Introduction

If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What Is Art? 1 - The Dilemma

“Art is a three letter word for disappointing your parents.” – Stephen Colbert

One of the funny things about art is that you often hear people say they don’t know anything about it. I’ve heard this from people who speak several languages, and understand such topics as law, physics, and computer science––as if art could ever be as difficult as that!

But, people say it, mostly because it feels safe. There’s no way to offend anyone, and it keeps them from having to think. None of these people notice the contradiction when they pick out furniture, flowers, dishes, clothes, and make-up all based on aesthetics. And they usually have no problem discussing some forms of art. This painting is pretty easy to understand:
 
Two Little Girls, by Frank Benson
 
Just by looking, you can see that somewhere, someone asked Benson, "Look, I've got these two, cute little girls, and I'd like you to paint their portrait. Make them look cute." And Benson said, "Okay." In the back of his head he thought, "I have to make these girls look good, but I also have to design a pleasing composition with a good sense of light and color scheme, so I will keep the respect of my peers and any people or critics who really know about art." And this is what he did--a challenge no doubt, but conceptually simple.

The problem most people have starts with modernism, with its many strange and confusing movements:
 
Composition with Material Objects,
by Nathan Altman
 
(not to mention post-modernism, which is a whole other can of... let's say worms).
 
Artist's Shit, by Piero Manzoni
 
People wonder, “What was the artist thinking?"
 
Human Concretion, by Jean Arp
 
What was the goal of this?
 
Seated Woman on a Bench,
by Willem de Kooning
 
I guess it symbolizes something, but what?
 
I have no idea, sorry!
 
Sometimes there are simple answers from the artists (or, not so simple). Sometimes there aren't. Often, the discussion about the artwork becomes more important than the work itself. This approach to art making has become standard in contemporary art.

Here’s the good news:

1. You don’t have to like every artwork you see. No one does. Looking at art’s like picking mushrooms in a forest. Not everything you find will be palatable (chutný).

2. If someone thinks less of you because you don’t like an artwork, it’s their problem. Ignoring snooty people (domýšľavá ľudia) is a great first step towards finding happiness.

3. You don’t have to read all the text to appreciate (oceniť) an artwork. Just take what you see at face value, and accept it for what it is.

I remember going to a gallery and seeing a giant pool of bubbling mud.

Mud Muse, by Robert Rauschenberg

The bubbles would burst, and if you got too close, some of the mud would get on your clothes. I wondered, “Why? What does it mean? What does it symbolize? What makes this bubbling mud a good idea, worth putting in a museum?”

There’s a very simple answer, central to understanding art. The vat of mud was made because the artist thought it would be a good idea. The museum agreed to show it because they thought that would be a good idea (and because of the artist’s name). It’s as simple as that.
 
People are crazy, and they get crazy ideas. It happens all the time.

People going along their daily lives get an idea in their head,
 
 
and it seems so great that it becomes an obsession,
 
Age of Light, by ROOK
a compulsion,

Don Silverstein, painting with a mop
 
and they feel it has to be made,
 
This is made from toothpicks, that's all I know...
 
it has to be done,

 
that the world will somehow be better for it––no matter how ridiculous


or stupid


or dangerous the idea.

Dean Potter, risking his life for 15 minutes of fame

People are crazy. All of us.

 
Why are people so crazy, so emotional? Well, I’m no psychologist, but it seems there are two main reasons. First and foremost, our planet is crazy. I mean, look at all the things we have to deal with:

storms

lightning

tornadoes

lightning tornadoes

volcanoes

war

sickness, death, the platypus.


It’s too much to handle.

The second reason we’re so crazy (according to Seal) is it must help us survive. That’s how evolution works. People are simple, no matter how intelligent or wise (múdry) we sometimes feel. We live in a world that continually breaks us, knocks us down, brings us to tears. Ask yourself why people get drunk at parties, start smoking, go skydiving, or get tattoos. Just like art, it all comes down to one answer––we feel we have to.

It’s a human response to an inhuman world.

As the French filmmaker, Jean Cocteau said, "The reward of art is not fame or success, but intoxication: that is why so many bad artists are unable to give it up."

That’s not to say these things are morally equivalent (rovnaký), obviously, but we’re not discussing morals. We're discussing human needs. The key to understanding art is to understand its purpose. As Stephen Kings says, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”  And, as Shakespeare once said, "The object of Art is to give life a shape." Art is how we make our world a little more tolerable (znesiteľný) for the short amount of time we inhabit it.

Rauchenberg's mud vat might have an interesting rationale behind it, it might even make sense once you hear it. But that doesn't mean he wasn't crazy.
 
I have two points here:
 
1. All artists are crazy, no matter what they make. This guy:


was just as crazy as this guy:

Portrait of Dorian Gray, by Ivan Albright

You might not think it, but if you saw all the work and sacrifice that Benson made - that every artist makes, the level of obsession, then you'd understand. So, the next time you go to a museum, and you see something puzzling, gruesome, or otherwise unsettling, just remember, The person who made it is just the artistic equivalent of your neighborhood geek/freak: the guy who collects Magic the Gathering playing cards, or dresses up at comics conventions.

2. It's easy to claim that artists are crazy, that's the stereotype. Everyone knows about Van Gogh cutting his ear off. But, the way I see it, we're all crazy, including you. Artists simply make good use of it. We explore it, and enjoy the process. You should try it too. You might like it. It might make your whole life more fulfilling and worthwhile.
 
But what is art?
 
That is entirely up to you. If you feel a vat of mud is art, then it is. If you think it isn’t, then it isn’t––to you. Some people dislike this, but that’s how it is in the world.

Some words have a fixed meaning, like cake, shoe, and cat. And, some words (in a free society) are left open to interpretation––things like God, love, human rights, and art. You can decide for yourself what these terms mean, and you can change your mind whenever you want, and society benefits from this constant reflection.

One note, words may seem fixed, just like the sea floor seems motionless. But, with time lapse photography, we see it’s really changing all the time:

video
 
And even such a simple idea as a shoe is often reinvented:

 
It's come a long way from what we used to wear 10,000 years ago in the ice age:
 

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