Saturday, March 05, 2011

A "Psychology Today" article compared an Abstract Expressionist painting to one made by a chimpanzee. Over at Metafilter, debate raged

One commenter, known as Astro Zombie, said "With the exception of minimialism, which deliberately sought to make art that had no subtext or metaphoric meaning, but just was whatever it was ... most contemporary art doesn't exist in a vacuum, where you can just look at a piece on a wall and intuit what is mean or what is being shown. Contemporary art demands engagement from the viewer. ... And it's usually not hard to get that stuff -- most artists provide statements, and most galleries will discuss the art with you. But if you refuse to do any of that stuff, you're on your own. The art isn't for you"

I disagree. 

I am an art-lover with a very different relationship with art from Astro Zombie's. Which doesn't at all mean that I think he's wrong. I don't believe a relationship-with-art can be right or wrong. AZ's is clearly pleasing to him -- as mine is to me.

Over the last 35 years, I have tried relating to art in a variety of ways: I've tried learning about the artist's intentions; I've tried learning about history and context; I've tried learning about works as an utterances in a big conversation (e.g. how does a particular work relate to its movement or respond to previous movements?)

What I've found is that, for me, while art can sometimes spark interesting ideas, it doesn't seem to be a very good medium for doing that (for me). If I want to think about intent or context (or theme), I can do that better with, say, history or philosophy books.

For me, art is best at sparking immediate sensation. It is sensual, and I respond to it most profoundly in a hedonistic way. (By "immediate," I don't mean I glace at a painting, feel something, and then walk away after two seconds. I might stand and look at a painting for hours. Still, what I respond to the most -- during however long I look at it -- is how it tickles my "lizard brain.")

I don't see much difference been my relationship with art and my relationship with and food or pornography. And I don't want more from it, because I can't think of more profound sorts of experiences than those I get when I'm having an orgasm or biting into a really good pie. (Well, there IS one feeling that competes with those -- that can, like fucking, eating or fleeing-from-danger -- take over my whole mind and body: that feeling of enlightenment I get when I'm reading a really good history, philosophy, mathematics or science book, but art never seems to be able to exicte that part of me as profoundly as non-fiction does. On the other hand, I've never been filled with lust or terror while reading Steven Jay Gould.)

I love both figurative and abstract art. Abstracts affect me a lot like music does. I respond to the colors and shapes -- often passionately. It always puzzles me when other people claim they don't like abstract art, because some of those same people DO like abstract patterns on clothing or wallpaper. Some of those same people will say "I don't get abstract art" and then expound on the beauty of the stripes on a tiger. (Presumably they are not trying to "get" the tiger's stripes.)

I think, often, people's disdain for abstract art comes from over-schooling. School taught them that when they look at a painting, they should be trying to figure out what it MEANS. It taught them that paintings contain some sort of secret message or intent. And they look at, say, a Pollack painting, can't figure out the secret, and suspect the artist is bullshitting them. Which pisses them off. To them, abstract art is like trying to solve a Rubic's Cube is for me. I can't do it. It's frustrating. And if I hadn't seen other people do it, I might suspect that Rubic was hoaxing everyone -- wasting their time with a puzzle that has no solution.

What some people are not doing is just letting the colors, lines and shapes flood into them. These same people could probably have a fantastic time staring out at the sea. They wouldn't try to figure out the MEANING of the sea. They'd be free to just respond to its vastness and its explosion of color.

What's interesting to me is that this (learned in school) habit of intellectualizing art ruins the experience for some people (at least when they're looking at certain kinds of art) and makes the experience more profound for others, for people like Astro Zombie. (Though I'm not implying that AZ doesn't also love art for its sensual effects.)

I disagree with him that "most contemporary art doesn't exist in a vacuum, where you can just look at a piece on a wall and intuit what is meant or what is being shown." Well, maybe I do agree with him, but I don't care what "is meant." What I can say is that I've been profoundly, profoundly, profoundly affected by a lot of contemporary art, without giving a second though to "what is meant." So the only thing I disagree with AZ about his his absolutism. I respect his relationship wit contemporary art, but it isn't the only possible relationship that can work. (Though maybe it IS the only possible one for someone who has been through school and who took the lessons of school to heart. Maybe someone like that can't STOP looking for meaning. So if he's going to ever like contemporary art, it's going to have to be via its meaning. To me, this is a bit sad. It means that person has lost something valuable he had a child. Most children love art without spending a second thinking about context or meaning.)

I have purposefully avoided learning much about the life and intent of artists like Pollack and Kandinsky, and yet I ADORE their work. I can't tell you how much their paintings mean to me. They have enriched my life beyond measure. If this is odd to you -- that I love Pollack's work without knowing anything about Pollack -- think of how people often respond to, say, a Beatles song or a Beethoven symphony, even if they're completely unschooled in music theory -- even if they're only five and know nothing about the history of the Beatles.

People often tell me that while I appreciate the paintings now, I'll appreciate them even more if I learn about the artist's history and intent. I disagree. First of all, I don't care about "appreciating" art. I don't even know what that means. It sounds boring. I want to be RAPED by art. I want to EAT art. I want art to stab me in the eye.

I agree that it's likely my relationship with Pollack's work will be CHANGED if I learn about his intent. Presumably those ideas will be stored in my brain alongside the sensual data, and one will affect the other IN SOME WAY. Maybe my experienced will be enriched; maybe it will be cheapened. I think most people have experienced both effects. Many people like some art more after learning stuff about the artist. Many people also like some art less after, say, learning that the artist was a Nazi sympathizer -- or a chimpanzee.

As you might expect with someone who responds to art sensually and prizes that response above all others, I really don't give a shit whether a work "could have been painted by a five-year-old" or was painted by a chimpanzee. Whatever. If it affects me, it affects me. So thanks, chimp! Thanks, five-year-old! Thanks, Jackson Pollack! In fact, thanks universe (for making oceans and sunsets)! It's all good!

I also don't really care that much about what I think of as the circus-feat aspect of art: how difficult or easy it is to make. I admit, it can be kind of fun to think about: when someone takes ten years to paint a gigantic mural, I DO enjoy thinking about their skill and whether or not I could do what they did. But, in the end, I respond to their work or I don't.

And that event -- the event of making the art -- is over. It's not like Michelangelo is repainting the Sistine Chapel over and over again. As it exists NOW, it is the same work whether he labored over it for years or whether space aliens came to Earth, fired an "art blaster" at the ceiling, and created the work in ten seconds. I'm not saying it's wrong to enjoy thinking about skill and craftsmanship. Whatever floats your boat! I'm saying that there's another sort of connoisseurship -- one that is more childlike: you look; you respond.

This "naive" approach IS malleable. I didn't use to like minimalist music and watercolors. Now I love both. But not because I learned anything about intent, theme or context. My new-found love came through repeated exposure to those sorts of works. I gradually learned their inner language. And, as I did, my heart started beating faster when I looked and listened to them.

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