The Laws of Nature

Monday, November 29, 2010

Fineness and Greatness

Art as Experience
By John Dewey (1934)
Image: The Potato Eaters, Vincent Van Gogh

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday! It's time to return to Dewey's book (and also to my diet and the gym). I've been pondering this passage and think it's a good one for discussion:

An attempt has been made to support the distinction between substance and form in works of art by contrasting “fineness” with “greatness.” Art is fine, it is said, when form is perfected; but it is great because of the intrinsic scope and weight of the subject matter dealt with, even though the manner of dealing with it is less than fine.

Are we to conclude from this that “greatness” (substance) in a work of art is more important than its “fineness” (form)? Does this mean that the artist’s primary concern should be weighty subject matter even if it’s at the expense of form?

I ask these questions because I’m confused by artists who value technique over content. While mastery of technique is a worthy goal and works of art that are technically perfect make our jaws drop, is it enough? Have these artists failed to meet a higher goal – that of self-expression? By this, I mean that perhaps, as famed art critic Arthur Danto believes, "For something to be deemed a work of art it must have meaning." By extension, we could infer that in order for a work of art to be deemed "great" it must have meaning.

What’s your opinion?

14 comments:

L.W.Roth, said...

Technique is secondary; meaning is primary. Then there's the question of the scope of the meaning-- is the painting a private expression of the artist for her benefit only--or for the public-- Van Gogh's depiction of The Potato Eaters in reference to the famine in Ireland--or the morality paintings we discussed before? Everybody's great art is different. One picture can talk to you, but not the person standing next to you. I happened to mention Rockwell's little black girl walking to school between the big burly US Marshalls and they said, "Not much of a picture." I was struck wordless (an odd condition). It sure was a great picture to me. It spoke of all the strife that had gone on prior to that very significant moment. Of all the Rockwell paintings in that exhibit, that was the most memorable. On the other side of the Gogh's potato Eaters did not stop me in my tracks through the exhibit. The crows did. Great art has to have something to say. To say something, the viewer has to understand the language. Private (abstract) expressions for the artist only, I'm afraid fall short of great art--not matter how finely executed. Now there's an interesting word--and the buzzer on my second load of laundry.

-Don said...

Every painting I do has meaning to me. Doesn't it to every artist as they are creating? The challenge then is to give it meaning to the viewer - to express our meaning in such a way that translates viscerally. We must use every tool at our disposal which oftentimes comes across as less than fine.

When van Gogh was painting The Potato Eaters he told his brother that he didn't "want everyone just to admire it or approve of it without knowing why." He struggled to make sure that fineness of form did not interfere with the subject matter he was dealing with - which was to show Dutch peasants who are eating a meal harvested by their own hands. (From what I've read over the years I do not believe this painting had anything to do with the Potato Famine in Ireland.)

I agree with LW that "everybody's great art is different". But, I would also venture that "everyone's great art" has meaning - both to the artist who created it and to the viewers that call it great.

Imagine how boring life would be if we all agreed with what great art really was.

-Don

L.W.Roth, said...

Technique is certainly a tool for expression. But whether the application is crude or polished, I do think that the materials used to make art must be of the highest quality and the application of them, rough or refined,in keeping with the science--i.e. no acrylics over oil etc. Well made means long life and a chance for greatness.

Kristin Hjellegjerde said...

Hard to judge, a work with great technique but without an obvious content can still carry deep emotional intensions.

Have a lovely evening!

JO PETERS said...

Hello Kathy,
I just read your comment via email, under the post I put on your painting. It is a pleasure to highlight such a tremendously talented artist. I am becoming a follower of your blog; will you be one of my followers as well? It would be great if you would. I make a point of featuring artists who in my view have a high level of skill and creativity. Take care and have a glorious holiday season !
JO Peters, www.jopeters.blogspot.com

Mark Sheeky said...

I think beauty is important, and that good self-expression is beautiful (beacuse a personality is or should be), so perhaps mastery of technique is mastery of self-expression which results in "fineness".

Too much automatism, tightness, paintign with rules, robotic, mechanical painting will reduce self-expression.

Beauty without meaning is probably a bad artwork, but ugliness with meaning is probably not much better. I think I'm becoming more Victorian. I'd rather have something useless but beautiful than ugly and practical. Ideally though, something well designed is useful and good looking.

hwfarber said...

I think greatness is determined by the audience--not the artist.

Peggy Stermer-Cox said...

Hi Kathy,

I wonder if we are "hard-wired" one way or the other. Some of us are more attracted to the meaning; others by the beauty of the medium or media. Not sure...just an idea that popped in my head when I was reading Twyla Tharp's book on creativity.

I do think it is easy to get caught up in technique over content. Our art success system breeds it. I'll talk about what I have seen in the watercolor and colored pencil world. The magazines focus on teaching step-by-step techniques; many books are written that way. Technique must be mastered before you can even hope to be accepted into major shows. I have read comments from jurors of major shows who state that their first priority is looking at technique. So, as a novice/mid career artist the message is clear: master technique first!

