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Art is Not Just a Matter of Preference

Sunday, 15. September 2013 23:44

When I was an undergraduate, I had an English professor who said that the accomplished student of literature should be able to read a poem and separate the quality of the work and whether or not it was personally appealing. The implications, of course, were that not all poetry is created equal and that liking something has nothing to do with whether it is good or not.

This has not been a popular position in the postmodern world, where all work is pretty much equal. And although postmodernism is, according to some, dead, it left a legacy. Daniel C. Dennett has said, “Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.”

And as elevated as the egalitarianism of postmodernism sounds, most of us who work in the arts know that it simply isn’t true. There is good acting and bad acting, good directing and not-so-good directing, good writing and bad writing. There are, in fact, qualitative differences in the performing arts. And other arts are no different. Given that, the problem is articulating what constitutes good art and less good art, and that, in turn, requires that we be able to distinguish art from non-art.

Although many have attempted this, novelist Leo Tolstoy is one of the few who not only distinguished art from non-art, but articulated the conditions which determine the qualitative levels of art. Tolstoy collected his views in a book called What is Art? It is not an easy read. Fortunately, Maria Popova has summarized and presented Tolstoy’s ideas in a recent posting to Brain Pickings. Essentially, Tolstoy said that art is a union between the artist and viewer or receiver of the art that allows the receiver to feel and experience the feelings and experiences that the artist put into the work. Additionally, this union works not only in one era, but across time and cultures. He says that what distinguishes real art is the presence of this infectiousness.

He goes on to say that the stronger the infection, the better the art, and that the degree of quality is dependent on three conditions:

  1. The individuality of the feeling being transmitted. (More is better.)
  2. The clarity of the expression. (Clearer is better.)
  3. And the sincerity of the artist. (Sincere is better.) This is the most important condition.

Sincerity in Tolstoy’s view is what gives art it’s power and is the source of its infectiousness: “The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.”

Whether or not we fully agree with Tolstoy, or even understand him, most of us instinctively know that all art is not created equal. There is excellent work and there is crap, and there are all sorts of levels in between. Most of us know that. It’s time that we quit pretending that it’s all about individual expression and acknowledge that Tolstoy has a point. Art is not just a matter of preference.

Category:Aesthetics, Quality | Comments (1) | Author:

The Cup Exercise

Sunday, 11. August 2013 23:09

Like many people, I have a coffee cup collection—rather had a coffee cup collection. It was not a conscious collection; I didn’t scour shops for the correct cup to add to my assortment. Instead, it sort of built itself over time: a gift here, a souvenir there, a gimme at a conference. Probably it was much like your collection. But recently, I decided I really needed the cabinet space other uses. Since cups hardly ever lose their utility, I decided to give them away, and as I pulled them off the shelf I tried to think about who, if anyone, might find a particular cup interesting or engaging.

Most of the cups were dated or lacking in potential appeal to my target group of recipients. As I took down one cup, however, I immediately thought, “This belongs to Freddie.” The cup is white porcelain with an enameled rainbow wrapped around it. The rainbow ends in cup-colored bricks with no fill colors. Beside the unfinished structure is a little sign that says “Under Construction.” Why the immediate connection? Freddie (not her real name, of course) is a young, very talented, multi-disciplined artist, who day-by-day is building her future in art—and who also happens to be transsexual. The cup, over 30 years old, was originally an idealistic statement about building a beautiful future. It still is, but because the rainbow now has additional connotations, it has acquired an overlay that both enlarges and modifies that meaning.

The larger thought that came from this exercise is about how art stands up through time, or doesn’t, or, as in the case of this cup, takes on different meaning. It’s worth thinking about, because art, good art, lasts. Good art, while it decidedly speaks to its immediate audience, continues to speak through time.

