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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Friday, June 17, 2005

On Art (An Uneducated Flow Of Thought)

What is art?

Going to the Tate Modern gallery today, I ended up in that time-honored debate with several of my new friends on this trip to Europe. It became clear, very quickly, that I was the member of the group who was extremely skeptical about modern art and its value as artwork.

Now, I am not qualified to judge art by any convention other than that of myself as the beholder. I don’t suppose that makes me any more or less qualified than you, or my friends with whom I went to the museum. Even the opinion of an art critic, who is paid to judge art because somebody has decided that he has the necessary body of knowledge to make such judgments carry more value, is ultimately no more valid than mine – only more influential.

Having said that, the claim I made as I entered Tate Modern was that art must be a representation of reality. As examples, I offered Renaissance art and impressionism. To the contrary, I said that painting a few black lines on a white canvas is not art. Of course, the counterargument quickly raised was that those black lines might be a representation of a roadway, and that the distinction I was making was merely between something I could not create – art – and something I could – the black lines, which I claimed was not art.

I tried to make some sort of distinction that would clarify what I meant. Surrealism, for example, is a distorted reality, but it is still comprised of elements of reality. (I’m thinking, for example, of Magritte’s nudes that are meant to be seen as faces. Again, forgive me for my inability to think of titles of the works.) Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase, even, is a representation of reality, difficult as it may be to see through all the geometry. But his “ready-mades” – a urinal, for example – is not art to me (or at least to my stated theory of art). It is reality itself, not a representation of it.

Tate was featuring an exhibit of the work of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter who was the subject of a recent biopic. We visited this exhibit first. Kahlo’s work is very interesting, drawing on some surrealist tendencies, and also using the elongated curves for which Modigliani is known (okay, I probably wouldn’t have picked up on that last one on my own, but I recognized it as soon as it was pointed out). The exhibit was very impressive, spanning her life’s work, from her early sketches when she first began to draw and paint, to her later days.

Here’s the thing: Frida Kahlo is most certainly an artist, and an extremely talented one at that. Her self-portraits make great use of shading and detail – one characteristic that struck me was how detailed her hair was represented, almost as though she had labored intensely on each strand. On the other hand, some of her early sketches, to me, were entirely unimpressive. They use symbols to represent reality, rather than trying to reproduce reality itself. For example, a bus in one of the sketches was shown as a rectangular object with rectangular windows and circular wheels, and not much more. It was akin to a symbol for a bus you might find on a street sign, but it didn’t look like an actual bus. And I thought, well, I could come up with something of comparable quality if you gave me a couple of hours. So here, I was confronted with a representation of reality that I could have created. Art? Well, it’s obviously by an artist. So I’m going to say it is. Does that mean I can create art? Logically, it does, although nobody would ever call me an artist. So is it the talent of the creator that makes something art, regardless of the creation itself?

On Tuesday, bored in class, I used MS Paint to draw a sketch of two of the professors on this trip. Is it art? You decide.

Now pretend that sketch is done on paper with grease pens, framed nicely but modestly, and hanging in a gallery? Now is it art? Is it more “art” than it was when you saw it on your screen?

Another piece of art that we saw at Tate Modern was a room in which seven images were projected around the walls of a room. Each image was a recorded loop of something like a corner of a basement, or a dirty patio, or something like that. Every now and then, something would move in one of the images – a cat walking through, a leaf blowing across, etc. The images were filmed in infrared and tinted various colors. Some were flipped so they were upside down. In the room played a steady stream of white noise. It was interesting, but was it art?

Before you say yes (if you were going to), consider this story. Later in the day, we went to take the Underground to Westminster. In the station, there was an incessant mechanical buzzing. One of my friends remarked on how annoying the noise was. I pointed out that it was just like the noise from the room with the projected images. Then I argued that here, in the Underground, the noise is considered irritating, but if I could have that noise played in an empty white room at Tate Modern, scores of people would sit in the room for minutes at a time and comment on the feelings it evoked. His response was that if that were the case – that an art gallery would feature such an exhibit – then I should go ahead and make it happen, then. To which I said that if I was already considered an “artist,” and claimed the noise was supposed to evoke something, I probably could make it happen.

