I’ve heard many, many people say that they don’t understand how so-and-such an art work is actually even art. Whether it’s something like Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue III or Chris Burden’s Shoot, people often see art pieces and think to themselves “How is this art?”
Quite often, this question can begin to be answered by looking for the artist’s statement. Who better to tell you why an artwork is art than the artist themselves? But honestly, to really understand an art piece, you have to dig deeper than that. If you want an art piece to speak to you, well, sometimes you’ve just got to know the language that the art is speaking in.
The first (and only) time that I’d ever been to New York City was Spring Break of 2017. It was incredible! My school, Myers School of Art, gave us metro passes and free day passes to all sorts of museums. Plus, the professors advised us of some good spots to eat. Hello, Zabar’s!
Just like my decision to come to Seattle, my decision to go on the Spring Break trip was last minute. I had gotten a text the night before everyone was supposed to leave that a classmate had to drop out of the trip, and that I could take her spot for a discount! So I packed my bags that night and boarded the bus for an 8 hour trip the next morning.
Leaving on such short notice, and never having really considered visiting New York City before, I had absolutely no idea what sort of things to look forward to. Well, except for the Toynbee Tiles, I knew that those were there! But I didn’t even know which museums we would be visiting. And I’m glad that I didn’t! With no expectations, it’s impossible to be disappointed. 😉
I was majoring in painting at the time, and was absolutely elated to discover that the first exhibit in the first museum that we visited was Vassily Kandinsky, a.k.a. one of my favorite painters!
It’s extraordinarily easy to see that Kandinsky’s paintings are works of art. Just consider this piece down below, Striped 1934.
I never got a chance to see this painting, but gosh, do I love it!
Is it realistic? No. But it’s clearly planned, thought out, and expressive. Even without knowing that Kandinsky was friends with Paul Klee, or that some of his works are in the same artistic movement as Jean Miro and Piet Mondrian (amongst others), one can tell that this piece took consideration and time. The clearly separated colors and clean lines are in no way an accident. This painting oozes ‘intention.’ It’s a playful expression of form, color, and composition, through and through.
Knowing the artist’s history, and the movement he was a part of, only gives more meaning and significance to the piece. Would you consider this painting to be an expression of spiritualism? To Kandinsky, it was. To Kandinsky, that’s exactly what abstraction was; it was the expression of a spiritual reality that couldn’t be put to words, nor translated as representational images.
“With few exceptions, music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound.“
Vassily Kandinsky was heavily influenced by music. Music, according to him, was an expression of the soul. How could it be an expression of anything else? It’s always been an art form meant to evoke certain emotions in its audience. In Kandinsky’s words, “With few exceptions, music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound.”
There is, of course, so much more I could say about Kandinsky. But, alors, this post isn’t about him!
How Is That Art?
While the Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim was positively empty, the MoMa was an entirely different story. Van Gogh’s Starry Night was visiting at the same time as my school, so the museum was crowded. To even get close enough to see the painting was almost a 15 minute wait! And Monet’s Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond? Well, that’s a 42 foot long painting, and it was near impossible to catch a glimpse of the whole length of it without someone standing in the way to snap a photo. I loved it all anyways! It was part of the experience, after all.
While at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), I got to see another one of my favorite pieces; Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel. This piece is hilarious. All it is, is a bicycle wheel stuck in the top of a stool and presented as a sculpture. That’s it. It’s very, very tongue in cheek.
Marcel Duchamp was a part of the Dada movement. Their art embraced absurdity and rejected tradition. Dada was a reaction to World War I. It didn’t make any sense, the war. How could people explain such senseless violence? According to Dada, the world didn’t make any sense at all! And if the world doesn’t make any sense, then why should art?
This is the vein of thought that Marcel Duchamp worked in. Which is interesting, as he was an avid chess player, to the point that his wife divorced him because he spent more time playing chess than he did with her! Though, I suppose when the world feels chaotic, there’s a certain respite to be found in games of strategy, as well as embracing absurdism.
Consider these words from the Dada Manifesto, written by Hugo Ball,
“What we need is works that are strong straight precise and forever beyond understanding. Logic is a complication. Logic is always wrong. It draws the threads of notions, words, in their formal exterior, toward illusory ends and centers. Its chains kill, it is an enormous centipede stifling independence.”Tristan Tzara,”Dada Manifesto 1918″
And if nonsense could be art, then why couldn’t everything be art? Any manufactured item you could possibly think of had to be designed and created, right? Is that not art, then? If so, why, and if not, then why not? So, Duchamp started labeling found objects as art. That being said, he certainly wasn’t the first to do so. That credit belongs to Baroness Elsa von Fraytag-Loringhoven.
Despite the busyness at MoMa, there was hardly anyone around the exhibit of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel. More of a view for me! And while I was there, I got lucky enough to overhear a genuine first reaction to the piece. Here it is:
-Man: This is ridiculous! How is this even art? This isn’t art. I could do that! Why is this in a museum?!
I couldn’t help but chuckle. If only that man knew how silly he sounded! On the one hand, yes, exactly, those are precisely the questions that this piece was meant to invoke! It was literally the whole point of the piece. His response was emotional, not logical. A logical response would have read the description of the piece, which had the answers he was looking for.
On the other hand…he was getting angry at a piece of art while simultaneously demonstrating just how successful that piece truly is. He was discrediting a piece of art without even knowing that he was asking exactly the questions that the pieces was trying to lead him to ask!
Nothing Exists Within a Vacuum
To speak the language of art, one has to know it’s history. To understand it’s context, it’s neighbors, and it’s influences are vitally important when considering a work of art. Why?
Art is a response. Even nonsensical art is a response to something. And art that was created simply for art’s sake? Well, the artist had a desire to create, and has been influenced by outside sources whether they realize it or not, which is very much a reason to create. It’s okay to say “I liked this artist and felt a desire to create something inspired by them.” In fact, it’s much better to do that than to create a work inspired by someone else and claim all the credit for yourself and say “I don’t know how i thought of it, it just came to me”!
Nothing exists within a vacuum.
Art is subjective. People can enjoy, or not enjoy, art at their own discretion. No background knowledge is needed for that. But before we can really, truly begin to understand a piece of art, it’s imperative that we speak the language that the artist was using, and to do so we need to understand a whole lot more than just art.
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