There is some question as to whether art can be defined or if there is any value in the attempt, Barnett Newman made the famous comment that “art criticism is to the artist as ornithology is to birds.” If wit is the measure of truth then it must be true because it certainly is a witty statement. If he means that the artist should be up and doing and actively ignoring the type of criticism that attempts to define the artists place in art history or worse the current art scene, then I get his point. But if he is suggesting that the artist is not to reflect about the doing and the meaning of the work or considering his or her self in relation to the doing of the work then he is wrong. The basic question of “who am I” is no less valid for the working artist as for the philosopher or any other thinking person. Since artist’s are involved in the doing of art work, the question for the artist will be “who am I in relation to the doing of the work?” The artist will naturally reflect on this just as anyone will reflect on what they are doing with the time they are given. If this kind of reflection or criticism is to be of value then an education is needed and the quality of that education determines the value of the criticism. The kind of education that leads the artist to contemplate his or her standing in art history or the art world is not what is needed, attempting to validate yourself in comparison to the work in the museum, gallery or marketplace will place the artist in the realm of endless possibilities, not where he needs to be which is present to the work at hand. The education that is of value leads to an understanding of what is essential in art, this informs the artist with an attitude towards art, art history or art criticism that is beneficial. The artist seeks a presence in art, a reflection of something in himself or herself, deep and profound but intangible, in art history the artist seeks inspiration through an act of friendship, in art criticism he or she finds understanding.
Art history is important for inspiration and the finding of affinities with other ‘dead artists’ and ‘dead traditions.’ Are they really dead? Is the artist to find friendship with the dead, find inspiration in bygone forms, defunct modes of expression and deconstructed philosophies. Or is there something of those long dead artists left to us in the works they created, something deep and profound but intangible that speaks to us despite bygone forms, defunct modes of expression and deconstructed philosophies. What is present to us in a work has little to with, subject matter, mythology or historical context, the work’s message is its presence, what is essential to us is its presence. The work’s subject matter, mythology or historical context is only of value to us as a further expression of that presence. The artist finds when he seeks it, in museums and galleries, is a connection as in friendship, sympathy, empathy and what comes with a human connection but in a work of art. Of course on a different level, this friendship is tuning in to something quiet and contemplative, it is very possible and necessary to be present to the mind of an artist who lived long ago through his or her work. This palpable presence of a mind is what the artist long ago sought to convey by being present in the doing of the work.I would define art in terms of presence and essence, the essence of art is its presence and to be present in the doing or appreciating of the work is essential. Art is defined by the connection between one mind and another mind, one creates the work and the other appreciates it both uncritically and critically, first by seeing it then by thinking about it. What is that presence in a work, what is it that brings the work of long dead artists to life, do they magically portion off a piece of their soul and project it into the artifact for the sake their own immortality or are these artifacts imitations of divine forms or is their power derived from pre-existent archetypes in our collective unconscious? As interesting as these metaphysical explanations may or may not be there is simpler explanation, you yourself breathe life into the work as you look at it, the long dead artist is resurrected by your kinship. The artist long ago made a million little aesthetic decisions one for each mark on the paper or paint stroke or chisel stroke, this encodes the work aesthetically and you read this code when you look at it, as you read you project into the work something of yourself that agrees with what is encoded. When I speak of aesthetic encoding it must be understood metaphorically because it is not read but experienced as a presence elevating the mind aesthetically, we don’t analyze Mona Lisa’s smile we smile back or just say wow.
The split between the critic and artist is now fairly serious and complete, we have the artist who does the work and the critic who criticizes in an unhealthy codependent relationship, one does and the other criticizes without understanding, the one that does the work retreats into the work and without appreciation becomes egocentric and self involved, without censure his work becomes the mere mooning of passersby. Newman, in the quote above, consigns the critic to complete irrelevance which is understandable only if the critic has placed himself in position of irrelevance by understanding the artist’s work strictly in terms of its status in our current culture and not of what is essential in art. A common understanding of what is essential in this time of cultural pluralism is difficult but made even more necessary by that pluralism. In times when culture was expressed by a common myth then the artist’s job was simply to give that myth form and the critic was to appreciate and comment based on his understanding of their common myth. The problem is that culture changes and their myths with them, cultures are mixed with other cultures creating a pluralistic matrix of ideas so that the critic and artist must find the single golden thread that runs through the many forms and modes of expression. This golden thread is the essential presence the image conveys which to appreciate the critic must see the work as an artist then as a critic. In joining his sympathy to a particular work, that is becoming present to that presence in the work, his comment which is an expression of that sympathy will have value. What he or she writes as commentary should be literature with its own aesthetic sensibility both independent of and in relation to the work contemplated, the work of criticism should be on the same level as the artwork so that a true dialogue can take place.
