Category: Aesthetics


In Defense of Art

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Non-Objective Painting, 1919.  Oil on canvas.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Non-Objective Painting, 1919. Oil on canvas.

I’ve seen an image circulating online lately showing a painting from 1907 saying the artist was rejected from art school, then one from 2012 that won a prize. The implication being that the rejected art from 1907 is better than the prizewinning art from 2012. Things like this annoy me. It’s perfectly fine to have personal preferences when it comes to art and what you find enjoyable. But it really bothers me when people say something isn’t good, or isn’t art just because they don’t like it.

Art, and the goals of art, is constantly changing. During the Renaissance they were focused on mastering perspective and capturing the world as true to life as they could because that was the only way they had to record visually what was around them. And it was made possible by the new scientific thinking of the age. Once perspective had been mastered, artists could move on to other projects, like the Impressionists working to capture light. After photography came around paintings did not need to be so true-to-life because there were photographs for that now. Some art worked on questioning what constituted art (Dada for example); some deconstructed art to try and take it down to its bare essentials. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of Modern art, but I still appreciate it for what it is.

There’s also the fact that all major art movements have been influenced by the political and social environment they arose from. So perhaps if you don’t like the art, instead of just calling it bad you should take a look at the world around it. Question why you don’t like it instead of just making a snap judgment based on how it looks. Obviously a large part of art is to make you feel, question, and think. Some of it is meant to be unappealing on purpose. That doesn’t mean it’s bad.

And yes, certainly there is a lot of bad art out there. I’m not going to deny that. My point is simply that just because you don’t like or understand something doesn’t mean it’s bad or not art. You can dislike something all you want, but to deny it its place in the art world is doing the piece and yourself a great disservice. Perhaps I sound a bit defensive. But you know what? I am. I’m defensive of art because it’s what I’ve spent the last few years of my life studying, and what I hope to spend my life working with. Art can be an incredibly subjective and emotional thing. And a lot can be learned about a culture or time by looking at its art. So it makes me sad when people make such snap judgments about art or discount it as unimportant. Just think of what a plain, boring place the man-made world would be without art.

1907v2012
(Yes, I realize another aspect of this is that the painting from 1907 is supposedly a painting Hitler did, and that opens a whole other can of worms. But really it was just the judgmental comparison of art from the early 1900s to contemporary art that got to me, since it’s not the first time I’ve seen or heard things like that. Also, it’s important to keep in mind, this was also painted in 1907).

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Since I know at least some of my readers make their way over here from my work on the Pizza Lab articles over on Pizza Clubhouse I decided to write some food related posts. I imagine coming here and seeing posts about art is rather disappointing after reading about and looking at pictures of delicious pizza. Hopefully this will be a nice compromise. I’ll start with a look at food in paintings.
A good place to find paintings of food is in Northern Baroque art. I’m not just saying that because it’s some of my favorite art – the Dutch are known for their genre paintings. In the North where the population was more dominantly Protestant, there wasn’t as much of a market for explicitly religious themed art as there was in places like Catholic Italy. Some genre paintings do still have certain subtle Christian iconography, but you have to know what you’re looking for. There are a lot of still lives of flowers, but there’s also a lot with food.

Meat Seller's Stall, Pieter Aertsen, 1551, oil on panel

Meat Seller’s Stall, Pieter Aertsen, 1551, oil on panel


A whole lot of food can be found in Pieter Aertsen’s painting Meat Seller’s Stall. The viewer is greeted with sausages, beef, pork, fowls, cheese, mussels, fish, and of course pretzels. To the modern eye some of this food may not be the most appealing – overall we’re not used to seeing the aces of the food we eat – but it’s still a wonderful painting. The food items are so detailed, you could pick out from the painting what you might want to buy for dinner.
Still-Life with Colander and Artichokes, Clara Peeters, 1613, oil on panel

Still-Life with Colander and Artichokes, Clara Peeters, 1613, oil on panel

Another painting that beautifully captures food is Still-Life with Colander and Artichokes by Clara Peeters. Unfortunately I could not find a good quality image to share, but you’ll have to take my word for it. It’s so detailed it could almost look like a photograph. You half expect the crabs to start sidling away.
Still Life with Parrots, Jan Davidsz de Heem, 1640-45, oil on canvas

Still Life with Parrots, Jan Davidsz de Heem, 1640-45, oil on canvas


In opposition to the everyday food found in the previous paintings, some painters depicted exotic, rare foods. This can be seen in paintings like Still Life with Parrots by Jan Davidsz de Heem. There are melons, citrus fruits, conch, lobster, shrimp, and more. The fancy tableware (which I’ll get to more in depth in another post) emphasizes the expensiveness of the scene, and the parrots emphasize the exotic nature of it all. It’s a beautiful scene meant to show wealth through the food afforded.
The Milkmaid, Jan Vermeer, 1658-60, oil on canvas

The Milkmaid, Jan Vermeer, 1658-60, oil on canvas


Food also makes appearances in paintings where it’s not the main star. This can be seen in paintings like Jan Vermeer’s painting The Milkmaid. The subject is most definitely the young girl pouring milk. However the bread in the foreground is rendered in just as much detail, and in fact is in more light than the girl is. The bread is not just a prop, it’s an important part of the scene.

