Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Judging Value in Art

A feature story in today's New York Times prompted me to rethink a topic I spend a great deal of time on...judging value in art. That phrase though, perhaps requires a bit of explanation. What I mean exactly is: Which criteria should be used to determine which artists we celebrate and whose work we enshrine in the limited space of our cultural institutions or pages of our art history texts?

Take the case of Constantino Brumidi. The Times offers a well-crafted piece on the effort to elevate Brumidi's stature in America's annals of art history. He's the Italian-born muralist responsible for a great deal of the work in the Capitol in Washington, DC, but, as the Times article notes:

Brumidi was ignored, the victim of ethnocentrism and snobbery. Though he became a citizen in 1857 (he signed a fresco "C. Brumidi Artist-Citizen of the U.S."), American-born artists cast him as a foreigner and resented his painting Capitol murals. In a few decades, with the rise of modernism, critics would look down their noses at Brumidi's brand of representational art.

When he died, penniless and alone, in 1880, there wasn't even enough money to bury him; his ex-wife agreed to have him interred in her family plot, and the grave went without a marker until 1951.

"He was reviled in what passed as art literature, in the history books," Dr. {Francis V.] O'Connor [an independent art historian who is writing a book on American mural painting] said, "with the result that everyone thought the Capitol was filled with bad art."
I experienced a see-saw of reponses to this as I read. My first thought was that anyone painting to please his patrons rather than him/herself is providing them with Craft, not Art, but then realized that I have no idea what input the government had on the images Brumidi decided on. Perhaps he painted exactly what he wanted to (although I still doubt it).

Then I thought his visual vocabulary was fossilized. His contemporaries were shedding the shackles of the neo-classical themes he offered up (with what strike me as sychophantic, rather hackneyed twists, no less), and the best way to honor the young nation he adopted as his new home was to give it art that looked toward the future, not the past. But then, of course, that would have stuck out like a sore thumb in Washington DC, conflicted absurdly with the Capitol's architecture, and been widely misunderstood by most Americans, even if Brumidi had had any interst in it.

Finally, I thought how could someone paint the square footage he did and keep it interesting and fresh for himself (one criterion I'm convinced is important, because it shows) unless he was being truly inventive (i.e., and not just regurgitating new combinations of tried and true vocabulary). Here, I discovered, I didn't perhaps give the man his due. After years of having hacks cover up his best work in "restorations," finally someone decided to see what was underneath for real:

Ill-conceived attempts at restoration only worsened Brumidi's reputation, said Barbara A. Wolanin, the curator of the Capitol and the author of "Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol." As the walls and ceilings of the Capitol grew dark and dingy with age, Brumidi's work was painted over in colors that matched the grunge. When Dr. Wolanin began her job as curator in 1985, she said, "I wasn't really convinced Brumidi was that good."

Two prominent Italian art conservators, experts in Raphael and Michelangelo, helped change her mind. The pair were hired shortly after Dr. Wolanin's arrival to consult on a project to clean and conserve the frescoes in the canopy of the Rotunda. "They could kind of see through the overpaint and the dirt," Dr. Wolanin said. "Seeing major conservators of Michelangelo get excited about Brumidi made me think that maybe we Americans ought to get excited too."
Of course the counter argument is that the opinion of major conservators of Michelangelo getting excited is probably further evidence that Brumidi wasn't giving the young nation very forward-looking art, but then there's this:

Ms. Cunningham-Adams took her scalpel to them, carefully chipping away layer after layer of dried and hardened paint to reveal work whose light, airy feel had been long lost to time.

"Every single inch is a discovery," she said. "A new color, a new detail. We uncovered feathers on birds that you could see, or little tiny insects on leaves that had been painted over. I think the importance of the recovery is bringing back people's understanding of the very high quality of this incredible artistic treasure."

So my question then becomes: is "very high quality" a criterion we should use in determining what art we celebrate? Should the fact that Brumidi's original offerings were apparently exhilarating be enough that we recognize his achievements? It's a tricky question, I know...doesn't quality of "art" include innovation? If all he's done is made a masterful copy of what others struggled to invent, is that enough?

Or is it much simplier than that? Are there different criteria for different efforts? I mean, there's no escaping that Brumidi was commissioned to decorate a building. Should we measure his achievement against other such efforts and not against those of artists with no such constraints? I'm not sure. But then, if I had the answers to such questions, I'd be making a fortune off selling them.


Blogger Tyler said...

Good post. Reminds me of SF's reaction to the Gottardo Piazzoni murals, painted for the SF Public Library and now (mostly) at the new de Young.

7/26/2005 10:20:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Yeah, it's important (but hard when you're so focused on studio practice and how that leads to the gallery, collector, museum route) to remember that "Art" happens in all kinds of contexts. I get that privately, but "professionally" it gets confused at time.

7/26/2005 01:44:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

In the end though, all art is commissioned to decorate a building. It's just that in most cases the commissioners need to be found. And that's where you come in...

7/26/2005 03:46:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

In the end though, all art is commissioned to decorate a building.

Robert Smithson and a few others would disagree, but point taken.

It's just that in most cases the commissioners need to be found. And that's where you come in...

nice to know I'm needed ;-)

7/26/2005 04:08:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

Robert Smithson and a few others would disagree, but point taken.

Understood, as might Andy Goldsworthy. But then he's an interesting point. On one hand his museum pieces such as the one at Stanford and the new one being created for the De Young are outside, but they also adorn the grounds of a building. In fact, since they are/have been ostensibly created "for" the musems does that make them craft or art?

7/26/2005 04:49:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

but did Goldsworthy create those pieces to please those insitutions?

7/26/2005 05:12:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

Weeeeell, let's define "please". I'd guess that there was some discussion about what would be created, I mean at the very least there were spacial limitations that he would not have had if working out in the woods for instance, and even more so about where the piece would be created. These things would require him to take into account sun position, drainage etc., and affect his work in ways that standard artists would not be affected since their work was "collected", in the standard sense, post creation, right?

I'd also guess that the museums had an idea of what they'd like to see based on past works. Something like relative permanence for instance would be important too, right? No ice towers here in SF.

So, if the De Young gets something that ends up nearly the same color as the copper cladding of the building, in a place that they directed, that lasts a good long while (permanence in earthquake country being a ridiculous thing to expect) and, in fact, takes into account the "shakey" nature of the area (the piece is called "fracture") is he creating something to please them, or not?

7/26/2005 07:08:00 PM  
Blogger Tyler said...

The de Young piece is a-tro-cious.

7/26/2005 11:03:00 PM  

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