The Laws of Nature

Friday, March 29, 2013

Goya - a precursor to Serrano?

Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 6:   Goya – a precursor?

Freeland moves us into a discussion – a “prequel” if you will – that gives us further insight into Serrano. She leads us into the past world of Francisco Goya y Lucientes (1746- 1828), a contemporary of Hume and Kant.
The official painter to the King of Spain, Goya’s life endured political upheavals and wars. His works sometimes showed it in battle scenes, symbolism through martyrs, slaughter, and so on. His work was confrontational. It wasn’t meant to provide a pleasant viewing experience, but rather to make a statement – to, at times, depict moral depravity.
He said of himself:  Censoring human errors and vices – although it seems the preserve of oratory and poetry – may also be a worthy object of painting.
Goya personally witnessed atrocities and he had a viewpoint to express about them.

Evidently, later in life, Goya became deaf after a serious illness. The aesthetic result of this was his “Black Paintings” which were painted on the walls of a room in his home. This is his most disturbing work (take a look at Saturn Devouring One of His Sons). Freeland writes of these works: It would be sheer dogma to deny that Goya has stopped being a good artist because such works are painful or because their moral point seems obscure.

So, this brings us back to Serrano and Lippard’s defense of his work (see last post). Both artists exhibit skill, training, thought, and careful preparation. So, I ask myself, does this make it art? Yes, I say. Does this make it “good” art? What’s “good” art???

And, what are your thoughts?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Defending Serrano

Andres Serrano
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 5:   Defending Serrano

OK, so we’ve discussed Serrano’s work on this blog before, but this time it’s worth revisiting. Art theory is one of those disciplines that sometimes seems like an intellectual cloud to me. The reason I began this blog several years ago was to understand art theory/art history a little better. I did this by reviewing books one section at a time and asking you readers to discuss them with me. You did a great job and I learned a lot! Those years were important to my present understanding. But, there’s always more to learn.

What I learned from you readers a while ago was how much most of you dislike Serrano’s work, particularly Piss Christ. So, what defense does Freeland offer for this work?
She cites critic Lucy Lippard who wrote an article in Art in America in 1990.  Lippard’s analysis  of Serrano is based upon (1) his work’s formal and material properties; (2) its content (the thought or meaning it expressed); and (3) its context, or place in the Western art tradition.

I’m in! These three criteria are the basis for defining art.

So, Piss Christ is actually a photograph (Cibachrome)  - a large one  (60”x40”) - made using Serrano’s own urine (that part doesn’t impress me). Lippard’s adjective-saturated description of this work makes it sound great and offers a somewhat palatable interpretation. It represents rebellion and transforms the iconic crucifix by placing it within a different context (urine).

OK, I’ll buy that as well.

But, as Lippard extends her argument to materials, I waiver a little. She claims that because Serrano’s cultural heritage is Honduran and Afro-Cuban, his Catholic beliefs include body fluids as a source of religious power and strength. I’m not Catholic, so I’ll have to take her word for it. So, she seems to think that the urine soaked crucifix represents the artist’s condemnation of the way that culture pays only lip service to a religion without truly endorsing its values. Really? Well, maybe.  Serrano did claim that his work denounced religious institutions that have been commercialized and cheapened and not the religion itself.

Maybe I can believe this. And maybe Lippard’s defense of Serrano’s work is pretty convincing, even if the work seems repulsive. But, who says art has to be attractive?

Next time, Freeland discusses Goya as Serrano’s precursor.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Kant's Legacy

Holy Works
Andres Serrano
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 4:   Kant’s Legacy

Moving along, Freeland leads us into a discussion of Kant’s influence upon aesthetics and art theory, especially those offered by future art writers like Clive Bell, Edward Bullough, and Clement Greenberg. The viewpoints of all three overlapped with Kant’s ideas about aesthetics, but with a “twist.”

For instance, Bell felt that “Significant Form,” which is created through a particular combination of lines and colors, evokes our aesthetic emotions. He shunned the notion that art should address life or politics.

Bullough felt that you couldn’t experience art without “psychical distance.” He argued that sexual or political subjects tend to block aesthetic consciousness. I guess thinking isn’t allowed.

Greenberg (who advocated for Pollock) celebrated form as the quality through which a painting or sculpture refers to its medium and to its own conditions of creation.  In other words, don’t bother looking for content.

So, what is Kant’s legacy? The continued notion that art must be concerned with quality, morality, beauty and form. Of course, we know that isn’t the case. Look at the works of Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and others who express what repulses us. Their work is “art.”

Next time, Freeland writes in defense of Serrano.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Beauty and Disinterestedness

Me at the Gaugin Museum in Tahiti
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 3:   Beauty and Disinterestedness

Last time, Freeland left us with this cliffhanger:  Kant’s way of recognizing this [e.g. our ability to see beauty in an object] was to say that something beautiful has ‘purposiveness without a purpose.’”

In this third section of Chapter 1, she explains. We tend to assign “beauty” to an object that elicits pleasure within us rather than because of its functionality. And, we think that everyone should agree with our assessment. This is Kant’s “purposiveness.” He felt that the purpose of something was distinctly different from the pleasurable sensations it illicits, and that in order to appreciate beauty we must be disinterested in the purpose of the object.

For instance, according to Kant, my judgment of beauty in – let’s say – an apple would be contaminated if I ate the apple. I would need to limit my appreciation to viewing and maybe touching and smelling to derive pleasure, but not to the use of the apple which would be consumption.

Freeland uses a couple more examples to explain this point:

If a viewer responds to Botticelli’s “Venus” with an erotic desire, as if she is a pinup, he is actually not appreciating her for her beauty. And if someone enjoys looking at a Gauguin painting of Tahiti while fantasizing about going on vacation there, then they no longer have an aesthetic relation to its beauty.

