually living in a virtual world on our computer, or if there’s even a point to it all. Now what?
Where’d Art Go?
There are times when, in my head, Art enters into some kind of Twilight Zone. Like physics, when we start looking too close, rules start to break down and stuff gets all weird and junk. Up is down, left is right, Madonna is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Art is Craft. And weirdest of all is when there seems to be no art at all when it should be right there before our eyes (or ears).
Take, for example, music. A composer has in mind an idea for a symphony. She writes down some notes while plinking them out on her piano and comes to some conclusion of how the piece is to sound. She then conducts an orchestra who plays it for an audience that cheers wildly and asks for an encore. But...where’s the art?
Is it in the music we hear? No, because the music is played with the intention that it is an exact copy of the symphony perceived by the composer. In the notes then? No, the notes are merely instructions for the musicians to follow to a tee. And, of course, any subsequent playing of the symphony is another copy, as well as any recording of it.
Or how about photography? Is the art in the moment the photographer snaps the shutter? In the negative in the darkroom? Surely these are both only steps in the process to get to the final art: the photo. But what if the intent is to make multiple prints with the idea that they are all identical? These are then copies – Craft. Again, where did the art go? Printmaking works in a similar way.
What if I create an illustration for a children’s book? I suppose that the single painting could stand alone as a work of Art. But if my intentions are that it is only complete when the illustration, along with all of its other illustration buddies, are paired up with the text, printed and bound into multiple copies of books...where’s the final art? Is it in the finished books? Isn’t this just the same as the print and the photo?
It would seem at times that Art is intangible. Even when we view van Gogh’s Sunflowers we aren’t seeing it as it appeared immediately after he painted it. The paint has dried and cracked. Maybe it’s even faded or acquired a layer of dust. We don’t see it as he intended it and cutting part of our ear off won't help. Like a song that lasts for only a brief time, Sunflowers too will disappear when the Sun expands into a red giant and chars everything on the planet to a cinder.
Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh, 1888
Is it ever even possible to experience Art exactly as the artist intended it, anyway? Nope. We all have a lot in common but whenever Art is perceived by someone other than the artist it loses something in the translation. The only way we could fully experience what the artist means is if we share that experience, and we can’t do that yet. But that’s the one thing that all of these creative endeavors have in common. All of these interpretations of universes have an artistic experience associated with them. If we have something tangible to enjoy that we can call Art, well, that’s a bonus.
If we take it one step further, maybe we can have artistic experiences without even producing anything. Comedian Steven Wright had an interesting perspective when he said he was making some abstract Art. “Really abstract. No paint. No brush. I’m just thinking about it.”
The Essential Unessential
When I came up with a definition of Art, it wasn’t worded the way that the elegant version used in this essay is. Mine stated that Art was anything that someone made that was more than its utilitarian purpose without being a copy. (Now you know why I went with the other version.) One thing that I tried to make clear is that, because Art had no utilitarian purpose, it was therefore “useless”.
My choice of words was wrong though, because useless isn’t really accurate for describing what Art is. My good friend Scott McKeeve recently suggested that Art is the one thing we create that is actually “unessential”. We don’t need it to survive. Using fancy sporks isn’t going to feed us any better than regular sporks. But Scott also pointed out that when Art is taken away it affects us in negative ways. Look at the architecture from Soviet era Russia and it just depresses the soul. When the new high-rises that are going up in my native Royal Oak are pointed out, sighs are heard along with statements proclaiming how they look like prisons. Art matters.
In the movie Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams plays an unconventional professor of literature. He asks a member of his class to read from the introduction of a book on poetry which tells how we can rate a poem’s goodness on some sort of scale. He then instructs everyone to tear out that section and throw it away. Once they all comply, he has them gather close around. He explains to them in so many words that, although being mathematicians and engineers are all noble pursuits, it is Art for which we do all of these things. A world without art is an empty place.
My dissection of art really is a pointless exercise. It would be better if we just go out and appreciate art for what it means to us. Better yet, go and make your own. And don’t worry if you think it’s not as good as someone else’s. All that’s important is that you like it.
