L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Language is the problem

Most artists - and probably anyone else who ponders such things - would say that art is about communication. It may do other things as well, but most people would say that art will always say something. Fine. I can easily agree with that.

The problem - as I see it - is that, preparing to wade into the twentieth century, artists decided that in order to be Modern - the great addictive striving of the technological age - they needed to remake the vocabulary of visual art. They needed to devise a new language. New languages, actually: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Expressionism - all the "isms" - down to abstraction, Pop art, conceptual art. Schools of art that attempted to "break the mold" - you always need to break a mold in order to make anything good, you know - to show the world something new. And then another school, another new. Or just individuals following their own path, but always with the goal of making something new.

This has also been the age when artists went from being craftsmen to being something else. To being something special, something different. Visionaries. Celebrities. Artists. When artists were content to record "what is" - or even an imaginary "what could be", based squarely on "what is" - they were craftsmen, striving to be the best at their established craft. Even the revolutionary "art stars" of the past - the Michelangelos, Leonardos, Caravaggios - still worked within a fairly prescribed framework of pictorial representation. When artists decided that it would be better - newer - to imaginatively interpret "what is" - or more, "what isn't" - all bets were off. Anything was possible and, eventually, anything was permissible. Anything came to be accepted as art. At least anything new, anything approved by whatever current art establishment. That very rarefied strata that has eventually changed the definition and understanding and reputation of art.

Collecting fine art, living with it, has always been the privilege of wealth, but the imagery was always comprehensible to anyone; wealth and sophistication weren't prerequisites. But in the last century, art has become less and less accessible to the general public. Artists and the art establishment make art for themselves; they don't really make any effort to communicate beyond their own sphere. They have devised their own language. If you take the time, you may be able to learn that language; I'm sure it's worth the effort. But it is "elitist"; it has earned that criticism. If you demand that people must be instructed, that art must be explained, if you often refuse to give them anything of what many feel is the greatest purpose of art - beauty - then you leave many, perhaps most, of the world out. You have excluded them.

(Which is fine, I suppose. I see nothing wrong with strong-willed individualism. Do what you want. Make what you want. But don't be surprised or indignant when the public has become so disconnected from and/or uninterested in the arts that schools don't see a need to teach them and that our government looks on them with such disdain that they don't really care to support them financially.)

And so here's where I fall off the edge of the world. The edge of the art world, anyway. Because I believe art should be - relatively - accessible. It can be many other things: thought-provoking, beautiful, ugly, tranquilizing, incendiary, things I might not want to see, or something I just can't understand. But I believe at least I should be able - without instruction or explanation - to access the question. That is what I want in art and I really believe that most of the world wants it, too. If they even remember what art can be.

I don't mean this to be dogmatic; I think there should be room for everything, all forms of artistic expression. Chacun à son goût, as the French say. Each to his own taste. But the balance is horribly off. Craftsmanship needs to celebrated at least as much as nouveauté. And it isn't. And comprehensibility and accessibility should be seen as virtues. You can speak the language of the public - of "real people", people who need art, even if they don't know it - and still manage to say something meaningful.


  1. "But I believe at least I should be able - without instruction or explanation - to access the question."

    yes, could not agree more. anything that requires an MFA or an instruction manual is likely not quite as important as it thinks it is. understanding of a work can be enhanced by theory or history or academia, but only enhanced. it can't be comprehended b/c of those things

  2. Thanks, bp. It's heartening that, as I "come out of the closet" a bit more about my ideas and beliefs on things "artistic", I'm finding smart, accomplished people who might just agree with some of the things I have to say on the subject.

    I've kept pretty quiet about this blog, generally, afraid that I'd piss off fellow artists; it's a little difficult to rail against contemporary art without contemporary artists thinking you're saying their work is crap. (And, especially, when sometimes I am.)