The Laws of Nature

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Paradigms and Purposes

Plan for the Gardens of Versailles

But is it art? by Cynthia Freeland

Diving right into Chapter 2, Freeland begins by suggesting that contemporary artists who create work using blood, urine, maggots, and plastic surgery are successors of past artists who took sex, violence, and war as their subjects. Since this type of work doesn't fit into either Kant or Hume's model for art, what theory can be applied? Freeland hopes to offer a context for today's art by visiting five historical periods in Western art:

Athens, 5th Century B.C.E.

Classical tragedy began in Athens, and gave us the theory that art imitates nature or human life. Plato labeled art as skilled craft by imitators. He found tragedy to be morally confusing to the masses. However, Artistotle disagreed and stated that imitation is not only natural for humans but even pleasurable. He felt that tragedy could educate people about adversity and offer a catharsis, although he did take exception with Euripides' Medea, where a good person chooses evil. Aristotle believed that the hero should have an unflawed character and simply makes mistakes.

Chartres, 1200 A.D.

This thriving medieval French city is home to a famous gothic-style Notre-Dame cathedral. Freeland notes that the main entry portal has statues of pagan philosophers like Artistotle and Pythagoras, amid hundreds of saints and apostles. Why? Chartres was known for its school of theology, which was really a liberal arts institution where all classical authors were studied. Therefore, the builders were influenced by these philosophers and incorporated them into the ornamentation. But, it was Thomas Aquinas who developed a theory about art at that time that became truly influential. His idea was that beauty is an essential property of God and that human art works should aspire to be God-like. Cathedral builders thus concerned themselves with proportion, light, and allegory to build what would represent God's heavenly illumination and to reveal sacred truths in the stained-glass windows, sculptures, paintings, and architecture. Hence, the role of art was a spiritual one.

Versailles, 1660-1715

The famous Gardens of Versailles, commissioned by Louis XIV, were designed by Andre' Le Notre around the theme of Apollos, the sun god. Greek mythology was important to the plan. The purpose of the garden was to signify Louis' dominance as an absolute monarch and to serve as a venue for official gatherings. Although Kant never visited the gardens, he saw engravings of them and commented that it seems strange that landscape gardening may be regarded as a kind of painting and added that it is art since it allows for the free play of imagination and that it is beautiful. Kant's ideas gave rise to new genres of landscape painting and Romantic poets.

Premier of Wagner's opera Parsifal, 1882

Richard Wagner was a Romantic who was in the patronage of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Parsifal was his last opera. Philospher Friderich Nietzche, who was in the audience on the opening-night of this five hour opera, was so impacted by Wagner's work that he wrote and published The Case of Wagner in 1888 to praise the "psychological knowingness" of this opera but also to criticize its "sick" plot. There began a clash between aesthetic and moral concerns.

Warhol's Brillo Box, 1964

According to Freeland, Warhol helped spark the transition from macho New York Abstract Expressionism to playful gender-bending postmodernism. Warhol's brillo boxes exactly replicated the ones in supermarkets, which lead art critic Arthur Danto to question whether this was art. On the other hand, philosopher George Dickie offered in defense of Warhol's work the "institutional theory of art" which states that any artifact which has been conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the art world) is art. Danto eventually concluded that a work of art is an object that embodies meaning. It is Danto's theory of art that enabled the artworld to accept the works of Warhol, Serrano, Hirst, Koons, and other "controversial" artists.

What Freeland demonstrates in this historical narrative is a broadening of the term "art" from narrow in its early history to almost all-inclusive today. The historic notions of beauty, morality, and form are very rigid by comparison. But, even today, not all that is "art" is "good art." We'll expand on this thought in the next few posts.

And now, your thoughts??


Tonya Vollertsen said...

Good Afternoon, Kathy! Isn't this an age old question?!Not to mention big and wide and deep! LOL! "Why can't we all just get along?" I guess there are times when you do have to determine if something is art or not for the sake of saving to museums and historical purposes etc. but for personal purposes I have just decided to pay attention to what I like and what moves me and ignore the rest. I do like the distinction of not deeming it good art just because you have to accept it as art.

Tonya Vollertsen said...

Hey, wait a minute! When did you put "the law of gravity" in there! Looks good. I like the color shift and the composition. Don't know much but I know if you don't pay your gravity bill you fall a lot. LOL! I think you were being a little sly with all the deep "is it art" business whilst doing these major works and traveling to boot on the side. Do you sleep?

hw (hallie) farber said...

I get Warhol and like some of Koons' work--maybe in my next life I'll appreciate Hirst and Serrano. (Or the pendulum might swing.)

I noticed your new paintings gliding by yesterday but but not until after I had posted my comment. Great work.

Unknown said...

Hi Tonya - I agree with you, but am one of those people who loves museums. So, I go often and when I do I often find work that confuses me and try to make sense of it. Sometimes I just have to give up. And, thanks for the nice words about my work. Yes, I sleep but I spend all my waking hours in art. It's fun!!

Hi Hallie - I'm with you on that one. It'll take several "lives" for me to get it. Thanks for your encouragement about my work.

Dan Kent said...

The broadening of art: I came across a quote the other day by a Dadaist, Kurt Schwitters. When asked, "What is art?", he replied, "What isn't?"

My definition (at this point in my journey) is narrower. I'm disturbed by the statement that "contemporary artists who create work using blood, urine, maggots, and plastic surgery are successors of past artists who took sex, violence, and war as their subjects." I am not sure that they care be so readily compared.

Take the Piss Christ from your previous post for example. The author calls the artist "thoughtful", yet use of his own urine to make the supposed point of commercialism in religion is counterproductive: it is so shocking as to alienate most or all of his would-be target audience. If his message will not be heard by those who need to hear it, then his method is hardly thoughtful. When the shock value of his materials negates the message, it is nothing more than exhibitionism. I have trouble calling it art.

One, I think, would need to be very, very thoughtful indeed to incorporate these corporeal ingredients to effective purpose.

So this brings me back to my comment on an earlier post re public display of bodies for entertainment and profit, and Angela's response that my abhorrence of the concept must be due to a belief in the importance of the body after death. I am not religious and am the opposite of a fundamentalist. But respect for the dead is a universal tenet of society, that to me, is being violated by the exhibition.

In the same way, relating back to our prior book discussions in this blog, artists are a product of their society. By using corporeal materials such as urine or feces that are ordinarily considered private and "dirty", they are placing a wedge between themselves and society as a whole. Which is why it is shocking. And why, to me, it is questionable as art.

It is one thing to criticize your society for the purpose of seeking social improvement. It is another thing altogether to alienate that society with your choice of materials. It does not, to me, seem to meet Danto's definition that a work of art is an object that embodies meaning, since the meaning is so effectively concealed by the method.

So this is my long comment to make up for my silence on the last three posts. What is art? I am willing to keep an open mind as we go along. But for now, one need merely to look at the slide show at the top of this post to know. They are really beautiful works, Kathy - just wonderful!

-Don said...

Great comments Tonya, Hallie and Dan! I especially liked Dan's rant, since I can definitely relate.

I'm really not sure how to respond to this except to say, yet again, that there is no new thing under the sun. What I see here, in Chapter 2, is that rebellion in art and the ongoing reactions to it have been around for a long time. As long as there are words and opinions there will be juicy rationalizations for why crap is art, and why art is crap. So be it...


Unknown said...

Hi Dan - you raise some very important points and my philosophy about art aligns with yours. I think you're correct in saying that these shock materials/methods effectively obscure the intended meaning and cause more offense in the viewer than understanding. Thank you for explaining your position!

Hi Don - well said! I agree.