I wanted to write one more post before the month ended, and since the book I’m reading right now is taking longer than expected (spoilers: it’s not very good!), I think I will just blither on for a bit about one of my other interests.
University was not a great time for me, but it broadened my horizons in a few important ways. One of the best decisions I ever made was deciding to go for an art history survey course in my first year. It was one of those decisions students make when they need to fill a breadth credit and don’t have any better ideas; certainly I’d never studied art in any capacity before university, and my own efforts with my various school arts programs were, shall we say, not worthy of discussion. I went into that course not really expecting much.
What I ended up with, much to my surprise, was a new way to look at the world.
I suppose that’s the benefit of these survey courses. You get exposed to a whole range to stuff in the space of a semester or two, and they teach you how to look at it, how to identify the different elements, how they interact, and how they draw from history, politics, theology, superstition, gender, all the terrible bittiness that we use to define ourselves. Once you have this backing, an entire world just opens up. A portrait unfolds into a richly detailed hagiography of the subject’s accomplishments (or, perhaps, a subtle joke by the artist on the patron). A painting of a bridge becomes a meditation on industrialization as well as an attempt to experiment with representation, finding a way to depict sunlight as truly luminous. A series of lines and colors mashed together becomes an depiction of the influence of motion picture technology on painting, as well as an expression of the artist’s own affinity for theosophy.
And yet, as helpful as all this knowledge is, it shouldn’t be the whole story. That may be the disadvantage of these survey courses, this tendency to see art as a puzzle that should be broken down into its components. This may even be a particular fault of Western culture, seeing as how we are a people more comfortable with the word than with the image. For myself, being the half-educated romantic fool that I am, when I experience a work, I always want my reaction to be visceral, immediate, and emotional. Of course, I don’t neglect the rational study; indeed it’s only because of this study that I can have these reactions. But I think the best works are those that I can’t fully explain away, that leave me grasping for words.
Of course I have my favorites. At heart, I must admit that I am a creature of the West, particularly of the modern West, that two-century span from the French Revolution to now. I do like older material, particularly the classics of Egypt, but the hurly-burly of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is what resonates with me the most. I adore Jacques-Louis David; with his classical themes and his formalized composition and use of light, he is the true artist of liberal empire (which is not a contradiction in terms, believe you me). I’m not as big on the Impressionists as most, but I do like their cityscapes and train stations, of urban spaces on the rise. I love the Futurists, those Italian madmen, with their bright colors, jagged lines, and motion blurs, making offerings to the electric dynamo. I also enjoy the few works of the Vorticists, though their more ambivalent attitude was drowned out by the Italians’ passion. Of course, if we’re at the beginning of the twentieth century, we have to give credit to the Expressionists and their ancestors, those dabblers in primitivism and anxiety. Even though they are shut out of most histories of art, I have something of an interest in the Socialist Realism of Stalin’s Soviet Union; it doesn’t do or look like what “free” art is supposed to look like, but it is not pointless, and understanding it is the key to understanding what the Soviet Union was trying to become.
As for the contemporaries, I’m cool on most of them, but there are a few of note. I’m quite taken with the neo-Expressionism of Anselm Kiefer, an artist who’s been bouncing between mediums for decades while processing the horrors of the twentieth century. If I need a laugh, there’s Marcel Dzama with his Dada-inspired antics. Lately I’ve been developing an interest in earthworks, the movement that started in the 1960s with artists abandoning the gallery to build great spirals, mounds, and complexes in the American Southwest, trying to escape the art market by going back to the pyramids.
Now I don’t claim to be an expert in any of this. It’s been years since my last art history course, so my ability to talk the talk is rather rusty. Still, I try to keep the passion alive. I’ve got my membership to the National Gallery, I’ve got my books, and I’ve got my old university library to stoke that spark. That’s the best any of us can do.
You have to love art. It’s how we talk about the world, whether that world is the world of civilization, the world of nature, or the world of our own heads. It’s how we connect, and how we understand, and how we get by.
Plus, it gives us a lot of pretty pictures to hang our walls to make them less dreary, and in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?