I'm a huge fan of Franklin Einspruch's Web site, Artblog.net. I think he does a fantastic job discussing art and although it is focused on Miami, his discussions resonate on a national level. However, there has been some things posted there recently that bother me. I'd like to discuss them here and I hope I represent the ideas posted on Artblog.net accurately.
It all started with this post (see above image). The press release for the show in which Naomi Fisher's photograph hangs, states:
In "Untitled (Ocean)" a lone female figure rises from the sea like an ancient creature, her back and breast blending into the darkening dusk while her raised machete gleams from the last light of the day. It is a mournfully triumphant image, romantic in the wake of pre-Raphaelite paintings, and glamorously gory battle scenes. The power of the image is that her gesture embodies all women, from mythical goddess to cast out whore. Like a reversed Ophelia she rises from the sea to battle an empty horizon, acting out a hybrid role of women as portrayed throughout art history: from winged Victory leading battles; Salome crying for the head of John the Baptist; channeling Medusa in her snake-like hair; Judith with her heavy sword raised; Venus birthing from the sea; to the Sirens leading sailors astray...
Granted, this is likely a load of crap... a big load of crap. A few days later, the topic of meaning in art popped up. Specifically, see this post (see image above). This image is a detail shot of a very large "paintant" that is hanging at the Miami Art Museum. Franklin is critical of the work and he eloquently states what faults he finds in the piece. This is fine and dandy. Among the 70 comments associated with the post, were the following comments... forming an interesting dialogue:
Kitty: Upon entering the space and without reading any previous notes, I started on the right side of the room (which I thought was the beginning) and slowly followed the wall until I came to the end. I kept thinking of the cycle of life. In the beginning there is a void then light, life. I saw the morphed body parts as representing this complicated mess (and joy) of humanity and ALL that's associated with it. How we are absorbed with ourselves (our bodies) and one another (other peoples bodies) with all the little sprinklings our existence (various commercial/cartoon/technology images) along the way. This goes on for some time and then all of a sudden blackness. Thick and heavy. Death and then back to the void.
Oldpro: Kitty: many years ago (almost 40) an art writer I know had this to say about art that flaunted "meaning":
"These...styles (contain) emotional signals, directives to react to and think of the work in a manner leading to verbalization. Rather than art, they are a set of clues leading to talk."
When you fall for it, the art disappears. That is, if there is any art there in the first place.
It's true: in the mid-20th century, the art world had a major flirtation with pure formalism . . . AbEx, and all that .
I thought most of us had left that behind, though, and realized that both form and meaning, and how they releate to each other, go into makind an artwork succeed?
Oldpro: This has nothing to do with "pure" anything, Alesh. All meaning is drawn from form of some kind. I am merely saying that if a work of art says "think about (whatever)" it is directing you away from itself to something you alreay know about. You don't need art for that.
I don't understand. It seems that art originates with an idea/feeling in the artist, and succeeds to the extent that it evokes an idea/feeling (not necessarily the same one) in the viewer. This seems no less true for Cezanne then for Hirst. It seems only a little less true for someone like Frankenthaller. Today's world is more media-saturated then that of the past, so references to popular culture are more prevalent in today's art; i don't see that as something to hold against the artists.
Alright... still with me? I hope so. Now, let's look at today's post. In this post, Franklin is discussing the Matisse shown above... and the post is titled Thinking and Not Thinking. I want to pull out a few of Franklin's comments (note: you should read his entire post... I pulled out the comments I found most interesting):
Yes, it was a Matisse. I looked at that brave black expanse of the mirror, the stems of the anemones snaking around. I muttered something about how beautiful it was. For a short while the nuttiness of Art Basel was cut away from my awareness, as if with a sharp sword.
Great art stops thinking.
You can think about art, of course, and people do, self included.
This tells me mostly that Kitty [in reference to Kitty's comment above] has a great imagination and that she's probably a blast to hang out with. But I'd bet that we could put Kitty in front of just about anything, art or not, and she could riff on it like this. Marcaccio's painting needs viewers like Kitty to make it happen - viewers that parse the sensory data into meaningful chunks even if the work doesn't function aesthetically.
Certain viewers take this riffing to an absurd conclusion, and attribute all kinds of associations to objects that hold little weight either aesthetically or symbolically. We saw this recently in the press release for Naomi Fisher's machete-weilding photograph, which I won't quote again except to say that "reversed Ophelia" still gives me a chuckle. ("Um, by reversed, do you mean, like, unkilled?")
... the ensuing argument still holds: depending wholly on the viewer to supply the meaning is a crutch that I was seeing too often three years ago.
Filling in the blanks for art doesn't work because great art stops thinking. Lesser art causes thinking to spin, sometimes in a deliberate attempt to approximate the prolonged engagement that great art inspires. That may constitute some kind of test for art - the extent to which it first evokes pleasurable grunts, moans, sighs, and expletives, rather than discussion and analysis.
OK, I have a problem with this line of thinking. If you know me at all through this site, you'll be prepared for me to talk about this in an almost line by line manner. Let's get started:
Oldpro stated, "All meaning is drawn from form of some kind. I am merely saying that if a work of art says "think about (whatever)" it is directing you away from itself to something you alreay know about. You don't need art for that." My response is this:
All meaning is drawn from form.
