The Laws of Nature

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Kant's Legacy

Goya's Executions of the third of May 1808

But is it art? by Cynthia Freeland

Moving along in Chapter 1, Freeland continues her discussion on Kant's philosophy. As you'll remember from yesterday's post, Kant was interested in defining "beauty", although he didn't feel that all art must be beautiful. The influence of his ideas extended to art writers over the next two centuries, including Bell, Bullough, and Greenberg.

Bell, whose writing coincided with the emergence of artists like Cezanne and Picasso, emphasized "Significant Form" rather than content. By that, he meant the combination of lines and colors in a work of art that appeal to our aesthetic emotions. He thought that artists should avoid creating works of art that are concerned with life or politics.

Bullough, on the other hand, emphasized "psychical distance" as essential to experiencing art. Similar to Bell, he felt that sexual or political content would block aesthetic consciousness.

Greenberg, a great supporter of Pollock, "celebrated form as the quality through which a painting or sculpture refers to its medium and to its own conditions of creation." So, content is unimportant and the surface and paint are all-important.

Freeland moves on to discuss Serrano's highly controversial work (e.g. Piss Christ, Morgue, Heaven and Hell, etc.) How was his work defended by art critics? In particular, the author notes the writings of critic Lucy Lippard (Art in America, April 1990). Her defense of Serrano's work is based upon three aspects:

(1) its formal and material properties - a very large (5' x 3') Cibachrome photograph

(2) its content - evidently, Serrano wanted to condemn the way that culture pays only lip service to a religion without truly endorsing its values. His work was done not to denounce religion but its institutions - to show how our contemporary culture is commercializing and cheapening Christianity and its icons.

(3) its context - the artist has strong ties to Spanish art, especially Goya who was concerned with extreme situations in the human dilemma. Goya lived during a time of terrible atrocities, which he witnessed and expressed symbolically in his art.

Freeland asks if the comparison between Serrano and Goya is a fair one. She writes: Goya is different from Serrano because his artistic ability was greater, and because he depicted violence not to sensationalize it or to shock people but precisley in order to condemn it. However, Lippard argues that Serrano is a skilled and thoughtful artist. Freeland goes on to say that Goya's message might not be morally uplifting after all, but merely a comment on the dreadful condition of human nature. If so, then maybe the link between Serrano and Goya is defensible.

In any case, the shocking art we see today has precedents in Europe. This isn't new, but maybe the meaning is. That's a matter for debate.

Your thoughts??


Unknown said...

Bell emphasized "significant form" over content to endorse works that appeal to aesthetic emotions. Bullough's ideas are similar as are Greenberg's. That's all fine and good but it divorces creation to the superficial- the surface quality. This "making pretty" doesn't allow any room for art that reflects the world and its conditions. Why bother to create it?

I've always enjoyed Lucy Lippard's writing and her consideration of Serrano's work is well round. It asks us to consider the formal aspects with the intent of the artist and how the work fits into a larger history.

hw (hallie) farber said...

From where I sit Goya's painting is a work of art, whether I know it's background or not.

It's hard for me to compare Goya's paintings with Serrano's large fuzzy photographs. Size matters?

Unknown said...

Hi Margaret - An excellent point! I agree that art needs to reflect either our internal or external reality. Like you, I also appreciate Lippard's scholarly insights.

Hi Hallie - the comparison between the two artists is tenuous to be sure!

-Don said...

OK, sneaky lady. I see you tried to sneak "The Universal Law of Gravity" by me while you keep me distracted with this tenuous comparison. Nice try!

I'll admit that it was your shift in color which drew my eye to it in the slide show up above. Oh, what a joy it was to click on it and see it a little larger. Now I want to see it in person! I love the colors, the shapes, the glints, the reflections, and the composition. WOW!

I especially like how everything is being pulled to the only undefined orb in the whole piece - almost like I'd imagine the gravity of a black hole would effect all matter within its grasp.


Unknown said...

Well, Don, you caught me!! Actually, I thought all of you might be a little bored if I keep drawing a lot of attention to these paintings so I decided to set up a slideshow instead. You really nailed what I was going for, so it looks like it succeeded. Thanks so much! I'm beginning the fourth one.

Mark Sheeky said...

On the topic, I think that some people find meaning beautiful and some find looks beautiful. Some find a deep meaning a turn off, but some prefer a deep meaning over appearance. Defining beauty is not universally possible then, only perhaps the reason for it. Perhaps people are born with a certain taste, which evolves with life experience, and can change. I definitely like diffrent music now compared to ten years ago.

Worse; the reason for beauty is probably not important... from the perspective of an artist!

Unknown said...

Hi Mark, I like your ideas and agree. There are so many dimensions to apprecating art and understanding it - the number is as great as the number of viewers.