So why was food such a popular subject? For one it was a challenge for painters to test their skills. You had to be a good painter to accurately depict all the different textures of food. Another reason is that food carries with it a lot of meaning culturally. As we’ve seen, certain foods could speak to a person’s wealth. Different foods also carry with them different connotations, so food allowed the painter to imbue a painting with meaning without it being overwhelmingly obvious. Plus, just in general food is appealing to people. Genre paintings were often not commissions, but rather painted and sold on the open market, so they needed subjects that would appeal to a wide audience. If you want people to buy your stuff, lure them in with food.

Art and Appropriation

The Dolce & Gabbana Fall 2013 collection got me thinking about ideas of art and appropriation. The collection was inspired by mosaics from the Monreale Cathedral in Palermo, Sicily. I always enjoy seeing people inspired by art for their own work. But does it lose something when taken from its original setting? Something like mosaics, for example the mosaics that inspired the Dolce & Gabbana collection, that are from a religious setting. Their original intent was likely to illustrate religious stories and inspire feelings of piety and awe. So what happens when the idea of these mosaics is translated into an entirely different medium, such as fashion? Obviously the meaning changes. In the case of simple inspiration I think this is a good thing. Looking at art and translating it into your own way doesn’t do any harm to the original, and indeed may give a new appreciation of it.

From the Fall 2013 Dolce & Gabbana collection

From the Fall 2013 Dolce & Gabbana collection


The problem arises when art is just plain ripped off, and exploited for commercial purposes. What happens to a work when someplace takes it and puts it on a shirt or umbrella? There’s no unique interpretation it just becomes another object for sale. And while most art is/was originally for sale, when the image is on a t-shirt or something it can be sold over and over and over again. Really comes down to what Walter Benjamin discusses in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I’m not sure if the original work necessarily has an aura that fades, but I do think that the more an image is reproduced the further it gets from its original meaning/intent. The more people seen an image the less special it becomes.
monalisaumbrella monetwaterliliestop
It’s also interesting when museums adopt a work of art as their mascot, so to speak. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has taken on the blue hippopotamus from ancient Egypt as a mascot of sorts. Certainly that changes the original meaning; it went from being a piece of a burial ceremony and representing one of the most dangerous animals these people had to deal with, to a happy, welcoming mascot of a large institution. The Mona Lisa is another example of a work that has taken on the identity of a museum in a way. It has become so associated with The Louvre that it’s hard to separate the two. And a painting that was done by an Italian painter has since become a symbol of France.
hippopotamus
I’m torn about how I feel about all of this. On the one hand, I hate seeing art being so displaced for purely commercial purposes. On the other hand I’m all about making art more accessible to people, and if putting it on a shirt or whatever brings awareness, and perhaps makes people interested in an artist or art, it’s not an entirely bad thing. I think overall people just need to be respectful of the original piece when taking it for use elsewhere. As always, I welcome others’ opinions.

Love and Beauty

In Bed: The Kiss, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1892

In Bed: The Kiss, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1892

As the greeting card, chocolate, and flower industries refused to let anyone forget, Valentine’s Day was last week. Actually having an enjoyable Valentine’s Day for the first time in probably ever got me thinking about the effects love might have on beauty and our perception of it. Love itself is an interesting concept since it’s a fairly fundamental aspect of human life, yet no one can really explain it well. What it means, and the varying types and degrees of love seem to vary widely from person to person. But I won’t be tackling love itself too much, just the effect it might have on aesthetics.
I suppose I’ll start with the obvious, which is that Kant would be having none of this. Something can’t be beautiful if love is involved because that would mean interest. And for there to be beauty there must be disinterest. Once interest is involved the best it can be is pleasant or good, not beautiful. Yet, and I think Kant may agree, love itself can be beautiful. If the beautiful is really more about a moment than an object then it seems to follow that a moment of love can be beautiful. Or maybe it’s just different. Actually, come to think of it, Kant probably wouldn’t agree, because in a moment of love there’s still interest, so it wouldn’t count. Kant seemed to be a bit of a stickler about that. I have the feeling he’d be outnumbered on this though. I think a lot of people would argue that love can be beautiful, and that things you love can be beautiful.
What about artwork which take on love as its subject? Do we tend to find these pieces more beautiful than others? Certainly I think some people are drawn more towards images of love, but I don’t think that necessarily makes those works more beautiful than others. There are plenty of pieces depicting hateful moments that are just as beautiful. Bernini’s The Rape of Proserpina is definitely not about love, the subject itself isn’t beautiful, but the way he was able to work the marble and make it look squishy like human flesh…that is beautiful. So maybe love doesn’t have that big of an impact on what art we find beautiful.

