Sunday morning art
On any other day it might be different.
What is art?
Imagine confronting this question, maybe the most difficult in the history of human inquiry, on a Sunday morning before breakfast. Olga, my wife, does this to me all the time. I believe it is part of her program to keep my neurons flowing despite the aging process.
On Saturday she had watched a discussion program about the huge new museum space that recently opened in Moscow. She was bemused how the experts could not define what “art” would be exhibited there. Both Olga and I share a dismissive attitude toward many of the works that surface in the various “Visionary Arts” museums that have become popular in recent years. They are filled with original works emanating from deep schizophrenia or simply the projections of profoundly disorganized minds. Not to be confused with folk artists, these creative spirits are responding to a world whose order is rent by confusion and chaos. Olga and I will visit such museums because they are not without entertainment value and they provide insights into the strangeness that surrounds us.
The history of art is replete with the works of once rejected artists whose paintings or sculptures now sell for millions of dollars and are coveted by traditional museums. Van Gogh is a prime example, and he is an artist who seems to have eclipsed those such as Jan Vermeer, the Renaissance masters, Cezanne. Monet, Giotto, Caravaggio, etc.
But the museum isn’t the final arbiter of what art is. Even when they are jam packed with visitors, there are many empty rooms featuring modernists such as Pollock,Matisse, Kandinsky, Klee, Rothko, de Kooning, etc. Going way back to my youth, I never saw anything of artistic value in geometrified blobs of color. In my day, I had to deal with Lichtenstein and Warhol. It was always a mystery to me how the maker of a piece of commercial art, lIke the Campbell Soup can label, was not an Artist, while the painter making an exact copy was creating Art. I am now falling into the critical rabbit hole using lower case “a” and upper case “A” as a philosophically lazy way to discriminate between “making” and “creating,” real and unreal.
According to Plato, Warhol’s work is Art.
Art as Representation or Mimesis. Plato first developed the idea of art as “mimesis,” which, in Greek, means copying or imitation. For this reason, the primary meaning of art was, for centuries, defined as the representation or replication of something that is beautiful or meaningful. Until roughly the end of the eighteenth century, a work of art was valued on the basis of how faithfully it replicated its subject. This definition of "good art" has had a profound impact on modern and contemporary artists; as Gordon Graham writes, “It leads people to place a high value on very lifelike portraits such as those by the great masters—Michelangelo, Rubens, Velásquez, and so on—and to raise questions about the value of ‘modern’ art—the cubist distortions of Picasso, the surrealist figures of Jan Miro, the abstracts of Kandinsky or the ‘action’ paintings of Jackson Pollock.” While representational art still exists today, it is no longer the only measure of value. -From Thoughtco.com
No two people see the same thing, place or person the same way. So one person’s replication may differ from another’s. So the Artist’s representation of reality is filtered through his own visual cortex. Thus impressionistic and expressionistic Art, regardless of its quality, is a depiction of reality, as posited by Plato. When a painter’s expression is simply determined by an internal process, then it only has meaning to him and has no communicative value. Reality provides a common language for Art.
But Warhol’s chiCANery becomes obvious when one looks deeper into the “meaning” of Art.
Art as Expression of Emotional Content. Expression became important during the Romantic movement with artwork expressing a definite feeling, as in the sublime or dramatic. Audience response was important, for the artwork was intended to evoke an emotional response. This definition holds true today, as artists look to connect with and evoke responses from their viewers. -From Thoughtco.com
Warhol’s work doesn’t evoke an emotional response from me or Olga. However, there is an intellectual reaction to the social and economic context in which the art was made. Clearly, trends in art away from simple communication are worth historical study, if only to expose the moral values behind such works. Now with the introduction of the word “moral” my rabbit hole just gotten deeper.
All art requires a certain set of skills. When an individual rebels against standards by making a work devoid of all skills, he creates a work that cannot be categorized according to social or historical norms … maybe by a psychologist. The work, representing an incommunicable reality, is counter-art.
No art is closer to reality than photography. Occasionally the work is manipulated in a way that some will call “fake,” — true if the intention was to deceive. But when the photographer uses certain visual cues to tell the story that she sees, that’s Art.
Realism in painting did not recede because of the invention of photography. In fact, photo never challenges the painting. Painters like Hopper and Rockwell tell a human story that stimulates feelings that enhance our perception of humanity. Place a photo and a painting of an urban diner side by side, individuals sitting at a counter separated by distance. The photographer must wait for the right moment and be fast enough to catch it, or shoot dozens of rapid-fire digital exposures on the chance that he will catch something meaningful. The painter makes a conscious choice and uses aesthetic decisions to convey the deeper truth or beauty she sees. It is the element of choice that imparts moral context to the art.
Wendy McElroy, writing on “The Future of Freedom” website notes:
In the creation of alternatives, art plays a unique role, because the information it imparts is emotional and connects people to each other through dynamics such as empathy. If freedom of speech is the life of the mind, then freedom of art is the life of the heart. Morality requires both to be vibrant in order for people to choose..
I realize that what I am presenting here doesn’t approach the level of a philosophical inquiry. But true to this column’s purpose, I’m sharing the point of arrival for an 87-year-old. I have lived a life where many images forcibly have flashed before me. And in retrospect as well as my current position, the Art that sticks has moved me deeply concerning the human condition. I wonder would it have been possible for Norman Rockwell to paint a picture of Hitler — before and after.
I know that Edvard Munch’s The Scream had a pivotal position in the development of artistic techniques, and thus a movement, but for me it doesn’t arise above the level of a cinematic poster for a horror film. I see no moral value in it because morality is not the quality of a painting; it’s because it does not engage my own moral values
That may seem like a relativistic choice. In my world, truth and beauty are universal values that precede moral values. A work of art should encompass all those values in illuminating our view of people. For the rest we have calendars and travel posters.