This is the reason that we make pilgrimages to see the Pietà, or Starry Night, or any number of other works. It’s why we marvel at the photography of Alfred Stieglitz, not because he was able to do such excellent work with such primitive equipment (although that too), but because his images still speak to us. It’s the reason that we keep coming back to stare at The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Ongoing appeal is certainly not limited to visual and plastic arts; we find it in performing arts as well.  It’s the reason that Jean Anouilh was able to make the story of Antigone have a special significance for the people of occupied France in 1944. (Why the Nazis didn’t pick up on it is completely beyond me—it’s not all that subtle.) And it’s why theatre companies continue to produce the plays of Shakespeare—in a variety of settings, time periods, and styles. Aside from amazing language, the stories and characters speak to people of all times.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the appeal of any of these will continue, but I suspect that it will. And that is because these works exemplify the epitome of artistry and because they continue to touch on issues important to humans and the human condition. Whether an artist can set out to create art that does that and be successful at it is open to discussion, but I doubt it. Those attempts usually come off as abstract and not very engaging. Instead of trying to make “art for the ages,” we should, like all of the artists mentioned above, focus on making the best art we can, very specific art that will speak to our own time and culture.

Some of it may live on.

Category:Aesthetics, Communication, Creativity | Comment (0) | Author:

An Artistic Philosophy–Why it’s Important

Sunday, 10. February 2013 23:30

If you study Henri Cartier-Bresson, you cannot but be struck by the quality and consistency of his work. (If you are not familiar with his photography, you might want to look here or here.) What strikes you immediately is that none of it is posed; it’s all captured. He said himself, “’Manufactured’ or staged photography does not interest me.” His work bears out his words. Even the portraits are captured; you have the feeling that as far as the subject is concerned Cartier-Bresson might as well be a piece of furniture.

This post, is not, however, to celebrate Cartier-Bresson’s work or photography in general, but to consider how one of the great artists of the twentieth century managed to do what he did and discover if his approach has anything to teach us.

He said, “To take photographs means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.” Photojournalists, or those photographers who work in that style, spend entire lifetimes trying to master the approach set forth in the first part of the quote, an ability that Cartier-Bresson seems to have had from the outset. Perhaps it is not a learnable skill; perhaps it is one of those abilities that we either possess or do not.

And there are some of us to whom that way of working seems foreign indeed. A number of artists, even photographic artists, plan and experiment and pose models and do all sorts of intricate things, not because they lack Cartier-Bresson’s ability to size up the situation instantly, but because that is that way that works for them. For many of us, the creative act is not instantaneous, as it was for Cartier-Bresson, but rather a process, and sometimes a rather complicated and involved one that takes some time—and in some instances quite a long time.

That Cartier-Bresson’s “precise organization of forms” was instantaneous, certainly does not diminish yours or mine or anyone else’s who works at a different pace. More important—for us anyway—is the latter portion of the quote above, that we put our head, eye, and heart on the same axis. Only by doing this will our work achieve the excellence that most of us are aiming for—it must be the product of all our faculties.

The second quality of Cartier-Bresson’s body of work is the consistency of it, another goal to which many of us aspire. If you study his work and writing, what you find is that the foundation of his style is his philosophy of what photography is and his assumptions about how excellence is achieved. This philosophy informs all his work.  We are not talking about technique or environment. What we are talking about is a personal philosophy, an idea of what constitutes good work which governs his approach, technique, and choice of tools, and which enables him to engage eye, head, and heart to generate a remarkably high quality product consistently.

What Cartier-Bresson has to teach us is that if we develop our own philosophy of what makes an image or a sculpture or a poem or a play, then base our personal aesthetic and methodology that, we are more likely to facilitate full engagement and produce consistent results that are satisfying, both ourselves and our audience. It’s more than developing a style—it’s establishing a way of thinking that serves as the foundation of all our work, regardless of subject matter or medium. Our philosophies and resultant methodologies may differ drastically from that of Cartier-Bresson and from each other, but they are just as valid, and with such underpinnings, our work can improve both in consistency and quality.

