Monday, January 5, 2009

Worth a Thousand Words

Remember that library in Prague?

This one with the blob design.

It got scrapped.

You can read about it here:

It looks like a lot of prominent members of the art community came out in spades to try to save the project. Which leads me to ask: why? what makes it great art?

This is a question that I've thought about a lot over the years as an art history major. What makes great art is much debated, and I think a definite answer will continue to elude us because we all feel so differently. In fact, through my major, whenever I came across another professor's explanation for why something was great, I'd jot it down in a special file on my laptop. And after doing this for awhile, I started writing down my own reasons, which eventually became a whole paper on what I thought about "great art." Here is a condensed version of some of the conclusions I came to:

The art history field seeks out a vast variety of methods to explain why something is important or has significance, and I think in doing so they are subtly stamping their “recommended for great art books” seal onto their theses. One professor focused on how great artists were the ones who influenced many other “great” and even not so great artists. Other definitions are: “this is important because it influenced the culture around it; it influenced later generations; it revealed things contrary to its contemporary society; it flew in the face of its society; it revealed secrets about the artist himself; it revealed more about the society it came from; it was never thought of before; the style, the form, etc. were revolutionary for its time; it was unlike anything else from its period;” and I could keep going on.

But the ultimate question here is: how do I pick my own “great art”? I think the art history field has taught me how to analyze art and to appreciate it for its contributions, meaning, and importance. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Polykleitos, Vermeer, Courbet, all so important in many ways. And in a way, I feel as though I have been turning my back on everything I've been taught, because those revolutionary pieces are not on my walls.

So what is my "great art"? You can try to define it, to put it down in a textbook and encourage others to agree with you. But I think it's ultimately a very personal set of rules that binds us to a work of art and makes us call it great.
I came up with some of the ways that great art is defined for me:

First: I think that great art is something that you can't take with you. There is something special about seeing a work in person, and it builds a connection between the viewer and the piece. But that connection has to have a power that can't be re-created by viewing a three-inch version in your wallet.

Second: Is there any truth here? (Even if it's truth about how there is no truth - thank you contemporary art). Have you ever looked at a painting and nodded? You're looking at it and you just get it. I think if there's any bit of truth in a painting, then the piece will speak to you in some way. I think you can find truth in any format, from a venetian landscape to Polykleitos to Mozart, and on to yellow umbrellas, Rothko and U2. I guess I'm referring to "truth" here as a sort of "je ne sais quois," something about a work that speaks to you personally, that communicates something about the world to you and enhances your perception of it.

Third: Great art lives! It stands the test of time, it remains significant throughout time.

Fourth: Great art says something about it's own time. It is significant as a representation of the context in which it was produced, even if it was revolutionary for that time.

Fifth: Great art exposes who and what we are! It can help you to better understand and define yourself, even if it's so simple as to say: "I do/don't like this!" That is you. The point is that it made you think, it made you make a decision about where you will stand and what you will say.
And 5b: Great art has the capacity to reveal some truth about human nature, even if it's simply your own nature.

I think there are connections that we make with a work of art that are based on personal interpretation (before we know anything about the piece), and then there are connections we make once we know the history behind the work, its context, the artist, the intention. I think both are important and we cut ourselves short when we place emphasis on one or the other. Here's hoping that the next time you go to a museum, you think about what it is that draws you to certain works of art, and how that can tell you more about yourself.


Nikki Jenson said...

Profound Bre! Profound!

Ryan said...

Thanks, Bre. I loved your insight.

amy jo said...

Breanne- I loved this post. I want to go look at some art with you :). Or at least hang some on my wall- any good recommends?

M said...

I'm so glad that you sent me the link to this post! I've been thinking a lot about "great art" lately too, especially since I recently saw a reproduction of this Barbara Kruger piece ("You Invest in the Divinity of the Masterpiece"). I think Kruger has a really good point - we place an "investment" into works of art that we want to value. And I think this idea of investment goes along with what you are saying about withstanding "the test of time." If people are continually investing in a work of art, century after century, and still finding meaning and relevance with that work of art - then I think that categorizes the art as "great."

I hope you write more art history posts! It's nice to keep the art history juices flowing after graduation. Keep it up, I say! :)