Way back when I was involved in that now infamous internet Art chat, one of the other members who went by the name Johnny Rotten brought up an interesting point. During the period of time when Mozart and Beethoven were burning up the charts with such ditties as Clarinet Concerto in A major and Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, there was a widely acceptable practice termed “Theme and Variation”. To take an existing melody and vary it to the new composer’s ideas was a perfectly acceptable practice. It wasn’t considered plagiarism at all. And because these “craftsmen” were appending these tunes for King and Country, they would have balked at considering themselves artists. But would they have been correct?
Mozart could call himself anything he wanted, and if he wanted to say he wasn’t an artist, well, good for him. Like I said, the meaning of the word Art, as well as artist, isn’t always clear in daily usage. But he’s dead, and he didn’t read the definition of Art I proposed in the beginning of this diatribe. Was Mozart creating an interpretation of Mozart’s own universe? Surely not, if he was just swiping from someone else, right?
The answer to the question at hand lies in the word “variation”. Mozart didn’t just grab some melody that was floating in the air and present it as his own. If that was all any of the classical composers did, then all of their music would have been indistinguishable. But Wolfie went one step further. He added a little bit of variation, a little bit of that Amadeus magic to those melodies and made them his own. The moment he made a conscious decision to purposely interpret the melody in a different way, he created Art. Ergo, he’s an artist - according to the definition.
So, does that mean a craftsman is someone who just makes copies? Like when Norm Abram makes a copy of a chair in his New Yankee Workshop? Well, in a sense, yeah. If artists definitely are concerned with making interpretations of their universes, then craftsmen definitely are not. And if “Nahm’s” only interested in duplicating that Adirondack chair, then he’s not interpreting his universe. He’s copying someone else’s interpretation of their universe.
Let's say that Paul makes teapots. He makes really good ones that serve their purpose well, and that purpose is to hold my tea and keep it warm. And that might be the only purpose they serve. So his goal is to make sure that each teapot he constructs is as good as the ones that he’s made before. That is his intent. There is nothing about the teapot that would indicate he had any other intentions in mind. He has honed his craft at making a really good teapot. The teapot is a work of Craft.
Suddenly Paul gets it in his mind to make something new like this:
Mr. Revere starts making copies of his new teapot. Then the new ones are no longer works of Art. These are Crafts because the intention is to make these exactly like the fancy pot he previously made, but with no variation. The opposite of Mozart’s melody. Complicated, n’est-ce pas? It gets more convoluted. Because if Paul now decides to make each teapot a different color so that they are all unique, they’re back to being Art again. “What the #$*@!?”
Like Art, Craft is a rather ambiguous term when used in everyday conversation. When artist pooh-pooh Craft it’s because they generally have it in their mind unoriginal objects that are made for mass production, and cheaply so, with little thought going into them. But the definition gets really blurry, because what appears to be Craft can become Art under certain circumstances. And Art can also become Craft as well, as seen in the example of the new teapot copies. Or not-copies. Or whatever.
“So how the hell am I supposed to know if it’s Art or Craft or what?” You might never know. The guy who is in charge of painting all of the skies in identical production line starving artist paintings might throw in an extra cloud just to exercise his inner artist. Then it becomes Art. The only way we can really know for sure whether something is Art or Craft is by asking the person who made it. Only that person can tell us if it was their intention to make something that tells us the meaning behind what they perceive in their mind, or if they meant for it merely to be a copy of something else. And sometimes we never get any clue as to whether or not an object is a work of Art or of Craft. It’s funny, how everything just ends up depending on what the motives, the intentions, of the artist are.
When it comes down to it, the differences between the two are so esoteric when looking at them in reference to the definitions I’ve used. It becomes almost useless to try to identify which is which when you don’t have all the information at hand. Feh, just go with what feels right. If you show me a photo of a teapot in a book and tell me what a wonderful work of Art it is, I won’t correct you by saying that it’s actually a representation of Art and therefore a copy, and is really Craft. I’ll smile and nod because I’ll understand what you’re talking about.
Next time: The End of Art?
