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 ...

Your thoughts??


Anonymous said...
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Joyfulartist said...

Some artists just crave attention even if it's negative. And, they get it!

Casey Klahn said...

"Is It Art?" says a lot. I think it begs the question a little, because we expect many to say no. Changing paradigms requires more evidence than mere assertion, according to the rules of debate. I would say that places the burden on the new artists (shock artists?) to prove their points.

Enter the whole post modern meme. I wonder if we're past that, yet?

I noticed that you favored the paintings at the Guge, and a couple of us commiserated with you on that. Maybe it's because we are painters?

The flip of the coin is the art renewal movement that goes too far. Some classicists want to throw out the modern era - but I embrace it.

Great conversation, though.

-Don said...

I don't mind being shocked as long as I find there is a significance to why I was shocked. To shock just to shock is not art in my opinion - it's entertainment (or is it anti-entertainment?)

My concern runs a little deeper with one of the three images you show here. When money that comes from the public trust is used to then create an image which will tweak a significant number of the taxpayers who then respond by cutting funds for future artists I feel an injustice has been performed. Use your own money to shock me and then, maybe, I can appreciate what you've done... (just my two-cents). I still get pissed when I see this image. (pun intended)


hw (hallie) farber said...

I totally agree with Don's comment.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - cat hairs, funny! I agree about how difficult it is to shock people since they watch the most awful things on TV and in the movies. But, I guess some still find a way to shock us.

Hi Joyful - how true

Hi Casey - I agree with you. Shock artists do need to prove the point and I know that paradigm shifts are slow. There's a vetting process which slows down the shift, and that's a good thing. It gives us time to weigh the "evidence." As for the paintings at the Guggenheim, I mentioned that the viewers were more interested in them than the special exhibition, but I wasn't including myself. I was very interested in both. As for classicists wanting to throw out the modern movement - they can't! Thanks for adding this.

Hi Don and Hallie - Good point! It's a fine line, as I see it. Should art be censored? If we decide which artists are funded based upon the content of their work this could lead to censorship, and that also affects the rest of us. It's a difficult problem.

Angela said...

I love history and my favorite way to study it is through its art - not because I love art period...I just find it to be the best commentary on what was going on during any point in time.

For that reason I just don't believe in censoring 'shock' artists. We are living in what will be history...the very fact that artists are being rewarded, condemned, talked about and many seem obsessed with trying to shock their public and the myriad of reasons why - whether it's to 'wake people up'; desperately trying to do something, anything that hasn't been done before; start debate and controversy...or any of the other reasons out there - this will all say a lot about the times we're living in. I think it's significant...even the stuff that immediately strikes me as ridiculous.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I think that an artist who has to resort to "shock" lacks imagination.
I don't like censorship, either, so maybe shock is necessary. I wonder if Hirst's directive asks for formaldehyde rather than cremation.

Dan Kent said...

I despise censorship and would not advocate it. That said, I find all of this "art" disgusting. I suppose there is some tasteful way of using bodily fluid in art, but at the moment I can't think of any.

This reminds of two exhibitions that have been in Miami one, which I believe has toured nationwide, is Bodies..The Exhibition. Its justification is so people can observe dissected bodies in order to learn about bodily systems. But tickets are sold to the general public, and it is entertainment, whatever it is called, and someone is making money off of this display of unburied human bodies of Chinese citizens that had no say in the matter. It's like traipsing around a desecrated grave and I will not go.

The other is a recent exhibition of torture devices through the ages - the actual machines. The exhibit was described in great detail in the Art section of a local newspaper, room after room of horrible, inhumane devices used to torture and dismember people. There is some historic value, sure, but I would never go on principle - people were tortured and died in these machines.

This is what this "art" brings to mind.

Angela said...

I never thought of 'Bodies' as art...more as science...but I can see how it could be seen in that light.

I can understand not going because of your beliefs...I personally don't share any belief that a body is anything special at all after death and I just can't imagine a soul giving it a second thought...and I'm glad because the 'Bodies' exhibition was the most fascinating thing I've ever attended.

-Don said...

I don't suggest censorship. What I'm saying is that if you use tax-payers money from federal grants then you should maintain a certain degree of discretion with work you will be creating, realizing that any negativity the public associates with your work can adversely affect the ability of another artist coming behind you being able to reap the benefits of these grants. It's not censorship if the people ask their government to pull moneys from a program because they feel like it was abused. And once negativity is ascribed to a public trust like this, it is hard to get more moneys channeled into it. Like I said, if they want to shock me, they can use their own money or they can use private grant money.

Shock me, don't cost me.


Unknown said...

Hi Angela - you make a good point about art reflecting the time in which it is made. There's a record of history that is important. And, there is also a dialogue through art and between artists that deserves attention.

Hi Hallie - interesting question, but I doubt that Hirst was even thinking in that direction.

Hi Dan - I forgot about the human bodies exhibit. Is that meant to be an art exhibit? I hadn't really thought about it that way. Also, I hadn't heard about the torture devices so I don't know how that's being promoted, either. Interesting!!

Hi again, Angela - I wanted to see that exhibit, too, but haven't yet had the opportunity. I'm fascinated by anatomy (maybe because I had to do soooooo many dissections).

Hi Don - I see your point, but still wonder about the censorship aspect, because in your scenario, the artist would be required to self-censor. As I said before, there's a thin line here and I also have sympathy for the argument that these guys impact the rest of us. Hmmmmmmmm.....

Mary Paquet said...

Hum -- I know that I cannot bring myself to do shocking art. I don't want to go to a museum and see a room full of shocking art. Others, though, are welcome to be shocked. Art through the ages has often challenged convention.

Dan, interesting comments on Body World or some itereation of it. My drawing instructor who's specialty is commissioned portraits and painting people in natural settings invited our class to go with him on a class outing. His reason for doing this was to be able to view the underlying structure of the body that we don't get to see with our skin on.

Several people, including the instructor, were totally taken with the exhibit. I kept my opinions to myself as I was uncomfortable with the way the displays were done -- here an ice skater, there another sports tableau, complete with props. Seemed a bit strange to me. I did learn about the muscles, though.
The fact that a couple busloads of teenagers from a high school were attending did not add to my comfort level as we all stood around displays of fully intact bodies minus an epidermis.

Unknown said...

Hi Mary - an interesting experience, indeed! I always wanted to take a human anatomy class, but ended up studying the anatomies of various other vertebrates and invertebrates instead.

Anonymous said...


I will weigh in on this subject, I'm one of those weird people that believes Christ was God in the flesh but Piss Christ does not offend me in the least, makes me see how hated and despised He is by the world, also made me realise how awesome He is by being willing to take on the mantle of humanity with all our Piss and vinegar just to tap me on the shoulder and say "I Love You" though it is meant to shook it never has shocked me my God is not so small that he can be contained in one single image I'm of the thought that all the art in the world will one day be able to be scanned in to a computer and when it is all over we will be able to look at them all cohesively to reveal a small portrait of God.

Just a thought.


Unknown said...

Hi Paul - Thank you for the sincere expression of your beliefs and how this "art" relates to them. Serrano wanted to condemn the way that culture pays only lip service to a religion without truly endorsing its values. That being said, he was somewhat on the same wavelength as you, but used shock value to try and get his point across. I think that he ended up offending more people than he inspired. Too bad.