Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A relatively simple exercise in context

There's a comic going around the book of faces of a fat woman looking at a Rubens painting & feeling like she's living in the wrong century. As we all know, Rubens is well-known for his voluptuous models painted in what we might now call a photo-realist style. While there's nothing wrong with a person of any size looking to art for validation of their size & acknowledgement of their beauty*, there's a gigantic problem with this approach to art appreciation.

You see, art without context is meaningless frippery. 

When we deny an artist their context, we destroy their work. Take a look at any famous work & try to unknown what was behind it. Just try. You can't. It's impossible. Appreciating art without context is why the average art-looker will stare at a Pollack & mutter "I don't get it" and walk away. But if you explain in an animated fashion (as I am prone to anyway), that Jackson Pollack was a bipolar alcoholic & painted his struggles with reality, suddenly a person is able to go from not getting it to just not liking it.

Let's get a little more political tho.
A viewer standing in silhouette in front of Picasso's most famous painting
Picasso's epic mural Guernica is the only painting of his I even like. For the most part, I despise Pablo (altho, I quote him often enough that you  would never know it), because he was a shallow, abusive, sexist, alcoholic with very few redeeming qualities** - however, he was a brilliant painter. The reason I even like Guernica is because it's about the Spanish Civil War, & according to Wikipedia is "one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history." Without that bit of context, you would stand in front of it looking at the technical precision, but would never be able to appreciate the soul of the work. Which, let's face it, is the important bit.

The way we look at art is pretty extreme in its shallowness. I think that's why a lot of people only think about middle-Renaissance work when they think about art appreciation: that's the point in art history where the shallowness of the work is equal to our understanding of it. We appreciate the technical precision. The colors. The composition. And that's all, because that's all there is to it. Yes, works like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are amazing in their magnitude, & with any luck you could find some academic appreciation of it that would provide adequate context to be able to reliably understand the work, but the reason Michelangelo was a genius has little to do with his technical abilities***.

My point here, is that when you look at art you must read the little sign next to it. Maybe you think art should be able to speak for itself, but it can't. Not even the most educated art historian can pull "Spanish Civil War" just from the composition, technical precision, & palate of the piece above. You have to understand something about the world that needed this work before you can actually appreciate it.

As to the comic I mentioned at the beginning of this screed: most Renaissance art is vapid & shallow. The people who painted these works weren't trying to say anything about beauty - if anything, pieces like The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus were exercises in avoiding abject poverty. That, my friends, breeds cynicism.

And cynicism is the most deadly of art's enemies.

*Remember kids, it's what you are like, not what you look like that's important. Pull that beauty from your character not your size, shape, skin color/clearness, or gender presentation. You are so much more valuable than the accidents of genetics that made your physical form. Trust me on this one.
**My opinion, you see. I'm not going to be swayed against it.
***You might be a bit scandalized by this, but he didn't really paint most of that piece. Large scale commissions are why God invented apprenticeships.

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