We’ve seen that our personal preferences for what we like about Art appear to be the only things that count when we label something good or bad. Those preferences might be shaped by many things. Maybe one of us, let’s say you, likes Bob Ross’ paintings of happy little trees. And let’s say the reason that you do is that when you were a kid your parents had one hanging above the couch in the living room where their elitist snob friends could make fun of it when they came over for bridge night. But you didn’t care. It was the first work of art you were exposed to and it made an impact. It influenced the kind of Art that would attract you for the rest of your life. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But the reason you like the happy little trees has nothing to do with the painting itself per se. It’s because your experiences influence what you find attractive or compelling about any work of Art. It’s familiar. It might remind us of other work we already like. Or it might remind us of things that have nothing to do with Art whatsoever.
The mountains and the tree lined lake might recall that camping trip you took with the family when you were eight. You remember that one, right? How the lake was cold and how the forest smelled of pine? How you went canoeing and your brother Charlie stood up and fell in? How everyone laughed about it as they drank hot cocoa and made s’mores around the campfire? Mmmm...good times. We project a lot onto a piece of Art that we appreciate, and it all has to do with our own preferences and range of experience.
Or does it?
The Musical Mind
Aside from what we bring to our appreciation of a work of Art, could there also be something inherent in that work that just makes us go all floopy when we experience it? Could it be that when we listen to Yesterday by the Beatles it contains some basic element that universally appeals to anyone who plays it on the car stereo on their way to work?
When talking about music there surely could be. Musical scales sound right to us because they match the frequency ratios that our brains are biologically programmed to detect. All cultures have music. It’s also been shown that listening to music helps with the brain’s ability to learn language. So it could be that we really are moved by something within a Lennon/McCartney composition itself that has nothing to do with our own preferences. We like it because the music dictates that we do.
If you don’t happen to like Yesterday, even if it contains those magical frequency ratios, it could be for other reasons. Those reasons are your subjective projections on the music. Maybe Yesterday was your boyfriend’s favorite song and now you hate it because the bastard broke your heart. So to you, it’s bad Art - but it’s not inherently bad. That’s just your opinion rearing its head again.
But you can dislike a song because of its supposed inherent properties too. Maybe the song's frequency ratios just don’t match up with what the human brain likes to hear. Listen to My Pal Foot Foot by the Shaggs to understand what I mean. But be warned. You just might end up liking it because it’s so ridiculously bad you can’t help it.
The Artistic Eye
So music seems to have that little zing that makes us go, “Ooooh...!” What about visual Arts like paintings, drawings, or sculpture? Are our brains structured to naturally be attracted to forms we see within something like this painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema?
Silver Favourites looks like a painting of some women lounging around and feeding some fish. It’s not a particularly famous painting. You probably don’t have any knowledge as to what the artist meant for it to be about other than what we can recognize in it. The women, fish, and ocean are all familiar shapes to us. At least to most of us.
But there are other things afoot that hold our interest. Alma-Tadema used some age old visual devices to make sure we are drawn in. Through the use of composition and lines of motion he leads our eyes around the painting. We might not even be aware of this because we have little choice.
The curve of the bench leads us up to the women. The positions of their bodies point even further toward the center of their group until we follow an outstretched arm pointing toward the fish in the pool. Then the fish lead us back into the bench again and were led around once more. We’ve been manipulated into looking at what the artist wants us to see and when he wants us to see it. Add to that the sensuality that the young girls portray, and we see that another primal urge is being exploited. It’s kinda sexy.
It would appear then that much of our Art has elements within it that makes us react to it in a certain way. All this without it being some additional meaning conveyed by the artist, or without us bringing our own conceptions as to whether it’s crap or not. Does that mean then that Alma-Tadema’s painting is good whether we have an opinion on it or not? Our opinion doesn’t count anymore? Not at all.
Whoa there, Trigger
These are devices that artists like Alma-Tadema or Lennon and McCartney purposely use to help us understand their work. They might even be used unknowingly as well. Since artists are humans just like everyone else, they naturally tend to add these elements into their work unconsciously because it looks or sounds good to them, too. But it’s not a requirement that they be used, and a painting or a song that does have them isn’t automatically better than one that doesn’t. Once again...it’s all dependent on what the artist’s intentions were when he used these devices.
Now here’s the rub. We might now believe that all of these works of Art have some magic in them that flips a trigger in our senses and causes us to swoon over their beauty. But there’s a problem with that. Our brains notice this stuff all around us in nature where no intention has been made by any artist to evoke any emotion in us whatsoever. That’s why we see faces and patterns where none exist. Yes, I’m talking to you people who think there’s a face on Mars. It’s not there. Get over it. We just perceive it to be a face because our brains have been biologically wired to see these things.