Then, after several years of working on technique, someone starts talking about content...huh? Content?!

I think meaning is more difficult to define and teach. What if I decide to paint a picture of a dandelion growing out of a crack in a side walk simple because it delights me or I see nice shapes, angles, lines and colors. Is that enough meaning? Is it great art? How much meaning is enough?

Personally, I prefer a technically flawed painting that brings tears to my eyes and lumps to my throat over a technically excellent work that leaves me cold and emotion-less.

Thank you!

Mary Paquet said...

I don't think I can add much. Like Hallie said, the audience determines greatness. I've seen some things in museums that look less than great to me, but someone determined them as more great than others.

Technique alone won't carry a painting, but in my opinion, a great painting should be well rendered.

PAMO said...

Glad you had a good Thanksgiving Kathy! I'm on the diet track myself.

I believe that any "great" work takes time. Be that time spent in the studio rendering painting after painting to finally create that one great piece, or be it the hours upon hours, days upon days, weeks upon weeks, year upon years of time it takes to create that one master work.

And given the time it takes to create this great piece, technique is mastered.

Celeste Bergin said...

I have a difficult time appreciating a strictly technically accurate painting when it doesn't seem to offer anything aside from technique. Many people really seem to love photo-real work..possibly just because they perceive that it "took a lot of work".

Kathy said...

Hi L.W. - I completely agree with your opening sentence. That's why my teaching focuses on content (the concept) above all. And, I agree with you that the artist's concept is modified by the subjective interpretation of the viewer.

Hi Don - while it's true that all paintings while they're being created have meaning for the artist, it's also true that sometimes that meaning is "I think I'll paint seagulls because they sell well." Not much authenticity in that. However, for the sincere artist there is greatness at some level in the work. And, I agree with you that variety is the spice of art!!

Hi L.W. - yes, I was taught that as well and use only archival materials. So, I'm preserving for posterity both my greatness (if there is any) and my crap!

Hi Kristin - I suppose it can be hard to judge some works, but I think that the passage of time allows the cream to rise to the top.

Hi Jo - thank you!

Hi Mark - I agree with parts of your statement, but am not an adherent to the notion that works of art must be beautiful. That being said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While one person finds beauty in the form of a decaying corpse, another is reviled by it.

Hi Hallie - Amen! I think this is acknowledged by Dewey and by me, since this type of judgment can only come from a source external to the artist.

Hi Peggy - I agree with your comments, and think your work is a perfect example of exploring content and form at the same time. What's interesting is that you always look for content although your experiments focus on form (surficially). In fact, all your work is deeply personal.

Hi Mary - I agree that the artist needs to master technique. After all, flawed work can hinder the expression of the artist's idea and that alone may keep the work from ever being deemed as "great."

Hi Pam - you bring up a good point. Time is important for many reasons, including the fact that an artist needs to demonstrate mastery consistently over time. The "one hit wonder" makes critics question the value of an artist's entire body of work

Kathy said...

Hi L.W. - I completely agree with your opening sentence. That's why my teaching focuses on content (the concept) above all. And, I agree with you that the artist's concept is modified by the subjective interpretation of the viewer.

Hi Don - while it's true that all paintings while they're being created have meaning for the artist, it's also true that sometimes that meaning is "I think I'll paint seagulls because they sell well." Not much authenticity in that. However, for the sincere artist there is greatness at some level in the work. And, I agree with you that variety is the spice of art!!

Hi L.W. - yes, I was taught that as well and use only archival materials. So, I'm preserving for posterity both my greatness (if there is any) and my crap!

Hi Kristin - I suppose it can be hard to judge some works, but I think that the passage of time allows the cream to rise to the top.

Hi Jo - thank you!

Hi Mark - I agree with parts of your statement, but am not an adherent to the notion that works of art must be beautiful. That being said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While one person finds beauty in the form of a decaying corpse, another is reviled by it.

Hi Hallie - Amen! I think this is acknowledged by Dewey and by me, since this type of judgment can only come from a source external to the artist.

Hi Peggy - I agree with your comments, and think your work is a perfect example of exploring content and form at the same time. What's interesting is that you always look for content although your experiments focus on form (surficially). In fact, all your work is deeply personal.

Hi Mary - I agree that the artist needs to master technique. After all, flawed work can hinder the expression of the artist's idea and that alone may keep the work from ever being deemed as "great."

Hi Pam - you bring up a good point. Time is important for many reasons, including the fact that an artist needs to demonstrate mastery consistently over time. The "one hit wonder" makes critics question the value of an artist's entire body of work

Casey Klahn said...

Wow - Linda brings the good contrast: potato eaters to the field of crows. I am going to think about that a lot, now.

the intrinsic scope and weight of the subject matter says Dewey. The measure shouldn't be the depth or gravity of a subject, but whether the artist can portray it or not.