Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What are squiggles compared to rocks and mountains?

My "meh" abstract Wizard of Oz themed watercolor.
Art is very subjective. I've been going to art museums fairly regularly since I was in elementary school, so I fancy myself at least semi-knowledgeable in visual art. But I also realize something very important in how we judge paintings and sculptures and drawings. Many of the works I love may be totally odious to others, and vice versa. It's a fact of life in most mediums. Even things I couldn't imagine someone hating - a Degas or a Chagall or whatever - are subject to criticism. And I've accepted it.

But I have a bone to pick with art criticism in general. While creativity is lauded and adherence to trends is considered a great asset to an artist, the personal meanings associated with their art are often disregarded for an overall aesthetic appeal, no matter how ridiculous.

I took a watercolor class last year just for fun. Since it wasn't for credit it was not a chore, just an expensive past time that took up one night a week. I loved practicing my creativity and learning a new medium in the process. It's something I always wanted to do without having the chance in high school.

This was my shot to show off my ability to produce art - though I was an amateur - that I could feel proud of. And I hoped that maybe along the way I might receive either the compliments necessary to recognize my own talent or the criticisms that could help me to become a better watercolor painter.

Needless to say, I didn't get much of either.

While I learned several techniques of watercolor - among them how to accomplish different types of strokes and how to manipulate water to provide its own form of texture and coloring - I can honestly say that I walked away without an inkling of whether or not I am actually skilled in painting.

Mostly it's because I never got more than a conceding nod from my instructor.

There was one class in which we were asked to bring in a photo we wanted to use as inspiration for a painting. I brought in a really beautiful and personally impacting picture I'd taken the year before of a swan at Kensington Gardens in London. I sketched the swan onto my paper and started painting. I was creative with my brush strokes, trying to provide visual interest and doing very well until I got to the reflective portions of the water.

I ended up losing my creativity slightly in trying to produce a reflective effect in the water. When it was time to judge the quality of the works, my teacher was quick to point this out but then made no comment as to the rest of the work. Then she arrived at one of my classmate's paintings which was an abstract work of a painting filled with splattered paint and quick strokes that looked more like snakes than the mountain range that was the subject of the painting. She was praised for the way her objects were scattered throughout the painting, regardless of the original intent of the project and not considering whether she actually had any reason for painting the way she did.

A few weeks later we were told to bring our remaining six sheets of high quality watercolor paper to work with in one class. We were forced to listen to some terrible ambient music and then paint what we felt - despite not feeling anything due to the awful nature of the music. I spent the entire two hours splattering paint as if I was creating my own "mountain range."

As we went around the room showing off our terrific made-in-five-minute paintings, the teacher came to mine and went on and on about how creative it was. I shuddered.

In this moment it was proved to me, despite the praise of my inherently uninspired art, that there is something terribly wrong with art criticism - even in a small setting like an eight or nine person watercolor class. The problem is that the obsession with subjectivity has made us lose sight of what makes art in the first place.

Over the years art has degenerated into a modernist form that loses all palpable meaning. Mark Rothko painted big squares and rectangles on a canvas and was considered a genius. Jackson Pollock splattered paint and was rewarded similarly.

Meanwhile, meaningful art that not only the elite can "understand" (I put this in quotes because I question the authenticity of their understanding), is forgotten by modern art critics.

I am a huge fan of René Magritte. My dad and I once attended an exhibition of his work set alongside some other modern surrealist art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There was one sculpture, called "Rabbit" (by Jeff Koons), amidst the many paintings that really struck me. It was of a balloon shaped like a rabbit that was actually plaited in some very heavy material like iron or steel.

"Rabbit" by Jeff Koons.
The illusion of the sculpture was that upon looking at it you see it as a light, helium-filled balloon. You can imagine yourself carrying it, the sculpture not lighter than a feather. But on re-analyzing and thinking further, you remind yourself that being made of metal, it's actually much heavier than it seems.

Art like Koons' makes you think. While Magritte was a modern artist of the late 19th and 20th centuries, he wasn't modern to the effect that he tried to confound his audience by creating paintings that were beyond them. He didn't splatter paint and say it was a concept like "convergence" or "summertime." He placed his message within surrealist confines that gave them a surface understanding that co-existed with a level of intellectual analysis.

You can't just look at a Magritte (or a Koons) and understand it. You have to think about it.

In the opposite respect, you can't just look at a Rothko or a Pollock and understand it. And you can't think about it either.

While I may reiterate that I believe all appreciation of art is open to personal interpretation and taste, from my personal pursuit of understanding it, I have come to a conclusion - one I'd like to share with my watercolor teacher specifically:

Art does not have to be about being random and all over the place - it is not logical that my emotionless squiggles in watercolor have more significance than an imperfect homage to a beautiful memory during my European travels. After all, isn't half of what art criticism is an analysis of what was in the heart of the artist as they created their work?

There is so much emphasis on treasuring the abstract and unique that we forget that the major purpose of any form of art is to convey feeling. Whether that feeling is of personal emotions, to make a political or social statement, to say something to one particular person, or anything else - all art is about saying something. It's not about being creative for creativity's sake.

"The Treachery of Images" by René Magritte.
So I'll admit it's not entirely fair for me to group Rothko and Pollock together with my own dead watercolor squiggles, but when the artist is lauded simply for having their own signature style and not for what their art conveys, what meaning does art have at all?

When I go to an art museum I'm looking to feel something in what I'm examining. Whether it's the dream-like interpretation of history or society or literature (surrealism), a depiction of real-life events in a wistful state (impressionism) or even just words meant to inspire and provoke (Dada), I long to be inspired in a way that is not just because I find something different, but because it has a particular aim, a purpose. If it were up to me I'd let art criticism judge on the basis of purpose.

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