Therefore, if these triggers don’t actually exist in nature then...Oh my....they really don’t exist in the Art either! They are used as tools by the artist because he knows that we’ll react to them just as we do when we see them in nature. This is just another piece of information that we bring along with us when we form an opinion about a work of Art. It’s just that it’s biologically hard-wired into us!
The Man Who Wasn’t There
Take this self portrait by Rembrandt for instance. We recognize his face, but what are we actually seeing? In reality we aren’t looking at a face at all. It’s paint on a two-dimensional canvas. The artist has merely taken advantage of our ability to pick out faces where they don’t exist. Rembrandt “tricked” us into recognizing his face. Yes, I said “tricked.”
It’s not meant to be malicious, but Rembrandt merely moved paint around in a very skillful manner until he created a pattern that he knew others would recognize as a three dimensional visage lit from the left side. The light that’s illuminating the “face” is a trick too, and isn’t really there either. You can tell this if you turn out the lights in the room and the painting doesn’t allow you to read by it. Get up close enough to touch the face (before you’re kicked out of the museum) and you’ll feel that it’s not really three dimensional at all, like it appears.
Just One More Thing
As an aside, if Art is an interpretation of one’s own universe, then we have to take into account the universe of anyone putting forth their interpretation. A person might not be hard wired by nature to see these triggers instinctively. If that person therefore creates an interpretation of their universe and has no intention of using those triggers, then Art isn’t defined by who can make it.
My (up to this point) good friend John is going to have a cow when I continue to suggest that this means humans didn’t invent Art. We just developed our version of it. Art is a universal concept, kind of like gravity. It applies to anyone or anything that can create something that is an interpretation of its own universe. As long as it follows the rules and has some intention behind it, of course. So wookiees living on a world orbiting a distant sun theoretically also have the ability to create Art according to the definition. We may not understand their wookiee Art or even recognize it if we see it. And since Chewbacca is only hypothetical, we don’t have to concern ourselves about it.
Next time: Dick Blick vs. Michael's
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
So far we’ve been spending a lot of time looking at Art that’s considered controversial. Now we’ll question its value. If we concede that it is indeed Art because it was made with intent and is an interpretation of the artist’s universe, do we also have to agree that it belongs on the wall of my local art haus?
“Really?” you ask. “I actually have some say in whether the so-called Art I’m looking at is crap or not?”
“So why is that crap hanging in my museum then?”
More to the point is how the determination is made whether a work of Art is good, who gets to decide, and if that label is permanent.
The Ronco Goodness Scale™
Once a month a group of Metro Detroit artists gather in a smoke filled bar in the hamlet of Hamtramck for a session of figure drawing called Dr. Sketchy. Models are culled from the local burlesque scene and we all pull out our pencils or whatever and do our best to capture the action in front of us. As an artist I am occasionally happy with my results and might proclaim a particular drawing my best from that night. To me it’s a good representation of what I see jiggling in front of me. So I call it good. And John sitting next to me might lean over and say, “Hey, that is good!” So it must be good right? But I might lean back over John’s sketchbook and say, “Maybe mine’s good, but I like yours better! It’s awesome!” Suddenly my drawing’s not so good as it was a moment ago.
If I flip back through my sketchbook and compare my sketch to others I’ve done in the past, it might lose even more standing on the “good” scale. It’s not that good at all now, is it? Then the Swag Faerie bypasses my “work of Art” as well as John’s and picks someone else’s to win a prize bag full of goodies. What the hell just happened? I thought mine was good? Apparently not.
It looks like our idea of what’s good is in comparison to other Art that’s out there for us to see. So, does that mean there is some scale to look at where Art is rated? One where the Mona Lisa sits at the top and where sticks with limes stuck on them are at the bottom? Where does something like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain fall?
Above or below my work? Near the bottom though for sure, right? But why was his urinal voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 British Art professionals? Were they all full of it? Do I have to pull my scale out and compare my now apparently shitty Art with all other Art to determine whether it should just be tossed into the trash? Does that scale even matter?
