Graham

Archive for the ‘Fine Arts’ Category

The Fine Arts Are Alive and Well

In Fine Arts on August 28, 2008 at 3:04 am

This has been quite an amazing week for me. What started out as a few observations on my feelings about the fine arts (traditionally paintings, music, and literature, but evolved to include stage plays, movies and photographs and even silliness posing as art), turned into an opportunity to exchange ideas with a group of high school kids through a program called the Fine Arts Survey.

What made the week so amazing is that there really are kids out there who really do dig the arts, who enjoy discussing their ideas about what art means to them, or who aren’t afraid of asking the hard questions while they struggle to understand this little piece of a very large universe. And believe me, sometimes they can get pretty deep about nuances of meaning and the difficulties of seeing meaning in ambiguity.

I actually considered not posting my blog (What Makes Art, Music or Literature Great?) because I was concerned that nobody would read it. After arguing with myself for a couple of days (an argument I lost, obviously) I decided to post it with an apology. The apology was a short statement of what I perceived to be the facts, that I knew it would have limited appeal, and that we would get back on track next week.

Well I didn’t know, it turns out, and thank heaven that I didn’t act on what I understood to be indisputable knowledge of the facts. The arts are alive and well precisely because they are so open to interpretation, and anybody can have an opinion about what art is or isn’t, and whether or not it is great or not-so-great. We the people now have as much right to own the arts as the critics once did. And we are, as often as not, able to pick out greatness without the assistance of an expert.

I know that last statement scares my Western Civilization (PhD, Harvard) professor, and I still see a role for him (I will let you form your own opinion about what that role might be), but he is no longer the driver, he is no longer in charge. I guess you might say there has been a revolution in the last few decades and the good guys won. I guess you realize what this means … I take back my apology, and you will probably get another shot at expressing your opinions on art in the near future.

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Copyright © 2008 by Tad Laury Graham

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What Makes Art, Music or Literature Great?

In Fine Arts on August 13, 2008 at 4:25 pm
Or Perhaps This One?

Would You Call This Art?

Recently, I heard that age old question again, the one that suggests that to understand art you need an expert who can explain it to you. Having just written a blog that rejects this idea for self help victims, I felt that I had to accept the challenge to address the same issue with regard to art, music and literature. I will admit some bias: I do not understand the idea of having little or no participation in the important events of my life, especially if the justification is because someone else is claiming to be an expert, and insisting that I don’t have the proper credentials for such things. I believe we lead better lives when we consider the advice of others, but make our own decisions. This is true whether we are talking with financial experts, medical doctors, or the gardener.

That said, back to art, beginning with an observation: to describe genius in painting in terms of brush strokes is like describing genius in literature in terms of typography, yet I’ve heard it said in a graduate class. The professor insisted that we cannot appreciate art without exercising our “higher faculties” (our intellect). “Great art,” he said, “is only knowable through an understanding of its period in history and its place in our culture.” If this were true, I suppose it would mean that we need several experts. In short he was suggesting that only an intellectual could reveal a painting’s greatness.

That got me to wondering: how intellectual is a picture? It seems to me that the very nature of a picture is anti-intellectual in that it is primarily visual, emotional and sensual. It’s strongest appeal is on a gut level. I suppose it’s true that a picture can make a statement, but I think a large number of people would have to agree on the meaning of that statement for it to have any validity. And how intellectual can you get, when a picture-as-statement is only an instance in time, frozen in some sort of suspension of life?

Augsburg, Germany, by Krasnysky

How About This One?

To over intellectualize our view of art requires the mind to build a construct for interpreting a 2-dimensional flat world to create the illusion of more than is there. The buildings above, for instance, were painted by an architect who understood and used perspective to create the feel of 3-dimensions.  A tentative conclusion is that technique is perhaps the intellectual part.

If that were true, however, then craft is more important than message and that would imply that the painting exists primarily for intellectual reasons. Art becomes nothing more than the illustrated history of desicated concepts, more fully explained in the footnotes of old philosophies, histories, and formal religions. There are more important uses for the intellect. I would argue that the intellectual approach to painting should be secondary to the sensual experience of vision and emotion.

