The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.
-John Adams, in a letter to Abigail Adams (May 12, 1780)
I love art history. I love looking at art, talking about art, learning about the lives of the artists who make art, and forming opinions about art.
And though my next statement may surprise you, I’m plowing ahead with it anyway: Somewhere along the way I learned to discriminate between Art and art.
Of course, such distinctions are considered passé at best and elitist at worst. To complicate the issue, we must also acknowledge that the study of art history in America today has dispensed with the idea of teaching what has in the past been accepted as the canon of Western Art – the art of the Masters (Michelangelo, Rembrandt, etc.). Art history is now a global discipline, which in many ways is wonderful, as there is no end to the viewing of art from a seemingly endless array of cultures.
But there is a long and rich tradition of art that is unapologetically Western (European) in its formation, evolution, temperament, subject, philosophy and religion, and is singular in its far-reaching impact all over the world. As it remains globally influential, it is to this long and venerable tradition of art that I turn in discussing art in this lecture series.
Even so, it remains true that we all have our likes and our dislikes, and therefore the idea of Art is practically impossible to define. What is Art? Can anyone actually say?
I’m not sure there is an answer to that question, but I do know of one massive stumbling block that keeps us from discovering the answer. The problem is that we often develop our cultural and artistic tastes in reaction to our exposure – or overexposure – to what we see, hear, feel, taste and otherwise ingest on a daily basis.
Unfortunately for lovers of art – especially lovers of the history of Western art – pop cultural references to the great artists and art of the past are essentially absent from daily discourse in America. Even though we have more (and easier) access to the fine arts than ever before in this age of information, let me pose these questions to you to illustrate a point:
Who painted the Arena Chapel frescoes? When and where did Michelangelo live and work? What is the difference between the Pantheon and the Parthenon? Who is the Kritios Boy? What is so great about Picasso? What is revolutionary about the work of Masaccio? What is the subject of the Sistine Chapel? What is Carolingian Art? What is an illuminated manuscript? What is the difference between Romanesque and Gothic architecture?
Anyone can –with a little effort – learn the answers to all of these questions with just a few clicks of a mouse, or –for those who dare – in the pages of a book. But let me illustrate my point:
What are the Hunger Games? Name a celebrity who was recently arrested…gave birth…got divorced…went in and out of rehab…died…became a political activist. Who won the Super Bowl this year? The World Series? An Academy Award? Name a song by Taylor Swift…Luke Bryan…Alicia Keys…Wiz Khalifa. Name an American Idol. What is Call of Duty? Crossfit? Fifty Shades of Grey? Who is Sponge Bob? Uncle Si? Lady Gaga? What is Wicked Tuna? Game of Thrones?
Not that there’s anything wrong with sports and entertainment – to a point. But frankly, these days Americans are much more likely to look for Art in a Hollywood movie than in the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, or in a Youtube video rather than in the halls of MOMA or the Getty or the National Gallery.
We are more likely to think of Van Gogh as a ‘crazy’ artist who cut off his ear rather than as the artist who practically invented expressionist (personal) art. We might even believe that artists thousands of years ago made art because they needed to ‘express themselves,’ that artists are and always have been self-appointed visionaries and prophets who tell us where to go and what to do.
My point is this: Most of us understand the world around us in terms of Instagram, terrorism, fashion, music and movie trends, ESPN or Oprah, reality TV, the Internet, status updates, tweets, texting and body fat. This sounds critical, and in part it is. I’m not personally immune to this list,
even though I don’t tweet. Yet.
My take on it is this: I think that we are so intent upon living in the minute, in the now, that we can’t be bothered with the past, which doesn’t bode well for our future.
It’s not particularly your fault or mine, but rather it’s the Postmodernist mindset – the zeitgeist of this present age. So much of the past has either been forgotten, revised, rewritten, or flat-out ignored in the pursuit of our present-day agendas. We simply reduce the past to a handful of wars, some under-evolved brains, misguided zeal, superstition, ignorance, hatefulness… and a few great buildings that are nevertheless mostly in ruins.
Perhaps I exaggerate, but only to drive the point home. And the point is that we have neglected the rich cultural heritage of our past in pursuit of the many bad imitations that permeate the present. Postmodernism is nothing if not a recast of the past, evidenced in the recycling of not only our trash (a good thing) but our music, our clothes, movies, even the Bible (not a good thing)! We feel as if we must reform these things in order to make them relevant to our culture now.
But in doing so, we have essentially given up our claim to this glorious past that is Western art because it usually doesn’t suit our politics, our lifestyle, or our desires any longer. Who wants to read about some Dark Ages mosaic when we can [passively] watch The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit and get sort of the same thing? Don’t misunderstand me, the Tolkien library is elegant and grand, but as fiction, it should never serve as our exclusive peek into actual medieval cultures. Real history and real art dating to the Middle Ages are much better – and more inspiring to boot.
So, what about Art?
Why are Americans – not all, but in general – so uninformed about Art?
Without assigning blame, I’ll share my theory: Most Americans do not care for art because they do not know about art. This is especially true of art that has been produced prior to about 1960, with a very few exceptions.
