Saturday, July 08, 2006

What Good is Art?

Warning: I’m about to wax philosophic about art. This is not for the faint of heart. Please keep your hands inside the tram.

Brian made a comment about his visit to the Chicago Art Institute that caused an internal conversation to well up inside my head. Voices. I hear voices. ;-)

I’ve grown up around art and enjoy it a lot. I wish I had actual talent to go along with my appreciation, but I’m happy to be an art spectator. So today, what with the voices and all, I headed off to our local museum and walked around a bit and enjoyed lunch in the Rozzelle Court.

A few observations at the museum:

1) Wandering around the ancient Greek and Egyptian section, every single piece seemed to be representative of the gods or statuettes to be offered up to the gods on behalf of the deceased; everything had an explanation. But then, I came to a cabinet of small statuettes devoted to Osiris, Horus, Anubis, and a “Young Woman.” I dutifully read the wall plaque explaining the mythology behind these gods of the living and the netherworld and then read the individual placards. Here’s what the Young Woman’s card said: “The function of this statuette has stumped archeologists.” This small bronze statuette dating back to 670 BC served no function! Gasp! They’re kidding, right? I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen plenty of statuettes that served no function. The idea that all the others do and this particular one does not seemed absolutely laughable to me. I mean, I’ve seen plenty of “Portraits of a Woman” in my time and I believe those count as art, no function required.

2) Then, just when I thought the Young Woman was an anomaly, I came to another piece. This time, it was a coffer from Italy dating back to 1200 AD. On it were carvings, just like so many other marble and alabaster statues around the room, of important stuff again. This time, the card read: “The precise meaning of imagery carved is not yet understood. On the side to your right are two beasts with lion-like tails devouring the feet of a nude man hanging upside down.” I looked around to my right and yes, indeed, that is what I saw, the man’s feet already gulped down by the lion-like beasts. This can’t be the only piece depicting lions devouring men. I think I could have come up with a better explanation, but then, as I was writing this down in my notebook so that I might drop off my suggestion in the suggestion box, I was reprimanded for using a pen in the museum. A pen! I had already turned off my phone, left my camera in the car, and was wearing my backpack style purse like a purse instead of a backpack (backpacks are not allowed, so if your purse looks like a backpack, you have to wear it with just one strap on one shoulder in order not to violate the rules...the Smithsonian in D.C. has this same rule, so you've been warned).

3) Then I came to the 16th and 17th century Dutch artists. Now, I really do like these folks. These are the moralists. They use a lot of symbolism in “everyday scenes” to illustrate moralistic principles. But they too can go a little overboard and you’ve got to wonder if the artist really intended what is inferred. One in particular made me giggle. This was called Still Life and indeed it was just that. There was a wine decanter and a fallen goblet laying on the table, some fruit and cheese and a lemon with a “delicately spiraling peel” hanging over the edge of the table. Sounds like a standard still life, right? But wait, there’s more. Somehow, we are to infer that the person who was enjoying all of this had to leave the area quickly (the fallen goblet and mussed up tablecloth tell us this) which is a message about the “fleeting nature of wealth and prosperity in our mortal state.” Um, okay.

Which leads me to my point...the voices. The conversation in my head centers around the absurdity that often accompanies art, especially contemporary art. We’ve all seen the large canvas painted black with some esoteric psychoanalytical explanation on the gallery wall to explain what it “means.” But can we always interpret the meaning of nonliterary art with words? Do we really believe that the artist had all that figured out when they set out to paint the canvas black? I believe the answer is a resounding NO, because the language of nonliterary art is not found in words. It’s found in form and color, light and shadow, maybe even sounds and smells. At any rate, art affects many of our senses and sometimes, we should just let it wash over us and take it all in. But instead, we try to reduce it to words, leading to some “absurd” results.

For one, it is difficult to appreciate art because we become frustrated in the trying. We become scared off by “art snobs,” the ones who talk like they know everything. You know the type, the kind that take all the fun out of romping through art galleries for fear you’ll be kicked out as soon as they discover you’re not “one of them.”

