Friday, September 25, 2009

What's Art?

A friend of mine and I got into a discussion about art the other day. He’s a graphic design teacher, so he teaches art. He told me (from what I understand) that in his view that art didn’t start until the impressionists, as that was when there was really art for art’s sake—especially when it’s not representative, as there is no intent on the artist’s part for meaning, it’s only expression. Although I (pretty vehemently) disagree with this, it was an interesting place to try and figure out what my own definition for art is, which was his point—that you have to start somewhere. So, it’s easier for me to set myself up in opposition to something—I’ve always been an arguer—and I think I may do that a bit now. And it’s not personal—it’s fun to find someone to have these conversations with as you can hone your own ideas. Dust of the rust of the creaky brain gears. And since my friend was enjoying the conversation as well, I’m going to have a little stream of consciousness working it out here. It’s what I love about blogging: I can end up wherever.

Art for art’s sake is such a complicated term to me in and of itself. If art is in the marketplace it’s for something other than art, it’s for commerce. You could argue that Warhol, the champion of art for art’s sake, was actually just making product. And if it’s purpose is to make money, it’s no longer “art for art’s sake”. That phrase, I guess, raises my hackles because it separates out a supposed artist intention. What is the artist’s intention in making art? Similarly, if the test is that the viewer is to come with their own ideas, what makes one think that a picture is representational that the viewers will come to it with the same sense of history or expectation. Even the most pictorial of artists has a personal vision and eye, and just because they have an intention for us to have a certain reception to their art doesn’t mean we will. There are a lot of signs and symbols, in classical painting particularly, that we don’t have a background for.

When we were speaking I brought up the Unicorn tapestries. Behind the Unicorn there are some ridiculous numbers of flowers and plants, each of which had a symbolic meaning probably known to some of it not all of the viewers when they were woven in the 15th century. A viewer now does not have those same references. Does that mean that this piece, with a possible intended meaning, is now ‘art for art’s sake’ since modern viewers do not have the same frame of reference?

Also, how are we to tell either artists intention or viewers frame of reference. One of the most interesting books on art I’ve read is Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Not because I agree with it, but because of his certitude. His theories are based on what he believes is the effect of color on the soul.

It is evident that many colours are hampered and even nullified in effect by many forms. On the whole, keen colours are well suited by sharp forms (e.g., a yellow triangle), and soft, deep colours by round forms (e.g., a blue circle). But it must be remembered that an unsuitable combination of form and colour is not necessarily discordant, but may, with manipulation, show the way to fresh possibilities of harmony.

Since colours and forms are well-nigh innumerable, their combination and their influences are likewise unending. The material is inexhaustible.

Form, in the narrow sense, is nothing but the separating line between surfaces of colour. That is its outer meaning. But it has also an inner meaning, of varying intensity, [Footnote: It is never literally true that any form is meaningless and "says nothing." Every form in the world says something. But its message often fails to reach us, and even if it does, full understanding is often withheld from us.] and, properly speaking, FORM IS THE OUTWARD EXPRESSION OF THIS INNER MEANING. To use once more the metaphor of the piano--the artist is the hand which, by playing on this or that key (i.e., form), affects the human soul in this or that way.


Kandinsky wrote a series of un-performable plays (though would probably be interesting as animation) with stage directions like “large yellow forms or several feet move forward, shrink to green and disappear”. And, when you read a lot of his work, the color resonance seems hopelessly about how a German in 1915 might view color or have an emotional reaction to it. Other cultures are not taken into account, and it’s quite an assumption of viewer reception and feeling. I’m not knocking Kandinsky at all – he did some classic painting and also is doing the same thing in his book—defining what art is. And, even further, positing that there is a certain, definable reaction IN THE SOUL that one has to certain colors and shapes. That's quite a supposition.

BUT, does Kandinsky’s work become less “art for art’s sake” because there is an intended meaning? Does Matthew Barney’s, who famously has stories and expectations about his pieces no matter how abstract they seem? Does art that tries to have a meaning have less value, or is it not art?

It’s a question I’ve been thinking about since we had this discussion.

I loved museums as a kid. I remember in second grade I was so excited we were going to the Joslyn museum in Omaha. I had been to the museum before—it was one of my favorite places. And I had a favorite painting—Bouguereau’s Return of Spring.

I still remember rounding the corner, excited I would be able to show everyone the painting (I didn’t have many friends, and was excited I knew something and could share it), and saw the painting was gone. Apparently, someone thought it was pornography, and had slashed it with a razor blade down the center. I just read this in Wikipedia: In 1890 and again in 1976, the painting was physically attacked by several people offended by its overtly sensual nudity.