It all depends on what situation in which we’re looking at the Art and by what criteria we judge its goodness. As music goes the Mona Lisa is crap.
“Wait,...what? Why would we even think to place the constraints of what makes good music upon a painting?!”
“Why?” indeed. I don't expect the Mona Lisa to offer me anything in the way of musical entertainment. Likewise, why would I compare my sketch of a hula-hooping zombie cheerleader to the Mona Lisa when all I want to know is how good it is in comparison to other work I’ve done?
A work of Art can only be rated good or bad by what we expect out of it. It’s highly subjective. Remember that the next time your young niece asks you if you think the picture she made for you is good.
So we ask, when confronted with Art we don’t like, “Why does anyone consider things like this to be good?” Well, why do people like Impressionist paintings? Back in the latter half of the 19th century Impressionism was thought of as a plague on the Art world. How dare these...these...Bohemians try to pass this crap off as Art? It all has to do with the intent of the artist again.
The intention of Impressionist paintings was not to strive to be like the academic paintings of the period that came before. As the name of the movement implies (which was only coined at a later date) the artists were attempting to capture the impression of light in nature - light that quickly changes. Eventually a number of Art critics began to appreciate what those wacky Impressionists were trying to say and concluded, “Hey, this is pretty good stuff. You should have a look!” And only then did Art museums begin hanging them on their walls.
Working in the Abstract
Again, it all depends on what an artist wants their work of Art to do. Art that tends more toward the abstract, like Scream by Edvard Munch, may not contain all of the information that say The Raft of the Medusa by Gericault contains. The Raft of the Medusa is like a novel, conveying to you not only the action in the scene, but also the shape and form of the figures as well as evoking feelings through the use of symbolism.
The Raft of the Medusa, Théodore Géricault, 1819
Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893
Scream is not concerned with all of that. It’s like a short story. It just wants to get one point across - the feeling of anguish that makes us want to scream - and it does it pretty well. That’s why it’s hanging in a museum, not because someone wants to “trick” us into liking crap. Munch didn’t paint it because he wanted to get rich quick. He painted it because he was trying to say something. Same for that pee-cross.
“But doesn’t the amount of work that goes into a work of Art add value to it?” Only if that’s what we expect from it. Duchamp submitted his toilet “ready-made.” No work went into it at all other than the brainpower used to bestow a meaning on it and a signature that wasn’t even his own name. But Fountain was picked as the most influential artwork of the 20th century anyway. So go figure.
Also, the amount of work involved in a work of Art isn’t always apparent so it’s difficult at best to use that as a measure of any universal goodness. Even though you might say that thousands of hours went into painting The Raft of the Medusa, thousands might have gone into painting Scream as well. You just don’t know that those thousands of hours were spent practicing on other paintings and trying to whittle the extraneous stuff down to what was only necessary to portray that feeling Scream evokes. Heck, some of those thousands of hours were probably spent in “research” - standing around screaming in anguish - so Munch might be highly qualified to try and capture that feeling in paint.
It’s not only what a work of Art is trying to do that causes us to put a label of good or bad on it. It also depends on what environment the work of Art is viewed in.
I can place Vincent van Gogh’s The Yellow House next to a painting by popular artist Thomas Kinkade called Windsor Manor. Most educated individuals would pick the one-eared wonder over the commercial hack any day for many reasons. (Myself included.) But it’s an opinion based on what we expect from our paintings. And the word educated is the key. We only pick Vincent’s work because we know things about each of the paintings and make a choice about those things we deem more important to us. But what’s important to me isn’t necessarily important to everyone. That’s why there aren’t only tours to visit van Gogh’s birthplace in the Netherlands, but at Kinkade’s as well in swanky Placerville, California.
If we were to take both paintings by van Gogh and Kinkade and bury them in the sand for thousands of years until all reference to them had been forgotten, what might the people who unearth them conclude? Kinkade’s colorful houses might be more representative of something those people will understand. Based on the draftsmanship alone Kinkade could be considered the better artist. And he is the “Painter of Light” after all. Van Gogh’s buildings tend to be out of whack and out of correct perspective. He sometimes doesn’t even cover the complete canvass with paint. He’s sloppy. Kinkade’s got him beat as far as future archeologists and art critics might one day be concerned. So it all depends under what circumstances we judge Art.