The Rape of Proserpina, Bernini, 1621-22, marble

detail of The Rape of Proserpina, Bernini, 1621-22, marble


Though there is another way love can affect the viewer. If someone is in love, are they more likely to find things beautiful? Obviously that’s an incredibly subjective question that I can’t reasonable find a real answer to. But I think it could. Generally when people are in love they’re happier and it’s easier to see the beauty in things when feeling good, as opposed to when sad (obviously you don’t have to be in love to be happy and you can be sad when in love, but you know what I mean). So while the beauty of a work may remain the same, people may be more likely to appreciate it when they’re in love.
Lastly there’s the effect of love on the artists themselves to take into consideration. Are artists who are in love more likely to create beautiful works? This is pretty much along eh same lines as the viewer in love question. If an artist is in love with his or her subject, what kind of impact does that have on the final piece? Is it more likely to be beautiful? Bringing Kant back into it, I wonder if pieces are more beautiful when the artist is disinterested in the subject than when in love with it. It’d be interesting to find out, though I’m not entirely sure how to go about doing so. There’s also the idea that an artist might be more inspired to create in general when in love, and especially to create beautiful things. Love can be a powerful inspiration. Of course you don’t have to be in love to create beautiful things; many beautiful pieces have been born from misery.
It seems the best I can do is barely scratch the surface of this topic. I welcome any other thoughts on the subject though, and perhaps I’ll revisit it at a later date.
Venus and Adonis, Rubens, early 1600s, oil on panel

Venus and Adonis, Rubens, early 1600s, oil on panel

It’s been almost two years since I first looked at the role of cute in aesthetics (where does the time go?). I think it’s about time to revisit the subject.
A good work that looks at this idea of cute is the book Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism by Daniel Harris. Harris makes it quite clear that in his opinion, cuteness has no relation to the attractive, but instead is more closely related to the grotesque. He feels that the grotesque is cute because it is pitiable, and it is pity that provokes our sympathy, making cute things desirable. For Harris cute has more to do with a quality something lacks than a quality it has. There’s a neediness to cute that we find touching and appealing as opposed to unsightly.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with Mr. Harris. Certainly there is an element of neediness involved in the cute. Little puppies and kittens are so cute because they can’t really fend for themselves yet. I think it’s more his use of the word “grotesque” in connection with cuteness that I object to. Yes, we’ve all seen things that are so ugly they’re cute. But that’s not the case with everything. The definition of grotesque according to dictionary.com is: “odd or unnatural in shape, appearance, or character; fantastically ugly or absurd; bizarre.” I suppose by this definition the cute does kind of fit. But “grotesque” generally has such negative connotations, while “cute” is generally seen as positive. But maybe that’s why Harris uses that word – to make us realize that the cute is not universally positive, especially when it is used as a ploy to get people to buy things they don’t really need.
One phrase from that definition of grotesque has really stuck out to me: “fantastically absurd.” To me this does seem almost directly related to cute. I mean how many times have you seen something cute and said or thought, “That is just ridiculously cute,” or something along those lines? In a way the cute really is fantastically absurd. There’s something about the cute that seems almost unreal, and I think that’s another way in which the cute appeals to us.

This is ridiculously cute.

This is ridiculously cute.


I think there is an interesting intersection between the cute and the grotesque currently occurring in some art and just in pop culture in general. Artists like Jordan Elise Perme and her Horrible Adorables capture this collaboration well.
Creature Twins by Jordan Perme.

Creature Twins by Jordan Perme.


It’s possible that this is a reaction against the past. An example Harris discusses in his book is how throughout the 20th century the teddy bear progressively became less bear-like (original teddy bears were based on taxidermic specimens) and more moon-faced and plump, which made them more inviting and huggable. But this turn away from realism in animals can be found other places as well. For example Mickey Mouse has become less mouse-like than his original iteration. But there does seem to be a turn away from this phenomenon these days. An example of this is the new design of Chuck E. Cheese that occurred last year. The old Chuck E. Cheese was similar to Mickey Mouse in that he hardly looked like the animal he’s supposed to be. This new Chuck E. Cheese is definitely much more rodent-like.
chucke5f-1-web
I suppose whether or not cute belongs in aesthetics could be up for debate. But this almost simultaneous popularity of cute and the turning away from it seems important and worth a closer examination. The cute should not just be dismissed.