Really, that wouldn’t be a bad way to earn a living – record the sound of some broken machinery, convince a wealthy patron that playing the sound in an empty room is a representation of the “broken machinery of government” or some other B.S., and have him buy my “art” for some exhibit. On the other hand, perhaps I’d feel guilty for fleecing the patron and wasting an entire room that could be devoted to Caravaggios and Magrittes.

Outside another room in Tate Modern, there was a sign describing the exhibit inside – a film that was supposed to be some sort of commentary on the fashion industry and the public’s obsession with it. The film was on a 16mm reel. I walked inside, expecting to find another image projected on a wall with people watching intently. Instead, I saw two museum employees around a 16mm projector, trying to get it to work. I thought it would have been brilliant had the artist intended the exhibit to appear like that – people would be constantly walking into the room expecting to see art – and they get two guys fumbling with a projector. To me, it was modern art, actively represented as a SNAFU. I don’t know if that’s art, but it provides a great commentary on modern art – probably better than whatever commentary the piece was supposed to make on fashion.

My friend, at one point, argued that by defining art as a representation of reality, I was limiting the scope of art. That’s quite possible. I responded, though, that if the scope of the definition of art is too broad, it lessens the value of calling something “art.” The Persistence Of Memory is art. Doesn’t it marginalize Dali’s talents to use the same term to describe a series of concentric circles drawn on a piece of cardboard hung on a wall? (By the way, I didn’t see any such piece of “art” today. But you probably believed that I had.)

My friend also made the point that what I was really doing was making a distinction not between “art” and “not art,” but rather “good art” and “bad art.” And I did agree with that, if only because my own definition fails me from time to time. Dale Chihuly’s beautiful works in glass, for instance, don’t always represent reality (although they often are recreations of flowers). I still would consider them art, though. At the same time, however, I would be extremely hesitant to consider my MS Paint sketches art, even though they are a representation of reality. Would my friend consider my sketches “bad art?”

Thomas Hirschhorn said that the greatest thing artwork can do is to make people think. Most of what I saw today at Tate Modern succeeded in that end. Simply making people think, though, doesn’t define artwork. A math problem makes you think. I have to conclude that I will probably never find a satisfactory definition of “art.” Perhaps, like Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, I just know it when I see it. (It isn’t a urinal.)


  • At Friday, June 17, 2005 8:58:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "the claim I made as I entered Tate Modern was that art must be a representation of reality" --

    Ah, my cultured friend, but doesn't this really beg the question, "what is reality?" Surely, there exists a "reality" that we cannot see with our eyes. And other things our eyes do see are not actually "real" but wholly illusory (as quantum physicists will attest to). Now what is a budding "artist" to do about that?

  • At Friday, June 17, 2005 10:42:00 AM, Anonymous Molly said…

    One thing I took away from my high school art history classes was that having really good composition and being the first to do something (think Giotto with perspective, Rembrandt with use of light in portraiture, Picasso, Pollack, Warhol, Haring, Goldin, etc.) counts for a lot in terms of making something "art," or good art. This is to say nothing of the social importance of the artwork -- for example, Nan Goldin's photos are an essential part of understanding the development and history of the art and culture of 1980's New York, particularly the Village before it got all gentrified.

    I think a large part of what makes Kahlo's sketches so important is their confessional quality -- they are to the art world what Sylvia Plath's diaries are to the literary world. Kahlo was hit by a bus and impaled, rendering her severely invalid for the rest of her life. This accident (along with her husband's infidelity and her inability to get pregnant, but those are other matters)had a huge influence on the themes in her work. So in that way, the crudely drawn bus is important to our understanding of Kahlo as an artist.

  • At Tuesday, June 21, 2005 8:46:00 PM, Blogger kmn said…

    I swear that first comment wasn't me. Even if I always wanted to ask what rights were in Con Law.

    Theoretically I could talk to you about the nature of art all day, because I took a class in aesthetics in college. But since I was surfing the Internet most of the time (things never change), I'll regale you with this true story.

    When I was in college, I had a roommate who listened to all kinds of eclectic stuff, including (for want of a better term) world music. One night, for about an hour, I thought he had a CD playing, a constant rhythmic series of low, rumbling notes. Turns out it was our heater. Until I found out, I sure thought it was music.


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