Saturday, June 27, 2009

What is Art?

The Seattle Art Museum has a thought provoking show called Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-78, running now through September 7, 2009. There are 70 pieces, mostly painting on canvas but including some videos and uncategorizable pieces, all of which illustrate how a group of artists worldwide rejected the conventional idea of painting, after World War II. Traditionally, from the cave paintings of Lascaux 30,000 years ago, right up until 1945, painting was about representing visual reality. Pictures were supposed to look like the thing depicted. How they managed to do so remains a philosophical mystery to this day, but that was the game. A picture of a horse was expected to look like a horse.

After the upheaval of WWII traditional values were obviously worthless and nothing could be relied on any more. Reacting against traditional dogmas about painting, many artists around the world challenged just about every convention and preconception. Canvases were cut and slashed. Pictures were displayed facing the wall so you could only see the back of the canvas. Painting began to abandon literalism with the impressionists, who only painted their impressions of light and color without trying to render a literal depiction of a scene. Then the expressionists painted what they felt, not necessarily what was there. The action painters like Jackson Pollock spread paint on canvas with great movements, without a thought for making a picture "of" anything. Representation was out. Words and numbers appeared in pictures and instead of pictures. White was painted on white and it was called a picture. Knives and drills were stuck into canvas and it was called a picture. Forget about the canvas. Paint on people. Couldn't that be art? Why not just paint floors and walls? I painted a bookcase last week. Am I an artist? This exhibit clearly demolishes every preconception you might have held about what is a legitimate painting. No reassuring sunsets and kittens are found here.

It is a lot of fun. It challenged even some of my assumptions, and I believed I had thought this problem through already. It made me laugh out loud. It made me shake my head in despair. That’s a good show.

Jasper Johns’ targets found a path between abstract expressionism and traditional representationalism by exploiting symbolism. His numbers paintings did that also. It’s a tweak of the nose to the dogma of expressionism at the time (1950’s). Rauschenberg did the same with his cartoony, manufactured rendition of an expressionist spontaneous gesture. Yoko Ono had a small panel of painted wood mounted on the wall, and a hammer on a string, and a basket of nails, and the viewer was invited to pound a nail into the wall. Is that art? I thought it was stupid, until later, in the next gallery, I could hear the occasional bam, bam, bam of someone pounding, and then I realized what she had done: dissed the whole museum-going experience of reverent silence. Got me! It was a slick piece of meta-art.

Yet at the same time, it is small-minded, very inside-baseball, artists talking to each other about the minutia of ideas. It is like a huge game of one-upmanship or gotcha, rather than a serious exploration into the nature of visual perception and its representation, as so many artists have self-consciously tried to do, from Picasso to Cezanne and many others. And it ignores pioneers and forebears, such as Duchamp, Magritte, Malevich, and others.

Still, all this leads directly to Art Danto’s theory of what art is. In his book, The Madonna of the Future, he defines it as a conversation. I think he is completely correct. Art is a conversation among artists in an established context of artistic production. Yes, I have myself pounded nails into painted wood in my life, but that does not make me an artist, because I did not do it in the right context. My intentionality was not artistic communication. Painting is not what that hangs on museum walls. It is about the ongoing conversation among artists, their critics and viewers, trying to understand the relationship between humanity and the rest of the world. This has been true since the cave paintings at Lascaux. If you thought art was about pretty pictures, you need to see this show.

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