Because the cultural attitude produced by the engineers of Postmodernist thought promotes the view that the past is irrelevant, it is also seen as unworthy of study unless it is ‘scientific’ (an altogether murky but authoritative term) or ‘culturally relevant’ (non-Western.) Therefore, most people do not care for art because they do not know about it or understand it. And many artists working today will tell you that even they don’t always understand their own art because the interpretation is always left up to the viewer!
Some few years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts published “The 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.” Page 8 of this report states that only about a quarter of the adult population in America visited an art gallery or museum at least once in a twelve-month period.
Last year, the NEA published “How a Nation Engages with Art: Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA).” On page 20, the report finds that this number has decreased since 2002 – from 26.5% to 21%.
This is amazing, considering that the admission for many American art museums and galleries is free.
But what might be more incriminating – and embarrassing for us all as Americans – is a tiny little statistic on page 31: only 7.9% of Americans downloaded or viewed visual arts such as painting, sculpture, graphic design, or photography in the course of a year.
And yet 35% of all Internet downloads are pornographic. Consider also that in 2006, Americans spent about 13.33 billion dollars on pornography alone. The Huffington Post tells us that the “Internet is for porn…porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined.”
Take a deep breath. Is your brain getting all this?
We simply do not appreciate art the way that we appreciate pornography.
Here’s another controversial statement that you may disagree with but is nonetheless the crux of the problem: Rather than finding ways to keep the public interested in art and its history, we’ve simply broadened the parameters of what passes for Art, hoping to use popular culture to entice people into learning more about Art.
But it’s backfired on us. Instead of generating more interest in the fine arts, we’ve simply labeled everything Art so we can all feel like we (or at least our children) are knowledgeable about Art.
And while we can trace the intellectual arguments of art for art’s sake, the pivotal role of artists like Marcel Duchamp in the early 20th century, and the idea of art as personal expression, the truth is that we collectively nod our heads, assume an air of sophistication, and lazily rationalize that if the artist says it’s Art, then it must be Art.
There are relatively few works of art that make it to the pages of textbooks, to the spaces in museums and galleries, and onto the coffee cups and calendars in chic little boutiques in Paris and Rome, New York and South Beach. But that is changing within our culture even as you read this commentary.
In recent times, there has been a movement (centered in our educational institutions) that is chipping away at this traditional view of art because judgment is somehow seen as unfair. This new movement even views it as ‘wrong’ to value one artist’s work over another’s.
But for some reason, Vincent Van Gogh’s works still fetch more dollars than Aunt Mildred’s watercolors. For the same reason, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural wonders appraise higher than my own little house in the rural South.
Then consider that the hedge fund guys, a handful of celebrities and other Anonymous Bidders are spending millions of dollars on art created by Damien Hirst and British brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman.
But they are not spending it on art created by your local community’s watercolorist, portrait artist, or even your hometown college’s painting professor.
Yet we still insist that everyone makes Art. On a certain level, I quite agree. My children have drawn some terrific little images. Sure, it’s art. Are any of them artists? No.
Let me ask you this: How many times have you uttered, heard, or been taught some variation of the following:
Art is personal. It doesn’t have to make sense.
Art is like beauty; it is found in the eyes of the beholder.
What may be art to me may not be art to another person.
Art can be found anywhere. It has no real definition, no real meaning because art means so many different things to different people.
Well, my friends, while these ideas may make us feel good, and while they invite everyone to the party – a very democratic attitude, for certain – I must gently redirect you to an older idea, at least in defense of the great artists and art of the past.
We must once again judge for ourselves what Art is, and what it is not, based on a practical, working knowledge of Art’s history.
Now, keep in mind that there is not a thing wrong with determining what sort of art we enjoy – some of us prefer abstract art, some prefer photography, and some might like computer-generated graphic art.
But how can we judge what’s being passed off as art today if we don’t have a foundation in the tradition of Art? Doesn’t the very word itself become meaningless if we can’t all agree on a standard canon?
I believe that the time is past due for all of us to throw off the chains of mediocrity, intellectual laziness, and commercialism, and challenge the status quo in the world of Art – which is anything goes.
Whether we are educators, moms or dads, busy executives, coal miners, healthcare providers, clergy, soldiers, retirees, students, firemen, policemen or anything else in between, we need to learn how to discriminate between Art and art.
So, what is Art? How can a person move from self-proclaimed artist to Artist, or is this even an issue anymore? And is it Art just because the hedge fund guys are buying it?
These are big questions – and I challenge you to ponder them in all seriousness, to consider what you really think about Art.
If you want a satisfactory answer to the question “What is Art?” then you must become more familiar with that which came before you.
After all, if you want to learn how to play a musical instrument professionally, you first have to learn how to handle your instrument, read music, and practice, practice, practice! And if you want to play professional golf (or baseball…or football, etc.), you first need to learn how to handle your clubs (or glove…or football, etc.), understand the rules of the game, and practice…again and again and again.
And if you want to know what Art is, then you must start your investigation somewhere. If you are up for the challenge, we shall start at the beginning.