Goya's Executions of the third of May 1808
But is it art? by Cynthia Freeland
Moving along in Chapter 1, Freeland continues her discussion on Kant's philosophy. As you'll remember from yesterday's post, Kant was interested in defining "beauty", although he didn't feel that all art must be beautiful. The influence of his ideas extended to art writers over the next two centuries, including Bell, Bullough, and Greenberg.
Bell, whose writing coincided with the emergence of artists like Cezanne and Picasso, emphasized "Significant Form" rather than content. By that, he meant the combination of lines and colors in a work of art that appeal to our aesthetic emotions. He thought that artists should avoid creating works of art that are concerned with life or politics.
Bullough, on the other hand, emphasized "psychical distance" as essential to experiencing art. Similar to Bell, he felt that sexual or political content would block aesthetic consciousness.
Greenberg, a great supporter of Pollock, "celebrated form as the quality through which a painting or sculpture refers to its medium and to its own conditions of creation." So, content is unimportant and the surface and paint are all-important.
Freeland moves on to discuss Serrano's highly controversial work (e.g. Piss Christ, Morgue, Heaven and Hell, etc.) How was his work defended by art critics? In particular, the author notes the writings of critic Lucy Lippard (Art in America, April 1990). Her defense of Serrano's work is based upon three aspects:
(1) its formal and material properties - a very large (5' x 3') Cibachrome photograph
(2) its content - evidently, Serrano wanted to condemn the way that culture pays only lip service to a religion without truly endorsing its values. His work was done not to denounce religion but its institutions - to show how our contemporary culture is commercializing and cheapening Christianity and its icons.
(3) its context - the artist has strong ties to Spanish art, especially Goya who was concerned with extreme situations in the human dilemma. Goya lived during a time of terrible atrocities, which he witnessed and expressed symbolically in his art.
Freeland asks if the comparison between Serrano and Goya is a fair one. She writes: Goya is different from Serrano because his artistic ability was greater, and because he depicted violence not to sensationalize it or to shock people but precisley in order to condemn it. However, Lippard argues that Serrano is a skilled and thoughtful artist. Freeland goes on to say that Goya's message might not be morally uplifting after all, but merely a comment on the dreadful condition of human nature. If so, then maybe the link between Serrano and Goya is defensible.
In any case, the shocking art we see today has precedents in Europe. This isn't new, but maybe the meaning is. That's a matter for debate.