 

 

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity, Originality, Photography | Comment (0) | Author:

It Ain’t About Pretty

Sunday, 4. November 2012 23:37

A while back, a friend of mine went to work as a studio assistant for a high-dollar photography studio.  After hearing about how people would travel across the country and pay enormous amounts for headshots, I went to the studio’s web site to see what was what. Everything was pretty. And I do mean pretty. Very slick, very commercial, very pretty—technically perfect, in fact—but completely soulless. All of the images of a type looked alike, down to the makeup. The photographers had found the formula for commercial success, but not necessarily for creating art.

Art may be pretty, but that is not a necessity. In fact, many artists bypass pretty, and attempt to create art that is beautiful. And beauty is an entirely different animal. Beauty goes far beyond mere pretty; for some, prettiness actually interferes with the beauty of the art.

Many artists believe that to be truly beautiful, something must have some strangeness to it.  This sentiment has been expressed by artists as disparate as Karl Lagerfeld, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sir Francis Bacon. The poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire has said “’I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which is no melancholy.” Author Stephen Crane has gone so far as to defend ugliness in art: “I cannot see why people hate ugliness in art. Ugliness is just a matter of treatment.”

Although there is little agreement among aestheticians on what beauty is, there is general agreement that it conveys something meaningful and significant to the viewer. Regardless of the medium, if you ask knowledgeable people about the best art, the most beautiful art, you are very likely to get answers that include plays and poems and novels and paintings and sculptures and films that are anything but pretty. They may be uplifting or depressing or breathtaking or sad or heartwarming, but they are likely not to be attractive, and they certainly will not be superficial.

The artists who created such art will have told their audiences the truth. And even though that truth may be uncomfortable, it will have been presented in a way that invites contemplation, consideration, speculation, thought. Even art that appears initially to be whimsical or humorous does this. Art, good art, does not worry about being pretty; rather, it tells us something, often something that we need to know—although we may not want to hear it—and it tells us in a way that strikes a resonating chord within us.

Sometimes I hear [visual] artists say with reference to the art they make, “but no one will ever hang this on a wall.” (The equivalent for the writer is “no one will ever publish or produce this.”) They say this because the art they make is not pretty. If they want to produce pretty, then perhaps they should be into the more commercial illustration or decoration business.

Art is a different thing. And most collectors of art know this and dress their walls accordingly.  Just in the last week, I have seen hanging in residences images that tell stories about relationships, memorials, ambiguous abstract ideas, abandoned buildings, cemeteries, nudes, burned homes, flowers, complex concepts. Only a few were pretty in any kind of conventional sense; some were not even attractive. All were beautiful. All were compelling. All invited contemplation. They were not only art; they were good art.

And that’s just two-dimensional visual art. We haven’t even touched three-dimensional art, music, dance, theatre, film, or the various written genres.

Sometimes in art there is a place for pretty, sometimes not. If you are an artist, make the art you need to make. Make it the best you can to say what you need to say, what your audience needs to hear. And, if you are tempted to dress it up a bit here and there, remember: it ain’t about pretty.

Category:Aesthetics, Audience, Criticism | Comment (0) | Author:

Self-Knowledge: An Artistic Necessity

Sunday, 29. July 2012 22:03

In the middle of last week, one of my favorite ex-students came by to visit. An actor, she is currently in a show locally and wanted to give me a comp, which I happily accepted. And, of course, we talked—well, mostly she talked. But she always has really interesting things to say, which are usually about her journey as a theatre artist. She was pleased to report that she had finally found out what she needs from a director. At the same time, she acknowledged that she knows that she won’t always get it; however, simply knowing allows her to ask the right questions. It also allows her to become less frustrated when she doesn’t get what she needs, because she is now aware of the source of the frustration.

Two days later, I sat down to watch, via DVR, the season premiere of Project Runway only to hear Gunnar Deatherage say that the reason he was among those cut in the first episode of the last season was that he didn’t know who he was. He made reference to this idea several times, at one point changing the statement slightly to say that last year he didn’t know who he was as a designer. Another time he said that he knew who he was now. Regardless of what you think of Deatherage, his comments are important.

