Archive | March, 2011

What is up with modern art?

29 Mar

Part 1 – Historical Background

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this question or variations thereof.  It’s even become a joke, modern art being something that only beret-wearing snobs can understand while the rest of us stand there confused at what look like scribbles.  From the moment I said I wanted to start blogging about art it was what people wanted to know the most – how does one make sense of modern art?

I’ll let you in on a secret.  You can’t.  Even most art historians have works they love and works they hate, and what one person thinks is a masterpiece another thinks is trash.  It’s a very subjective area, but I’ll try to shed a little light on it.  What started out as one post is now three, however, because it’s a rather difficult subject to tackle.

The thing you have to remember about art is that it had a completely different purpose from about 1850 onward.  The invention of photography had major impacts in all manner of fields, but the vogue for photography meant that many events and people who had traditionally been chronicled by painters were now drawn to the photographer’s studio.  Where previously an artist still had to be able to do a decent portrait or altarpiece to survive, photography set them free to experiment with more radical ways of painting.

I’m not suggesting that there was an exact correlation between the invention of photography and the movement in art away from realism, but it’s a convenient way to look at it.  For some time artists had been rebelling against industrialization and developed a more natural, if somewhat abstract, way of painting.  This was a time of “-isms” and the goal was no longer to express the strict artistic conventions popularized by the Academies in centuries past but to embrace emotion, human expression, and the scores of new philosophies that were appearing.  If the Renaissance had first elevated artists above common craftsmen, the nineteenth century fully created the modern idea of the artist, and they have been struggling to “express themselves” ever since.

Fast forward a bit to 1914.  It was at that point that World War I broke out and Europeans started to doubt just about everything they knew about their world, and art was certainly part of that.  I’ve already mentioned how the Dada movement expressed their feelings (Sharing an Idea), but it was by no means limited to one movement.  Looking at art from the time of World War I and immediately following can be a difficult experience given the amount of pessimism everyone was feeling at the time and how clearly that emotion is expressed in their artworks.

I’ll spare you a full history lesson, but suffice it to say the visual arts are just one area where thinkers tried to cope with the twentieth century.  With two world wars, economic depression, the threat of nuclear war, and an end to Imperialism and the dominance of European culture, everyone was struggling to adapt.  Traditions didn’t mean anything anymore, and anything that was considered old-fashioned was immediately looked down upon, especially in art.

The past 200 years of human history have been filled with unbelievable accomplishments and unthinkable tragedies, and our art has adapted to depict just that, striving to be as beautiful or as ugly as what we humans do every day.  Very little about our world views and daily lives resembles what it would have been like two centuries ago, and that includes our art.  And it’s still changing.  For example, in response to globalization one major trend in art today is an increased interest in works that combine Western ideas about contemporary art with local artistic traditions.

It’s not that putting modern art in its historical context will make it seem any less insane.  Unfortunately there’s no magic trick to do that, but you can start to understand that there’s reason for some of these truly bizarre images you see in front of you.  Artists are simply trying to express what they see in the world around them, and it’s up to us to try to figure out what exactly that is.  There’s hope, though.  Part 2 of this little series will cover some tricks and tips to help you enjoy contemporary art a bit more.



Five Reasons for Art: Sharing an Idea

23 Mar

The idea of a work of art sharing an idea is fairly basic, but also happens to be one of the most mocked and steotyped aspects of art.  Need proof?  How often have you seen some self-adoring artist talking about his philosophy and sharing his “vision” with the fawning public?  For good or ill, however, it’s rare for the viewer to be able to have the artist explain what exactly he meant with a certain work while looking at it, and that’s why it’s important to start thinking about what kinds of ideas an artist was trying to communicate in their work.

As in all other areas of art, a basic knowledge of history is vital.  Art was never created in a vacuum and to treat it as such is to lose most of its meaning.  Now I’m not suggesting that you have to go back and get a degree in history before heading to the local art museum, but just think back to some of what you learned in your high school history class.

