Archive | April, 2011

In China, Politics as Usual

5 Apr

There were two very telling news stories that came out of China this week.  The first, the opening of the new National Museum of China, seemed like standard party propaganda, but the second, the detainment of artist Ai Weiwei, goes a step further by illustrating how controlling the regime actually is.  The New York Times articles can be found here and here.

Every nation whitewashes its history in its museums to some extent.  American museums are notorious for omitting key facts about the treatment of Native Americans, and nowhere in the British Museum do they explain how they managed to get so many treasures from around the world.  In the case of the National Museum of China, however, completely ignoring the Great Leap Forward, during which approximately 20 million people died of starvation, is inexcusable.

But to me that’s not even the worst part.  We expect that from China.  What really upsets me is the first major exhibition they’re doing, which is all about the art of the Enlightenment.  How the museum thought that the art of a period known for encouraging human rights and democracy would be a good fit in China I don’t know.  They somehow seem to avoid it by focusing on the Enlightenment in Germany, where it didn’t have quite the far-reaching effects as it did in France or the United States.

The exhibition focuses on the Enlightenment through the reign of Frederick II of Prussia, who was a major proponent of enlightened monarchy.  That’s all well and good, but to focus on an individual who believed that the main lesson of the Enlightenment is that the best system of governance is a strong central government that knows what’s best for the people is dangerous in a one party state such as China.

Then there’s the German museums who lent artworks for the exhibition and consulted with the Chinese.  They claim that it’s a show about art and not politics.  It’s China.  It’s all about politics.  It’s one thing for them to portray their own national history as they wish, but assisting them in rewriting European history strikes me as incredibly irresponsible.  Museums have control over which works they loan out, to whom, and how those works are presented.  There is no reason they should be giving a totalitarian regime free rein to depict one of the defining ages of Western democracy any way they wish.  Maybe they thought that simply mentioning the Enlightenment in China would make people curious to read more about its ideas, but realistically that’s probably not going to happen.  The Chinese government has too much control over the information available to its people.

Which brings me to the second news story, the detainment of Ai Weiwei.  As I write this the latest information available is that no one has been able to contact him since Sunday (April 3) and ambassadors from the EU and US are urging China to release him.  It’s a sad reminder that art can be for an even greater purpose – that of promoting democracy and human rights.  Many in the art world try to avoid politics because they don’t want to offend or simply don’t feel its their place.  I only hope they don’t stay silent in this instance.

Last year there was an exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s art here in Munich.  The front facade of the building where it was held was covered in backpacks, part of the artist’s criticism of the government for its lax building codes that resulted in the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.  This has been one of Ai Weiwei’s personal causes and part of what made him so threatening to the Chinese government.  In the new National Museum of China is a megaphone that President Hu Jintao used to motivate rescue workers and citizens after the same earthquake.  One is a hero, the other a threat to society, and as long as the Chinese can write their own history as they wish no one can say for sure which is which.



Modern Art Part 3 – So what?

4 Apr

After discussing the origins of modern art and some methods to help appreciate it more, even I’m left wondering what to make of it all.  I’m not a postmodernist philosopher, nor am I a great expert on the subject.  I can say this for modern art – it’s certainly never boring.  I might not particularly like a good percentage of what I see, but I don’t find myself lacking for something to think about.  That’s one of the fundamental aspects of modern art.  It’s often supposed to be challenging and make you think.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves with philosophy and “artist’s statements” and the like.  To do so would be to ignore one part of the art world that is often overlooked.  It’s a business.  It always has been to a certain degree, to be sure, but since the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the merchant class it’s only gotten worse.  These days we have galleries looking for the next big thing, museums bending over backwards to get people (especially donors) through the door, and even cities and states looking to show their stature with public art displays by prominent artists.  All forms of art have always had an uneasy relation with commerce, and the visual arts are no exception.  Those in the art world often try to avoid acknowledging this, however.

They and the general public have long put art up on a pedestal, but doing so prevents us from developing any kind of connection to modern art.  When we stop to realize that the art world is just as concerned with making money, being a trendsetter, and gaining an audience as any other part of modern culture the veneer of elitism starts to vanish.  One doesn’t need any special training or knowledge about artists or movements.  There are good artists, there are bad artists, and it takes patience on the part of the viewer to start to see through all the screaming and discover what they really enjoy.

Lacking the passage of time and the ability to say which works were truly revolutionary and had an influence on the development of art, contemporary art is really just a matter of taste.  Like all subjective areas there are those who are considered the taste makers, those who follow the taste makers, and those who don’t have any idea what all the fuss is about.