What is significant in both cases is the recognition of the importance of self-knowledge. We in the creative universe often talk about what we need to know—our media, our equipment, our message, our tribe, our potential clients, our business plans. We often hear ideas that hit close to the need for self-knowledge without actually saying it: “know what you are comfortable with,” “know where you fit into the market,” “know what is required of you,” “find your direction.” Very seldom do we hear this most basic and necessary of advice: know yourself. What better advice could there be for anyone in the arts?

Many people have no idea who they are. Some have never considered the question, while some have gone to great expense and trouble to “find themselves.” I am one who does not necessarily believe in finding yourself, but I am a great believer in learning yourself, finding out who you are. If you have no idea who you are, what you are about, how can you possibly hope to produce a coherent body of creative work? You are lacking a basis for your art.

But the self is not something that we can come to know once and never have to look at again. The self can be as dynamic or static as our emotions and intellect, but regardless of how fast if might be changing, a fairly stable core develops, and that is the part we need to get to know first and best.

Then we can and must look at the changes. These changes can modify our creative work. And sometimes, our creative work can change us. Once we develop some self-knowledge, we can then begin to sense when we are changing, what those changes are, and how they might impact the work that we do.

That we can only know our conscious mind should not suggest that only our conscious mind is involved in artistic creation. No matter what we do or do not know about ourselves, our work will still come from the same areas of the brain as always— the unconscious/subconscious as well as the conscious parts. However, with more self-knowledge, we may better be able to focus and direct the conscious part of our creative process so that our work better reflects both us and our message. Those who know who they are, at least as artists have, like this season’s Gunnar Deatherage, a point of view. They are no longer working only from the need to create, but from the additional need to say something, to express something, and they know what that something is. With self-knowledge comes direction.

And, armed with that self-knowledge, we, like the actor mentioned earlier, are in a much better position to decide what questions to ask, to determine what input we need to fuel our best output. Like her, we may not always get the answers we want or the input we need, but we will at least now know where to look.

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity | Comment (0) | Author:

Should Provocative Art Carry a Warning Label?

Monday, 16. April 2012 0:09

In case you were not aware, Houston has been home to the Fotofest Biennial for 26 years. The festival turns the entire city into one huge photographic art studio. And there are as well a number of activities both for photographers and viewers. Usually I try to get to as many of the spaces (97 this year) as I can. So yesterday a friend and I wandered through several spaces looking at contemporary Russian photography.

Every time I visit Fotofest, I come away with new ideas, feelings, and opinions. This is not a recounting of this year’s—I’m not done yet. Rather it is a look at one incident that occurred yesterday. Reactions to most of the images we saw were fairly predictable: liked some, disliked others; appreciated some, not others; discussed some, left others uncommented.

Then we got to a piece named “Abortion.” The piece was series of nine or ten photographic images of a young woman undergoing an abortion. The photographer had then drawn on the photographs and made notes (in Russian, of course). The images were numbered and then placed out of sequence.

My friend said, “This piece tests the limits of open-mindedness. I think that I am offended. There should be a warning sign.” She went on to say that you consider yourself open-minded and then you see something that goes over the line—and you didn’t even know that there was a line. She acknowledged that art had provoked her before, but this offended her. That, she declared, was a unique experience because it was the first time in her life that she had ever been offended. And she didn’t quite know what to do with the experience.

Later conversations revolved around whether photographing something, drawing and making notes on it, arranging it, and hanging it on a wall constituted art and on the photographer’s intention. We agreed that we couldn’t decide exactly what the he was trying to do. Although the piece certainly had impact, it was not a convincing anti-abortion piece, nor was it effective pro-abortion propaganda. It was not reportage. Perhaps not being able to read Russian was preventing us from understanding. This, however, was not an issue with other images and series of images we saw that day.

But my mind kept going back to her comment that there should have been a sign. The images were too small and placed too high on the wall to be examined by young children, but the question of adults was something else entirely. How is one to determine whether the art you make will be offensive to someone when there are so many people who are easily offended?

