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the original kStyle blog.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Wednesday Writing Assignment

How much power does art have? Can it change minds and hearts? Politics? The World, even?

Start with yourself. Has a piece of art moulded or changed you? What was it? How?

Too deep for a Wednesday? Forgive me.

23 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if art can change anyone's mind; I think it's more likely to speak to or give voice to something that is already in someone's mind. that would classify as molding, I suppose--in some ways, that's a good analogy, in that it can take relatively amorphous thoughts/feelings and give them a particular shape. I would say that some music has given powerful voice to my own life's experience, and I would say that some books have told their stories so well as to reinforce the power of words to provide a vision for us. Visual art--paintings, movies, photography--doesn't do much more than entertain me (which is not trivial). I think of art in general as a good story, well told, and many things qualify; I think of that as profound, because I think that stories are one of the primary means by which we communicate.

carla

10:14 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

I think so, but my reasons aren't fully formed. Not always.

Greek epic was immortality. The hero was to live forever in his epic. And in the Iliad, Achilles has a choice: go home to a quiet life of comfort, or die on the battlefield and gain immortal fame. Achilles chose to battle and die, and we STILL read his story today. Isn't that wild? It gives me goosebumps.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

See Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson and Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry by Robert Pinsky for my answers.

Art--and responses to art--makes me think about things I would otherwise not notice, particularly the role of meaning and order (and narrative and rules and communication) in contemporary America.

Art also makes some illogical spot in my brain illogically happy. Sometimes something I see or hear or taste makes me think, "Oh my God, this is so good," but it doesn't really do anything else, doesn't change or influence anything.

1:19 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

I think that art transcends to something greater than its components, and its aspirations inspire us. Kitsch does not transcend; perhaps does not even attempt transcendence. Art helps us to see the beauty everywhere and maybe sometimes inspires us to be better people, to transcend, ourselves.

Perhaps a very Classical definition, but I have a classicist's heart and Bachelor's degree.

3:05 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

I don't think it's so much transcendence as thoughtfulness, or awareness. It challenges us to look at something in a way that we wouldn't consider otherwise, to make connections that we may have ignored.

Transcendence implies a moral or ethical improvement on part of the viewer or reader or listener, and a lot of art simply doesn't have that effect. A lot of it has, or is intended to have, or is born out of, an opposite sensation, shock and anger, discomfort, contempt.

4:35 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

But art that one might describe as clever or urbane rather than"transcendent", doesn't it ultimately transcend through its wittiness or urbanity? Trancendence may lie in the very connections you describe.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

I agree: transcendance doesn't have to come overtly. It can come just through experience something beautiful. A note that follows perfectly the note before it. Rhythm in good prose. Exactly the right color in exactly the right place on a canvas.

Philip Roth's 1959 short story "The Conversion of the Jews" transformed me. Not just with its suggestion of the limitless possibilities of a new artist employing his skills in such specific ways, but also with its telling such a uniquely brave tale, contending with issues of faith and identity that many novelists don't dare broach in their entire careers. When I go back and read that story now--it appeared in Roth's first book, "Goodbye, Columbus"--it astonishes me to think of what he accomplished later, mostly because I suspect that if he'd only published just that one book, we'd still call him a genius.

What I mean is this: it's a story that transformed me by example. Like Hawthorne's "Wakefield," Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O.," and Hemingway's "The End of Something," it showed me what stories could do.

9:24 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Ann, I think I know what you mean about art being shocking or anger-producing rather than transcendent.. But, could not the shock/anger lead the audience to a higher place?

Also, being the snotty Classicist that I am, I sometimes look at art and say, That's Not Art. I went to the Guggenheim once. The walls were covered wih porn. porn movies. The artists filming themselves doing porn. I said, this is Crap. But, as Eric pointed out, we are all ariters of taste.

You know, I took a philosophy class called Aesthetic Theory, and we discussed all of this, and now I've forgotten what we said!

9:46 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Also, Carla, I like your point that stories are the way we communicate. Myth, stories, shape us as a people, give national or cultural identities.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

I did say that, Karen, it's true. But I agree with your instinct. Porn-covered Guggenheim walls are to art what "performance art" is to acting. (Your word for it, "Crap," is as good a one as any.) One of my rules of thumb is, if they're calling it an "installation," it ain't art.

Besides, everyone knows that porn belongs at home. What the hell is anyone going to do with it in a museum?

9:54 AM  
Blogger Ann said...

Yes, I agree that all art can lead to transcendence--but I don't think transcendence is required in order for something to be classified as art. For some people, Precious Moments figurines are transcendent, and Matisse isn't.

I mean, it always comes back to "What is art?" and I have no answer to that question. It's as difficult as identifying the basic human personality. Maybe there is no definition, or maybe it's so expansive and fuzzy-edged and subjective that it doesn't matter. Which doesn't answer the original question, but I always end up here, so.

Sidenote: I tend to believe that if it's in a famous art museum, it is art, no matter what I think of it. I'm not the one who went through years of schooling for the privilege of being a curator. This doesn't work for all professions, but art is such a subjective field, and I can't define it, so I rely on someone else to do the categorization and winnowing-down.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

But if this curator to whom you're happy to cede such power went to a school that taught her that throwing porn on the walls was art, why credit her education with making her more qualified than you?

