Michael Battalio

Friday, November 27, 2009

Serious conversations (part 10):

        This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine. We began with religion and have now moved onto many other things. These are my edited responses from that conversation. The tenth entry in this series is about art:

        I think there is a caveat to the typical definition of art.  (My friend began the discussion with the sort of definition a critic or textbook would give: art is a timeless expression of some feeling or sentiment.) Art may be a timeless expression of some feeling, but that feeling can be different for different times.  Great art will be able to continuously fit into the mold of attractiveness for a time period.  The question is who defines truly great art?  Who gives art meaning?  The short answer is an individual.  Just because a critic or the populace decides something is a great piece of art doesn't make it great to you.  
        My friend has a hard time getting a particular feeling or expression when viewing art. She is far more interested in the historical context within which it originally fit than with what the painting might express. She believes that many probably do not find something meaningful in art. She supposes that it means far more to them to be able to say that they have seen the painting, rather than to actually look at the painting. So, the true value of the old masterpieces now is that we can say we saw them. A critic might disagree, but in terms of the popular masses, they probably only look at art because other people tell them to. The question is why are some pieces are art “great”, but others not? And is greatness something intrinsic to the piece of art or a result of critics influencing the public or something else?
        I replied: Just because you don't feel that a particular piece of art isn't expressing something to you doesn't make it meaningless and consequently not art. Art doesn't necessarily have to impose meaning to everyone for it to be great.  Art can be considered simply for its own beauty, its appeal to the senses.  That can be technical beauty, as in the level of skill the artist had to demonstrate to create the work.  It could be the intrinsic beauty, as in the colors, composition or form of the subject is pleasing to the eye.  Or I suppose it could be the contextual beauty, as in the meaning we give to a subject makes it beautiful, the sunset is beautiful, two people in love is beautiful.
        I can't say why a great painting doesn't impart meaning to some people. It could depend on the kind of person one is, an analytical person interested in facts as opposed to an emotional person concerned with beauty. When I find myself in a museum, I never to try force any emotion out at the sight of piece of art. Meaning can be very subtle, and a lot of the time I don't get it either, but sometimes meaning will jump off the canvas and hit you.  You just have to be open to it.
        It is probably correct to say that most people see art because others say they should go see it.  Most people follow instead of lead.  People are attracted to what they are told is attractive, find beauty in what they are told is beautiful, see meaning where they are told to see meaning, so I would agree that critics of art steer us to what they conclude just because they are held in authority. Although, it might be because you are seeing something that's one of a kind, unique.  A painting can also connect you to the time period it represents.  A picture is a thousand words.
        However, some pieces and artists are great because they were the avant-garde for a new way of thinking, a new way of artistry or simply because they were one of the first masters of a particular genre or medium.  That might have inspired the interest of the masses at first.  I would imagine though that the continued influence of the great works has to do with a bit of everything - originality, critics, fashion, political and social relevancy.

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