Criticizing the Critics
That still doesn’t answer the question as to why we find things like urinals in museums - aside from the ones in the bathrooms. “Why do these Art critics, these elitist snobs, get to decide what goes on the walls of my government buildings?” Because we want them to.
Not that we want urinals as Art per se, but because there’s so much Art out there to wade through that we leave it to other people to conclude that some work of Art has enough value that it should be included in a museum’s collection. And occasionally that collection will include things that you personally just don’t like very much. Or things you don’t have any interest in understanding. Or things that you think should be used to stoke the museum’s furnace. It’s bound to happen. That’s fine. We don’t have all the same likes and dislikes. That’s one reason I don’t spend a lot of time in the Modern Art section of the Detroit Institute of Arts. I’d rather be looking at Impressionist paintings. But every once in a while I peek in and maybe learn something new.
It’s an Original!
As for Duchamp’s urinal, well...one thing we value in our Art above all is originality. The saying goes that there’s nothing new under the sun. Every once in a while, though, somebody comes up with a way of saying something with their Art that isn’t quite like anything else.
Using music as an example of originality, we all have favorite musicians that we like, but our group taste tends to recognize those who take a musical style in a new direction. Britney Spears may have had excellently produced CDs, but when it comes to originality, her music really offered little that was new or innovative. She may have been extremely popular and gotten kudos from the kids, but she doesn’t have universal appeal.
Conversely, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit launched the rock movement dubbed Grunge upon the world. These guys were doing something we’ve never heard before; and, though it took time to catch on, their music influenced an entire new generation of musicians. Still, they don’t have universal appeal either. Ask your parents to listen to Kurt Cobain and his gang and they’re likely to tell you to turn down the noise.
Getting back to the categories of Art that end up in museums, usually the painting or sculpture types, they scream out for originality. And because the main function of museums along with the preservation of Art is to educate, it only stands to reason that they want to show us the best and most varied examples of Art available.
So after our trip to the museum or the rock concert, it’s now left to us to continue with our educations, to fill in the gaps. We usually fill in those gaps with other fine examples of work that, for whatever reason, appeals to us. On rare occasions we take a leap of faith and look into something we have no previous experience with. Sometimes we find nothing that appeals to our sensibilities, but other times we’re smacked betwixt the eyes and it opens up a whole new world for us. And we just might call it “good”. And for each of us, we’d be right.
Can anyone really look at a photo of a cup of urine with a crucifix in it and say it’s beautiful? Isn’t that what Art is supposed to evoke in us? A sense of beauty? I don’t know if it’s beautiful, but that all depends on whether Serrano meant for it to portray beauty in the first place.
When he gave it meaning with some intention, he gave it a job to do. That job might not necessarily have been to entice you to say, “That is the most beautiful photo of a pee soaked cross I’ve ever laid eyes on. And look at the lovely amber color of the urine! Where can I buy a print?” The function of Art isn’t always about what makes a pretty picture.
Since all Art is about intent, an artist might have several different functions in mind for her work to do. It can illicit some kind of emotional response such as happiness, sadness, or disgust in the case of the previously mentioned pee on Jesus. It might be trying to make a point or be representing an idea like that volcano painting or the red ping pong table. It may support someone else’s idea like a magazine or book illustration. Its purpose could be to entertain either an audience or the artist themselves. It can intend to be an inspiration for other art or an example of a genre. It can even be a means to gain approval or love, like the crayon drawings we plaster all over the fridge that we get from kids. And, of course, maybe the artist just made something to look pretty. The possibilities are endless!
How do we know the job the Art is supposed to be doing? Well, like the meaning of the painting it can come from the artist themselves. But also like the meaning, we may perceive it as being within the Art itself. We can look at a Tiffany stained glass window and probably get some kind of clue as to the job it’s to do. Maybe we get a sense of beauty from it. That’s its job, or at least one of the jobs the window is supposed to perform, as far as we can tell.