Or is this a curatorial issue? Many theatres will warn audience members when the subject matter or language of a play is considered “adult.” Movies, at least in the US, have ratings. Both of these approaches allow potential viewers to make more informed choices about whether to see the work or not. And I have been to exhibitions of visual art (usually photographic) that have a sign notifying those about to enter that the images will be graphic or explicit or whatever. I’m sure that some people appreciate such warnings. It would seem odd, however, to label individual pieces with such warnings.

Although I have made up my mind, whether the piece was art or not is certainly open for debate, as is the question of whether it is good art. It did do one of the things that I think art should do: provoke the viewer. I don’t think this is the only legitimate goal of art, but it is certainly one of them. And if it provokes to the point of offence, maybe it’s something you shouldn’t see, but then, maybe it is. And if it teaches you that there are limits to what you are willing to view, then perhaps that is useful information.

There are things that we all prefer not to look at, but perhaps, once in a while, confronting something that makes us uncomfortable may not be a terrible thing.

What do you think?

Category:Aesthetics, Audience, Photography | Comments (3) | Author:

A New Set of Criteria for Contemporary Art?

Monday, 23. January 2012 2:13

How I Became 100 Artists, a TED talk by Shea Hembry, has proved to be very creative, very funny, and, if one considers the comments attached to the video, very controversial.  In his talk, Hembry proposed two criteria for contemporary art:

  1. The Mimaw test. This involves explaining a work to his grandmother in five minutes. If he couldn’t explain it in that length of time, the work would be considered “too obtuse or not well-enough refined.”
  2. The Three H’s: Head, Heart, Hand: the work should have “interesting intellectual ideas and concepts.” It should have “passion, heart, and soul.” And it should be “greatly crafted.”

Although in explaining these criteria, Hembry uses himself as an example, he states that these are the criteria for contemporary art, not necessarily his contemporary art. One wonders then if they apply to contemporary art, wouldn’t they also apply to all other art as well?

Many before have tried to establish criteria for art, and the only theories that could be called successful have been so vague as to be nearly useless or so complex as to almost defy understanding.  The alternative, of course, is to say that art is anything the maker says that it is. I am already on record as being absolutely opposed to this view. Hembry’s criteria are fairly clear and decidedly lacking in complexity, and, on the surface, seem quite reasonable, so maybe they occupy that elusive middle ground in the world of artistic criteria.

The Mimaw Test: If it can’t be explained in five minutes to a grandmother, it’s too obtuse or not-sufficiently refined. Setting aside the issue of what a grandmother might or might not know about art, might not the reason that it can’t be explained in five minutes be that it’s just too complex. I recently saw a video of a person explaining a painting by Picasso. In five minutes, the person managed to discuss all the parts of the painting, but had not yet begun to talk about how all of those parts work together to produce the effect they produce. Another question would be, of course, one that was mentioned last week. Why does the work need an explanation at all? Can’t Grandma decide what she thinks of the work herself without an explanation? What Picasso said about painting can certainly apply to any art: “As far as I am concerned, a painting speaks for itself. What is the use of giving explanations, when all is said and done? A painter has only one language.”

The Three H’s: Head: The work should have interesting intellectual ideas and concepts. The immediate response to this notion is “well, of course.” But there are some artists who are not so much interested in communicating intellectual concepts as they are in communicating emotion or beauty. Fortunately, that is an idea that is still alive and well and far more prevalent than you may think. Even the most cutting-edge artists may be moving into this camp. Consider this recent tweet from Hazel Dooney: “I used to be most interested in art for the ideas behind it. Now I only want to see art that makes me feel something.”

Heart: The work should have passion, heart, and soul. This is a criterion with which I have no argument. Interestingly, this aspect does seem to be absent in some contemporary work embraced by the art establishment. There exist a number of pieces which are merely clever or which are strictly intellectual. These, in my opinion, are lacking.

Hand: The work should be greatly crafted. Again, no argument.  Technical quality is, in my opinion, a requisite for art. The artist’s skill certainly does not need to call attention to itself, but it must be there.

