As the old adage goes: “Art is in the eye of the beholder.” Today, art is commonly referred to as subjective. Duchamp proved that anything can be deemed art, but how do you determine if something is good art? Is it the technique and how successful it is executed; the quality of the rendering; the message and how it is conveyed? For me, it is a combination of all of the above, and if you can achieve something that turns the “establishment” on its head or challenge the viewer to look beyond the surface, you are golden. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge advocate for art that primarily focuses on craftsmanship and the object itself, but pivotal moments in recent Art History have been made by artists who have questioned and transformed acceptable norms.
Art is as diverse as its intended purpose and the people who create it. There are many instances in which I question, “Why is this considered a masterpiece? I don’t understand. Is something wrong with me? Maybe I went into the wrong field.” I think it is human nature to have self-doubt, but I also think it is also important to learn about the work or artist before you dismiss it. Keep in mind that personal motivations and ambitions also influence some perspectives and enthusiasm for a particular artist or work.
A few years ago, I encountered a visitor who was very upset by the art on display at the museum. At the time, we were showing the detailed animal dissection paintings of a local artist. She suggested that there was something wrong with us because we would show something that was clearly unacceptable. She also informed me that art should be “pretty and happy.” In turn, I asked her if life was always “pretty and happy” and gave her a little Art History lesson on “meat” paintings, specifically focusing on Rembrandt. I found this conversation amusing on many levels, because it not only exposed the viewer’s owns biases but her fears as well. In 17th Century Dutch painting, Vanitas paintings were often created as symbolic reminders of our mortality, a topic we generally steer clear of in American society. I also found it intriguing that the butcher case at the supermarket or a burger on a grill might not get this kind of reaction…except maybe from vegetarians 🙂 This conversation has stuck with me over the years.
Yesterday, I came across an article that reminded me of this incident. It was about a Taiwanese photographer, Tou Chih-kang, who created portraits of dogs prior to their execution at a shelter. I actually became physically nauseated thinking about these poor dogs and how they endure this treatment because of human intervention. If you did not know the story behind the photographs, you would think, “Oh, what a lovely photograph of a dog!” Clearly, this was not a happy story, but a story that needed to be told.
How does this tie in with this exhibition, you may ask? As you watch these artists and their process, think about the issue of art and what it means to you. What attracts/repels you and why? This is a unique glimpse behind the object and into the world (and mind) of the artists. When retelling a story, Art Historians often have to provide (or surmise) the social context surrounding a work. In this case, the artists are presenting their own background and commentary. By the end of this journey, it will be interesting to see if this experience will enhance the end result.