Girl with Cherry Blossoms , Louis Comfort Tiffany, c. 1890
We might not even know the job that the Art is supposed to be doing. This might be an accident when the artist hasn’t made his intentions clear and we miss something, or the work is misinterpreted. These things may alter the value we place upon the work. But sometimes the job might be to target a specific audience. You might not like Hannah Montana, but that might be because her music isn’t meant for you.
Her artistic endeavors function to appeal to thirteen year old girls and sell CDs to them. And if you’re a parent of one of them, you’ll likely be ultimately exposed to Ms. Montana’s music anyway when you play chaperone to half a dozen of your daughter’s screaming friends at her concert.
But what about the photo of the pee-cross? Surely its function is not to elicit gasps of adoration. Perhaps it’s meant to irritate or even outrage the viewer. And, like Hannah Montana, it’s probably directed at a particular audience. Hindus may be likely to find something appalling if it concerns urine being used as part of an art object, but won’t be personally offended like Christians are likely to be. Or the Catholic Church. But an understanding of something so controversial can come from the unlikeliest of places. Sister Wendy Beckett, the Art nun, voiced her approval of Piss Christ. She regarded the work as a statement on “what we have done to Christ.”
Just because it has a job to do, or someone approves of it, does that necessarily mean it has value? You may think its crap, but can it be appreciated for what it’s trying to do? Does it have any worth? Is it, dare I ask, any good?
Next time: Why Is This Crap Hanging In A Museum?
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Just what did Barnett Newman intend when he painted Be I back in 1970? How can we know what those intentions are, what his painting is supposedly about, if its meaning doesn’t immediately smack us in the face when we see it? Can we only consider some work a piece of Art if it doesn’t require us to read a novel to understand it?
As I explained earlier, it doesn’t matter how far away a work is from reality that determines whether or not it’s Art. The distinction is blurry and wearing artsy reading glasses won’t help you see it any clearer. So when things become less clear we often need an explanation to help us along, because we can’t read the mind of the artist. Especially if he’s dead.
When I show you a painting like Cotopaxi by Frederic Church there is a certain amount of information that we can get out of it just by looking.
First, it’s got lots of nature in it and we like nature. Sunsets are beautiful and Church paints a really nice one that’s colorful due to the smoke and ash from the erupting volcano - a volcano, which we assume, that is the focus of the painting. But how do we know that the volcano is the focus? It does appear to be the most prominent feature of the painting, but it isn’t in the exact center. Plus it also shares the canvas with that sunset, as well as a nice waterfall with a rainbow, and a little fellow with his pet llama.
Any of those things could be the actual subject of the painting. So how are we to know? Luckily Church gave us a little bit of extra info. In this case, the title: Cotopaxi. And if we know anything about South American vulcanism we would know that Cotopaxi is not just the name of a painting, it’s also the name of a rather large volcano in the Andes. So it’s about the volcano after all!
Or is it?
Just how much information does the artist have to give us before we know what the painting’s about? As much as it takes apparently. Art is somewhat like a language, each work a different dialect. If we don’t understand the language we might need a translation to help us out. So if I’m speaking French to you and you only understand English, I need to tell you what I mean when I say, “Cotopaxi est le commentaire de Church sur la tragédie de la guerre civile américaine. “But just because you don’t understand what I’m saying doesn’t mean that French isn’t a language. Frederic Church does the same sort of translation work when he titles his painting Cotopaxi and tells us that it’s his commentary on the tragedy of the American Civil War. Now we understand. We may say he’s philosophizing, but that was his intention in painting his work of Art.
Likewise, Barnett Newman explains that Be I is about the existence of being. The red background represents earth and the white stripe, which he called a “zip”, suggests a moment in time. A flash. It may not be apparent at first viewing but now that we know we have a greater insight of what the artist meant to say. A greater insight into his interpretation of his universe. The more we study Art the more we can understand those artistic dialects. and we become the richer for this exchange of ideas.
If photographer Andres Serrano puts a cross into a vat of urine, photographs it, calls it Piss Christ, and then proceeds to give it meaning, that is his intent as the artist. So, believe it or not, that makes it Art.
You might not like it, but that doesn’t change his intentions. The same goes for a lime wedge I stick on a toothpick and call it my statement on the vitamin C intake of barflies. It just became Art. Just now. And it’s Art by our definition. But how are you supposed to react to it?
Next time: Function Junction