Kant also believed that making beautiful art requires human genius: the special ability to manipulate materials so that they create harmony of faculties causing viewers to respond with distanced enjoyment.”

So, beauty is appreciated when we’re detached from (disinterested in) the purpose of an object and feel only an emotional response that satisfies our imagination and intellect.

I understand Kant’s viewpoint but don’t completely agree. I think that all the senses (including the taste of something) help us to define beauty, and that the functionality of something can be beautiful. In mathematics and science we often talk of “elegant solutions.” They are beautiful. Buckminster Fuller once said:  When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

What are your thoughts?
In the next section of Chapter 1, Freeland discusses Kant’s legacy. How did his philosophy affect society’s view of art and what artist’s produce?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Taste and Beauty

Frederick Edwin Church (1859)
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction
by Cynthia Freeland

Chapter 1, Section 2:  Taste and Beauty

We’ve had a lot of discussion over the years on this blog about beauty and art. Freeland’s discussion in this second section of Chapter 1 gives us a little more insight on the topic. She begins by offering the reader Hume and Kant’s philosophical belief that some works of art really are better than others, and that some people have better taste. 

Hume believed that "good taste" is acquired through education and that "good art" is identified by  a consensus of the educated elite. These folks “set the standard.” As a counterpoint, Freeland states that Hume’s critics note the fact that these elite “acquired their values through cultural indoctrination.” Good point!

On the other hand, Kant felt that humans have the innate ability to perceive beauty and recognize it in a work of art without the benefit of an education. This allows all of us to conclude that some works of art are better than others. Therefore, the identification of "good art" is a matter of taste rather than the opinion of an educated elite. I’ll interpret this to mean that Kant also felt that beauty must be an essential element in a work of art. Otherwise, his argument doesn’t work.

Kant also believed that people with similar sensibilities tend to agree with each other, so I guess that the standard for good art would be set by the largest group. I'm speculating.

So, Freeland ends this section of Chapter 1 with a paradox: Kant’s way of recognizing this [e.g. our ability to see beauty in an object] was to say that something beautiful has ‘purposiveness without a purpose.’”

Section 3 of Chapter 1 will explain.

In the meantime, perhaps we may discuss Hume and Kant’s ideas here.

What do you think?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Blood and Beauty

The Two Fridas
Frida Kahlo, 1939
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland

Chapter 1:  Blood and Beauty

In this chapter, the author poses a question: Why has blood been used in so much art? Good question! I remember when my husband, after a year-long European tour, said he couldn’t bear to see even one more work of art depicting a bloody crucifix scene. And, that’s just the traditional work. Today, artists use blood in a number of ways – a lot of it poured on or applied with a brush.

Freeland offers us several answers to her question:

1.       Blood has similar physical characteristics to paint, and it is an eye-catching hue.

2.       Blood is symbolic: life, virginity, sacrifice, contagion, and so on.

3.       Shock value, especially in contemporary performance art

There is a clear division of purpose between answers 2 and 3. The former brings members of society together ritualistically where the meaning of blood unites them in a shared belief or value. The latter often generates shock and fear in individual viewers who may react in a number of ways, but not uniformly. Rather than unite, this use of blood alienates the viewers.
Perhaps you can clarify and elaborate on this synthesis.

This is only the first part of Chapter 1 and deserves some reflection before moving along to the second part which considers “Taste and beauty.” 

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction

It's been a few years since I've reviewed a book on art theory and this seems like a good time to begin one. I've selected Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland.  In this book, she promises to "scrutinize many different art theories: ritual theory, formalist theory, imitation theory, expression theory, cognitive thoery, and postmodern theory."
This should be interesting and I'll begin with chapter 1 tomorrow. Hope you'll join me for a lively discussion!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Artistic License

Charles Law
watercolor on paper
26" x 20"
Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS
      Unless the painter is deliberately trying replicate what is seen either in person or in a photograph, she is employing artistic license. I looked up the term in Wikipedia to learn more about it and found that, when it comes to the visual arts, “artistic license is the way in which stylized images of an object are different from their real life counterparts, but are still intended to be interpreted by the viewer as representing the same thing.” This source also defines four criteria. Artistic license is:
  • Entirely at the artist’s discretion.
  • Intended to be tolerated by the viewer.
  • Useful for filling in gaps, whether they be factual, compositional, historical, or other gaps.
  • Used consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally or in tandem.
So, this makes me ponder what it is that viewers accept and, conversely, what they don’t accept. Denis Dutton, in his book The Art Instinct  (reviewed here  on this blog in January 2010) makes a strong case for the characteristics that define the “most wanted and least wanted paintings.” His theory links the evolution of humans and the human psyche to our aesthetic preferences.  Without rehashing that book, I’d like to expand his theory to include artistic license.
     I agree with Dutton that we are instantly drawn to form like faces, water, landscapes, flowers and certain colors that relate to our survival and habitat. But, I think that we’re also drawn to acts of artistic license. We love looking at distortions, stylizations, surrealism, and altered hues because I think it satisfies our imagination. Without the insertion of the artist’s imagination into the painting process there wouldn’t be innovation and the artist’s ideas would become worthless.
    Even works of realism, which throughout time attract the most viewers, contain distortions imposed by the painter who strives to make the best possible composition with form, line, color, and value. The painter enhances the viewing experience by employing artistic license in a way that reaches our emotions.

    I’d like to think that artistic license is more like artistic necessity. Without it, our work would be dull and lifeless.
What’s your opinion?