Monday, January 7, 2008

In Search of Art

What is art?

No idea, really - though I think it would take an extremely expansive conception of "art" to make the term cover anything I've ever done. But maybe, one way to think about art is this:

Maybe it is the revelation of things that were there all along - even the most important things that were there all along - but which we hadn't noticed before (like a microscope or a telescope, or "X-ray vision might do); and maybe also it can be the creation of a kind of an alternative "world" which is intelligible to us, yet unlike any other world with which we are familiar in its "rules" and norms. Just a few examples...

On this depths of insight business...what about Tolstoy? I do think that "Anna Karenina" is probably the greatest novel ever written - the insights into the minds and souls of each character ring so true, that reading it is almost overwhelming. The day I finished reading it was one of the saddest days of my life. (Homer is another author who perfectly captivates you, and blows your mind with just how deeply and truly he explores human nature...How could these authors have been mere humans?).

Or, what about the paintings of Norman Rockwell? (Cue reverie) I used to spend hours staring at his paintings, collected in a coffee-table anthology, as a kid, just savoring the whole "story" I could imagine behind the scence..and I always felt like I knew just what had happened leading up to the scene, just how the characters were feeling, and what would happen after...

There are so many insightful, enriching Rockwell paintings - ones that seem to "deepen" you instantly. What about "Girl at Mirror"? Isn't that perfect? Doesn't that just totally give you a sense of what it must be like to be a girl at that age, experiencing those first inklings of womanhood and insecurity and wonder? What about "Breaking Home Ties"? Or "New Kids in the Neighborhood", painted during the first wave of American racial integration? Art critics hardly paid any attention to Rockwell at a time when they were wetting their panties over vainglorious garbage from the likes of Mark Rothko, Sol LeWitt, and Barnett Newman, and it's really a shame. Thank God in the past fifteen years he has finally gotten his due from contemporary critics (the old cranks all had to die out first, obviously. Good riddance!).

What about the other criterion: an unfamiliar, even strange world, with rules and norms unlike any we know, but which are intelligible, or even comforting, to us?

One classic example of this for me is Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" - though perhaps it takes early exposure, as with language, to develop a real grasp of the thing. There is something completely bizarre, when you think about it, about a beagle as a World War I flying ace, a talking school building, or a kid (Charlie Brown) developing a rash on the back of his head in the shape of baseball stitches, making sense to us. Yet they do make sense, like so many other strange little features of the strip...things make sense in that world, that really don't make sense anywhere else - and we don't even notice, so fluent do we become in that world. Even the humor only works within the bizarre context of the strip.

Other examples come to mind: a lot of the Queen stuff, for one trivial example. "Bohemian Rhapsody" - who else could have pulled it off? From who else would something that bizarre have "made sense"? What about the lyrics of Morrissey? Certainly with "The Smiths", Morrissey created a whole little cosmos of morality and meaning - senses of irony and tragedy and comedy and right and wrong and love and hate, that seemed coherent and believable in that world.

What about the poetry of William Blake? Even leaving aside the freak-out mythology of "The Four Zoas", the poems in "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience" form an intoxicating world unto themselves...and when we emerge from it back into the real world, we are never quite the same. (Who could be after reading about his "little black boy" [the chimney sweep], or his "poison tree", or his little lambs and burning tigers?).

Something similar happens in Wes Anderson movies. "The Royal Tennenbaums" doesn't have one character in it which acts anything like any human I've ever known; yet they are all immediately intelligible...and just..."make sense" on their own terms, and within the skewed "world" of the movie. But in no other. And I love it.

Wait a second - is anyone actually reading this?

Gotta crash,



erlybird said...


Odd...very odd indeed...uncanny even.

Not only do I share you recollections of The Royal Tannenbaums (just saw it again on TV last week) but I also would point to Magnolia as one of the very best examples of Wes Anderson's genius.

And we must have had the very same coffee table collection of Norman Rockwell as you did...maybe everyone did. And I experienced the same dismissive waving of the hand toward his works during my Art History education and never understood it. Maybe that is because of how it could be seen as pure propaganda for an perfect USA that never really existed, I don't know, but I still loved them. Remember the one of the boy, a potential runaway, sitting with the cop at the counter of the diner? I had a big puzzle made of that one and I can remember every last detail. He has derisively been called an "illustrator" by Art Historians. So, what? Isn't the illustration life what art is all about anyway?

And that is my point. Look for whatever illustrates life...the fear, the joy, the horrors, the inanity, even the superstitions, and you will find Art.

What is not Art? Thomas Kinkade.

Anonymous said...

What lovely depths of insight you've humbly revealed here. I simply think the alchemy of any artform is emotional, which in a way you've already implied.

I might surmise that passion is personal and expressed as such, hence why Bohemian Rhapsody belongs to Queen and Peanuts to Charles Schultz and why a new Director or new castmember of a sequel film will be recieved differently than it's original.

Interesting subject!

Tal said...

