Sunday, January 02, 2011

Art or Not

In this first post of the year, I want to respond to two recent conversations about Art. I've been thinking of doing this for a while, but have not really planned what I'm going to say, because the subject is so overwhelming. I'm no expert, no scholar. But I want to discuss this here because I find myself unable to, in conversation; the only way I know how to think this out is by writing it.

Both conversations, basically, argue for Art that is easy — not easy to create, oh no, but easy to comprehend, to understand. In one, the person making the claim said that what Jackson Pollock did is not Art. In the second conversation (we were talking about the pretensions of much of the art world and of a fun movie called "(Untitled)" that pokes fun at those pretensions) the claim was made that what Andy Warhol did is not Art. [Sidenote: for Robert Thomas's take on this subject and comparisons with poetry and its pretensions, see his post on an earlier incarnation of this blog at]

I am, for the sake of this post, including, in my definition of Art, poetry and other literary genres, music, dance, photography, film, and so forth. It is my opinion that Art is nurtured in the thin air of the mountain at the tree line. Below this line, all the trees are green; the Art that everyone likes grows here. And above, the air is so thin that maybe only the gallery owners, the publishers, the gatekeepers asseverate that Art can live there. But at the tree line, well, it's where the strange twisted thoughts take root, some to live and some to perish. Beethoven's work was once considered abominable. The Impressionists, with their lovely light-enfused happily mass produced canvasses that are now dwell over the couch in your in-laws' living room — they were once considered ugly and strange, Not Art.

But I think by the time that piece is selected to match the color scheme of the in-laws' couch and walls, it's gone from Not Art through Art and back to Not Art again. It's pretty. It's decorative. It doesn't bother anyone. It's not Art.

Roberta Smith, discussing her favorite paintings in the NY Times the other day (December 30, 2010) said it well: "Paintings, like poetry or music, are essential nutrients that help people sustain healthy lives. They’re not recreational pleasures or sidelines. They are tools that help us grasp the diversity of the world and its history, and explore the emotional capacities with which we navigate that world. They illuminate, they humble, they nurture, they inspire. They teach us to use our eyes and to know ourselves by knowing others." Well, I agree with this. I agree with Picasso who said (paraphrased)  that the artist must rouse you from your waking sleep.

It's the same with poetry, with music. I do not get quite a lot, most, in fact, contemporary classical music or, on the other end of the spectrum, the work that's called hip-hop. But I know it can be Art. Does that mean I have to like it or listen to it? Or, in the case of poetry, practice Erasures or Flarf? As Matisse said (paraphrased) that is a country where I cannot go. But all the same, it is there.

Do you trust your emotions? If it brings a tear, does that tell you it's the real thing? You're better than I, then, because the Olympic torch brings a tear to my eye and a lump to the throat. That doesn't make it Art. 

I guess I'm willing to give the artist the benefit of the doubt. I know that that which grows on the tree line may be, eventually, the classic, the piece that will make someone nod and know, finally see or hear or understand. The Emperor's new clothes? Perhaps. But there is a difference between being close minded and being sheep. 

I will have my opinions. But I know I've learned to like — to love — what I once turned my nose up at before.

BTW, I hope to get some comments here. Let's have a conversation!


Robert said...

Hey, I'm the one whose favorite book is Finnegans Wake. Since when am I someone who argues that art should be easy? Okay, it is true that I've been heard to say, "Andy Warhol, you're no James Joyce." :~)

Diane K. Martin said...

Maybe easy isn't what was said, and I don't mean it as taking an easy way out. I just mean that it's not easy to see what is "artistic" about Warhol's accomplishments.

Anonymous said...

Hi Diane!
I liked this post. It made me think about how I think about film as art vs. entertainment. My definition is that entertainment reassures people about what they already believe, and art asks them to reconsider what they believe (without necessarily telling them what to believe, which then becomes politics.) I was interested by your tree line idea, but I'm suspicious about whether galleries and the rarified folks really get it right, either. I notice sometimes art galleries show stuff that I find incredibly cynical, because they view cynicism alone as being provocative. Maybe that's the real problem with Warhol, too...
Rachel (your niece)

Diane K. Martin said...

Hi Rachel!

No, I didn't mean to imply that the galleries and other gatekeepers necessarily had the key, the answers to what is art or not. I really don't understand, quite often, why something is published, displayed, portrayed as art. And I don't think that being provocative is all it takes. Not all that is provocative is art! I do think that Warhol, as an insider in the commercial realm, took on that which he knew, the gods of the day, like Campbell's soup … And it was interesting and changed the way people saw the world. And remember, we're used to that kind (Warhol's kind) of cynicism now, but it was new then.

BTW, you may be interested in John's FB post about a disturbing photography show he saw recently. Your cousin commented as well. Here's the link:


Beverly said...

Art needs to make you feel more alive. That might not involve understanding. With poetry it mostly (but not always) does for me, with contemporary music it mostly doesn't. I don't "get" it per se but it the aliveness is there.

Diane K. Martin said...

Beverly, I like your take, though I'm not sure all art does that. I think the idea of art making you feel alive is a lot like Picasso's idea that art shakes you from your waking sleep.