Hembry’s criteria for contemporary art seem to be an oversimplification of a very complex subject. In fact, while they may work for the pieces that make up his biennial, they certainly do not work for the whole project, which is quite intricate. After all, his TED talk, which is delightful but does not explain the entire project in full detail, took over sixteen minutes.

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity, Criticism | Comments (2) | Author:

Narrative. It’s Not Necessary

Monday, 16. January 2012 0:03

The other day a colleague was talking about movies that he liked and those that left him cold. It very quickly became apparent that what made a movie “good” to him was story. He is a fan of plot-driven film and those that are lacking in that department do not interest him at all. Needless to say, he is not fond of Bergman or Fellini.

The conversation caused me to wonder about the place of narrative, particularly in the visual arts, although the issue comes up with other arts as well; another friend once remarked that the ballet was a “terrible way to tell a story.” That may well be true, but I guess I never thought that narrative was the sole purpose of the ballet or the only reason for appreciating it.

And that, I think, is the question. Is art simply a story-telling device or does it do other things and communicate in other ways? The phrasing of the question suggests that of course it is not just a story-telling device, but many artists think otherwise. There are numerous art professors who start a critique with “What is the story here?” demanding, of course, that there be one. Painter Hilary Harkness has said, “I think the core of painting is story.”

We have become so used to this idea that it seems natural. We expect there to be a narrative. Perhaps this is an extension of our repeated viewing of photojournalism, where the goal is definitely to tell a story. Whatever the reason, many have come to expect each piece of art to convey a narrative, and when it isn’t there, we are either disappointed, confused, or we pretend there is one.  For example, Judith Barter of The Art Institute of Chicago said of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic, “You believe there’s a narrative there, but there isn’t. I mean, you can’t read the story; you can’t complete the action, so that makes it both a successful painting but a difficult picture to talk about.”

Some are less circumspect in the way they view the connection between visual and narrative. Garry Winogrand said, “Photos have no narrative content. They only describe light on surface.”  And Mat Gleason with his usual soft touch has opined “Narratives are illusions, constructed in hindsight, often by the blindfolded.”

As harsh as Gleason’s statement is, it may be true. If an artwork is narrative, that narrative should be able to be expressed easily in words. But, unlike Harkness, some artists do not think that stories, at least stories that can be told in words, form the basis for art. They go even further. Edward Hopper has famously said, “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” Photographer Lewis Hine has said much the same thing about photography: “If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.”

Some critics recognize the validity of lack of narrative. For instance, Barbara Smith has called Brigitte Carnochan’s photography “visual haiku.” The notions of “narrative” or “story” do not come into play at any point. It occurs to me that you could describe the work of a number of artists similarly. Some create lyrics, some epics; some are making sonnets, all without words or narrative intent.

Just because we are used to thinking that all art is narrative does not mean that that is the only way to think, regardless of how natural it seems. There is a place for lyric painting, for photographic haiku, for cinematic meditation, for dance that is evocative rather than narrative. We would have far richer aesthetic lives if we stop trying to force art into a predetermined mindset of what it is “supposed to do” and accept and learn to appreciate what the artifact itself presents. We might even learn to expand our thinking and appreciation.

Category:Aesthetics, Communication | Comments (2) | Author:

It’s All About the Money…Or Is It?

Monday, 19. December 2011 0:23

It’s That Time of Year when there is much public discussion of materialism. Interestingly, this year the discussion takes place during the same time frame as a show in Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi called “Money and Beauty. Bankers, Botticelli, and the Bonfire of the Vanities,” which “explores the links between that unique interweave of high finance, economy and art, and the religious and political upheavals of the time.” The opening of this show about the connection between banking and Renaissance art was followed by a “a private conference on the future of art and finance” and numerous articles on the show and both the historical and contemporary interconnections between art and money.

Although the connections between art and money may not be fully understood, almost everyone in the arts is aware of some link. The patronage system that was developed during the Renaissance is still alive and well, if not in the form of direct sponsorship, in the form of scholarships and grants to both individual artists and arts organizations. Basically, money keeps the art world going, and big money keeps big art going.

