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Why Beauty Matters, Part 2, A.K.A. Stop Making That Elitist Artwork!

January 31, 2012

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I made some sweeping comments on my last post. Thanks to my friend, Sam Evensen, for calling me on the carpet. Sam commented:

“Anything that expands our minds is going to be at first confusing. I find that quickly labeling what we don’t understand as elitist is lacking a real sense of personal investment and exploration. I believe great art always creates a sort of revelation in the mind of the viewer. Why would we expect then to not be stretched somewhat as we interact with it? To me this is the equivalent of skimming for a minute or two through a book on medicine then concluding, “I don’t get it…must be elitist.” Of course elitism exists, but on the other hand great art moves its audience beyond it’s current state, and I think that requires a certain amount of investment by the viewer. Sure elitism is a problem, but I’m willing to accept that possibility at the expense of an art world that challenges the idea that art should be like entertainment television–soundbites, spoon fed, low level of critical thinking, always a fairly clear conclusion, etc. I don’t mean to over simplify the issue or in any way imply a binary opposition between representation and really dissonant art forms. I’m speaking more in terms of elitism as a concept I guess. Great art, representational, beautiful, or otherwise, illuminates, expands, challenges, invites.”

Carina made this comment with a similar message:

“My problem with repeating traditional art is when the pieces are no longer challenging, emotionally evocative, or resonate–when they simply become a commodity, something that reinforces a world view or keeps the audience feeling safe.”

Since I came to very few conclusions in my last post, let me state one here:

There should be room both for art that stretches you and for comfort art. There should be room both for high art and decoration. And decorative elements should not in and of themselves disqualify a work from being considered high art. Nor should narrative. Nor should unity of design. And I cringe at the elitist term I just used, “high art”. It’s probably a hold-over term from the Modern era. What I mean to say is, why maintain a bias against decor, narrative, aesthetic unity? Such a bias is not innovative–not stretching.

We choose our audience, and sometimes our audience chooses us. A university student who wants to earn a degree must choose to make art that speaks to his or her professors–professors that speak a language unique to higher art education. Other educators outside the art discipline often don’t understand or even care to understand the language of the professor artist. Is this art language elitist? It is in the sense that only a few hundred art faculty and a few thousand students throughout the planet know what questions to ask to even make a dialogue begin. Is it wrong, then, that the gate-keepers of art education should continue to make esoteric artwork? Despite the title of my post, I don’t think it’s wrong. They play an important role–the role mentioned by Sam and Carina–which is to stretch the art world. But, a subset of the goal of stretching art students then seems to be the goal of removing all provincialities out of the art student at all cost. So, what if you choose as an artist to create art that speaks to the province? You’ve either got to suppress that choice for six years or forgo a higher education. Suppression too often ends in the extinguishing of the student’s vision and career. Forgoing reinforces the closed system. And the chasm between two languages grows ever greater. (As a side note, no province is comprised solely of country bumpkins.)

Sam gave me another ray of hope, though:

“From my academic experience, I think many would be surprised how pluralistic the professors I interact with are. At least I was pleasantly surprised myself. Rejecting representation because “it’s all been done” is outdated modernist thinking–way outdated. I think it’s clear to many that the big promises of that sort of monolithic supremism went unfulfilled in the end. Which isn’t to say modernism didn’t serve an important purpose and create a lot of stunning works of art–on the contrary. I’m just saying that by the 60s artists began pushing beyond the stylistic imperatives of modernism and I think it was for the better. University programs that denigrate representation on principle from my point of view seem to do so because the majority of their faculty were educated during modernist years and those ideas continue to perpetuate (which raises questions about the faculty’s exposure and interaction with the contemporary art world too I guess). But I think the broader art world is beyond those ideas. What I do see frequently among more thoughtful professors is tough criticism of bad representational work (which can be misunderstood as an all out dismissal of representation). When I say bad I mean both in terms of skill and concept.”

When I was at the university, my professors were mostly educated during the era of Modern art. The mid 20th century had its share of violent ideological clashes between artists and their movements. This is nothing new. Artists through the ages have grasped their individual nuanced views and defended them like gospel, fomenting a backlash from the establishment as well as the rising talent.

But is an artistic approach ever gospel?

And so here is the conclusion that I never really made in the last post: Let’s separate art from gospel. Teach your expertise, yes. But find out what moves the student if you can, and teach the student to extract their own genius out of the myriad of possibilities. Don’t tear down craft for the sake of novelty. It’s not new anymore. Thank God for Bruce Smith, who told me “It’s not good enough to be different, but it’s different enough to be good.”

On a different note, here is a comment by Carl:

I think one of the points where Scruton is dead wrong is where he creates a false dichotomy between usefulness and beauty…I think think Scruton is falling into classicist grooves here without digging deeper.

Carl, I couldn’t agree more.

One more thing. Carina, I’m coming back for you on the art as a commodity statement. Look for a post soon. And thanks to so many of you who read my last post and/or commented here or on Facebook.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Felicia Barnes permalink
    January 31, 2012 3:20 pm

    Thank you for sharing this discussion and your thoughts on this topic. I feel this is very relevant to any artist trying to find their voice. I encountered a similar topic in Scott Burdick’s “The Banishment of Beauty”. You might find it interesting. It is rather long but I felt worth the time. http://www.youtube.com/user/ScottBurdickArt#p/c/619ED61282CD714E

  2. January 31, 2012 10:54 pm

    The last two posts have intrigued me. I love art . . . love beauty . . . love being touched, challenged, surprised, moved, stretched, and nudged to see things differently. I’ve noticed something, though, as I’ve looked at a lot of different art works (a term I prefer over “works of art”, as it’s so laden with various baggages): there’s a beauty in something simply coming from good hands powered by a good heart with a good motive; and then there’s a beauty qualitatively different and far far beyond that when excellence pushes an artist to delve deeply into their experience and imagination to produce something that not only moves, but brings real meaning.

    Case in point . . . when in Provo last October, my family and I went to the BYU Museum of Fine Art. On display there was a positively ginormous painting of the nativity which struck me like no other ever had. Instead of a distantly serene Mary and Joseph, bending over a glowing holy child, there was Mary with the exhausted, triumphant, and overwhelmingly loving countenance of a woman newly emerged from childbirth. Joseph knelt beside her as she cradled the sleeping newborn (that looked like a newborn), his hand on her shoulder as his face, full of relief and wonder and love, gazed on the miracle child. And, then, over all of this, and taking up more than 75% of the canvas, were angels upon angels upon angels, crowding and flowing past to see . . . eager as they approached, and with faces rejoicing, weeping, singing, praising as they passed on. Different, because the faces were ordinary, not perfectly beautiful and distantly “spiritual”.

    In contrast, when I see art that seems completely without rhyme, reason, or coherence, I feel somewhat snubbed . . . as though that work is only for those in the know. (Which was how I felt when I followed the link at the top to the gallery page . . . no explanation of the photo there, just strangeness and raw edges and no idea of what it is.)

    So, there’s my .05, for what it’s worth. (Sort of tangential, and just hits one point you’ve talked about . . . but that’s me. ;o)

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