Put another way: if art is as subjective as you say, and as impossible to classify as you say, than her education would make her no more qualified to evaluate it. Education can do two things: train us in the objective, and enhance our sensibilities so that our judgments of the subjective might be more refined. And I would submit that, these days, something's getting space on the wall of a major museum is indicative of nothing except that it is likely to get people in the door to see it. That's the unfortunate financial position museums find themselves in today. I'd bet my house that the Guggenheim board of directors, not to mention the curatorial staff, was pretty heavily divided on whether that "exhibition" should have gone up.

In any case I continue to reject the idea that "art" is sufficiently vague a term that defining it is an impossibility. Yes, there will always be what I like and what you like, and yes, these reactions inform our cirtical judgment, as they should. It would be a sorry world if the primary force behind our judgments were anything other than "It did something for me."

But at the same time, all art that has lasted has been sophisticated in technique and broad in meaning. There are effective and ineffective ways of using words, meaningful and unmeaningful ways of moving a film camera, clumsy and sophisticated ways of putting paint on a canvas, tonal and atonal words of combining musical notes. While it's true that much great art breaks the very rules of its traditions, artists must know and master those rules before they can break them in ways that are interesting.

So a first step in evaluating art can become, "How has this artist employed his craft?" All art is craft before it is art. What medium is the artist working in? What came before him? What are his influences? How does he build on them? How is he saying what he's saying? How effectively does he do it? What is new and original here that was not in the world before?

All of these, while not objective questions in a strict sense, require informed judgment based on precepts that are at least semi-objective. And while it's true that someone schooled in the history of an art might be more equipped to answer them than someone who isn't, I'm not about to hand all that influence to the so-called educated. Art is for each of us to not only define and contend with. If we assume everything can be art, then nothing is.

Something's being presented as art should not give it the benefit of the doubt of being such. Too many decisions--most of them having nothing to do with quality--go into whether a film gets a distributor, a novel gets a publisher, a play gets a producer, or a painting gets a wall. Public presentation is a separate issue--fundamental but separate--from any consideration of something as art, at least if art is retain whatever honor it has left as something whose dignity is untouchable by man.

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, what the hell, I'll wade in again, though mostly with observations rather than a single narrative.

I have, on more than one occasion, put a cat among the pigeons by persistently asking someone (usually someone who's being a jerk) to define art, and then finding something that he or she would want to call art but that doesn't fit the definition proffered.

Also, I note that Eric has distinguised between "art" and "craft," and I have a hard time with that; always have. I think it's an even more artificial distinction than many of the others we're employing here.

One of the essential problems with the way Art is presented is that it's presented in museums--in principle, this should be a good thing, because it makes works available to many people rather than merely to those rich enough to have their own. On the other hand, I really don't like art museums; they put me to sleep. A couple of weeks ago, though, I was at someone's house, and his walls were absolutely covered with art--really incredible stuff, though I don't know that any of it was transcendent. In short: I liked to look at it. I loved the way it made the spaces in the house look and feel. There's a contradiction, then--visual art often doesn't look as good in a museum as it would in a home, but the latter venue doesn't permit sharing. Other arts don't have this same problem, of course, though they have different ones. In many ways, though, this conundrum has a historical context, as best i can tell: art usually has patrons, who then get first dibs on the art, no matter the type of art it is. Art for the "public," then, is another kind of thing entirely, and it's not at all clear what its meaning, intent or worth is--hence the "installations" and "performance pieces." (Dave Barry is much much funnier on this.)

carla

1:01 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

But the difference between craft and art is essential in talking about art. Craft is the utilization of specific skills of the form: language, for writing; a camera, for filmmaking; paint, for painting. Etc. A work can have consummate skill but no art. A painter can be an excellent draftsman but no artist. The world is full of artless craft. (Less prevalent, but still there around the fringers, is art without craft.) Art is where the meaning dwells; it's where the gods are at work.

(This is what I meant in my previous post, when I said that art is untouchable by man. It's the provence of something much greater than we, I think. Which is why, when we attend the performance artist's show or the installation of urine at the museum, we demean much more than art.)

Craft is the objective part. An awkward sentence is an awkward sentence: dangling participles and choppy sentences are irrefutably there, if they're there. A director is simply inept who can't shoot and cut a scene so as to reveal where the viewer is oriented in its space. A playwright who puts exposition into the mouths of the characters is breaking rank with centuries of what we know works in his medium. Craft is difficult to master but, to those who understand it, fairly easy to recognize as good or bad.

Art is what gets harder. I don't pretend to have any definition of it, but I think the debate is fundamental to who we are as humans, which is why I argue so vehemently against the passiveness of "Who knows, so let's not try," or "If someone sees something in it, it's as worthy of the word as anything else is." The debate is fundamental because art is fundamental. And to the extent that art is the communication of some kind of meaning, it is communication whose means is a specific craft. Which is why it's so important to keep them distinct: art is the what, and craft is the how.