Do I Know You?

In my Material Culture class the other day we were discussing the importance of the artist’s biography in traditional art history studies, why we should (or shouldn’t) care about that information, and why that doesn’t seem to be the case for creators of the decorative arts.  The whole thing got me thinking about identity in art.  Personally I think the artist’s biography can be important, depending on what it is you want to learn from the piece (I include decorative arts objects as well).  No matter how hard you try, your life has impacted who you are and what you do, so it’s nearly impossible for it not to have some influence on your work.  But how much does knowing this background affect one’s understanding of a piece?  The artist has left a piece of him-or herself on the canvas (or in the sculpture, photo, chair, whatever medium of choice), so it shouldn’t be ignored.  It’s an important part of what makes the piece what it is.  However, it also shouldn’t be fetishized and become the main focus at the expense of all else, which has been the case for some old-school art historians.

On the flip side, I think the biography of the audience can be just as important as that of the artist.  The history of the artist is important in understanding the creation of a piece, but the history of the audience is important in understanding the piece’s initial and continuing relevance.  I think perhaps this is even truer in the decorative arts, where the pieces may not have a distinct subject to study.

Overall I think it really is a two-way street – art can tell us a lot about the people who created and bought it, but the people who created and bought it can also tell us a lot about the art.  Not artist or work of art is created in a vacuum, and it’s important to take all the outside influences into consideration when studying such things.

I’d be interested to hear from any artists reading this their opinion on the idea.  How much do you feel your biography influences or is necessary to the understanding of your work?

Art, Truth, and History

            I know I’ve touched on ideas of art and truth before, but it’s something I frequently find myself returning to.  I suppose as someone who’s read “The Origin of the Work of Art” three times now it’s fairly well ingrained in my mind.  This time I’ve been thinking about history paintings and truth.  History paintings were a huge source of commissions for artists for a long time.  Yet for many of the subjects being depicted the artist was not present or even alive at the time. So how can these pieces contain the truth?

            Indeed it seems almost impossible for these paintings to contain the truth.  They were created by people who weren’t even there and often commissioned by people who planned to use the piece in some way to promote their own personal and/or political agenda.  Doesn’t sound like there’s much truth there.  I think the key lies in the difference between “truthful” and “the truth.” So yes, many of these paintings are not “truthful.”  They may represent people and events that actually existed/occurred, but the scene itself is the invention of the artist’s imagination.

            But this does not mean that the painting doesn’t still contain “the truth.”  A good history painting, while perhaps not historically accurate, should still capture the spirit and essence of the time/scene/event it is representing.  And it is there in which the truth lay.  Did Washington really look like that crossing the Delaware?  Probably not.  But does the painting capture the spirit of the American Revolution?  Absolutely.  There’s an essence to that painting that captures the truth of the time.  It is not truthful, yet it still contains the truth.

            The danger arises (and I suppose I’m getting a bit Platonic here) when people take these pieces as historical fact.  The truth of the spirit gets confused for the truth of the scene/historical accuracy.  Appreciate art for capturing the truth of its time.  But don’t assume the piece is truthful.  It seems that far too few people really know/understand how much and for how long art has been used as personal and political propaganda.  Even when not intended as propaganda, as long as it’s being produced by a human being, every piece of art carries with it some kind of bias.  And it’s so important to remember that when looking at art.  Not that these biases necessarily take away from the truth the piece may contain, in fact it may even add to it.  But it can effect and possible take away from the truthfulness. 

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851, oil on canvas.

“Almost done with this painting?  I’ve got places to be!”

         

Talking Trudeau - Nixon - (Part 1:Tapestry Triptych (Left Section)). Helena Hernmarck, 1969

              Last week I visited the exhibit Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design at the Museum of Art and Design for one of my classes and it got me thinking about the whole art vs. craft thing again.  This exhibit is perfect for revisiting this issue.  The first floor of the exhibit deals mainly with the designer craftsman and pieces that emphasize a handmade aesthetic.  The second floor focuses on artists who really blur the line between art and craft.  It was really nice seeing pieces like this in a gallery setting.  I really loved all the textiles.  They have a lot of hand woven pieces there and you can really get a sense of the texture and fibers involved.  There’s also a bunch of gorgeous jewelry and interesting furniture.  A lot of the pieces do blur the line between art and craft.  One of the curators who gave us a tour said how she really had to fight tooth and nail to even have the word “craft” in the title of the show because some head people were concerned that people wouldn’t want to come see an exhibit of craft.  This makes me sad.  First because I believe craft deserves its place in the gallery setting but also because it shows that they clearly aren’t in touch with the growing handmade/craft movement that’s resurging.  I think there are plenty of people who’d want to see a handmade/craft exhibit; maybe not at the Met or MoMA, but certainly at a place dedicated to design and even started out as a craft museum.  It’s clear that at least some artists embrace craft and I think it’s time the art/gallery world did as well.

