Thursday, July 29, 2010

Philosophy behind the Technique

"Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all." - André Breton (1928)

I will be starting a series of artist/work profiles. My descriptions of the work are based on my own perceptions - I don't approach art in the cold, calculating way you would approach a math problem or a balance sheet. To do so would be wrongheaded.
My descriptions are my immediate reactions, I record them on a tape recorder, because I find that works for me.
My general philosophy in approaching/dissecting these works is similar to the technique used in the Horace Miner essay, 'Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.' I read this essay for the first time in tenth grade and it clicked for me pretty quickly, but I won't spoil it for those of you who want to read it and figure it out for yourselves. It's an eyeopener. It flips your beliefs about the culture upside down, in a way, but that is all I will say about that essay. Read it for yourself if you wish. Here is a link:

In terms of visual analysis, there is a difference between looking stroke by stroke at a canvas in order to find something past it, and glaring with clenched teeth at a canvas and superficially dismissing it as something lacking in "skill" because it looks so simple or maybe even uninspired, prima facie.
To put it simply, things don't have to look like what they look like. How do you represent an idea, an abstraction? How do you capture an emotion? You can't put it into words, or can you? Words can be art. The emotion/image does not have to be concrete. There are no rules and art doesn't have to be "pretty" in the pseudo-universal obvious sense. I think art should incite, it should be evocative. If it is purely a "treat for the eye" - it's craftsmanship, not art. I've always upheld the idea more than the technique or the style.
Duchamp was said to have stated that art could be anything, so long as an artist said it was art. As of now, I'm not sure I can fully embrace this definition, but it's not too far off base. The artist only has to stay true to his or herself. The responsibility for the artist lies not in the perception of the audience, but in the handling of the idea. The failure or success of the final piece in the eyes of an outside party is mainly subjective. It would be wrong to initially approach something with the idea that it ought be best to "play it cool" because children might be present in the gallery.
No, art doesn't have to make sense. You can make your own sense of it, just like the world. You won't find your "definition" of art in any holy book or stone tablet. But you don't have to find a sense, you can always find it senseless.
When do we ever get the full picture, the full explanation of something? If you wouldn't strap your lover to a chair and force a life's worth of confessions and explanations out of him or her, why would you do that to a piece of art?
No amount of water torture on a painting or installation or performance or sculpture will give you the meaning you want. So make your own and stop whining that it's rubbish and you could do better just because it doesn't provide you with answers and it might even offend your intelligence. Just look and reflect. If you hate it, that is fine too, feel free to tell me how much you disagree.


  1. I have, in the past, defined "art" as "an object created for the purpose of drawing emotion out of those who encounter it." As long as the sense of beauty counts as an emotion, I think this definition holds nicely. From there, the quality of an artwork as such comes down to how well it draws out its intended emotions, and nothing else. One can judge it on other qualities, such as the profundity or complexity of the desired emotion, if they please, but that's another matter.

    I get the impression that our two standards are not as different as they may appear.

  2. I agree, they aren't *too* different, but if we use your definition of art as "an object created for the purpose of drawing emotion out of those who encounter it"
    That can run into problems.
    If I'm thirsty and take a sip from a bottle of water, my thirst is quench, my mood improved. I'm thankful that I was able to take the sip, and thankful that it was conveniently in a bottle that I could put in my bag and take wherever I go. Is the bottle a "work of art" - someone designed it, but would you put it in a museum? I don't mean as a found-art object like Duchamp's fountain - I just mean a bottle of water.
    People of all shapes and sizes can draw emotion out of others who encounter them. Is everyone a work of art?
    People with synesthesia are likely to taste a sound, or see a color when they catch a scent. Those things provoke emotion - is it all art?

  3. "Created for the purpose of..." solves most of these problems. Otherwise, as you notice, anything that elicits an emotional response becomes de facto art. I hesitate to add "solely," as this would remove the "art" distinction from items that otherwise serve a purpose, which is excessive.

    Still, you raise an interesting point. Should we exclude items that elicit an emotional response as a result of fulfilling some other function? If we do not, then a water bottle, shower head, or close friend is indeed art. I will venture that what separates art from other objects is the act of appreciation. This is how people fundamentally interact with art--by taking a moment to appreciate it, with whatever senses are appropriate. If emotional responses not derived in this manner are excluded, then my definition loses these weaknesses.

  4. On Duchamp: Words are cheap. For the creator to believe it is art is arduous.


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I love to read about linguistics, behavioral economics, theory and philosophy. I listen to music some might call outdated, write satirical and high testosterone plays, consume too much caffeine and ruthlessly defend modern and contemporary art.