Despite all this, however, art remains a vital part of the human experience.  There are those out there who are creating new and fascinating works that reflect our society and do so in a way that is interesting to the average viewer.  Art still belongs to the world, we just have to make an effort.  Going to a modern art museum might not be your idea of a thrilling Saturday afternoon, but doing to can be hugely rewarding.  If you stop making direct comparisons to the Old Masters and enjoy modern art for what it is, bear in mind the world in which it was created, and start to put stock in what you really think about each piece, it can become an incredibly interesting experience.  Just go see it.  Give it a chance.


Modern Art Part 2 – Your Opinion Matters

2 Apr

First of all, I’d like to give a brief explanation.  “Modern” and “Contemporary” are often used interchangeably in describing art, but there is a very subtle difference.  “Modern” normally applies to art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while contemporary art is normally art which dates from around the time of World War II until today.  The distinction follows roughly the shift in the 20th century to the philosophy of postmodernism, and indeed contemporary art is often referred to as postmodern art, but one must agree that even in art circles the term “postmodern art” sounds horribly pretentious and not at all appealing to the average visitor.  I’ll sometimes use both terms because “modern art” has a connotation of weird art that’s hard to understand while “contemporary art” isn’t as commonly used in the vernacular.

But the main question I’m going to try to answer today is, “How do I start to appreciate this stuff?”  Like I said in my previous post, a good percentage of it you can’t.  And no, I’m not making a derogatory comment about the intellectual capabilities of anyone who might be reading this.  The fact is that some of it is meant to be difficult to understand.  Contemporary artists love nothing more than pushing boundaries and being avant-garde, so there’s plenty of works out there that are just plain bizarre.

A good way to look at modern art is to think of it like music.  Music is by its very nature an abstract concept: a series of sounds that are put together and are normally pleasing for us to hear.  We love music and associate it with some of the most important moments and feelings in our lives, yet we all have our own taste in music.  Every single viewer brings their own unique perspective to a work of art, and rather than feeling like your perspective is somehow inferior because you don’t know anything about art, you have to embrace and enjoy your own perspective and how you see art.  We accept that people have different tastes in music but when it comes to art we get stuck on this idea that there are right and wrong answers and deeper meanings not accessible to the layperson, which simply isn’t true.

Just like music, some pieces we like, some we don’t.  Very often the ones that are our favorites we like because they invoke a certain emotion or memory.  My favorite painting in a local museum is a good example.  I don’t really care about the artistic merit of it.  I like it because it’s titled West Palm Beach and it reminds me of my childhood vacations. Sounds basic, I know, but you really don’t need any other reason to like a work of art.

There are a few other things that I like to do personally while looking at contemporary art.  One continues with the whole music idea.  As I wrote before, the twentieth century was a time of enormous upheaval which affected all branches of the arts as well as daily life.  I find that just by thinking about the music of the era I enjoy the art more; it’s even better if I actually have some of it on my iPod.  Since music is something I automatically associate more with certain time periods it helps me get the feel for an era better than looking at art alone.  Listening to 1920’s jazz or 60’s rock and knowing how revolutionary they were reminds me that the art was meant to be revolutionary, as well.

But what do you do when you absolutely hate a work of art?  It’s challenging, but it can be extremely interesting to ask yourself why you don’t like it.  Even if it’s a Dali and you feel like you should like it for that reason alone, think about what you don’t like rather than trying to make yourself appreciate it.  Often once you get over your initial shock and start figuring out what exactly is causing such a strong reaction you can learn a great deal.  Sometimes it might be personal, and other times it can help you discover how you feel about art.

I can only imagine that there would be some art historians, curators, critics, etc. who would be a bit upset with me for dismissing modern art as a matter of personal opinion.  They would be right in one important aspect – knowing a bit about art can make it seem much more interesting, but the best place to start isn’t with movement names or techniques, but the artists themselves.  The great names of the twentieth century were also larger-than-life personalities, and knowing their stories can often give their art a new dimension.  The works of Otto Dix reflect his experiences as a soldier during World War I, for example, and it’s impossible to look at Andy Warhol work without thinking about his obsession with fame and consumerism.

There’s one other sure-fire way to appreciate art more – experience it.  Previously I’ve presented the Five Reasons For Art.  Think about these when you can’t comprehend a work of art.  Is it an idea?  A story, perhaps?  Is it meant to be beautiful?  Is it religious?  Does it show social status?  You’re not looking for right answers, you’re just thinking about it for a moment.  Maybe you’ll hit on something that makes you understand it more, or at least like it more.  The thing is that rather than immediately dismissing all modern art as something that’s incomprehensible and at times bizarre you have to go see it a few times before you start to understand it and appreciate it.