Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Universal Art?

There are some works of art that stupid people will never understand because they weren't made for stupid people. And there are a lot of stupid people. Why should anyone assume that any work of art can be reduced to the level of comprehension of a contemporary eight-year-old?
- Robert Hughes (from this interview)

Paula Rego, Girl Lifting Up Her Skirt to a Dog

Many consider Hughes the best art critic in the world. This is his most famous and witty book about contemporary art:

In the preface, he asks: "What has our culture lost in 1980 that the avant garde had in 1890?"
And answers: "Ebullience, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore, and above all, the sense that art, in the most disinterested and noble way, could find the necessary metaphors by which a radically changing culture could be explained to its inhabitants."

The thought is impressive. It inspires to lift one's butt and find those necessary metaphors.
But I have some doubts. The idea that art should "find metaphors", and that they are to be the "necessary metaphors", seems both scary, and distant from a modernist perspective. Conveniently, Hughes gives the example of the Eiffel Tower, which was not, however, your typical artistic enterprize of the time. Of course, today we might see it as such, but putting it as a prototype of a work of art of that era it is a projection of our today's perspective.
Doubt #2: The Van Goghs and Gaugins, and even the futurists, were not quite the "culture". They were clearly the avant garde. And with this noble classification came a marginal social status. Thus, we cannot compare today's culture to yesterday's avant garde. Those are simply different worlds. The question might be - do we still have an avant garde? Well, did the average art lover of the 1890's know what was the true, valuable avant garde (as seen by us today)? Of course, we are not just your average art lovers. We are - us. And so we know.
Does an avant garde still have any sense? Or is art so institutionalized it's impossible to see it as this fresh, new force?
I am deeply convinced that avant gardes still exist, as always, in plural, and as always, difficult to see, maybe not as much for aesthetic, as for political reasons. The avant gardes that have prevailed (that we know) seem to be those that have been taken up by some political/social movement. And those movements are yet to come. Today's social currents pick up yesterday's avant gardes and turn them into what we know - starry starry nights and eiffel towers.


Anonymous said...

We take as axiomatic an immense background knowledge in a discipline like chemistry, for instance, where someone who has not studied or done extensive research could never understand the elements involved.

But not in art. The commoner should approach any artwork and just "get it" and have a deep emotional response after a few moments of reflection. How passe. And I offer mighty broad brushstrokes in this post I might add. Disregard!

vvoi said...

I agree with the first part... but am afraid I don't quite follow the second part :"And I offer mighty broad brushstrokes in this post I might add. Disregard!" - Please explain...

Hungry Hyaena said...

Excellent post, Vvoi.

I agree that plenty of avant garde artists are working today - though I don't always view the avant garde positively - and that your distinction between accepted/recognized cultural trends and the avant garde is accurate. We don't yet know the contemporary avant garde. We have to wait and see.

I do feel, unfortunately, that the Art World, as it continues to become more specialized and insular has, in effect, marginalized the social import of the work produced, even by the most "important" artists (whether or not we know who they are just yet). I wonder if time will manage to sort out today's avant garde artists or if pluralism will remain the buzz word of the era.

Anonymous said...

VVOI, Sorry to be somewhat flippant in my comment, which is how I saw my thoughts in the second part soon after writing them. I don't hold that the commoner [IE, someone without a background in art history/contemporary art] universally minimizes the potential difficulties in art, but this does seem to be rather rampant at times, particularly when a work has a controversial bent and is also funded by public monies. I'm recalling Giuliani at the moment, and it may be saturating my reflections on the whole populace of folks who have not studied art, which I should not do as some numbers of these individuals are open to engaging the complexities involved, whether or not offensiveness is an element that a work may use.

Merkur* said...

Hi there,
interesting thought, and the more so because of the experiment I am running in flickr in a group called "Universal Art in BW"

In the beginning I had given the power to over 600 people to remove pictures that they thought might not be art. Unimaginable how some ingenious pictures were being removed within minutes. What I found then is that waht could be universal is the hunger of people to destroy and the feeling of envy and lack of respect and understanding for subtle efforts to create art - especially new ideas that go against the main stream.

In the end I changed the policy. Now the power to remove from the group is given only to those who have had their picure in the pool for a certain period of time (currently set at 6 days). This way only those who can create art can judge and have the power to decide about the non-art. It is working not so bad. We could have the 8 year old there who may eventually decide what is art or what not, but they first have to prove themselves with passing the test of their own art. After all Mozart wrote his first pieces at age of 5.
Maybe this all sounds too complicated, but I urge you to visit the two groups and you will understand. :)
"Is your art universal ?
Where you submit any kind of photo:

"Universal Art ..."
Where you are invited to submit only if for 6 days no one removed your photo from the pool -


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