Now, I didn’t think the painting was anything but pretty in the second grade, and was very sad that it was gone. So sad, in fact, that I remember it 33 years later. But is it not art because there is a meaning intended? Bouguereau was around the time of the impressionists, but no one would call him anything but a figurative painter. And did it stop my love of the painting when I was told by a couple of friends in NY who were art history PhD students that Bouguereau was considered a pornographer by historians (poor guy—he got it from all sides). And, even now, even though the painting could be just this side of kitsch and overdone as Rafael’s angels, I still love it. And from my 8 year old heart, I always will.

Interestingly what made me think of this again was reading about Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” that’s at the met right now in the New Yorker, and Peter Schjeldahl touches on it.

It’s interesting to think of art vs. illustration in the context of his painting. In mid-17th century Holland domestic scenes were popular as decoration, so Vermeer painted domestic scenes. But I would never call his paintings merely illustrative. I do think there are artists who have a skill for illustration and decoration (Thomas Kincaid anyone), but Vermeer is an interesting case in the discussion about art for art’s sake, illustration and audience. Who is he painting for? These are illustrative of a moment, but who knows what’s happening and how we’re to react. (He was 25 when he painted the above — astounding, really)

What is the look on that girl’s face? Why is the man in the back slouched? Is something disturbing happening?

Why is there so much foreground? Did we interrupt something?

What’s going on with the delivery of the letter? And we're definitely interrupting.

I love this hat. You can almost touch it.

Beyond those questions is what I came to for myself as what I would define as art. Certainly not all of the definition, since for me it’s only a tent that gets bigger to shelter anything that needs it. Open arms. But in the case of Vermeer, beyond illustration or mirroring ourselves, he manages to take moments of the mundane and make them extraordinary. He catches a girl pouring milk into a vase and we’re captivated. Not because of the scene, but how beautiful the moment is. Art, to me, can take those moments that would seem boring or even sometimes disgusting and disturbing and make them transfixing. You can’t look away. It’s haunting. The colors are heartbreaking. The girl will never be that young, that glowing, that impossibly easy. If there was anyone else in the room she wouldn’t look that way. Art, for me, can capture moments that are happening while we are looking away. It’s the tree falling in the forest. This may be voyeuristic on my part, and I think a lot of art is, but it’s also celebratory. And though it may be representational, I do not think there is any specific intention in the artist except that you witness it. And even though the scene is specific I think each viewer brings their own experience and witnesses it in a different way.

There’s a great movie called La Belle Noiseuse by Jacques Rivette. It’s four hours long. Emanuelle Beart is naked for about 2/3 of the movie. At a certain point you forget she’s nude, as the point of the movie is how to paint her, the inner her, and how the artist and by extension we the audience get to know her deeper than her skin. So, although the nudity is literal, it becomes figurative and deeper as the film progresses.

Schjeldahl has a great quote here: “an artist has contrived to lure me out of myself into an illusion of reality more fulfilling than any lived reality can be”. That about sums it up. Funnily enough, when I went to get the link I saw that he has a new piece about Kandinsky. HA! I’ll have to read that.

In the end, then, I guess what I respond to, even in figurative painting (and I haven’t mentioned sculpture here) is the attempt at any artist to get at our humanity. And perhaps not even “at”, but “in”. Vermeer is a great example because his painting is masterful enough to allow surface and ambiguity. Books have been written, so I’ll not continue, but safe to say there’s a reason there are so many shows dedicated to him. I would even go so far as to say that in non-figurative contemporary painting there’s less room for me as a viewer as it feels like a lot of contemporary artists are so about the “idea” of their art that the execution feels inelegant, unemotional, and there’s no room for my response save having a critic/artseller tell me what I’m supposed to be getting from it. But THAT’s another set of words.

If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading. Looks like it’s time for me to hone some ideas.

And thanks to my friend, for making me think about it. We're going tomorrow to a fun annual party called "Why we create" which has a backyard full of craft stations--what a blast. More art.

1 comment:

StinkyLulu said...

Interesting, complex post. It seems like the beginnings of an essay you've been raring to write for some time now.

I've just come out of a few weeks of discussing the aesthetic theories of the ancients -- that oft-rehearsed debate "between" Aristotle and Plato about the potential value of mimetic (imitative/figurative/representational) art. It seems to me that you're working through a version of that here, with the (post)impressionists having the ideas that Plato simply did not see in the mimetic. Aristotle, though, saw value in that moment often called catharsis, which includes an often underemphasized aspect of "wonderment" (which Aristotle pinned a lot to, and which he attributed to the artist's/poet's ability to create something marvelous and transporting).

All of which is to say: you may be an art geek, but you're theatrical roots might be showing as well.

Thought of you this morning when I was finally watching THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. The Bouguereau painting figures briefly, in the way of nifty narrative detail, in one of the excellent establishing sequences.