Monday, April 14

Understanding art

While covering the new art exhibition at Gonzaga for the student newspaper, something fascinating happened to me. I had the opportunity to ask an artist whether my understanding of their work was right. Okay, I can think of things far more fascinating, especially for the bulk of any audience I might have attracted, but for a guy who has been bothered for some time now by questions of whether priority in artistic interpretation lies in the artist or audience, this is a big deal. Trust me.

To cut to the short of it and avoid the extensive narrative of multiple attempts to make contact with Ms. Ingalls, a tale replete with wrong phone numbers and conflicting schedules, my interpretation of her exhibit was right. She was celebrating everyday life in her paintings of domestic spaces and stovetops. Eggs on the stove? A bathroom several times removed from those found in Home & Garden? All common and beautiful and worthy of our attention. How much of that interpretation was purely mine is debatable as I did interview the museum's assistant curator and read the associated tri-fold first, but, when I asked whether she would agree with my interpretation, her agreement was enthusiastic. I must say, it is kind of a heady feeling to not merely believe but know you get it.

But then that feeling kind of fades. After all, part of the fun in art is arguing to the point of broken friendships whether the artist is offering a message of hope or despair, being satirical or serious. Debates revolving around art, unlike those on physics or political science or anything with numbers really, retain a good deal of subjectivity. When the majority of evidence is drawn from only your own opinions and experiences, no research or history necessary, anyone can play the expert, but if the artist goes ahead and judges which one of you is right, that all kind of falls apart unless you honestly feel like telling the artist they had no idea what they were actually creating. What's left then besides analyses of technique, placement in some historical context and relationship to other works by other artists, topics not so readily approached by lay folk because they actually require some level of knowledge?

A fair bit, I think. There are the piece's emotional effects and style of representation or lack thereof. It seems arrogant, too, to leave the analysis at such a broad level. Even if the artist's theory never develops a single iota in some new direction, every piece approaches it in a unique way that bears a little reflection. Okay, so these are all celebrations of the common and everyday. How is she demonstrating that in this glance of a friend's living room?

Art, in the words of my design professor, is not all about the message. Otherwise it would be an editorial. This should be a no brainer. There is this whole aesthetic component after all. Obviously though, I had problems with it, and I think others may as well. I blame abstract modern art, the sorts of works which first cause the audience to question what exactly they are seeing before any other response rises in their minds. When we are distracted by attempts to figure out who exactly is doing what to whom, questions of whether we even like the piece or not tend to take a backseat or shift quickly to the latter due to unnecessary complexity.

Art is meant to be enjoyed as much as it to be understood. I just needed a reminder of that and maybe some others do to.

Granted, this little bit of analysis all comes from a guy who has not yet gone back to the original exhibit.

1 comment:

Emmett said...

There are two schools of thought that I've encountered in recent history. There's the school of Barthes, which says that writers (artists, whatever) are merely transposing the signs which exist in their world; therefore, the writer has no say on what the message in fact is: only the readers do when they interpret it. The other is the school of Sartre, who insisted that writing is purely a stimulus to action. Broadly speaking, the writer is freeing people from their closely held beliefs.

You might argue that neither of these cases takes into account that aesthetic sense, the part of the work which we enjoy. But in a way they do; the aesthetic is what allows the message to be effective. In other words, it's not so much the case that there are two sides to a piece of art, the aesthetic and the rational, but that the two modes are simultaneous, with the rational content being based on and supported by the aesthetic.

A reader (or viewer) can still decide to focus on on just one part. Beautiful landscapes do not hold much rational content, but they're still beautiful. And there are many books which try very hard to bring across a specific and important message but are hindered by bad writing. And if much contemporary, abstract, shock art has forgotten that it still needs the aesthetic part to get across its message, it will suffer a similar fate.