For another, it leads to revolt by the artists. Artists like Jackson Pollock simply number their pieces...I saw one today with black paint splashed about the canvas, titled “#6.” My mom was a Fine Arts major and I remember her “abstract” period in the late 60’s where she wouldn’t title her work because she didn’t want labels attached to it. She wanted it to mean something different to everyone who viewed it.

I think the revolt, which started with the modernists at the turn of the 20th century (they wanted to force spectators to see art in its own terms as opposed to a narrative or a realistic representation), has gone to an extreme, especially when it comes to “contemporary” art. It's gone so far that now, words are needed in order to turn something into "art." How else is a string of christmas lights or a pile of candy on the floor going to become "art?" The whole goal of contemporary art seems to be to start a conversation, to make a statement of some kind...usually social, political, or religious. So in a sense, the revolt has gone full circle.

I, for one, enjoy art for its beauty, and appreciate the talent behind its creation. I believe art is as close to divine creation as Man can achieve; it is the product of ideas; it’s what sets Man apart from the beasts. Art may not have any intrinsic value (I mean, we can live without it), but it gives our lives value.


At 11:29 PM, July 08, 2006, Blogger Rach said...

What would be your favourite type of art?

At 12:14 AM, July 09, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

That's a tough question, but I do have several favorites. :-)

I love the whole Art Nouveau period, all art forms (paintings, sculpture, furniture, lamps, pottery, architecture)...also the Arts and Crafts period which is similar.

I love watercolor as a medium...the translucency and layering of color fascinates me. I think it takes more skill to work with watercolor than just about any other medium.

I love the 16th and 17th century Dutch artists...Rembrandt and Vermeer in particular...beautiful work and full of moralistic, love, love it! ;-)

I like stuff that bears some resemblance to reality (as opposed to complete abstracts), but I don't care for extreme Realism (this is what photographs are for). I like the impressionists - Monet, Manet, Degas, Cassatt, Pissarro & Renoir.

Favorite subject matter includes people and landscapes.

Any further questions? Sorry, got a little carried away. I love art. ;-)

At 1:44 AM, July 09, 2006, Blogger Badoozie said...

who is the one typing up those placards that say the "precise meaning is not understood". i thought art was just interpreted individually? so who said someone out there has to interpret it, and understand it's meaning, and lay it on us.......that whole thing has me stumped. i'll think of it what i want to i guess. i don't need someone else's opinion. i'd rather NOT know what they think in fact.

At 5:07 AM, July 09, 2006, Blogger Rach said...

I'm impressed by your knowledgeableness Gwynne. I agree with your choices too for the record!

At 7:27 AM, July 09, 2006, Anonymous Brian said...

It's gone so far that now, words are needed in order to turn something into "art."

That very well summarizes my complaint about modern art. I believe that a work of art should say something - or just evoke a feeling - by itself. An explanation very often deepens or broadens the message, but there needs to be something inherent in the thing itself to get it all started.

I've been thinking about it a lot since posting on the String Of Lights -- some of what doesn't pass my personal definition of "art" is certainly thought-provoking. But that don't make it no art.

At 7:29 AM, July 09, 2006, Anonymous Brian said...

...and who's giving you a hard time about taking notes in the museum? That's crazy.

At 7:37 AM, July 09, 2006, Blogger Ellen said...

We're going to be in Chicago in a couple of weeks to see the King Tut exhibit at the Field Museum; I'm sure it's the same thing.

(although I've used an inkpen there)

At 5:30 PM, July 09, 2006, Blogger ~QZ~ said...

i believe that art is a representation of relationships. everything is always about relationships, and it all comes back to the parts of the human body. symbolically speaking of course. so art=mating=relationships=parts and what not. i think every person who is with a partner/spouse person would benefit from some really decent art.

At 5:36 PM, July 09, 2006, Blogger EmmaSometimes said...

Oh, Im jealous. And you with a pen you wild thing.....

I was just looking at one of Kandisky's paintings today. He does the most amazing abstracts. I always end up with a story or picture behind it.

