Art About Art
The article is a wonderful virtual tour through the museum, in addition to an insightful history lesson (one of the notes Smith makes that captured my imagination is how artists use mirrors to "circles behind us and puts us in the picture, a frequent hook in images of artists at work"), and it went a long way toward blunting the pressure I've been feeling (in part due to commentary on this very blog) to reconsider how much I love art about art.
If not entirely enthralled by the fussy realism of the painting — which hangs in the long, wide thoroughfare that leads past the 19th-Century Paintings and Sculpture Galleries — I became fascinated with its story line and the spell it cast.
I began to wonder what else the Met might have on view in the way of images of artists or artisans at work. Aided by suggestions from several Met curators, I set forth under crowded holiday conditions a few days before New Year’s Eve, combing the collection for moments of self-disclosure, self-reference and self-celebration.
The notion of the artist as a worthy subject for art became especially prominent in the West in the 17th century and was further bolstered by the onset of Romanticism in the first half of the 19th. So I wasn’t surprised that most, but happily not all, of the working artists I came across at the Met were in works made in Europe or the United States after 1750.
Of course, as soon as I thought, "A-ha! Vindication," it did occur to me that art about artmaking isn't the same as art about art exactly, but I wonder whether that's a distinction with no signficant difference (i.e., as Smith notes by including a description of a Red Grooms piece showing two Ab-Ex masters sitting in Washington Square park, "perhaps, ... for some artists, not working is just a less productive, more tormented form of working" and so using an artist as subject in any way, whether considering process or biography or what-have-you, is to choose artmaking as subject).
So if there's no meaningful difference between "art" and "artmaking" as subject, and, as Smith demonstrates with the inclusion in her essay of wall paintings in a tomb at Thebes showing ancient Egyptian artists working [seen above], if art as subject is anything but new, isn't what folks are objecting to with regard to "too much art about art" today possibly misplaced blame for what they see as lack of spiritual or intellectual reward in other aspects of contemporary life?
I mean, I suspect part of why I love art about art is an insider's thrill at "getting it," but even after I had started to consider relegating my love for it to the "guilty pleasure" category, I kept finding myself being enthralled by this or that newly discovered piece with art as subject. Further, I began to suspect that what drew me to visual art as my primary interest in life might be that its parts/tools/stuff (i.e., aesthetics, formalism, visual, concepts, etc.) are simply how I see/interact with the world...they're the language that I understand. Moreover, for me, other potential paths toward spiritual or intellectual reward are too clumsy...make me too self-conscious...aren't quite "me."
But why, one might still ask, are the workings of that "stuff" equally important to me.
As I think about that, I recall the line Hillel reportedly used to explain the Torah: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it!"
Without being sacrilegious or elevating art to the status/role of religion, for me, all the commentary about artmaking or art itself is so very valuable because it continually reinforces what art is to me: another important life lesson ("Look, really look, and then connect.") That's the whole of it. But I see the value in studying the rest.
I don't expect folks who are left cold by art about art to change their opinion just because I stumbled upon this morsel of vindication. It might be a subject only some folks respond to, and even for some of its advocates, it might have its limits, but I feel a bit better about my passion for it and for not having gone so far as to label it a "guilty pleasure" before I read Smith's fine article.