The Laws of Nature

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Greatest Works of Art: Characteristics

Denis Dutton, in his book The Art Instinct, identifies the central characteristics that inhere in the greatest works of art. I find this very interesting and am presenting them below for discussion. When you have the chance, read them and please share your thoughts.

According to Dutton:

1. Complexity - the greatest art incites pleasure by presenting audiences with the highest degree of meaning/complexity the mind can grasp. But, "complexity" does not mean sheer complicatedness. Rather it means significant interrelations; layers of meaning that form a unified whole. These works yield up deep, intricate imaginative experiences and are marked by the utmost lucidity and coherence.

2. Serious content - the themes of great works are love, death, and human fate. Artistic masterpieces need not be solemn and can end joyfully, but even when they do, they are not merely jolly and amusing, and offer an implicit nod to the finitude of life and aspiration. The arts do not attain greatness through prettiness or attractiveness.

3. Purpose - great works of art rely on the authenticity of artistic purpose - a sense that the artist means it. This falls in line with Tolstoy's view that artistic value is achieved only when an art work expresses the authentic values of its maker.

4. Distance - there is a cool objectivity about the greatest works of art: the worlds they create have little direct regard for our insistent wants and needs; still less do they show any intention on the part of their creators to ingratiate themselves with us. Ingratiation is left to the creators of kitsch, which promotes self-consciousness and is self-congratulatory by openly declaring itself "beautiful" or "profound" or "important." Great art stands apart in their own worlds.
In summary, Dutton states: The oft-described spirituality of artistic masterpieces, their otherworldly quality, is in contrast authentic, and involves a feeling that standing before a masterpiece you are in the presence of a power that exceeds anything you can imagine for yourself, something greater than you ever can or will be. The rapture masterpieces offer is literally ecstatic - taking you out of yourself.

Yesterday's comments demonstrate that we've all had this experience.

Your thoughts??


Dennis Dame said...

Wow! Great post today Kathy! Very very well put. I don't presume to be qualified to comment at the same level as the above, but in my humble opinion, no matter what medium you choose, great work must begin with sincerity.

Mark Sheeky said...

Another thought provoker! I totally agree with points 3 and 4 but...

"complexity" is a tricky one. Okay personally my artworks are ultra-complex so I could hardly complain BUT I've seen "simplicity" listed SO many times in the list of qualities an great artwork needs that I'm not convinced that either simplicity OR complexity actually matters.

I'm totally agree on seriousness, but just to be annoyingly contradictive think that amusing work is serious. Only the very best artworks can actually be funny. The worst type of art gives no reaction at all. Come to think of it I think that's what you actually meant anyway. I like the word jolly too! Jolly jolly jolly brolly. Sorry I've gone a bit mad. Boing! Ah the power of blog.

Casey Klahn said...

Here is an example I've been mulling over. I find both of these A Wyeth's beautiful: Anna Christina
and Helga
(I hope those link okay)

One is the famous Christina of Christina's World, and the other the famous Helga, of Wyeth's Helga series.

I think the dramatic similarity is the substance of what your author has said. Complexity (depth?), Content (besides love, death and human fate, I would add spirituality, humanity and emotion), Purpose (naturally) and the final point about distance bears more thought. I agree that there is a presence and a countenance to great art. Hmmm.

Casey Klahn said...

Anna Christina

Better? Sorry for the non-link in the last comment!

hw (hallie) farber said...

I thought about your blog while I spent the day in my workshop painting. I agree with Mr. Dutton's four central characteristics.

I can't think of anything he missed.

Anonymous said...
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Unknown said...

Hi Dennis - I agree! Thanks for your comment.

Hi Mark - I think that "great" works that are "simple" are great because they have many layers of meaning that makes them complex. Thanks!

Hi Casey - good examples!! Thanks for providing them. By distance, I think that Dutton means that great paintings are in their own "world" - they're complete as they stand and we're enticed to enter that world rather than impose our world on the painting. Thanks!