Remember hearing about the Renaissance?  You know, the time when Italians supposedly revived the ideas of ancient Greece and Rome and by extension created the modern world?  Ring any bells?  Well, all the great art and even architecture of the time is absolutely full of this reverence for the Ancients.    For example, here’s two famous churches to be found in Florence, considered the birthplace of the Renaissance:

On the right we have the façade of Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral of Florence, which wasn’t construced until the 19th century and was done in a Neo-gothic style meant to fit with the architecture of the cathedral’s bell tower and on the left Santa Maria Novello, designed by Leon Batista Alberti around 1458.  To the untrained eye the two might look quite similar.  Both are done in contrasting marbles that make them look far livelier than the average church.  And let’s be honest, almost all churches are based on Roman municipal buildings, so they all have an ancient influence in that respect.  But the genius is in the details.  While the cathedral is very Gothic, with its pointed arches and need for decoration in every available space, Santa Maria Novello is meant to be much more Classical.

For the math majors among us, Alberti used a strict adherance to ratios and mathematical principles to attain some higher level of beauty, ancient ideas that were only once more coming into fashion.  But just look at the top level.  There on a Christian church we see a representation of a pagan temple.  Rather than focusing on religious decoration, it was all designed to look orderly, graceful, and classically beautiful – what we’ve come to associate with Renaissance architecture.

Hanna Höch, Cut with a Kitchen Knife, 1919-1920

Centuries later the 1900’s brought new ideas to art.  The Industrial Revolution gave us many new technologies and improvements to society, but all of this advancement was cast into serious doubt by the onset of World War I.  One particular group, the Dadaists, began to question all aspects of traditional Western Civilization, including art.  Collage was particularly popular in Dadaism.  The trend had begun earlier with other artists in other movements such as Picasso, but Hanna Höch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Culural Epoch of Germany from 1919-1920 isn’t meant to simply use modern means of mass communication to incorporate something new into art; it’s meant to show its own absurdity.

Just look at it.  It really doesn’t make any sense.  The thing to remember, though, is that very little made sense to a continent that was recovering from one of the most devastating wars it had ever endured.  Dada was meant to liberate the mind from the cacaphony of the modern existence, and Höch was putting this into sharp focus in her collage.

The ideas of an artist are very specific to his lifetime.  Looking for these ideas, though, allows the viewer to see more from art.  What’s simply meant to seem beautiful or shocking can become an acute statement on society by using a little perspective.  Find out what you can about history, philosophy, even something like economics or technology, and the ideas behind art can go from a quiet whisper to an unmistakable shout.

In Times of Crisis, Art Is Necessary

18 Mar

In times of crisis I’m often tempted to pontificate on how important it is to make sure places and objects of artistic or historical value are protected.  Sometimes, though, it doesn’t seem that important.  The last week has been one of those times.

Like most of the world, I’ve sat in awe at the footage from Japan and the absolute devastation that’s happened.  It would be one thing if that was the only problem in the world right now, but one of what had previously been relatively peaceful revolts in North Africa turned to a full-on war.  It can be hard to think about art when so many human lives have been lost and so many people are suffering.

I’m willing to say, though, that we need art.  In fact, at times like this art is absolutely vital.  It may seem trivial, but while rescue and medical professionals are caring for the bodies of those in crisis, art is there for the soul.  The creation of art can be therapeutic to those who have been through a disaster.  Beyond that, though, art is uplifting.  It can serve as a poignant reminder that culture is extremely resilient and can and will survive any attack on it.

Earlier this month government officials, cultural preservation organizations, and museum professionals marked the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.  In 2001 the Taliban was at the height of its repressive power, and extremist clerics were able to push through the destruction of the two centuries-old statues.  The amazing thing is that some of those who were given the task of laying the explosives refused initially.  Some were even shot for their disobedience.  (You can read about it here.)  The emotional blow of seeing two such magnificent symbols of human achievement and freedom of thought was felt worldwide.

Even despite the fact that Afghanistan no longer has a Buddhist population the statues were considered part of the local heritage.  The debate now is whether to rebuild them, as both a symbol of freedom and tolerance after the oppressive regime of the Taliban and also as an economic boost to the region.  I’m not about to say that Afghanistan doesn’t have any other issues to deal with, but the example of the Bamiyan Buddhas shows how important the emotional appeal of art is, especially in nation struggling to rebuild itself.