This is true even of individual sales to collectors and is seen in both the primary and secondary art market. Daniel Grant says that art and money are now so intertwined that price has come to substitute for quality.  He goes on to say that the emphasis on sales coupled with a “lack of any consensus about aesthetics or standards of taste” has resulted in a new definition of art: “Art is whatever someone puts down money for and says ‘This is art.’ The corollary of this is that quality is identifiable only in terms of the sums spent.” Jed Perl goes further to say that “culture is now in retreat before the brute force of money.”

For those interested in the topic, the tangle of art-as-commodity and money is fully explored in Robert Hughes’ International Emmy-winning The Mona Lisa Curse. This documentary, which is very difficult to find, is summarized on “Art for a Change.”

Because the current measure of artistic quality is money and because of the enormous sums currently being paid for the most-in-demand art, a number of artists have begun to network and hustle and promote themselves. The result is group of artists who have developed larger-than-life personas in order to generate larger-than-life incomes. They have become celebrities. It is quite common to read about these “art stars,” almost as if they were performers. Perhaps they are.

The attitude of this new breed of artist is much that of a salesman or marketer rather than that of the traditional artist. This approach is summed up by one of the most notorious of the current “art stars,” Damien Hirst: “You also have to ask yourself as an artist, ‘What would be more appealing … to have made the Mona Lisa painting itself or have made the merchandising possibilities — putting a postcard on everyone’s walls all over the world? Both are brilliant, but in a way I would probably prefer the postcards — just to get my art out there.’” Somehow, in Hirst’s case, it doesn’t seem to be about just getting his work out there, but about being paid very well for it—about, as he says, “merchandising possibilities.”

One would hope that art is about more than merchandising possibilities. We will never disentangle money and art. I’m not sure that we should even try. But we can resolve to use standards other than price to evaluate art. And maybe, at this time of year, we might remind ourselves that, at least for some of us, it’s not just about the money.

And, if you happen to be in Florence before January 22, 2012, you might drop in and see two curators’ take on how it all started.

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“All Art is Quite Useless”

Monday, 17. October 2011 0:23

My friend who is the beginning ceramicist is in the midst of a quandary. Having broken through his block, he now is producing, but that has caused another problem. He feels that the things he makes must have a use, and since he has created objects for which no immediate purpose jumps to mind, he is concerned. While I understand this problem intellectually, his mindset is one with which I cannot fully identify.

Thus we have had long discussions about the nature of art and artifact creation, he maintaining that his ceramic output must find a function and I maintaining that art, regardless of the medium, need not have any function beyond its own existence. In looking for an argument that I thought might persuade him, I discovered this letter that Oscar Wilde wrote to an Oxford student, Bernulf Clegg, who had written Wilde asking for clarification of Wilde’s assertion in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that, “All art is quite useless.” Wilde responded:

My dear Sir

Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realize the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.

Truly yours,
Oscar Wilde.

Admittedly, Wilde’s position is an extreme one, but then that is what you would expect from Oscar Wilde. There is much evidence to contradict what he says in the first paragraph, but the second paragraph states, I think, the reality of art. It exists for itself, not necessarily for some external functional purpose.

This is not to say that art cannot have impact other than the “moment of joy” that we gain by viewing it. Art can certainly make statements about society, politics, aesthetic issues; art can put forth a particular point of view to the degree that it becomes propaganda as well as art. It can surely influence action. Art can make us think about ourselves and our lives and the lives of others, perhaps better than other means of communication can, and certainly in more complex ways than other approaches.

To say that art is “useless,” however, is not to say that it doesn’t have value beyond the immediate pleasure of viewing. (Wilde’s own work illustrates this.) It is to say that it need not have a function other than to be.  Even in those areas of design where the product of the work has inherent functionality, we have a tendency to call the work art only when it rises above that functionality. (I am thinking here of areas like architecture or set design, or even illustration).

In these days when marketing seems to be as important as creation, I think that it is easy to allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that our work must have function. However, belief in the necessary utility of our art can and will govern and limit our output, preventing us from producing our most imaginative work.

 

 

 

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