Oscar Wilde, in his “Critic as Artist,” develops this idea with the surprising assertion that the critic’s appreciation is of a higher order then the actual creation of the work. Because the artist is involved in the work emotionally, he is not free to commune aesthetically with the same purity of purpose as the critic who can appreciate and see its meaning unclouded. The meaning of a work is what it conveys aesthetically, the golden thread, not what the artist thinks he is saying, this is especially true a thousand years latter when whatever was on the artist’s mind is lost to history but the work remains in some mysterious sense important. What gives the critic the authority to speak is his or her apprehension of the true meaning of the.
The artist is to become critic as well and is to search out the golden thread that runs through out the many and varied ideas and forms in existence to be present to that which is present in object of contemplation. If an artist sits in front of a rock and draws it, the rock is not the object of contemplation though it is being studied with great. Beauty is not the object either though it may be what stirs the soul to begin the act of contemplation, the object is the intensity in which he looks at the visual world but independent of whatever it is he is looking at. In a one sense the object of contemplation is the act of contemplation itself, in another sense he is not contemplating anything at all, he is working. It is this intensity of concentration, the single mindedness of the doing of the work that is perceived in the artwork a thousand years later.Back to Top
A picture is first the abstract arrangement of various shapes and colors, on a flat plane within the limits of the frame. If this is it’s thesis then it’s antithesis is the illusion of three dimensional space which is in relation to the visual world of shared experience. These two aspects create dynamic tension between two dimensional reality and the three dimensional illusion,[Gauguin’s figures in space] this is to be balanced visually, synthesizing the first two aspects into a unified whole within the frame of the picture. The third aspect it is a myth conveyed symbolically. All three aspects of the picture are experienced simultaneously and are present in all pictures regardless of it’s type or genre. The abstract arrangement of two dimensional shapes is as important to the painter who uses symbols to tell a story as it is to the abstract painter. The illusion of a figure in space is just dabs of paint patterned on a flat surface. Although abstract paintings may not use symbols to tell a story, the works themselves become symbolic and therefore mythic. A myth is a myth when it is transforming otherwise it is a cock and bull story. If we except this as a definition of myth, and I do, then an abstract work that has the power to convey an idea aesthetically is mythic.
The subject matter of a work is like your morning cup of coffee, it may be what gets you out of bed but is not what your day is all about. An artist may have an idea or a set of ideas to convey that tells a kind of story that the work begins with but as the work progresses it becomes more about finding it’s balance. A young male art student finds himself in figure drawing class and is expected to make a drawing of an attractive female who is naked, he begins with an earnest desire to capture her likeness from sexual desire. If the drawing is to succeed he is going to need to sublimate his desire so that he can concentrate on drawing. Transforming his natural inclination towards procreation into devotion to doing the art work, through this transformation his consciousness of the object becomes more abstract. Her form becomes an arrangement of significant forms in space and the artists consciousness of her overall form is now detached from it’s usual meaning. The beauty of the drawing and the beauty of the woman is entirely different, though the drawing will retain a reference to the woman or more exactly to the idea of woman, not the particular women. This brings us to the mythic aspect bringing to mind mother goddess figures of older cultures where the forms of woman are simplified into elemental forms which brings the mind into direct contact with the divine feminine, sublimating the worshipers energy and transforming consciousness. Although significant form has lost much of it’s religious significance to the modern mind it is still the transforming aspect of the work’s mythos that conveys the aesthetic experience.Back to Top
Wilhelm de Kooning said that he was fascinated by the idea of taking a lump of clay and shaping it into a perfect sphere taking the clay adding a little here and take some from there, continually refining its shape from it’s natural state of relative formlessness into a perfect sphere. Giving form to formless material by constantly reshaping, adjusting and forming the material until it find it’s balance and the mental energy released in working the material rests in equilibrium. All nature is expending energy to find it’s balance, to find rest in equilibrium which it will never find without being reshaped, adjusted and reformed to be aligned with it’s own higher concept.
An important adage of the alchemists ran as follows: ‘Art is the imitation of nature in her mode of operation.’ The model for alchemical work is nature. Nature comes to the aid of the artist who has mastered her mode of operation and perfects, in her play, what he has begun with labor and effort.’ Titus Burckhardt AlchemyBack to Top