Tragedies can inspire some of the greatest works of art and can also draw us to what we have already as a source of comfort and reassurance.  When we are suffering we cling to our art and culture as a way of self-preservation.  Art gives us an opportunity to honor and celebrate the human spirit no matter what our cultural background.  Even from thousands of miles away we can go to museums and see the beauty in cultures that are currently ravaged by disaster and contemplate our shared humanity.  These are the emotions needed to overcome a disaster, and they are exactly what art gives us.

The British Museum

14 Mar

I lovingly refer to the British Museum as “The Museum of Imperialism.”  Walking through you really do get a sense that the entire country of Great Britain simply said “Hey, we conquered the world, and look what we brought home with us!”  Whether or not that’s a good thing is an argument best saved for another time and place.*  As it stands now, however, there is perhaps no better museum in the world for appreciating just how much human beings have been able to accomplish in our time on Earth.

As a visitor, however, you’re probably not as concerned with the history of the museum and would prefer just to know how to see the most in the least amount of time.  Fair enough.  That’s what I’m going to try to do.

Probably the two biggest draws in the British Museum are the Pantheon Marbles and the Rosetta Stone.  These are conveniently located close to each other on the museum’s ground floor.  It’s a good area in which to start or finish, or you might even stop in a couple of times based on how the crowds are that particular day.  The other standout gallery in the museum is located on the Upper Floor and houses the Anglo-Saxon treasure found at Sutton Hoo.  It might not be as well-known as the Elgin Marbles (the now un-PC term for the Pantheon Marbles) or the Rosetta Stone, but it’s certainly worth visiting.

Aside from the big draws there’s one golden rule to the British Museum – do your research.  If you have an entire day to spend you can wander around with no particular plan, but if you only have a few hours it helps to prioritize what you really want to see.  Love mummies?  Really, who doesn’t?  Take your time in the Egyptian galleries on the upper floor.  Curious about Native Americans after watching some old Westerns?  Make sure you check out the rooms devoted to the Americas.  The important thing is that you take the time to look at the museum’s website before your visit and go in knowing where you want to go because otherwise, and I promise this, you will become distracted and miss out on something you really wanted to see.

Really the perfect way to see the British Museum would be to move to London and visit it at least once a week for a few hours for one, maybe two years.  Then you might be able to see everything.  That’s not including the museum’s outstanding special exhibitions or the British Library, which up until 1997 was part of the British Museum complex and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.  Even if your time in London is short, go to the British Museum.  It really is one of the greatest repositories of human achievement on Earth.

A few other tips for enjoying the British Museum –

  • Take note of when British schools are on break (The government has an excellent website for this.).  Most of the time you can’t plan around these things, but it helps to know ahead of time that the museum is going to be even more crowded than it normally is.  The last time I was there it was during the “Half-Term” break.  I felt like I couldn’t walk five feet without stepping on a child.
  • I’m always a big fan of stopping for a bite to eat or a coffee in a museum, but if you’re going to spend all day at the British Museum it might be worth it to step outside and go somewhere in the area for lunch.  Even the cafes and restaurants can get very crowded.
  • My personal recommendation for must-sees in the museum would be the European galleries.  Not only are they extremely interesting on their own, but I like the idea of learning about British history in a place called the British Museum.
  • The British Museum (like most of the major London museums) is free.  Take advantage of this fact and come back often, if you can.  It takes away the pressure of having to see everything at once, and in a place this big every visit manages to be new and interesting.
  • The museum has a special feature called “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”  Odds are you won’t have the time or inclination to hunt down all of them, but do make sure you read the labeling when you come across one of these objects.  They do a great job of putting the objects in their historical context.
  • If you’re particularly interested in one area it might be worth it to take part in one of the free tours that occur throughout the day.  They’re volunteer-led, which means the guides tend to be a bit more interesting since they’re there simply because they enjoy it.
  • You might be tempted to get one of the multimedia guides, but the labeling in the British Museum is in general very well-done and taking the time with a guide on certain objects might hold you up.
  • The museum’s website has guides for what to do if you have only 1 or 3 hours to see the museum.  These are good if you want just a general idea of the museum, but it’s often better to focus on what is particularly interesting to you.

