The Laws of Nature
Monday, April 12, 2010
But Is It Art?
Today, I'll begin a discussion of the book But is it art? by Cynthia Freeland. According to the back cover, the author "explains why innovation and controversy in art are constantly in the headlines, and why it matters. She also discusses the relationship of art with beauty, culture, money, sex, and new technology." This seems pretty good to me, so I'll dive right in.
Chapter 1 has an eye-catching title: "Blood and Beauty." Freeland begins my enumerating the ways in which blood has been used in art over time and asks why. She cites a number of reasons that include the fact that blood is similar to paint and also a highly symbolic medium because it is our human essence. Because of it's symbolic meanings, blood is used in many different types of human rituals, so maybe the artists who use blood see art as a ritual as well. The author notes that a theory of art as ritual might seem plausible, since art can involve a gathering guided by certain aims, producing symbolic value by the use of ceremonies, gestures, and artefacts. However, there is a difference between the rituals of society and those established by a single artist. Audiences who see and react to a modern artist do not enter in with shared beliefs and values, or with prior knowledge of what will transpire. In other words, there is potential for shock value in this kind of art. Freeland cites an extreme case where a performance artist named Ron Athey, who was HIV positive, cut the flesh of another performer on stage and then hung blood-soaked paper towels over the audience, who panicked.
The author acknowledges that the cynical assessment is that blood in contemporary art does not forge meaningful associations, but promotes entertainment and profit. Although I’m not entirely cynical about this, I can see her point. I remember my college days, years ago, when another young woman in my painting class decided to use her own menstrual blood to paint a crucifixion scene. Although I was shocked, I decided to try to find meaning in it. However, when I asked the artist what it meant to her, she stated that her only purpose was to shock the viewer. Oh, well.
Some artists have gone beyond using blood to incorporate other bodily materials in their work. Here are a few notable examples by contemporary artists that I'll keep small in case you'd prefer not to look at them (click on image to enlarge if you want to see it):
Damien Hirst's sectioned cow
Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary with elephant dung
Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist's urine
As Freeland states: Artwork that uses blood or urine enters into the public sphere without the context of either well-understood ritual significance or artistic redemption through beauty.
In the next section of the first chapter, the author considers "taste and beauty." Next time ...