Monday, July 19, 2004

Art as Communication

Before I get started on my regular art rant, I want to acknowledge that my titles are sounding a bit pompous these days. "Art and Ego," "Art as Quest,"  "Art as Communication."  Blah blah blah. Better titles to come soon, I promise. 
Actually, I am deliberately holding on to the cheesy title because it brings me right into what I was thinking about this weekend.  I was digging through some old college papers and found some art history essays written by Professor DeMarsche in preparation for our junior year class trip to France.  Since I still feel like an amateur in the art history world, I'm always looking for leads on how to get a grip on what "art" means to others, so I settled down to read through his essays from ten years ago. 
I hadn't read far before I ran across some statements that surprised me.  Funny how my perspective has changed since those college days.  I was dismayed to read the following lines that I must have happily swallowed whole as a wide-eyed, innocent  2o year old.
Thus, art in essence is communication.  Like religion it attempts to impose some sort of immutable order over the flux and chaos of an indifferent universe and communicate this order to the viewer.  [...]  People who demand little from life, who seek only to make their physical being comfortable, are never very engaged with questions of existence and meaning and will, as a consequence of this, demand very little from art.  These people usually relate only to the subject matter of a painting and guage the success or failure of a work by how closely it approximates visual reality.  They can be observed briskly walking through the galleries of the Louvre -- doing their bit for culture -- stopping momentarily to giggle at the nudes on the wall or making inane comments about what they like or don't like.  Like little children who lack the intellectual equipment necessary to enjoy art, their moment of transcendental joy arrives when they rest their invariably sore feet and scarf down a chocolate eclair in the museum cafeteria.
Whew.  Oy.  I don't think I've ever seen anyone other than a 12 year old giggling at a nude at a museum.  And what's up with the "invariably sore feet" remark?  Who doesn't have sore feet after wandering around a museum?   This kind of writing about art just burns my beans.  "We are the few special people who are smart and patient and just plain good enough to understand art.  Everyone else, well, they're just barbarians who don't care and don't count."  Feh. 
Yes, I've seen people who look lost and bewildered and/or frustrated at what they see in a museum.   But I think this is true of all of us at some point or another in our experience with art.  Art is often bewildering and weird.  Confusion is probably a more honest response than those pretending that we get it when we don't.   It's true there are people who reject the confusing elements of art, the ugly or the offensive or the weird, who want to dismiss it or even ban it because it points out parts of this world that many of us would rather not think about.  Of course I have a problem when someone rejects art that way.   However, my sense is that the average art museum tourist isn't there to reject or hate the work.  Most people, I would guess and correct me if I'm wrong, want to find some meaning in the works.  They know that they are missing something -- heck, it was written up in the tourbook and it's world famous, so something is going on here -- and they are frustrated about how to find out what this secret is.  Some stop there, shrug and head off to the next thing, and some try to learn more.   Some find meaning in art, some find it elsewhere

Last time I was in NYC, I latched onto a wonderful tour led by a docent at the Whitney Museum where he took us through the American 20th century from Pollock to Gober.  It was one of the few art tours I've experienced as truly educational.  I'm not a good tour-goer; I generally get bored and wander off 1/4 of the way through, so this one really got me.  As we looked at some minimalist work from the 1960s and 70s, the docent described the pieces (most of them manufactured from plastic at a factory) as meant to hide the fact that an artist worked on it at all, and to remain opaque to all but the most die-hard art historian who would be aware that the artist was deliberately rejecting the viewer, rejecting craft, and rejecting all attempts at connection to anyone.  Art is about shifting around the way we think about things, so playing with the idea of telling the viewer to, er, buzz off is an interesting angle.  Subersive, I suppose you might call it.   But troubling too.

It certainly gave me something to ponder, and the more I thought about it, the more it really bothered me.   The idea of an artist rejecting communication, rejecting the person who will interact with it, seems a bit like a chef lacing his desserts with soap or a doctor amputating a healthy limb. 

Yet a lot of art I have seen since that tour seems to be trying to do the same thing.  You could stand in front of the work for years and now get anything from it.  Unless you are "in the know," the work is meant to be inaccessible.  It's this in-joke for only those who are part of some special circle, who know the artist personally.  How on earth is your average tourist supposed to deal with this?  I'd rather eat a chocolate eclair in the museum cafeteria too, invariably sore feet and all.   

I want art to communicate.  At least I want my art to communicate.  I don't want people to have to have read my entire biography to feel a certain "aha" at my paintings.  That aha does not need to come immediately, but I would like them to feel welcomed into my world somehow.  I do want my work to be challenging -- something there for the emotional response and the aesthetic response, but also for the intellect.  And I know it is possible to do all three.  

How do I know this?  In my eighth grade French class, Mme. Harrell showed us a slide show of French Impressionism.  Growing up in a suburb of Pittsburgh among a family not overly keen on art, I'd never seen an impressionist painting before in my life.  Like most people today, I found it easy to love: the color, the light, the pretty subjects.  However, one painting hit me like a lightning bolt, propelled me forward into some place I'd never been before, sent me spinning.  It was one of the holier experiences of my life, encountering this work for the first time.  Yes, it's so famous as to be a cliche now, but to my virginal eyes and even to my now jaded eyes, it is one of the most profound, most beautiful things I have ever seen.  Suddenly, without knowing a thing about the artist or his world, without knowing a thing about art or about France or even much about life, this 15 year old was changed.  I was spoken to by the artist as clearly as if he were there with me, and what he said to me was simply, "Life is beautiful." 

That to me is what art is about.  Something that turns your world on its ear.  Something that encapsulates life so completely that you can barely hold back tears.  Something that hits you in the gut and makes you gasp, and then laugh.  Something that reminds you that you aren't alone.  I wish there were a way that someone could take all of those lost tourists by the hand and talk to them about art, and let them know that there isn't a secret, that there are things there for them.  That it might not be in that museum or even in that city or that country, but there is art that they will love with a passion as fierce as they have ever held for anything in life.  Now that would be a some kind of show, some kind of work, some kind of museum.  I'm not saying a dumbed-down museum.  But a welcoming one.  Is that so crazy?  And maybe they are out there, and I just haven't visited them yet.  I'd be happy to hear about them.  That tour at the Whitney was a good start.

Now that I've railed on and on about the snob factor, Professor D does makes some points that I find very useful.  One of my favorites is his simile that developing taste and discrimination in art works much the way a taste in wine does; only after numerous experiences, we slowly create a visual memory that builds up over years to which we refer when encountering new art.  Sometimes I am so impatient to know everything I can about art, but so much of art is experience and accumulated wisdom.   Ah, the patience factor comes into play yet again.

No comments: