October 22, 2010

When Art Becomes Mental

This is what you might call a post between posts because I don't have any pictures to show and I haven't made any progress on the print.  But I've been doing some thinking, for a while now, about what art is and what role artists should have in society and I've decided to throw the topic out into the unknown to see if anyone will offer up some opinions.  

It sort of started with a book on art theory called, appropriately enough, Art Theory, A Very Short Introduction, by Cynthia Freeland.  I picked it up at a university book store I stopped in about a month ago.  In the author's own words it's "a book about what art is, what it means, and why we value it" and it looks at the various social and cultural influences on art now, and through history.  

Wasting no time, the very first chapter addresses the work of a number of contemporary artists who, for various reasons, use blood, urine, semen...well you get the idea...to produce their artwork.  Not surprisingly, their work has caused no small controversy and thereby gained notoriety and thereby, what else, a place in the galleries.  It's "important" work.  Yet when I read about it, I couldn't help asking the cliche question: is it art?  Which of course leads to the other age-old question: what is art?  In my view, and it might be a simplistic one, art is the expression of something within the artist's soul... a way of looking at the world or at something he/she has such a strong internal feeling for, that it absolutely has to be expressed externally. 

That said, I'd better point out that I recognize that great art doesn't have to be beautiful or even necessarily easy to look at. Many artists have used their medium in powerful ways to depict and focus on brutalities and horrors in hopes of affecting some kind of social change.  So my instinctive distaste at the idea of someone using feces as a medium is not based on a concept that art has to conform to some aesthetic ideal.  Yet I  have a hard time seeing such "artwork" as anything but an attempt at shock for shock's sake.  And I find that much of contemporary "serious" art is, at least in part, like that.  

An article in some art magazine I read last year was captioned "15 Artists Whose Work You HAVE to Know", or something like that.  There was a short blurb about each of the 15.  Without exception, the work of every single one of them was, in my eyes, dreadful.  It was all mostly stark black and white, jagged lines and scribbles, and no seeming balance, harmony, flow, or anything else that might lead me look at the work again. It seemed fake.

My father is an abstract artist who had, as I was growing up, many sculptors and painters as friends. I went to my first modern art opening when I was 12.  Point being, I love good abstract art. But I wouldn't hang the work of the 15 people showcased in that magazine article on my walls if they paid me to do it.  And I can't help wondering: have we, as a society, become so complacent in our approach to art that we have to be jarred out this complacency through shock?  Through a visual defibrillator?  

It seems to me that "body fluid art" or an installation of dead rabbits hanging from trees and decomposing, or a canvas depicting nothing but visual noise, is much too cerebral to come from the soul. It's the work of someone thinking up a method for making a statement rather than making that statement as a response to some internal feeling or conviction.

I'm also listening to Alan Watts and, in particular, his Out of Your Mind recordings.  Among the other though-provoking stuff he talks about, he poses the question: is the role of the artist to critique, or to reveal?  The recordings were made during the 60's so around the time of the pop culture art movement.  I get the impression he didn't much care for it, though I guess that's neither here nor there.  The question is still an interesting one.  Should artists critique or should they reveal?  

I actually think it's possible to do both, that an art work can reveal something soul-stirring about the human condition or the world itself and still critique issues that need be brought to light.  I can think of a couple of examples of printmakers who do just that.  But, if I could only choose one of the two, I'd go for the second one.  Show me something new, or something old in a new light.  Surely there's more growth inherent in a revelation than there is in a criticism?  At least that's my take on it.  

What's yours?


Libby Fife said...

This is a great post Katka so thank you. For me personally, I hold a fluid view of what art is and what it means. As I am exposed to more and more art, good, bad or indifferent, my concept of what art can be expands. With that said, like you, there is just some stuff that I wouldn't even consider, ever. I don't go in for shock value for the sake of shock value. So my view of art is both objective and subjective.

I tend to feel that art should be/could be an emotional reaction to the world around us. Somehow translating the beauty and horror of what you see into something that can be heard or seen or even touched or smelled. That leaves the field wide open to intepretation I know but I think my role as a watcher and consumer is to discriminate between what I like and don't like. I can tell you this though-I will not be buying one of those urine paintings any time soon:)

Katka said...

I'm so glad someone else shares the view that art should be an emotional response.

I think as long as the impetus comes from the heart more than the mind then the result will be more authentic. But then I also respond to art in an emotional (rather than intellectual) way.