All art is form.
Therefore, all meaning is drawn from art.
If meaning is drawn from art, then how can you not think about meaning when looking at art. Very rarely is art something other than an idea. Even the Matisse above is an idea of a vase of flowers in a particular setting... as I'm sure that the scene did not look exactly as Mattise depicted it. This is the most simple view. More complicated is Matisse's intent. Do we think that he wanted viewers to think about some grand meaning in the painting? I doubt it. I think his intent was beauty. And for Franklin, he acheived it. For me, it doesn't do much for me. So is the painting "great." Based on a small sampling of 2 people, it appears that Matisse receives the grade of F for beauty. Is it great? Is it great because it doesn't provoke thought when that wasn't even the intent of the artist? Let's move on...
Franklin stated, "Yes, it was a Matisse. I looked at that brave black expanse of the mirror, the stems of the anemones snaking around. I muttered something about how beautiful it was. For a short while the nuttiness of Art Basel was cut away from my awareness, as if with a sharp sword.
Great art stops thinking.
You can think about art, of course, and people do, self included."
I'm glad that Franklin feels the painting is beautiful. But to me, that says nothing more than Franklin thinks the painting is beautiful. How could it say more? Franklin proceeds to say that, "Great art stops thinking." First, I don't think we can say with any certainty what art is great. Because Franklin's mind went blank when he viewed it, doesn't make the painting Great... it merely makes it great to Franklin. Again, the intent of the painting is to acheive beauty... not spark some great debate. I don't know this for certain, admittedly, because we'd have to ask Matisse about his intentions. I find it funny that almost in passing Franklin says that "you can think about art, of course..." I'm glad to know that my site isn't a complete waste of time!!
In talking about beauty, I'd like to say that I think orchids are extremely beautiful. Many, many people would agree with me. And I don't think much about them really... I just appreciate them. So, are orchids great pieces of art?
Franklin goes on to say, "But I'd bet that we could put Kitty in front of just about anything, art or not, and she could riff on it like this. Marcaccio's painting needs viewers like Kitty to make it happen - viewers that parse the sensory data into meaningful chunks even if the work doesn't function aesthetically."
So what if Kitty could riff on anything? This doesn't mean anything in and of itself. We could all riff on anything. But, if Marcaccio's intent in making his art is to provoke the exact thoughts that Kitty expressed, then hasn't he succeeded? If this were the case, then perhaps the doubters have it wrong. Of course, Marcaccio's intent could be to make some object that has no meaning or beauty and is only meant to be displayed in a museum and hopefully make him a lot of money. I don't know which way it really is, and I doubt Franklin or his readers know. And finally, how does Franklin know the work "doesn't function aesthetically"? Maybe he can't see the beauty...
Franklin goes on to say, "Certain viewers take this riffing to an absurd conclusion, and attribute all kinds of associations to objects that hold little weight either aesthetically or symbolically."
This is undoubtedly true. However, I'd venture a guess that we rarely know exactly when this occurs. If a viewer has a reaction, or sees something in the work that speaks to them, and it is true to them, then what is wrong with this? The Naomi Fisher press release is likely fluff to encourage visitors and potential buyers to come to the gallery. I find fault with that. But if a viewer has the same reaction and it's sincere, then more power to them. We'll all see different things in art. But, it would be even better if this were Naomi's intent. The work has value because it speaks to someone, but I'd like for more people to recognize Naomi's intent... whatever that is. If her intent is being recognized, I'd suggest that the piece is weak. But riffing isn't inherently bad... to say otherwise seems elitist to me.
Franklin then states, "... the ensuing argument still holds: depending wholly on the viewer to supply the meaning is a crutch that I was seeing too often three years ago." How do we know if the artist or art depends wholly on the viewer to supply meaning? What if the so-called supplied meaning is exactly the intended meaning of the artist? Franklin and some others seem to be saying that art shouldn't be about an idea or specific meaning. I just don't buy it... I don't know how you can avoid it.
Finally, Franklin says, "That may constitute some kind of test for art - the extent to which it first evokes pleasurable grunts, moans, sighs, and expletives, rather than discussion and analysis." I'll buy this to an extent. But, he implies that there is something wrong with art that provokes discussion. What if the piece is not meant to be beautiful? It is only meant to inspire thought and discussion. Would we say it isn't art? Must art strive to be beautiful? Would we say that the piece cannot be great? Personally I think art can be great (in my opinion) only if it has some amount of thought associated with it. I can find beauty in nature... but what elevates art is that there is an idea behind it. There is something to think about. Beauty enhances that.
I want to bring back up something Oldpro said, "I am merely saying that if a work of art says "think about (whatever)" it is directing you away from itself to something you already know about. You don't need art for that." What exactly do we need art for? I want to see a piece of art that isn't about something we already know about. Show me an art object that is foreign to me. The Matisse painting above isn't foreign... I already know about flowers, vases, etc.
Man, what a long post. In my art, I intend to make visually appealing objects. But I only consider myself successful when it provokes further thought. I can find beauty in lots of places... I can't find things that provoke thought. I hope my art isn't a waste of time because I want my work to inspire people who aren't thinking anyways. Franklin wants to stop thinking... I want people to start thinking.