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Pleasing the Gods

1 Jun

The Great Mosque of Cordoba

I think I waited so long to write this post because it’s the most complicated of the “Five Reasons” that I’ve discussed.  Religion has been perhaps the most volatile subject for humans discuss since we first met different tribes and realized that not everyone had the same ideas on the subject.  It’s virtually impossible to discuss the topic without offending someone, but here goes nothing.

At the same time it’s also one of the easiest to discuss, especially when it comes to art.  I once took a Japanese art class where we studied a set of prehistoric bells that were meant to have a religious purpose.  The professor reminded us that, “After all, music and dance were created as ways of doing something extraordinary for the gods.”  It stands to reason, then, that if the performing arts were created to appeal to deities than surely the visual arts were, as well.  The natural desire of religious humans is to create beautiful things in honor of their deities, whether they are songs or paintings.

How pervasive was this idea?  We think of pottery as a way of making practical vessels – tableware, containers, and the like – but many of the earliest surviving works from clay that survive are actually small figurines that experts suggest were used for magical or ritual purposes.  The difficulty in assigning religious meaning to these objects, however, is that no written records exist to say what exactly their purpose was supposed to be.  We don’t know what kinds of deities or rituals these groups had, so making assumptions about their religion based on what we know about the subject today is more than a bit arbitrary.

It is much easier to see the combination of art and religion by looking at architecture.  Most of us have at some point in time been in a house of worship and are at least passingly familiar with the theology behind the architecture.  The most moving example of this that I’ve ever seen is the Great Mosque of Cordoba.  Even without knowledge of Islamic theology and the conventions regarding the building of a mosque, you immediately get the sense that you’re in a mystical, holy place.  Islamic tradition states that no images of humans or animals may be depicted in a mosque, so the decoration is limited to vegetation and the intricate scrollwork that is the hallmark of Islamic art.  The end result is a stunning environment for prayer and a testament to the works of beauty humans are capable of in the name of religion.

Window depicting the Adoration of the Magi in Westminster Abbey

Works of beauty can also be educational, as well.  Since most people in Europe were illiterate in the Middle Ages, the church relied heavily on images to teach about Christianity.  These were incorporated into church structures in many ways.  The most striking, however, were the stained glass windows that were created for the Gothic cathedrals.  The glowing colors not only illustrated Biblical passages to the people but did so in a way that make worshipers feel like they had entered some sort of heavenly space on Earth.  Unfortunately the modern eye can’t fully appreciate how amazing these windows, and the cathedrals in general, were to the common people when they were first built.  Imagine, though, if you will, if you had never seen a movie or television show, if you had no books or magazines at home, how grand these windows must have seemed.

Creating art for religious purposes is fundamental to the human experience.  It’s rather unfortunate that religion is often seen as such a force for destruction and hatred in the world when it has also inspired some of the most astonishing works of beauty that history has passed down to us.  When works of art were created for worship they are tinged with a certain extra element of care that can create a touching moment for the viewer, as they were intended.  These are works of art that are meant to not only, as I put so in delicately, please the gods, but also inspire others to experience the divine.  Whatever your own religious beliefs, I think you can agree that Man can have no greater goal.


Showing Social Status

20 May

As idealistic as I can be sometimes, even I can’t deny that throughout most of history art has been dominated by the ruling classes.  After all, they were the ones who had the money to commission works of art and the most pressing desire to display their status to the world.  It’s only understandable.  But despite how little it’s sometimes discussed, matters of patronage and social one-upmanship can provide a fascinating insight into art and society as a whole throughout history.

Masaccio, Holy Trinitity, Santa Maria Novello, Florence, Italy, ca. 1428

Take, for example, your average Renaissance altarpiece.  Or, for a rather obvious case, look at Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco from church of Santa Maria Novello in Florence.  Ignoring the iconography and the artist’s use of perspective, look instead at the two kneeling figures on either side of the scene.  Those would be the donors, Lorenzo Lenzi and his wife.  Donating to the church by sponsoring building, artworks, and clerical objects had been a popular way of demonstrating one’s piety and hoping to ensure a more favorable afterlife since organized religion began, but the idea of having one’s own likeness depicted within the work of art was relatively new.  It was a way for patrons to broadcast their wealth, piety, education, and generous nature in a place where many would see it – the church. Playing “Spot the Donors” can actually be kind of fun.  Some are a bit harder, being represented only by a coat of arms or other family or trade guild symbol, and oftentimes, especially in earlier paintings, donors are depicted as almost comically small, owing to the custom of using a hierarchy of scale to demonstrate the importance of figures.

Of course perhaps the best statements of one’s social status can be found in portraits throughout history.  If you could afford to have your portrait painted, it was clear you were a wealthy individual.  If it was done by a relatively popular artist, even better.  If, like King Louis XIV of France, you have your life-size portrait painted in extremely expensive fur-lined robes featuring the icon of French monarchy then, well, pity the poor person who tries to outdo you.

But we can’t talk about social status in art without bringing up one of the most important artistic markings of class that one could have in the late twentieth century – the portrait by Andy Warhol.  For a time politicians, actors, sports figures, musicians, really anyone who could afford it, had their portrait done by Warhol.  He started out painting portraits as a way of showing how fleeting and impersonal fame was, but later in his career a portrait by Andy Warhol was a mark of fame itself.  Figures as diverse as Liza Minnelli, Brigitte Bardot, and even the Shah or Iran all paid to have their likeness done by the artist.  His portraits became so ubiquitous as to be often parodied, and if you look at your computer’s photo editing software I’m guessing there’s a setting to give a photo a “Pop Art” effect – essentially your own portrait by Warhol.

Warhol portrait of hockey player Wayne Gretzky

This may sound horribly vapid and make you feel more distant from art if it is, as I’m claiming, a history of large egos throwing their money around.  The thing is, these were often extremely fascinating personalities, and the marks that the well-to-do left on the art world hint at some interesting and often lurid stories.  Walk around the Vatican, for example, and you’ll see how many supposedly pious men of God spend unimaginable amounts of money to add their mark to the palaces, and you can be sure they weren’t exactly anonymous about it (individual Papal coats of arms can be found everywhere).  Or look at one of the most famous portraits in the collection of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  There, in all her glory, sits Madame de Pompadour, perhaps the most famous royal mistresses of all time.

So you see, much as we’ve come to understand how the personalities of the artists influence art, the patrons had a large and lasting effect, as well.  Since they were the ones paying for the works they often had major sway over what was created, and their desire to have great works in their honor in public places and the latest and most impressive works in their private quarters spurred artistic creation for centuries – still does.  It goes back to stopping and asking “Why was this work of art created?”  Quite often it can be traced back to some wealthy patron who wanted to show off their status.

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.

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.

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.