I doubt even Thomas Kincade would say his stuff qualified as art...

zalia said...

I'm not a huge Thomas Kincade fan, but there are times when I've seen a Kincade I've thought I might like to walk up that cobblestone path and curl up by the fire with a good book. I can hardly draw a stick if Thomas Kincade isn't some type of artist...what is he? Some people make millions drawing lines on a paper in different it really fair to say he's not an artist? I think it's totally fair to say...he's not the kind of artist I like.

Tal said...

Good question - I'm not really sure how to classify Thomas Kincade. "Rich", now that I think about it, would be one good way...and certainly he taps into something deep in the psyche, some primal longing for peace and beauty and order.

But is it really art? Who knows...and maybe it doesn't matter in the end. If people like his stuff, they'll buy prints, just like we might do with Rembrandt, or someone else with Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol. Maybe that's all one can say...

erlybird said...

Sorry for the Thomas Kincade comment...I have nothing against him for making money from our mass desire to walk up a cobblestone path. And I suppose we can call it art if we also call a delicious warm brownie covered with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream, little chocolate sauce perhaps, art. I mean, I think there IS a difference between a Kincade painting and a Monet Waterlily (I once saw an exposition in Basel of only Waterlilies and, believe me, you can see too many Waterlilies) but I am not sure what it is...intent maybe...but art is felt in the gut mostly and I am pretty sure it's it doesn't matter that it is sold at the mall, and I am pretty sure that it can be art even if it IS too "sweet", and I don't think it matters how much or how little it makes you think...cause now I am thinking about groceries as art...Morton Salt, Quaker Oatmeal, the Label on Tabasco, hell...what do I know?

zalia said...

Yeah, I mean look at"performance artist". They can do things like mime, or do some cirque soleil type stuff or, I don't know...stand there and pee in a can. Somebody would call that art. For me, art is the creation of something out of something else. But, whether I like it or not is a whole other story.

Leonard Susskind said...

I've always thought of art as the outward expression of the inner person. It's what matters most about them that is also the least tangible -- heart, soul, spirit, distilled into some other form beyond the amorphous, one that can be shared with another person.

That probably sounds like a lot of crap, I guess, but, how else can you climb into the mind of another human being, see the world as they see it, experience things through them, if not by looking at the hues they choose to paint with, or the words that end up in their poetry? Was the world really so black and white to Picasso, when he painted Guernica? Or did he have the same experience in life that we do when looking at the painting: the longer you spend looking at it, the more gray you see, until you realize it is all shades of gray, and there is no black and white at all. Can Picasso tell us "The world is not black and white", or can he more effectively show us that it is not?

I could go on spewing stuff like that, so I'll just stop and say that to me, art is the only way we can ever truly be inside another person's mind, and look out through their eyes. It takes us out of ourselves. Maybe it's the only thing that really can.

Leslie said...

On a slightly off topic path, have you ever considered what the inherent value of art is in such a digital world? Before computers and the internet there was one original copy of a painting, song, book, etc... so the value of such a thing could skyrocket if more than one person wanted it. Today most art of any form is created digitally, so while there is an original copy somewhere, it can be perfectly copied without data loss, and everyone can have an "original."

Will people continue to pay exorbitant prices for their art, or will the basic rules supply and demand win out? Yeah, artists do limited runs, but I can see things becoming like the music industry with pirating art networks where people go for digital copies of the art that people are being too greedy with. Heck, maybe it already happens.

Leonard Susskind said...

I just found this website, Tal. In wondering about what art is...this man's work is not quite like anything I've ever seen before. Simple premise, stunning effect. You might enjoy it.

Professor Estevez said...

Good golly Tal, I just found your blog. We need to catch up. I finished my sabbatical and got lots of research done for my book. And I had the most intense stay in Utah possible: love, death and everything in between. Bottom line: I feel great, revitalized like some kinda phoenix and I'm seriously considering moving back to Utah.

Aslo I am working on some performance art (but you knew I'd dabbled...)

Melissah said...

The work ofart is but ashadow ofdiviene perfetion. - Michealangelo(non the turtle)

Melissah said...

The comittment to be artist is nothing less that a comittment to seek for that which isd ivine."-Bernard Rands
I just watched Astonaut Farmer and though of this. referring to the big Art not just pen and fancy paper stuff:

People have been strugling to understand art for some time. I wanted to share aninsight on one reason why books are more powerful than movies.

In all art its sucess lies in its objective quality or the aility of one to make oiit mean something to them. When you just use words a meaning can be found only by the readers ability to conjure a meaning. I could tell you of how muh a man cares for his family, but unless you have a family you won't understand or will understand in a different way, which might work, now with a movie, the actors portray situations, and the man doesn't atually love his family, unless you try to believe it. I guess the more efoort put in by the appreciateor, the more appreciated or loved. just a thought.

anne said...

What is Art? from the perspective of the artist it can be merely exploration or expression of emotion, this video simplifies it greatly but is just beautiful if you ask me.