Saturday, August 15, 2009

Does Art still matter? I mean, really matter?

These words heard by Socrates in his dream ["Practice music, Socrates!" in Phaedo] are the only indication that he ever experienced any uneasiness about the limits of his logical universe. He may have asked himself: "Have I been too ready to view what was unintelligible to me as being devoid of meaning? Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom, after all, from which the logician is excluded? Perhaps art must be seen as the necessary complement of rational discourse?" --Nietzsche, "The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music" XIV

It’s hard to describe — it’s like a thought that’s also a feeling. One wouldn’t want to make too much of it, or to pretend that it’s any sort of equitable balance [between Centre Court at Wimbledon and religion]; that would be grotesque. But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that. --David Foster Wallace, "Roger Federer as Religious Experience," n. 17

Picasso, Painter and Model. Drawing. Image found here.

After a fair amount of looking online for a date for this image, I finally cried "Uncle." I think it's from the '30s; but in truth, as I was reminded during my search, it's in a way appropriate that I didn't find one: this theme of the artist at work (or, in more abstract language, the dynamic between artist and subject) is one that Picasso returned to again and again--or, better put, seems never to have put aside--throughout his career. But Picasso of course is by no means the first or only artist to use his/her art to meditate on that dynamic. Nor do only painters do it: in fact, the drawing above and some others you can see at the blog where I found this one were inspired by Honoré de Balzac's short story, "The Unknown Masterpiece." It's the story of a painter who seeks to render a beautiful woman with absolute fidelity to her appearance but ends up instead with a painting whose description makes clear that Balzac is describing a non-representational painting before such things even existed.

It's ironic to think about Balzac, co-founder of literary realism that he was, telling a story whose point winds up being the impossibility of genuine realism in art (and yes, I know that's an oxymoron). But is that not the message of all art? Even postmodernism's big message--beware the Grand Narrative--requires of us a sort of suspicion-driven hyper-acceptance of rationality that leads, as Nietzsche so eloquently and presciently argued by implication, to cultural fragmentation (in "The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music," Nietzsche declaims, "Only a horizon ringed by myths can unify a culture.")--yet, oddly (perversely?), the most compelling postmodern novels are about people at least seeking (though, true, not always finding) some overarching order in a world that in various ways rejects transcendence. People need Grand Narratives, or else all ends up having the same value--which is to say, all becomes valueless. Including art--even the act of making art, as it turns out.

All the above is not quite where I started this morning, in case you were wondering.

My starting place was "Generations" by Jed Perl, The New Republic's art critic. In this meaty review essay, Perl surveys four recent shows of modern and contemporary art and their respective curators' positioning of their contents relative to recent art history and to traditional media, and the role(s) of museums and the marketplace in all that. That's a lot of territory, but if anyone's at all interested in such things, it's well worth your time. Perl's not shy about expressing his opinions; those who value the notion of an artist's attentiveness to and engagement with (though not necessarily slavish worship of) the artistic past will like what he has to say here. Anyway, one of the shows reviewed is a retrospective of Picasso's late work, which, though not always successful, nevertheless shows this man, his place in art history long ago secure, still painting as though painting itself matters.

From Perl's essay:
In his later years the idea of painting, reflected in countless canvases and drawings and prints of the artist at work at his easel, was among Picasso's abiding subjects. And in one of the grandest etchings in the Gagosian show, he invokes Balzac's story "The Unknown Masterpiece," about a seventeenth-century master who labors for years on a portrait of a beautiful woman but ends up with what amounts to an abstraction. This tale of the mysteries of tradition was admired by Cezanne, and was illustrated by Picasso in the 1920s, and would later fascinate de Kooning. In this etching, the confrontation between the artist and the model is complicated by the presence of another naked woman and another older man who, like the artist himself, is in the elegant garb of a Baroque gentleman. There is even an owl perched on top of the easel. The print becomes an allegory of seeing and understanding, with the two gentlemen, one with a paintbrush and one with a scroll, suggesting art and literature, or perhaps the contemplative life of the artist and the active life of the diplomat (which is how the figure is identified in the catalogue).

This magnificent print is about the capacity of painting to contain everything: wisdom and absurdity, sex and ideas, the public and the private. It was done in May 1968, when I imagine Douglas Eklund [whom Perl writes about elsewhere in his essay] thinks painting was in the wilderness, waiting for the Pictures Generation to tell everybody what to do next. The truth is that painting was never in the wilderness.
It was my (ultimately) failed search for the described etching that led me to the one you see at the beginning of this post, but this one is in its own way another version of the described one. In fact, Perl's description of Picasso's painting reminded me as well of Vermeer's The Art of Painting (click the image to enlarge it)--especially in its implicit claim that painting is the grandest of all the arts in its ability to contain all the other arts. But so also did Wagner make such claims for music, as did Nietzsche on his behalf, and Joyce for the novel. Artists have been making such boasts since, probably, there has been Art. But, it seems, no more. Events in the 20th century combined to take the wind out of art's sails, to the point that when Julian Schnabel went around in the '80s saying things like, "I'm the closest thing to Picasso that you'll see in this *#@ life," people got upset not because it wasn't true (and it wasn't/isn't) but because, well, How dare any artist be so declarative of his worth?

At least he wasn't making any declarations about Art's importance! How gauche that would have been.

But some contemporary artists understand--and argue for--Art's importance in the face of our culture's existential abyss. David Foster Wallace does, or did, as I noted here on the occasion of his death almost (already?) a year ago. Poets and musicians speak to this all the time as well. But do visual artists speak these days in more or other than purely conceptual terms about what they are trying to accomplish via their art?

Do they ever speak of the work of Art?


Anonymous said...

Wow, that got deep quick.
I waded into it and ended up being in over my head.
I've never thought about the philosophy of artwork too much.

I try not to over-think it.

Once I asked Wayne Wildcat about the meaning of one of his pieces.
His reply was that the meaning was up to me. "I paint, you look." were his exact words.
He also added "If you feel different after looking then I've accomplished what I wanted!"

John B. said...

Thanks for commenting.

I think that all I'm trying to say that Art should do--its work--is, in essence, what Wildcat is saying. Art should make you feel something, first and foremost; and, whatever else Great Art does, it should also engage the intellect. Facts, rationality, as valuable as those things are, do not by themselves fully explain the world, much less our response(s) to it. We need something else to do that work--and that, as Nietzsche and Wallace (and Wildcat) each suggest in his own way, is Art.

Here's something I've been thinking about since I wrote this post: The painter Paul Klee once said that the more terrible the world becomes, the more abstract art becomes. I don't know for sure, but I suspect he was speaking specifically of the visual arts. Does the move toward the non-representational in the 20th century suggest a kind of withdrawal of the visual arts from engaging the world, such that we're left with what Perl describes as art that's had its emotion conceptualized out of it? I don't know--I'm asking questions I genuinely don't know the answers to.

Ben Gage said...

I like your last question, art has became a generic word: small a, the artist now is a relative term and acts in the present tense. Your notion of ART, encompassing all in the single piece is exactly what's needed now, and is a worthy challenge for this century. It's about time people talk about it.