Warning: This one rambles (might be the back pain I've got...might be the pills). I'm not even sure it's not essentially contradictory. Ignore it and comment on what you want to if that's your preference. I'll be in London next week, and regular blogging will resume on the 16th (I might be able to squeeze in a post from the UK but can't promise at this point).
I've been doing a lot of thinking about how much art there is to see, how some folks feel it's not a matter of too much but just knowing how to find what's worth seeing, and all around that, like the elephant in the room, the crescendoing clamor of those who feel art as we once knew it is lost. Defining where we are might be somewhat more complicated than even that though. In an article by Walter Darby Bannard that Franklin pointed to on his blog and that is titled "Artbroken: What Art Is and How We Stopped Making It," the author wrote:
Art is condensed life. The artist works his materials against immediate circumstances and applies what he has in his head against what he has already done, reaching deep down to the extraordinary harmonic integrity of life itself to fashion something that is narrow, safe and permanent, and which deliberately circumvents transitory utility in order to create a dynamic equivalent of life itself. Art comes from a place that is way deeper than words and ideas and things. It goes out to the same deep place in the viewer. The work itself is the point of contact, the spark that jumps between the poles. It yields a special kind of recognition and pleasure, but it does not submit to rational explication.Anyone who knows me understands full well I don't subscribe to the notion that we've stopped making art. We've gone rounds and rounds here about what's shown in galleries and museums in what boils down to a question of whether what defines good art is form or concept, which is often still the same old debate between representation and abstraction in new clothing, and blah, blah, blah, ad infinitum. But I do like Mr. Bannard's notion that art is "condensed life" (I think some folks abuse his notion that "art does not submit to rational explication" to avoid facing what's intellectually lacking in certain works, but...again...we've been all over that before.), and I think the condensed life notion might be a clue to why there's a certain malaise in certain quarters about the state of Art in general. Stick with me here...I promise to try to make a point in all this.We live in a walk-thru/drive-thru era in which we'll pay folks to give it to us quickly or summarize things for us because we don't have time to read, hear, learn, see, experience everything we need or want to and still get to eat or sleep. "Give it to me in a nutshell." From Headline News to the fact that movie trailers are so important to selling a film that often they're much better than the film itself, we're a people who want it in capsule form first. "Just give me the elevator version right now." But there's a critical difference in my mind between "condensed" and "summarized." When something is condensed it's more compact, but just as complex as the original. When something is summarized, the complexity gives way for the bite-sized basic premise. In the domain of viewing visual arts we may be confusing those two somewhat. Permit me to make this personal, in hopes of expressing more clearly what I'm driving at here. We had an exhibition of paintings by Christopher Lowry Johnson a while back that are incredibly slow to see. The underlying structure of each canvas is worked out through a series of drawings with complex organic frameworks referencing scientific models, and they are then built up with painstaking care and consideration. Then end result, to my eye, is breathtakingly beautiful (if you give them the time to reveal themselves to you), but a number of viewers who passed through the gallery looked for a moment and then passed on. That happens.One viewer though took the time to look and then wrote about the work in a way that simply delighted me. OK, so that viewer was none other than the connoisseur James Wagner, but here's what he wrote:
This is not a walk-thru show. Actually, this is probably true for most painting shows (at least those where the gallerist/curator has any creds at all), but this one is even more special. It seems quite muted at first, but given a little time, its rewards are great.[...]But here's the rub. If we took that kind of time to view all the work on view in New York, let alone elsewhere, we'd never do anything else, and never even see all we set out to. And yet, if we don't, we stand no chance of experiencing the value of the work out there that is actually "condensed life" rather than merely a summary. Or is that truly the case?
I recently walked into the space at the end of a long afternoon of gallery visits and sat down on the bench in the middle [yes, a bench in a gallery - a bench, how extraordinary, and how helpful for both visitor and art!]. I stared at the large, very white-ish, canvas across from me, expecting to work with it only as a beautiful, complex abstraction. I had been immediately attracted to its drama and beauty as I walked in, before I knew anything or saw very much, but then something happened. As I sat looking at this canvas its impenetrable layers of oil opened a wonderful, very grand window on images both abstract and concrete, a world undetectable at first or even second glance.
We may simply be using that as an excuse, and in the process potentially closing ourselves off to understanding great work that isn't already part of our experience. This occurred to me while reading Holland Cotter's review this morning of the exhibition Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary:
Is she an infant, a wrestler, a goddess or what? Sunk in thought or entranced by sounds only she can hear? Her flawless skin is dark but glows. Her body is organic but abstract, with seeds for eyes, succulents for arms, and mushroomlike shoulders melting into breasts. In the perfect sleek globe of her head, her face is a scooped-out heart.He's right. We rush to see Rembrandts (with "rush" being the key work here), but we don't have to take much time to benefit from them because we're fully prepared/equipped to appreciate them on a summary basis if our schedules don't permit a slower appreciation of them on a condensed life basis. With work that we'd need to invest much more time to feel we "get," though, we feel we're at such a disadvantage that we might as well not bother. Mr. Cotter notes, however, that perhaps we're not giving ourselves enough credit in that department:
You’ll find this stunner, beaming with ambiguity, in “Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was carved in the 19th century by a Fang artist in what is now Gabon. Sometimes referred to as the Black Venus, she resides in Paris today. And she’s just one of many magnetic images in a gorgeous, morally and spiritually vibrant show that is sure be one of the sleepers of the fall art season.
Why, with such attractions, is it a sleeper? Because exhibitions of African art almost always are. Even when museums give them the luxury treatment, as the Met does here, they remain on the fringes of our awareness, in a compartment labeled esoteric, as we make our beelines to Rembrandts and Rothkos. We are the sleepers, somnambulating past extraordinary things.
This African show isn’t esoteric at all. Anyone familiar with Western religious art, particularly art before the modern era, will recognize its basic theme: life as a cosmic journey homeward, with parental spirits, embodied in materials and images, coddling, counseling and chiding us every step of the way.My point is that perhaps there's plenty of great art about, but many folks are are not well suited to find it. For art to be good, it has to be rich (i.e., more than just a one liner or a one-liner that reveals something more complex than itself). Most of us would agree to that. With our hectic schedules, though, slowing down long enough to appreciate that complexity seems impossible, so we often reflexively don't even try. That may lead inadvertently to some viewers leaning toward less complex work. Work that they get quickly and perhaps, because they're not unaware of what's good, project complexity onto that isn't there. I'll include myself in that to avoid it sounding like I'm picking on any particular artist, collector, or gallery.
The knee-jerk solution to this would seem to be "slow down," something I've advocated before. But I might as well stand off to the side of a six-lane highway and whisper that to the motorists flying past me at 85 mph. Besides, what if by slowing down folks decided they no longer had time to venture as far West as our gallery is located ("Slow down, but start at the West Side Highway... :-).
If you're still reading, you're probably hoping for some sage advice on how to deal with this modern dilemma. Me too.
Have a great week if I can't check in on you.
Labels: art world, ramblings