A picture makes you feel something about it. Even one replete with intended symbols must be taken in for itself, in totality, apart from all else except for ones own raw experience. And if the observer has not yet had sufficient experience to which he or she can relate, that person will not be able to fully appreciate the art work and can only talk about it in general terms. We will come back to this point. For now, however, let’s just say that the intellectual part seems to be associated primarily with craft.

Before we further pigeonhole an artist’s work through classification (e.g., assigning it a place in history as part of a movement), and before we start discussing its similarities through comparative intellectualizing (also called the study of art history), we need to let it work on us. Only when it gets into our gut and works its way around our more visceral feelings will we fully digest it. Without this direct “experiencing,” we might just as well begin without the picture. I would further generalize this assertion by saying, in contradistinction, that we cannot underrate our “lower” faculties, or we might as well dismiss all art forms.

Paintings have been found on cave walls, such as those at Lascaux, that were created more than

Room of the Bulls, Lascaux

Room of the Bulls, Lascaux

17,000 years ago – long before written history, and long before the intellectuals stepped in to explain their historical context, or to speculate on the role they might have played in early French culture. Most of us can make the connection between our distant primitive relatives and our contemporary families without assistance. Most of us would stand quietly in a place like this and feel the personal nature of the experience, might feel some emotion from crossing 170 centuries to see ourselves in the faces of these primitive tribes.

I would say that the Intellectual approach is not the only method, nor necessarily the best method, to understand our physical world. Words in fact are not the primary medium. Indeed, a great deal of cerebral activity is pictorial imagery, and a great deal of art is understood through this imagery (including the big three:  paintings, music and literature).

Next, I would suggest that it is fairly easy to find the association of this image-generating mechanism in literature, through the act of reading, i.e., we “see” images in our minds when we read. The author can’t tell us everything or the fictional account would be very long, and very boring. The reader has always been assigned the task of filling in where the author leaves off, though perhaps it is difficult to understand this when we are surrounded by video, movies, television, and other visual media devices that do this for us. Literature with a “big-L” is meant to engage us emotionally, unlike “small-L” or genre (which is intended to be just for fun, such as science fiction, detective stories, romances or westerns).

The same line of reasoning can be used for music.  You can take almost any piece of symphonic music and the composer will describe the real world events that inspired the music. And often we find ourselves listening but imagining visual affects, such as shifting colors (amorphous) as the mood of the music shifts. Additionally, music affects our emotions through hearing, but we also feel a sensual quality while listening, which in its most intense form can be experienced by standing too close to a modern rock band and feeling the sound waves bounce off our internal organs. Again, in spite of the differences between how we hear music vs see art, we are back to the emotional and sensual experience.

I do feel that there is an intellectual component to virtually all art forms, although not a little effort has been expended in recent years to break away from underlying structure and to introduce free form approaches. But this has driven our appreciation of these modalities into an even lesser appeal to large numbers (without the interpreter).  One can argue that we have freed the artist from arbitrary constraints, or maybe that the artist has sold us down river – depending on your point of view.

In my opinion, it doesn’t much matter which because I make the claim that art is personal and appeals differently to different people. The more intense the appeal, the more personal it is. In my view, greatness with regard to art is an opinion. The larger the number of people who share the opinion, the greater the work of art. And this cuts to the chase. Great art is ALWAYS an opinion. So the answer to our question is: You make great art great, by expressing your opinion.

There was a time when art was for the privileged, when you and I did not get to vote because we didn’t belong to the club. But that time is likely gone forever. For now, it is one person, one vote. Almost nobody argues the point. Not sure how to vote? The first picture is Picasso’s Three Musicians. And the second picture is Krasnyansky’s Augsburg, Germany. Does that help? It shouldn’t make any difference, but it’s O.K. if it does because you are not alone, and it’s your vote to use however you choose.

There are those who point to this trend and pronounce that art is dying or has already died. If art is dying, this isn’t the reason. The cause is self-pity. The humanities can only be destroyed if we let it happen. Art today tends to reduce the state of man from heroic to pitiful, no longer depicted as stately, no longer waging the eternal battle for universal principles; in other words, it is the artists (not the scientists) who have sold us out … depending on your opinion.

Text Copyright © 2008 by Tad Laury Graham

Pictures appearing herein are very low resolution, small copies of the originals, used for educational purposes only. It is likely that they are under copyright (this is unknown) or some other form of protection, but are used herein consistent with the protections and laws that govern copyrights.