Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Significance and Art

People in art school spend a lot of time discussing what defines Art. I recently spent some time listening to an artist describe the difference between Fine Art and Commercial Art. In a nutshell, Fine Art is wholly born from the artist's soul and creativity, whereas Commercial Art is in some way dictated by someone other than the artist: a teacher who sets the medium, an employer who sets the subject matter, a contest which limits the style. Commercial Art can be good, but only Fine Art is true art -- an experience that springs from the artist's raw creative power. I'm somewhat cynical about any definition that's so self-aggrandizing for the person doing the defining, but it's an interesting idea: what defines Art is invisible in the work itself. You don't know whether a work is Fine Art or Commercial Art until you talk to the artist. You can't even tell by context; if an artist paints a work of Fine Art which is then purchased for an ad campaign, it's still Fine Art. It's all about the artist's intention, not the work itself.

I've noticed that you also can't tell a work of art's significance by looking at the art. We've got a photograph on display in the Artsgarden of a stone doorway, through which you can see the ocean. It's a nicely-composed photograph, and it's visually appealing, if a bit plain. Unless you read the artist's comments accompanying the photograph. It's of the "Door of No Return" in Senegal, the doorway through which slaves were loaded onto ships bound for the Americas. Behind the photographer stands the marketplace where slaves were auctioned by lot, after which they were led through the Door to the ships that would take them (those that survived the journey) to North America. Voila, instant significance. I'm also thinking of the Mona Lisa. It's one of the most famous, most revered works of art in the world. It's highly significant, but you can't tell by looking at it; it's just a portrait. It looks like a painting of some Renaissance nobleman's daughter, like any of a thousand others hanging in museums around the world. The Mona Lisa inexplicably means more than any of its fellows, for reasons nobody can quite explain to me. It seems to be circular: it's cool because everyone says it's so cool. Every explanation I've ever heard reeks of confirmation bias. There are even conspiracy theories about the Mona Lisa: hidden messages! Maybe it's a guy! Maybe it's da Vinci's self-portrait! I have no idea what accounts for all the hoopla, but it's definitely not the work itself. If I could think of a way to do it, I'd like to take an interesting, complex work of Renaissance art -- maybe Brueghel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"-- and imbue it with the Mona Lisa's coolness. I'd like to see if it also attracts conspiracy theories and lunatic hoopla.

The other experiment I'd like to try: take a well-made student film and tag it with Stephen Spielberg's name, and take a Spielberg picture (minus the effects budget) and have a film student shop it at film festivals. I'd like to see how much critical acclaim the student film gets, and if the actual Spielberg film gets any notice at all. This would be interesting, largely because Stephen Spielberg actually is a good director; he's not Christo, surviving on coolness and name recognition. Spielberg is actually the master of a craft in which there are somewhat abstract but real metrics for measuring skill. But, because so much of a filmmaker's craft are tied to name recognition, it'd be interesting to see if the work of an acknowledged expert can make any headway in the indie-film circuit.

A similar experiment has already been done. In case you haven't heard, the Washington Post arranged for Joshua Bell, recent winner of the Avery Fisher prize as America's greatest classical musician, to play at a subway stop in Washington, DC. Bell walked up, opened his case on the floor, threw some change in it, and played for almost an hour. And almost nobody took notice. The Post article is careful to say that this experiment -- the fact that nobody paid attention to one of the world's finest musicians playing some of the most beautiful music ever written on one of the finest violins in existence -- isn't a sign that Americans have no class or taste. Rather, they discuss at some length that art is part of its context; they feel that it's entirely natural for people who would pay $100 to see Joshua Bell perform at Carnegie Hall, to walk past him in a subway stop without noticing the music. And they may be right. But I'd be interested to see the same experiment performed in reverse: take a good street musician and put him on stage at Carnegie, backed up by the usual star-performer marketing campaign. Tout him as "a master of Americana" or something. And see if a musican who's normally passed by in a crowd can command a standing ovation at $100 a ticket.

I suspect he'd do fairly well. That is, given the right context, I suspect the quality of the art is almost irrelevant. In the Kunstmuseum in Basel (Switzerland), I saw a $40,000 piece of art by a well-known modern artist. It consisted of a 3X5 canvas painted black. It was a glossy black, but the entire work of art was just a black square of canvas in a plain frame. I'm somewhat immune to context, so I wondered if it wasn't some kind of joke. I've created very similar works of art on a fairly regular basis, most recently this past weekend, though I doubt my "Metallic Bronze Hallway" (2007, latex paint on plaster) will earn me much critical acclaim from anyone but my wife. She was impressed by this recent work, and she's not the kind of critic who blindly approves of all my efforts. I know my "Bronze Droplets" (2007, latex paint on oak flooring) was met with a moderate amount of critical disapproval; maybe I should be pushing for a larger audience who can better appreciate the subtlety and significance of this particular work.

UPDATE: I just learned that Laura expressed extreme disapproval of another of my recent works: "Dust and Grime" (2007, plaster dust on staircase). She apparently disliked it so much she destroyed it with a mop....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That is actully some wonderfull information and it is very interesting personally for me, but what i have wanted to know for many years is '' someone as an artist how would they describe art, what do as an artists and someone that is interested in art really see art as in your own words and your own thoughts. That is actully one questin that I have always wanted to ask an artist. It would be good if you could have artists answer that question and email their answers to me at