The New Problems/ some thoughts on art

June 26, 2013

I’m enrolled in a painting class for the first time in over a decade, and I’m really enjoying it. Much better to know that oils require both a solvent AND a medium, which no one ever told me at KCAI. I blame myself, I could have looked it up, but instead I haven’t touched oil paint for a third of my life.

With class, comes readings, and with readings, come response essays. This one is ostensibly a response to a chapter by David Deutsch, but I very quickly go off on a tangent about the nature of art and how my son perceives things. I was told this would be a better blog post than essay by my Professor ( Hi Gabrielle!) and she’s probably right. So without further ado:

The New Problems

Response to “Why Are Flowers Beautiful?”, from The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.

David Deutsch wants to make a case for an objective basis for beauty in aesthetics and art.

This is an excellent chapter to have read this morning as in between seeking botanicals to approximate a natural color wheel.  I appreciated the search for color varieties among the rich consistent greens, and felt as though I was on a quest to find a mythic creature: a rare blue out in the wild. I wonder if that isn’t the basis for our appreciation of beauty as much as anything else- rarity. Value is created by the perception of uniqueness. If the natural landscape where comprised of mostly flowers, we might re-examine the inherent loveliness of an oak leaf, but on this planet, brightly colored, delicate petals with unique patterns are harder to come by, so we look a bit harder at them.

People are discrimination machines, in the pure sense of simply distinguishing one thing from another. We begin classification in the crib, and learn to spot differences, similarities and patterns as a necessary cognitive tool, one that allows us efficiency and depth in thinking. Generalizations occur as we replace an objective ongoing investigation of the real world with the simulacra we create inside our heads. This allows us to walk down the street without stopping every 2 feet to examine each new dandelion we encounter.

My son is one and stops to examine everything. We never get anywhere, which is my point. Eventually he will create a map of the world in his head and will see a generalized tree, or dandelion, or bug, and he will zoom right past them on his way to enact a plan- climb a tree, play ball, etc. I enjoy sharing walks with him, because it slows me down too. Our short-but-long walks remind me of artist thinking.

Artists push our perceptions back to that examination of minutia, framing an object or a moment in such a way to allow us to see it again, past our separations, categories, assumptions, short cuts and calluses. Just like disrupting a visual or musical pattern creates focus and contrast, placing a ‘frame’ around a moment of reality allows us to focus on the poetry that was always present.

Specialization in any field is an inevitable progression: as new information is discovered, new language is required to condense and communicate ideas. Bundled in this information are field-specific axiomatic truths- the sum of years of accumulated discovery. Any advanced study, whether of arts or sciences, requires practitioners to understand this dense bundle of information and be able to communicate and make use of it. There are, in effect, ‘initiates’ in any given field who must first master this shared language to proceed.

In art this means understanding the principles of design, composition and color. We understand these formal concepts- balance, symmetry, harmony, as an inherent function of what is attractive visually.  But what do we use the tools for? Not just recording what is pretty in the world. We have tools for that. So what do we use art for?

For me, modern art- or ‘art’ with a capital ‘A’- is born somewhere between the invention and widespread commercial use of the camera. The burden of art had been split between fairly utilitarian purposes for most of history- either to resemble the physical world (representation) or to illuminate a higher truth- (bible stories, divine right of kings-style illustration).

Partly this is due to the patron-system that placed artists in the service of Royalty and Religion, which used art as a tool for address and control, and as a status symbol. The rise of the middle class brought with it new opportunities for different use of art.

But these jobs for art speak to an innate need to understand and imitate our universe.

Photography takes away the mimetic burden, and asks artists to consider other criteria for art making. Artists responded by examining the formal aspects of art making- color, form, space, and within less than a hundred years from the debut of the camera, artists reject ‘subject’ as the primary motivation for art making, instead focusing on how an artwork is situated in a larger ongoing narrative. The camera records reality perfectly well, which makes room for modern art and the modern artist, for whom representation is only one decision among many to consider when producing art.

This engagement in an ongoing meta-narrative provides artists with new problems to address in their work. Artists are in the business of inventing new problems and then solving/ investigating them with their work. The historical ‘problem’ of how to represent reality objectively (which for centuries was a basis for accomplishment) has given way to what is new, novel, or almost metaphysical that an artist can express.

The question for an artist is not just ‘what’ to make but ‘how’ and ‘why’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: