Disclaimer: These are my personal opinions, and may in fact be wrong, I don’t claim to have any theoretical backup, I am just expressing my particular views on art appreciation.
For a long time I believed that for art to be “good” it had to meet certain criteria. Criteria based on my upbringing in a highly catholic conservative city and my education on graphic design and museums. From my childhood I brought the idea that art had to reflect reality as it is, that deviations such as cubism were pseudo artistic and denigrated with the oft said phrase: A child could do it. This patronizing infuriating phrase became the battle cry against modern and contemporary art in my city, uttered by not only 80 year olds, but even people of my own generation.
And then my formal art education began: art history courses, art appreciation, semiotics, postmodernist theories. All these things opened whole new world for me: art had meaning. No longer were the paintings I was seeing just pictures, they had meaning, feelings and strength. Artists were talking to me, sharing thoughts and feelings, making me feel like I was an insider, that I knew things the great unwashed didn’t. And then I came across the idea of “Death of the Author.”
And then my world crumbled. There was no longer a correct answer, Guernica no longer was about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, Munch’s The Scream wasn’t about this anymore:
One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.
-Munch’s diaryNice 22.01.1892
All of a sudden all those meanings all those carefully hidden symbols I taught I saw were taken away from me. No longer was I part of the initiated ones, the keepers of knowledge. I was back in step one.
This led to a second reevaluation of my entire values system. In truth I hadn’t moved forward much. While I did gain insight into modern and contemporary art, I was still stuck under a rigid system where things had one interpretation, it just went from the perceived accurate representation of objects to the perceived accurate representation of ideas and concepts.
While to this day I don’t entirely agree with the concept of Death of the Author, I do believe there is an original intention, however new readings are valid and should be encouraged as to enrich the subject being discussed. So after being faced with the collapse of “both” my systems, I was forced to think, to evaluate, and to devise my own system.
What I came up with was the system I irreverently and playfully call: Couch Art and Thinking Art. In a nutshell this seemingly simplistic and dualistic system hinges on the following core concepts:
- There is art that exists for mere aesthetic purposes, and
- There is art that makes us think, look beyond the surface and search for more meanings.
This however does not mean that a particular piece of art is one or the other, both qualities exist within it in different proportions. But first what would i call couch art (as in it contains a stronger aesthetic purpose than a conceptual one)? Piet Mondrian is one of the first and best examples I can think of. Why? The artist himself puts it in the most beautiful and simple way:
I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness. Nature (or, that which I see) inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of things… I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.
-Letters to H.P. Bremmer in 1914
Here we see pure aesthetics objects simplified to the point of beauty by its pure lack of representation, a work of art that requires no further reading than the appreciation of itself in function of itself. It is however still possible to go back to thinking art: Mondrian was inspired in his own spiritual search and in a way he brings that into his paintings.
In the other end of the spectrum we have Marcel Duchamp, whose work, specially his ready mades and Dada inspired pieces. His often celebrated Fountain was in itself an attempt at shifting perception of what art was, to shift it from material production (the urinal itself) to intellectual interpretation. Thus we are faced with an extremely common object which in and by itself holds little traditional value as a work of art, it has been produced in a factory, by machines and workers that probably do not regard the creation of a particular urinal their magnus opus, yet, when it was taken out of its context and presented as something new, through the process of interpretation we can say that the object is art. This is what i call Thinking Art. In order to appreciate it thought must be put into it, sometimes even look beyond the material, its permanency in the world , even its existence.
In this way I have found that art is not an object that meets certain criteria in a checklist, but instead is something that can truly not be categorized based on how thoughtful it is or how beautiful it is. In the end I take a much more extreme view: Art is what creates a reaction from me, whether it is a chuckle at the expense of galleries that missed the point of Duchamp’s message, an understanding sigh at the pain and loneliness of The Scream, or just the pure utter bliss that Magritte and Rothko bring to my eyes.