Thursday, September 16, 2004

Some (more) writing on Rothko

The Honors Comp class is finding its bearings: the students' first assignment (find and write about a painting at the Wichita Art Museum that they found especially compelling) went pretty well, though I am, on the whole, a bit disappointed in the brevity of their papers. But their posts on the course's message board have been substantive and insightful. They are getting it. And, to (even) their amazement, they are enjoying it. As one of my students said, "This isn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be."
I dig affirmation.
Anyway, the passage below was prompted by a student named Deanna who, in her post, said that I'd done a good job of conveying not only that I like the Rothko I'd chosen (again the disclaimer that, in the image, the bottom band of color is NOT the correct shade), but also why I like it; but she also said that she herself just doesn't see anything in it but dark-colored, fuzzy rectangles. Thus, she concludes, she and I must have "completely opposite" tastes in art.
Enough preamble; here's my response to her:

Your observations are very fair. And, indeed, if you read that weird comment I made in an earlier post about "the concept of concept," what you are talking about is exactly that . . . and, incidentally, why some argue that Rothko's paintings that are like the one I've chosen ultimately don't fully succeed on their own terms.
Concepts are abstractions to begin with, even though they may be grounded in a specified entity or action: God is a concept, as is justice, or beauty for that matter. But precisely because concepts are abstract, the easiest (if not always the best) way to talk about them IS to ground them in concrete entites or actions. And here's where Rothko enters in. According to some reading I've done (my source is Robert Hughes' book American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America), Rothko wants, in these paintings, to evoke the sort of awe that ancient myths evoked in their respective cultures, but he wants to accomplish that sense of awe without relying on figures. These are intended to be spiritual works, in the very broadest sense of that term. They aren't intended to "look like" anything, and so we're not supposed to understand them at an intellectual level. Rather, we're supposed to "feel" them. Or, more precisely, we're supposed to feel a sense of spiritual wonder as we look at them.
Hughes argues that they don't do that. They are beautiful to look at, he says; he acknowledges the wide range of emotions they generate; but they don't, for him, "constitute a major religious utterance" (490).
I want to add some personal comments to the above:
I have to agree with Hughes here: I don't feel spiritual awe as I look at "my" Rothko. As I've said in earlier posts, my eye delights in wandering its surface, contemplating its thin and thick spots of color and its imprecise edges. I find this particular painting beautiful because it allows me as a viewer to engage in some visual play. And, as I said, looking at it creates a contemplative space for me to enter into. That last observation, by the way, is something very close to what Rothko wants to have happen as we look at his work.
But, I find I have more to "say" to it than it does to me. And if it's Rothko's goal to have his paintings project a sense of spiritual awe, then for that painting to succeed as he intends, I "should" acknowledge in some way that I at least see that in there, even if it doesn't have that effect on me. But, to be honest, I don't see that. Thus, I have to agree with Hughes: these paintings fail on the terms that Rothko envisions for them.
But this particular one doesn't fail with me, obviously. And this raises an interesting question for all of us, when we are thinking about the works we've chosen, regarding the artist's intention(s) for that work.
Obviously, art is more or less deliberately created (though "accidents" do occur that the artist allows to stand); but in any case, the fact that the artist allows his/her work to stand implies that it more or less conforms to some inner something that the artist sanctions. What happens when the audience doesn't "get" that? Or "gets" it but rejects it in favor of some other interpretation? Does the work "fail" in some way? Or is the audience's understanding of it, even if it differs from that of the artist, validation enough for the work?

I frankly don't know the answer to those last questions. I don't know it as it applies to literature, and I have even less of a sense of how to respond to it as it applies to the visual arts. One of the very appealing things about J. T. Kirkland's blog, Thinking about Art, is that this question gets raised all the time in the posts. According to Rothko's intentions for his painting, I'm misunderstanding it. So far, so good. But if my misunderstanding it means "failure," who is failing whom (or what)? And what if my misunderstanding of it nevertheless brings me immense pleasure as I look at it?

Hmm . . I sense a paper assignment arising out of this question . . .


Robert said...

You have no idea how happy I am to see anyone at all talking about Rothko in Wichita, Kansas. That isn't to say it doesn't happen, I know it does. But it certainly isn't a topic of choice with the people I happen to visit, and I visit often.

You have done a great service to your students by forcing them to get out, and into the gallery.

John B. said...

Thanks, Robert, for those kind remarks.
For those interested, J. T. Kirkland has posted a lengthy response to this post on his own blog, Thinking about Art. You can find his comments here. J.T. is thorough and, what's more, can show me how clumsy with language I am and yet couch his comments in such a way that I take no offense at all.