What I don't understand are artists who choose a medium and then pretend the medium is unimportant, that craft is in the eye of the beholder. If you want to put yourself out there, walk on the high wire, create meaning in the world, no one's ordering you to choose an art form that's existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Why take up a craft if you're uninterested in its mechanisms?

1:58 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

Eric, perhaps you're confusing a what-is-art argument with a different what-is-good-art argument. I'm having enough trouble with the former, so I'm not particularly concerned about the latter.

(I'm sticking with visual art for now; most if not all of this applies to other forms.)

In saying that I tend to trust museum curators, I'm trying to make two points. One is that art's impossible to classify. The other is that our culture demands classification, or at least narrowing down. Museums narrow; artists whose work is displayed on their walls have a better chance of "lasting" than unknown artists. Therefore, while I'm sure there's much outside of museums that is also art, I tend to believe that what's inside them is art, even if I hate it.

I don't see why it wouldn't be; at least a few people think it's art, so what makes them wrong? (Again, whether or not it's good art is another matter.) I mean, we could go on a case-by-case basis if you like, starting with Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain," which has been influencing the art world since 1917.

(And if you leave it to time to narrow things into art, then you are indeed relying on someone else's experience. Art doesn't just last; people have to make it last. Which means we've probably saved a lot of "bad" art and lost a lot of "good" art, relatively speaking.)

Art is for each of us to not only define and contend with. If we assume everything can be art, then nothing is.I'm a little confused about the grammar of the first sentence, but here it seems like you're saying, "Art is subjective in that everyone defines it his or her own way, but we must agree that art has an objective definition." So which is it? If I say piece X is art, and you say no, piece X is not art, who's right?

Couple final questions:

What can someone "get" out of abstract art? Viewers and artists don't always have a common language; "red" and "busy" doesn't always mean the same thing to both parties. If people "get" different things out of abstract art, doesn't it follow that anything could be art?

You say, "If you want to put yourself out there, walk on the high wire, create meaning in the world, no one's ordering you to choose an art form that's existed for hundreds or thousands of years." So who's ordering you to follow pre-conceived rules about craft? In other words, why demand that an artist do X, but not Y?

And if you're claiming that "Piss Christ" isn't art, well, good luck with that...

3:15 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

A few disjointed thoughts to throw in the mix:

1. There’s a difference between good/bad and “not to my taste”. Most people can look at, say, a Kandinsky or a Chuck Close, and say, damn, that’s good, even if they don’t like it. (I don’t like Close, but I recognize his skills as an artist.) Some people can look at Precious Moments and say, “I like it, even if it’s not fine art”. Dig? So I think we can make a distinction between art/not art, as difficult and fuzzy as it might be. Like McDonald’s. No one says McDonald’s is fine food, but billions of people eat there and enjoy it.

2. I think it’s sad that much modern and postmodern art is made in a language for other artists or for the artist himself, and I think art loses much from that. There was some art I studied in Startegies of Abstraction that I would say…eh. Not art. Just a messy visual statement.

3. How do we define anything anyway? You know? I mean, trying to define Art leads us down the slippery philosophical path of Etiology. We can look at Plato’s Forms, Constructivism, Creationism, even, in the context of this discussion. Do we create art or does art create us? Do we sort of channel” art; is there a funnel of creativity we tap into? See what I mean?

4:05 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

A few disjointed thoughts to throw in the mix:

1. There’s a difference between good/bad and “not to my taste”. Most people can look at, say, a Kandinsky or a Chuck Close, and say, damn, that’s good, even if they don’t like it. (I don’t like Close, but I recognize his skills as an artist.) Some people can look at Precious Moments and say, “I like it, even if it’s not fine art”. Dig? So I think we can make a distinction between art/not art, as difficult and fuzzy as it might be. Like McDonald’s. No one says McDonald’s is fine food, but billions of people eat there and enjoy it.

2. I think it’s sad that much modern and postmodern art is made in a language for other artists or for the artist himself, and I think art loses much from that. There was some art I studied in Startegies of Abstraction that I would say…eh. Not art. Just a messy visual statement.

3. How do we define anything anyway? You know? I mean, trying to define Art leads us down the slippery philosophical path of Etiology. We can look at Plato’s Forms, Constructivism, Creationism, even, in the context of this discussion. Do we create art or does art create us? See what I mean?

4:43 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Oh sure, it won't post for 10 minutes and then posted twice.

4:44 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Someone delete the first one for me? Please?

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was a day when all the art came to life.

Ben

6:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That would be great--but only if all the not-art died, and then we'd know which was which!

carla

10:10 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Carla: Very witty. :)

Ben: Why does that sound familiar? Did you write a story about that once?

10:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if I'm supposed to tell or not... it's the premise of a project that was imagined when I went to visit Charlie in Japan. A huge top secret project that may be somewhat impossible to ever really do.

It's also possible that it's from something else, too, but you may have heard about it from Charlie or me or maybe the bits that are on Xebra.

Hopefully I haven't given away anything that will upset the people involved. Since the last bit of progress I know about is dated Jan 3, 2002 I probably haven't.

-Ben

11:45 PM  

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