Tate Modern might be the hipper museum choice in London, and morbid curiosity will always draw people tot he Tower of London to experience its gristly history, but no visit to the city is really complete without visiting the British Museum.  Like London itself, you feel as if the entire world is right there at your fingertips.

*Indeed I plan on devoting a few posts in the near future to artifact claims, repatriation, and how Western museums developed during Imperialism and what it means in a globalized society, specifically that major bone of contention located at the British Museum, the Pantheon Marbles.

Vincent van Gogh

10 Mar

Starry Night, from 1889

I start with van Gogh not because I believe he had a particularly great impact on the development of art (he did) or because he remains one of the most popular artists of all time (he is), but because of a bit of sci-fi.  OK, I’ll admit it, I’m a fan of Doctor Who.  I’m not going to spend time defending my enjoyment of British sci-fi, however, no matter how good I think it is.  This is about an artist.  The Series 5 episode “Vincent and the Doctor” got me thinking about why Van Gogh is so popular and the impact he had on art.  I also dare say that anyone who saw the episode will understand the emotional power that it had and why I would suddenly be drawn to the artist.

Unlike other artists it’s easy to see why van Gogh is so popular.  His paintings are absolutely beautiful.  Normally when an expert remarks on the “masterful use of color” by an artist it seems rather perfunctory and does nothing to explain the painting to a layman.  Not so with van Gogh.  The colors in his paintings almost seem like gemstones, they are so vivid.  His most famous paintings create a feeling of heightened reality that is common amongst our own favorite memories.  In short, van Gogh was such a great artist that you don’t need to know a thing about art history to appreciate them.  They are classic images that touch everyone on some level.

But where does the artist end and the legend begin?  Vincent van Gogh is the great archtype of the troubled artist.  Constantly suffering from mental illness, he famously cut off part of his left ear in 1888 and commited suicide in 1890.  It’s also a well-known fact that he was not a great success in his lifetime.  When we see a van Gogh we’re not simply seeing a great work of art, we’re seeing a great work of art that was created despite the artist’s madness.  This cult of personality goes a long way in explaining the enduring interest in van Gogh.  It’s not simply morbid curiosity, however.  Knowing what we do about his troubled life allows us to appreciate all the more how beautiful his artworks truly are.  They remind us in a way that there is always beauty in life no matter how dark things can be at times and of the transcendent nature of art to connect us to this beauty.

More on Vincent van Gogh:
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, with a detailed biography
Van Gogh Gallery, online resource with an extensive catalog of works
Don McLean’s “Vincent”, set to various van Gogh paintings

Vocabulary Lesson – Intangible Heritage

9 Mar

Yes, this is a blog about art, some architecture as well, but I think it’s time to break away from that for a bit.  You see, I was given a dirty look by someone this evening for using the words “cultural preservation” and attempting to define what counts as “Intangible Heritage.”  It’s not that I agreed with the right-wing politician he was discussing, the one who had recently given a radio address on why foreigners should try harder to fit in with German “Leitkultur” (which can be roughly translated as “cultural identity”), but the gentleman I was talking to seem convinced that the idea was outdated and had no business in modern society.

Now to be sure, cultural heritage and identity is something that can easily be used by politicians for their own xenophobic gains, but dismissing it entirely is a dangerous path for socity.  These very things – traditional music, theatre, cuisine, festivals, and other signs of local culture – are some of the greatest and most unique accomplishments of humanity.  A short glance at UNESCO’s list of endangered traditions includes the knowledge of buiding watertight Chinese Junks and many local musical styles that have existed for centuries.  These are things that give every new country or city its own atmosphere.  They are also some of the best ways to observe a culture’s ideals and values.