Lions devouring men, or not? What's not to understand. Lions eat people. Is that a new idea?? As Freud stated so eloquently, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

At 11:04 PM, July 09, 2006, Anonymous Janie said...

Hey, Gwynne, my husband is hosting a huge estate auction in Lubbock on the 23rd, with an original Picasso, some Cezanne, Matisse, and others, you can ck it out at after 7/12/06

At 12:06 AM, July 10, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

Rach, don't confuse anything I've said here for knowledge. ;-)

Susie, exactly! ;-) Everyone senses something different so why limit their experience? I agree with what Brian said, that an explanation can deepen one's appreciation for a work of art, but there has to be something of value there to begin with, and I come back to the fallacy of trying to reduce art to words.

Ellen, have fun at the King Tut exhibit. I don't think I could visit that without doing my best Steve Martin impression. ;-) And don't forget your pens!

Emma, yes, I am quite the wild one. ;-) If they only knew the other things I carried in my purse. I would have loved to pull out a can of spray paint and asked if it was okay to use that? Or lipstick? Instead, I just bowed my head in shame and put away my pen. Kandisky, hmmm, I'm not a big fan of his abstracts, but can appreciate his leadership in the abstract movement. I like his more representational stuff his use of color. I'll bet his abstracts improve dramatically with your interpretations. ;-)

Janie, I'll check it out...thanks! Not that I have money for any of that stuff, but fun to look. :-)

At 12:09 AM, July 10, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

Oh, and Brian? It wasn't the notetaking so much that got me in trouble. It was the implement. I was told it was okay to use a pencil, but this is one of the few things I don't carry in my purse.

At 12:13 AM, July 10, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

qz, I'm ignoring, la, la, la, la! Actually, the precise meaning of what you are saying is not yet understood. ;-)

At 7:37 AM, July 10, 2006, Blogger beth said...

Totally agree, Gwynne. And since you like Art Nouveau, well I'm thinking you simply must be my best friend. That's my favorite - followed by the others in your list. (You've got good taste!) :)

At 9:51 AM, July 10, 2006, Blogger Foo said...

"We’ve all seen the large canvas painted black with some esoteric psychoanalytical explanation on the gallery wall to explain what it 'means.'"

This reminds me of an Oddly Enough piece I read on Reuters a month or so back. It seems that a painting got separated from its display stand in transit to the museum where it was to be displayed. In the process of setting up the exhibit, the stand was selected for display; the painting was not.

The story resonated with me, because I've had my own moments when I wondered whether I'm looking at something meant to be art, or just some dohickey from the heating/cooling system that just hasn't been removed by the workmen yet.

At 10:22 AM, July 10, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

Foo, that made me laugh, because that also happened to me on Saturday. I found myself looking at a cabinet full of pedestals and doo-hickies just a little longer than was probably warranted. When I realized what I was looking at, I skulked off, hoping no one had noticed. ;-)

At 11:38 AM, July 10, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

Thanks, Beth! I knew you had good taste when you said you also have some Roseville pottery. Great minds think alike and all.[choke] Oh, if I could only dream of having a mind as sharp as yours. ;-)

At 7:42 PM, July 10, 2006, Blogger beth said...

Sharp as a spoon, that's me!

(On the other hand, that does mean that I fit nicely into:
"Why a spoon, cousin?"
"Because it would hurt more, you idiot!" which is possibly one of the best parts of that movie.)

At 12:18 AM, July 11, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

To remove his heart, right? Was that Robin Hood? Or Life of Brian? It seems they both used spoon imagery. See? I knew you were sharp. ;-)

At 5:42 AM, July 11, 2006, Blogger beth said...

Robin Hood - the one with "can't act" Waterworld guy in it. His name escapes me. Oh, and Morgan Freeman. Yeah, to cut his heart out. :)

At 8:24 AM, July 11, 2006, Blogger Foo said...

Kevin Costner.

At 5:03 PM, July 11, 2006, Blogger Gwynne said...

What would be fun is to do a quiz whereby, a comment is posted and readers have to guess what the original post was about (Foo's comment being my case in point). ;-)


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