Art to look at

You will probably have noticed by the time you read this that no artist is named anywhere on the site. The usual biopage is missing. You are not told if the artist is old or young, known or unknown, male or female, based in Singapore or Santa Cruz. I’ll explain now why you are being left, most unusually, uninformed.

The aim is to allow the images to stand alone and so invite you to look at them without the usual trappings. If you have knowledge about the artist this is hard to shed, and it tends to come loaded with prejudgments, which can act like shadows.  Of course it’s not possible to shed all prejudgments but we need not encourage them.

You may also have observed that the images here are not accompanied by little notes explaining what each one ‘means’ and what were the artist’s purposes in creating it. If you watch people in galleries you’ll see that many of them spend as much time on the note as on the artwork. Often it seems as if the function of the words is to lend support to something that is called visual art but lacks visual power.

Could it be that visual art is ailing? That’s a thought to trouble the mind.

Here are one or two remarks descriptive of visual art that is strong:

Art to look at…..

Art that moves you when you look at it.

Art that takes you out of yourself, and maybe also into your self,

when you look at it for a while, standing silent.

Art that has been part of human life for a long, long time.


Conceptual art

In the 1960s came ‘conceptual art’. One of its founders was Sol le Witt. He wrote 35 sentences and about half as many paragraphs explaining what the term meant. The Sentences are better known but the Paragraphs are much clearer. He makes the following main points.

The idea – and the processes by which the artist develops them – are more important than the final product. Once the development of the idea is complete the conceptual artist specifies the work so fully that ‘execution is a perfunctory affair’ and can be done by others. Thus the artist need not be a craftsman. As for the work itself’, its ‘physicality’ is almost an obstacle, since interest in such things as texture can be deterrents to the understanding of the all-important idea. The conceptual artist ‘wants to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator and therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry’.

Notice the word ‘therefore’ in the last sentence. It tells us that Ie Witt believes that emotion is incompatible with mental interest. He goes on to say that if people are bored by his work it can only be because they miss ‘the emotional kick’ that they are used to getting from expressionist paintings. The interesting thing about this is that the phrase ’emotional kick’ is itself emotional. It’s a sneering remark that reveals the strength and nature of his feelings.

It’s clear from the Paragraphs as a whole that Ie Witt accepts without queston the belief that thought is strong and admirable while emotion is weak and worthless. This is a crude notion based on poor understanding of the human mind.

In the first place it fails to take account of the fact that both our thoughts and our emotions come in many different kinds. When a comparison is made it’s common to find that advanced thought is being compared to primitive types of emotion. But this won’t do, for it’s not a comparison of like with like.

Secondly there’s the fact that, in nearly all we do, thinking and emotion are combined, often inextricably. Einstein said of himself: ‘I have no special gift. I am just passionately curious.’ (Italics added.) Some emotions are incompatible with science, others are necessary for it. The same goes for art, though the specific emotions may differ.

Such objections were not widely noted when le Witt was making his case. Conceptual art caught on and became a very powerful movement. In the following decades the term was used in a variety of ways but the notion that the artist and the artist’s ideas were more important than any visible work was generally retained.

Many artists found this attractive. There was an agreeable freedom about it which gave scope for much that was playful and entertaining in a light- hearted way. No special skill was needed, and no great effort – just a kind of boldness, as when Rauschenberg sent his famous telegram to Iris Clert, who owned a gallery in Paris. Clert had invited submissions for an exhibition to be composed entirely of portraits of herself. Rauschenberg’s entry was a telegram which had her name and address on it, followed by the words: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so”. You have to laugh. The telegram was hung in the exhibition.

This kind of environment let some artists flourish, but it was not good for visual art. And at the same time there was another influence tending in the same direction: the power of media attention.

Celebrity artists

The editors of periodicals assume, probably correctly, that most of their readers are more interested in hearing about people than about works of art. This is often evident even in prestigious art journals. Thus it’s common now for so much attention to be given to those who ‘make it big’ in the art world that the artists eclipse their own creations.

How do people ‘make it big’ ? How do they stand out from the throng?

The throng from which an artist has to emerge now in order to be ‘big’ is itself vastly bigger than it has ever been, because the reach of our communications has increased so dramatically. Think of Rembrandt painting in Amsterdam and competing for commissions with his rivals there. Then take a look at a magazine like Artforum. In a recent issue of this periodical the Reviews section includes exhibitions currently showing in twenty-three cities widely spread around the planet.

How are artists to stand out from all this lot? The most astute seekers after fame soon conclude that it’s necessary to get media attention, and the easiest way to achieve that is to do something wild, unheard-of and, ideally, utterly shocking. So if you want to become a celebrity artist, your best plan is to do or to make something outrageous – and call the happening or the object ‘art’.  After all, you are the artist and if you call it art, then art it is. Didn’t Rauschenberg say so?

But what becomes of this ‘work of art’ , assuming that it’s not entirely ephemeral? Having served to help its creator to fame and wealth, what is its further role? More than likely it’s a weak thing on its own, given the motives that made it. So it has to survive by its celebrity connection. Here’s a well-known couplet by Alexander Pope that has lost none of its point over the centuries:

“I am His Highness’ dog at Kew.
Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?”

For a sharp contrast it’s interesting to think of what Emily Dickinson had to say about celebrity:

“I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?”

And in the next verse:

“How dreary – to be –Somebody
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!”

Emily was a determined recluse. She was also a poetic genius. Her fame endures.

It’s not necessary – not even desirable – for every good artist to be reclusive. But it would be an excellent thing if artists, whatever their lifestyle, were judged by the quality of the art they give us. The quality of the art we have affects the quality of human life.

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