The problem is that many are abandoning their own cultural heritage for a more globalized, modern society.  The truly interesting thing is that in my experience the people who have done the most traveling and/or have lived abroad are often the most attached to their own cultural identity.  It’s a natural reaction.  You realize that try as you might there will always be differences between cultures, and these should be celebrated. Unfortunately in many developing areas of the world attachment to tradition is seen as anti-progress and is ineed often a block to economic gain.

That’s why it’s become popular to talk about “Intangible Heritage.”  We’ve been preserving art, buildings, even nature for years, but only recently have we realized that our traditions need safeguarding as well.  Humans have always been tribal, but the new ways of showing one’s identity are eclipsing the old.  Systematically honoring and protecting our traditions is one of the best ways to relate to our own history and culture.

I suppose this is the time when I should be encouraging everyone to make the effort to participate in their own traditions, and I do believe that effort should be made to integrate them into one’s life, but it goes beyond that.  We all need to make an effort to support local artisans, craftsmen, and artists whenever possible.  Without them and the practice of cultural traditions in our own lives we really would be living in one giant McWorld, and anyone who’s been to an American fast food chain in Paris can tell you that’s genuinely depressing.  But don’t just think of it as something that should be saved for traveling.  The most important thing we can do is to look in the mirror and in our own backyards to see how we can fit traditions into our lives.  I for one made a pancake breakfast for my friends for Shrove Tuesday yesterday.  It’s a small (and delicious) way of keeping in touch with my upbringing in the Episcopal (Anglican) church and beyond that the British heritage that came before that.  I don’t think it makes me anti-American or even an anti-German foreigner living in this country.  It makes me me.  That’s what our traditions do for us, after all.

UNESCO’s video on what Intangible Heritage is and why it’s important to preserve it.

Aesthetics: Art for Art’s Sake

1 Mar

It’s a point of pride among us humans that one of our forefathers had the genius to come up with basic tools.  We’ve all seen the reencactments of a caveman miraculously inventing the wheel, and we know they had spears, a few cooking tools, and other assorted items on display at museums of natural history the world over.

A Delft ceramic plate, adding a bit of beauty to the everyday

I take a slightly different view, however.  I’m more interested in the moment when one caveman looked at his spear, looked at his companion’s, and then decided that he wanted his to look different.  An engraving here, a little bit of pant from some berries there, and next thing you know humans were personalizing and decorating just about everything they could.  Some of these decorations had s

pecific purposes, mind you.   As I’ve stated previously art is full of all sorts of ideas, stories, and meanings, but all of this is often done with the aim of creating something that is pleasing to the eye.

A good example of this is the decorative arts.  The Decorative or Applied Arts are often overlooked in the art world because they’re not big and important like 2-D art and sculpture.  They don’t have sexy names like da Vinci or Picasso, either.  What makes them absolutely spectacular, though, is that none of it was necessary.  You can have a plate or table that’s just that, a plate or table, but those with the means made the effort to make sure they had utensils that were pleasing to the eye.

It goes beyond tableware, however.  Even works that are considered part of the traditional “Fine Arts,” i.e. painting and sculpture, were often done for the sake of beauty and decoration.  With the rise of the middle class in Europe, more and more people desired paintings for their own homes, and these were often scenes that were meant simply to be beautiful.

To understand this, one needs only look at the landscape paintings of the seventeenth century French artist Claude Lorraine.  Many art historians often try to read great moral and historical signifigance intolandscape paintings of the time, and no doubt on some level this was true, but the end result is simplly the beauty of nature put down on canvas.

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Cattle and Peasants, 1629

It is perhaps going a bit far to say that all art up to a certain point in history was meant to be beautiful on some level.  In many paintings storytelling or moral instruction trumped any desire to be aesthetically pleasing, but the idea of art being “ugly” or making the viewer uncomfortable is really an invention of the late nineteenth century.  Was that bad for art?  I’m not stupid enough to try to answer that question here.  But the next time you visit an art museum or even pick out a new set of dishes for your house remember that we are attracted to beauty, we enjoy having it close at and, and if you look to art you’ll see some of the most beautiful objects man has ever created.