The history of modern art is also the history of the progressive loss of art’s audience. Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public.
– Paul Gauguin (French painter, 1848 –1903)
WHENCE, WHAT, WHITHER?
In 1897, shortly before he attempted to take his own life with a big dose of arsenic, the French painter Paul Gauguin (1848 –1903) completed what many identify as his masterpiece, a large oil painting he titled Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? In this work, Gauguin invites the viewer to consider his personal understanding of these universal questions. And while Gauguin does not seem to arrive at any clear-cut answers, we might learn from his attempt to at least ask them.
If we do think about the meaning of life, and share what we think with those closest to us, it is still true that most experts agree that our current society lacks even basic proficiency in knowledge of the humanities, which generally deal with these basic human questions. In short, we have no idea what to think because many of us have never thought about it, and did not receive ‘training’ in this area as children.
We are all underexposed to the humanities in general, and even though the disciplines that comprise the humanities are the same, the content of and concepts in the humanities have drastically changed in the last century. Anything delightful or simplistic or just plain pleasurable about observing a work of art, listening to a symphony, reading a poem, or watching a play is now more often than not a useless exercise in deconstruction, reduction, and intellectual consumption. Just ask any typical college student taking a freshman humanities course: The status quo in academic circles defaults to the overbearing and empty practice of defining the humanities in terms of Self, blindly confusing what Polonius said (“to thine own self be true”) with the more palatable practice of interpreting the world around us on our own individual terms (“only you can define meaning and truth for yourself”).
Even museums nowadays miss the point in teaching our children to revere, enjoy and wonder at the visual arts. Almost every major museum has a children’s area, as if a child couldn’t possibly enjoy walking quietly through a gallery, looking at the bright colors of a Kandinsky, the precise line of a Barnett Newman, the photographic quality of a Vermeer. Instead, we hustle them off to the interactive gallery where they can scream, run, throw paint, and use a mouse to draw a cute little balloon on a computer screen. And we wonder why the humanities disciplines are under-funded, shrinking, and largely ineffective.
In recent years, some observers of contemporary culture have given voice to the growing concern in academia that students are choosing to disengage from the study of art and humanities. They disengage not out of anger (because they disagree with their teacher’s opinions and values) or dislike (because they prefer poetry to opera) but out of boredom and a lack of interest in any of the humanities. I would personally add “lack of knowledge” to this list – how can anyone learn to appreciate art, or poetry, or a symphony, when most people are preoccupied with issues like health, wealth and stealth?
This all translates into the devaluation of the artist, the writer, the composer, the poet, and the subsequent elevation of the individual receiver of the art form. We are left with valuing the art form based exclusively on the receiver’s interpretation – and ascribed meaning. Any intent on behalf of the artist is irrelevant, which is at least known to the living artist but catastrophic if one is dead. What defenses do the dead have against such blatant self-interest? How do we perceive Gauguin and his cry for meaning now? Let’s be realistic! He tried to kill himself because of his despair – an attempt to self-destruct that is not rare for artists of the later 19th and 20th centuries. How can we ignore their visual lamentations in exchange for our own temporal feelings?
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with possessing and even teaching our opinions about art, we must all be able to articulate these viewpoints using the art form as the starting point – not the self. If we as individuals define the arts from a purely solipsistic perspective, then what is the point of even teaching the humanities? How can we know not only how to teach, but what to teach? This is our problem.
In an online essay called Crisis in the Humanities, scholar Marjorie Perloff argues, “…what is urgently needed in the “Humanities” today is more knowledge of actual art works and a great emphasis on induction.” She couldn’t be more correct in her assessment.
The lectures here are offered, in part, as a simple yet comprehensive overview of Western art and its history in an earnest attempt to help remedy our great misperception of how we understand the visual arts today. Even more importantly, I hold out in the hope that we will have an ongoing and fruitful discussion about whence we come, what we are, and where we are going, in a collective attempt to answer Gauguin’s echoing questions.