Sitting in my contemporary art class some of the most interesting thoughts come to mind. Does this mean the artists works are a success, since they’re making me think this much? Well, I don’t like to think of it that way. I prefer that it’s just my dear little professor who’s so great at making even bullcrud look like the platonic ideal. (As I type this a million references pop into my mind that all surround Plato, Aristotle. Milton, and every classical artist you could think about. I suppose one has to face the harsh reality that they’re become a by product of University of Dallas when they start popping up in your casual thoughts. Yesterday Plato was used to explain some juicy gossip. Somehow I don’t feel that’s how he intended his work.)
As I stare up into the vast expanses of abstract expressionist paintings and eventually the large red colour field of Lovely Mr. Newman my brain just kinda freezes time for a minute and turns to me, asking, “Miss. Alex, What on earth are you looking at?”
“Art.” I reply to it, preparing my explanation of the great philosophical transcendence of the zips.
“Seriously?” my brain asks, its little voice laced with mockery.
My brain doesn’t allow me to continue. “I mean look at that mess of unorganized shapes? Do you really think that’s art?” my brain asks, pointing it’s little ethereal finger at Painting by DeKooning.
As I stare into the work I can’t help but to note that my brain has a point. It’s probably the ugliest thing to be made. It’s black forms neither have order or any sense of fluid automatism. It’s as if someone with no eye for design just thought it’d be fun to slap some shapes down on the canvas, add some drips for the movement, and call it fine art. “Well,” not willing to give up yet I continue trying to argue. “DeKooning didn’t really ever consider it done. They had to wretch it from his studio, the paint still wet, remember? Think of your own work.”
My brain would have rolled its eyes, had it any at this comment. “That’s a cop out argument.” It flatly tells me. “What about Rothko?”
“Alright,” I take up the gauntlet and flip through he images in my notes, settling upon Slow Swirl by the edge of the sea. “What do you have to say about this one?”
My mind doesn’t even have to respond. I know as well as it does that neither of think much more of it than we did De Kooning. Sure, many of the shapes hold beauty for us-me, but there’s no composition. There’s no balance, it doesn’t look purposeful. You have to own your space and show a skillful ability to manipulate it, no matter if it’s a sculpture on a pedestal or a painting confined in it’s little square canvas (which De Kooning’s Excavation tried to escape from with humorous means. If only they had spilled over onto the wall too. A canvas painting that flows down its sides and becomes a wall drawing as well? Doesn’t it sound spectacular?)
My mind finally convinces me that the artistic-ness of their works is severely flawed so I sigh and wave them goodbye and move along in art history. Past Pollak (who my mind and I have to perform this little dance over all over again), to Barnett Newman (who my mind and I never had to argue about no matter how much my little professor explained), and onward to Rauchenberg until Neo-Dada srung it’s nasty little head.
I hated Dada with a passion when I first encountered it and now NEO DADA? It’s like vomiting up a poorly cooked dinner. It did’t taste good the first time and it sure doesn’t taste good the second time. As I stared at giant 10 foot projections of a taxidermy goat on a plank of wood and listened to Jasper Johns try to explain how painting a flag was any different that rendering an artistic version of a poster (for those people who think posters are only for college students. That’s what Frames are for dearie.) I find myself wanting to go back to the logic and emotions of Abstract expressionism.
“WAIT- WHAT?” my mind asks, taking several steps back. It’s face would have been most humorous at this thought, had it one contort.
“Well, I think what they were onto was still art. Look at De Kooning’s seated woman. Yeah it’s weird and half finished, and doesn’t look that hard or anything else you sometimes use to judge art with but it harkens to all your senses. I find it beautiful, emotional, and thought provoking. Then on top of all that it has all its significance that the professor tells me about. I could put it in my home, or on a museum wall and enjoy staring at it imagining the implied movement in her thrice placed limbs. It’s descriptive of his emotions and the woman’s emotions. A taxidermy chicken on top of a box with some porn is just tacky and made by someone who thinks they should be in philosophy.”
“Well I can’t argue with your second point,” my mind tells me, “but what about something a little bit more on the abstract side. What about Jackson Pollak?”
“Even there, he’s got something. I used to scoff at him when he said he would get disconnected with the painting and give up when all he was doing was splatter painting but I’ve done the same thing now. When hanging up picture of doing layout jobs I may have 30 images but if I loose my vision of where they’re going I can’t finish. How many unfinished sketches and works do I have that I gave up on not because they got too hard or took to long but because I just lost the vision of where I was going? Stories that I love and reread wishing against anything that I’d continued but had lost the vision of the story as a whole? It reminds me of the story where one day the Pope came to visit Michelangelo in his studio while he as sculpting his David. The Pope marveled at the partially completed work, and asked, “How do you know what to cut away?” Michelangelo’s response was, “It’s simple. I just remove everything that doesn’t look like David.” Well how did Michael Angelo know what was part of David and what wasn’t? If he sculpted a wrong turn and it didn’t fit his vision he wouldn’t have made the same statue, right?”
“You’re asking me to take a mighty leap . . .” my brain said slowly, thinking over what I was trying to convey.
“If this is so bad, with no artistic elements then why, as a child, where you obsessed with it?”
My brain thought back to the days in which it was still just a wee little mind and wore overall shorts and princess braids while struggling over basic arithmetic. IT did indeed love what it deemed to be called “squiggle paintings”. It loved looking for the images in the shapes, navigating them like a maze, searching for something personal and exciting. Following the pattern of the lines, trying to decipher how the artist painted them. Did they just squeeze the tube and let their mind make the squiggle? Or maybe they took the brush and just made shapes that spoke to their inner idea of beauty. I loved slanty hearts, maybe he loved loopty loops? There was something there, emotionally, that my young brain grappled onto and loved so much that I fell in love with the torpedo factory and indeed decided to purchase my own canvas painting from the art market it Yerevan that now hangs on my brother wall that he loves too. And he’s not even as mamby pamby as I was, he’s strictly a math and engineering sort of kid. “I suppose there’s something they were getting at.” My mind conceded, “something beautiful and thought provoking that does take skill, just like Gentileschi and Caravaggio’s works did. It just takes a different sort of skill.”
“Exactly!” I said, thrilled we’d finally agreed without one of us mowing over the other.
“But very few managed to find it. Too many big name artists that tried to continue the idea took the wrong direction. Instead of grasping that innate human-ness that the works depicted that took some strange psycologial, philosophical, and emotionless undertone that have to be there by the nature of the work itself and tried to glorify that as the meaning of art.”
I couldn’t agree more at this comment but my opinions are still growing and changing just as my opinions of the abstract expressionists changed as my art history knowledge grew. I’ve just reached conceptual art in my studies and let me tell you, I feel like I’m looking at writing prompts for Artists. There has been very little museum art I’ve thought as fine art at all since 1950, but maybe this will help me solidify my idea of what art is anymore.
Just as we look back at the past and laugh at their stupidity I’ve quite curious to see what the future will think about these past decades since the dawn of photography. Forced to redefine studio art we’re just making a mess of all our ideas, desperately trying to beat out a solution to that infernal question: “What is Art?”.