For more information on the exhibit and images from it visit http://collections.madmuseum.org/code/emuseum.asp?style=browse&currentrecord=1&page=search&profile=exhibitions&searchdesc=Current%20Exhibitions&searchstring=Current/,/greater%20than/,/0/,/false/,/true&action=advsearch&style=single&currentrecord=1

Mosaic Table, Lee Krasner, 1947

Art and Nostalgia

          

Little White Doggies printed by Currier & Ives

            The other night I was watching a show about Currier & Ives.  Currier and Ives are probably the most well known printmakers ever; certainly of their time.  I was first kind of introduced to Currier & Ives at my internship last year.  We had some of their prints in the exhibit so I got to research them and find their connection to the theme of the exhibit.  I love prints, and the ones produced by Currier & Ives are no exception.  On the TV show someone mentioned that part of the reason their prints are so popular is because they carry with them nostalgia for America’s past.  It made me realize that a lot of the art I like is nostalgia driven.

            I love vintage advertising; I love old prints like Currier & Ives…I even like old music.  It makes me wonder how much influence nostalgia has on our tastes.  As for the old music, I know I like it at least partially because it reminds me of my grandparents.  But as for the art I’m not sure if it’s nostalgia that makes me like these things, since they were all from long before I was born, and I can’t think of a direct connection to my past.  Maybe it’s just an appreciation for the aesthetic of the time.  But I think nostalgia does drive our tastes at least some of the time.  I think we like the comfort of being surrounded by things that remind us of our youth.  Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone.  But I think a lot of times we find ourselves drawn to things and not really know why.  And I think if you looked a bit closer you’d realize it’s because it reminds you of something from your past.  Be it an event, emotion, person or object – something.  Nostalgia can be a powerful beast. 

The Roadside Mill printed by Currier & Ives

The Squick Factor

A couple of weeks ago I saw a post on Tom and Lorenzo about jewelry made from human hair (http://www.tomandlorenzo.com/2011/07/kerry-howley-jewelry-collection.html).  I immediately had two very different reactions.  On the one hand I wanted to look closely at them because they seemed to delicate and intricate; and on the other I wanted to close the window and shudder because the thought of wearing human hair was so icky.  There was no denying the necklaces had their own type of beauty.  But there’s also no denying the squick factor.

One of the hair necklaces created by Kerry Howley

            So why is it so gross to think about wearing human hair?  We wear other animals’ hair all the time.  Even their skin if you wear leather.  And that’s fine.  So why no human hair?  You might be able to convince me to wear something made of my own hair, but certainly not someone else’s.  I spin animal fibers all the time, but I can’t imagine spinning human hair.  I’m not sure it’d spin up that well anyway though.  It’d probably have to be blended with another fiber.  But I digress.  People wear wigs and toupees made out of human hair and that’s fine too.  Maybe because it’s on a head where hair belongs.  Or there’s still that layer of netting or whatever between their head and the foreign hair.  I dunno.  I guess it’s because we view ourselves as so much better than animals that it’s ok to wear things made of animal parts but not human.  Even though personally I don’t agree with the wearing of real fur, the thought of wearing a fur coat still doesn’t evoke the same icky feeling as wearing a hair necklace. 

            This whole thing also got me thinking about the beauty of the gross.  There are certain things that while icky, are also somehow beautiful.  There are some things that you just can’t seem to stop looking at, even if they are kind of gross (and not just in a train wreck way).  I can think of a lot of examples of art that fit into this category.  Strangely a lot of it is religious art.  There are many Northern paintings of Jesus after his death that are really rather disgusting in their realism, yet the pieces are still beautiful.  There are also a number of various beheading scenes with blood dripping or squirting out of necks and throats.  I’m not sure if in this case the religious aspect of the works sort of negates the gross, or if it just shows that gross and beautiful are not mutually exclusive.

An example of religious squick - Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes

            Certainly there are certain things that are just plain gross and always will be.  But some things are gross in an interesting way, and even some in a beautiful way.