Hi Pam - I think that part of being "authentic" in creating art is to use your own voice to express your own ideas. Therefore, you aren't painting to suit others. Rather, you're painting to suit yourself. At least, that's my understanding. Thank you!

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - the list seems complete to me, too. Thanks!

layers said...

The first 3 -- especially CONTENT-- I understand and makes sense to me-- the the 4th one-- DISTANCE -- is something I have not been aware of or thought of before-- will have to think about it some more--

Mary Paquet said...

Very interesting. I like these definitions. Do I dare admit that with my limited knowledge of art history, I found myself thinking about some of the contemporary artists I have seen highly touted in museums - Georgia O'Keefe and Wayne Thiebaud, for example. Have they created masterpieces or at least a few masterpieces? Would we separate Thiebaud's cupcakes from his complex cityscapes? Is it sufficient that he reproduced objects of mass culture? Would we separate O'Keefe's flowers from her skull paintings.?Do they have serious content because critics saw sexual imagery in her florals that she claimed was not there? (Let me add that I admire the work of both artists.)

I've had the pleasure of making multiple visits to Andrew Wyeth originals at the Farnsworth Museum near Kathy's summer home. I find it easy to conclude, as Casey does, that there is serious content along with beauty.

Unknown said...

Is there a Kinkade painting next to point #2 to illustrate an example? JK

I think how a piece of art is still very subjective and D
utton's points read as a consensus of what would generally be accepted by a mass majority, no?

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy,
I enjoy thinking about your post all day and gathering insight from all the comments.

I just had a flash of insight. Is this the "truth" that is talked about in great art? The indescribable truth that is felt to the point of sublime tears?

On a more immediate note, I have ideas bouncing around my head regarding serious content!

Thank you!

Celeste Bergin said...

Yep. I've been "taken out of myself"...I was dumbstruck by Van Gogh's Irises. I was transported. I was bedeviled. I was besotted. I was in awe. Yep!

-Don said...

Kathy, This is an excellent discussion you started today. I have been stewing over Dutton's words all day while coming back periodically to read the wonderful comments. I cannot think of anything profound to add .

On a strictly selfish note, I aspire to one day have my work described as "... you are in the presence of a power that exceeds anything you can imagine...".


Unknown said...

Hi Donna - "distance" can be interpreted a number of ways, but I think that Dutton means that the painting transports us to its world rather than serving, or ingratiating, itself to ours. Thanks for commenting!

Hi Mary - GREAT questions! Wish I had a clue about how to answer them. Maybe someone else can. And, I agree about Wyeth. I've read several biographies about him and find that his works are very rich in layers of meaning. Next time you're in Rockland, let me know!
Thank you for your comments.

Hi Sheila - yes, I think Dutton's list is supposed to meet with universal agreement. For the most part, it makes sense to me. Thank you!

Hi Peggy - good point. I suppose that "truth" is found in authenticity and theme. Thanks for offering more!

Hi Celeste - I, too, am deeply moved by Van Gogh's work. It's truly authentic! Thanks.

Hi Don - perhaps this will occur during the "Year of the Don!" :)

Mary Paquet said...

Kathy, we'll be heading East for a law school graduation in May. I'll send an e-mail before I head to New England to see if by chance you are in Maine at that time of year.

Keep the great topics coming.

Dan Kent said...

Your post is succinct and so correct. I hope to get close to that someday.

Angela said...

While I agree that these are characteristics of many great works - I can't agree that all of the greatest works encompass all of these things.

'Distance' is what especially sticks out to me. I think we love the images that we've created over the centuries of the 'masters' much though that we forget the reality of how they actually worked and did as professionals. Many of what are considered the 'greatest masterpieces' were commissioned pieces, sometimes done under great pressure with enormous outside influences as to exactly how they were to be executed, what they were to contain and how they were to look. If a disregard for the audiences wants and needs is imperative to a work being great, you'd have to strike the Sistine Chapel, Madonna of the fact nearly every religious work commissioned by the church or created during the Renaissance from contention.

Just to play Devil's Advocate...