Tag Archive: history

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.

(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).



I’ve decided to start a new series of posts here on my blog.  It’s called, “Why Everything You’ve Ever Loved is Terrible” (or WEYELT in the tags).  These posts are more Pop Culture inspired than aesthetics inspired.  That doesn’t mean that aesthetics doesn’t play a role though.  In fact I think there’s a real give and take relationship between pop culture and aesthetics.  Pop culture is made up of images, which means aesthetic theories can be applied to them.  In turn, it seems a bit naïve to think that the pop culture of the time had no influence on these philosophers’ theories of aesthetics.

I supposed before I get started I should just clarify what I mean by Popular Culture.  While there are numerous definitions of what pop culture is, many of which make a distinction between high culture and pop culture, for me pop culture is simply culture that is popular.  I make no judgments of quality.

On with the show!



Since Christmas is only a few days away, I decided to use it as the start of this series.  Though Christmas isn’t terrible per se, especially if you embrace is for what it really is.  I suppose the alternate title for this is really, “Why People Who Complain that Christmas has Gotten Too Commercial are Idiots.”  But that doesn’t really roll off the tongue.  Anyway, those readers who know me probably know that this semester I wrote a paper about Hallmark Christmas ornaments (and now everyone else is caught up), and it’s the research for that paper that’s inspired this post.

The Christmas that we think of and celebrate today (in America) is largely influenced by the “traditional” English Christmas, which was invented in the mid-1800s.  The Victorians were great at inventing traditions and making it seem like they had been around for centuries.  This version of Christmas has been commercial from its inception.

Theologically speaking, Christmas has never really been the big holiday.  Easter is really the more important one, since it celebrates Jesus’ resurrection, which is generally seen as being more significant.  We don’t even really know Christ’s actual birthday.  December 25th was chosen to compete with the various non-Christian winter festivities.  Before the Victorians Christmas wasn’t really a big deal, and often wasn’t celebrated at all.  So why did the Victorians reinvent the holiday?  It’s no coincidence that the holiday became popular only after the Industrial Revolution.  The Industrial Revolution brought with it the ability to make a lot of stuff.  And the new jobs brought a new class who had money and wanted to buy well, a lot of stuff.  All these changes also brought a nostalgia for simpler, better times (that never actually existed, by the way).  It was out of this nostalgia and looking for an excuse to buy things that the traditional Christmas was born.

Nearly every aspect of the new Christmas had consumerism at its base – Christmas cards, trees, buying gifts, even Christmas carols.  Essentially the traditional Christmas was a celebration of a new market economy, with a religious aspect tacked on to ease some guilt.  Does this mean Christmas is terrible?  No, not really.  Christmas can be a joyous time, a time of family and generosity.  It’s a time that many people look forward to all year, and not just for the free stuff.  And hey, if the holiday helps some people get more in touch with their religion/spirituality, that’s great too.  Just don’t go yelling about “keep Christ in Christmas” when from the beginning he’s barely been a part of it.

There’s also Santa. In America Santa Claus is a jolly old elf with a stomach like a bowl full of jelly. His past is a bit more sinister though. His ancestors were far more mean and way more into corporal punishment. If you were a child back in old Germany, Holland, and the like if you were bad, you didn’t get coal. You got a beating. Even the original Christmas trees had a judgment aspect to them, similar to that of St. Nicholas.

I won't even get into the fact that the most popular image of Santa was designed for Coca-Cola.

I won’t even get into the fact that the most popular image of Santa was designed for Coca-Cola.

If you find this topic interesting I recommend reading The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum, Christmas in America: A History by Penne L. Restad and/or Christmas, Ideology, and Popular Culture by Sheila Whitely.

Or if you want to yell at me for being a blasphemous heathen, I also recommend reading those books.

And if you need another reason Christmas can be terrible, make sure to check out the Weird Fetish of the Day over at Pizza Clubhouse.

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!”