Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Art For Art's Sake

(image courtesy)
I mean that title literally.
There's an interesting thread over at WhiskeyFire dealing with a rightwing pundit, Michael Moynihan, who posits that political correctness is destroying art of all stripes.
In other words, because art should not be politicized, and if it's controversial, should be viewed through an artistic lens rather than a political one, we get crappy art.
Bullshit. As Thers points out at WF, long legal and political battles have been fought over "art for art's sake," from the Bovary trial, all the way down to our own Serrano and Mapplethorpe controversies.
For me, art is an exaggerated reality that provides the artist's perspective on what he sees (or imagines).
Take that Hopper .jpg at the top of this post. It's a fairly mundane scene: a couple, a single man, all sitting at a coffee shop counter while the counter guy tries to engage anyone in conversation. For me, there's a sense of tension and mystery in the picture. For instance, the man with his back facing us: what's he up to? He seems lost in thought. It's late. The place is empty. What happened to him? The couple. Lovers? Is she a hooker? She's dressed kind of trampy and looks bored. Married?

We're all familiar with the concept of interpretation. We can all look at the same event, the same real event, and based on the sum total of our experiences and knowledge, view it through our own particular lens.

The really good artists are the ones who get us to see their perspective and realize things we missed. That's art, and it doesn't matter if the artist is five or Edward Hopper. What makes Hopper Hopper is his art affect us on an emotional level enough that someone wants to buy it.

But there's a larger point I'm missing, and that is for the culture at large. As JohnR in comments put it:

I've used a simple definition of "art" for most of my life, reinforced by a recent visit to our local MoA with the wife: Art is anything that someone thinks is art. Do something; think it's art? Then it's art. It helps if you can convince somebody else that it's art, which can be surprisingly easy, but that's optional.

It occurs to me that art is a communication, as I pointed out above, but like all communications, it is subject to individual accents and understandings. A rock is a communication to someone, somewhere.

And I mean before it's even thrown at your head. It provides information, for one thing: there are likely other rocks nearby, which could mean there's a large rock either under the ground or up on a hillside.

Or it could mean that there's a riot nearby and you'd better duck.
I have thousands of photos I've taken over the course of my life and I've discarded thousands more. All of them mean something to me, so all of them are art for me. They remind me of times and places and faces. I have an emotional reaction to each photo, even if that reaction is so subtle that it cannot be measured easily.
But for the rest of the argument...
Politics is emotional. It has to be. Laws are created in order to govern behavior under agreed-upon standards. Politics establishes those standards of behavior. Behavior is emotionally-driven.
All of us have emotional impulses, most good, some evil. After all, who among us hasn't at least glimmered on the feeling of punching someone in the nose? This is what determines our humanity: can we feel?
Most of us can feel anger, which is really just fear incorporating itself into our psyche. Most of us can feel happiness, which is really just love incorporating itself into our psyche. We can feel compassion, guilt, greed, envy, shame...the list is pretty extensive, but I think they all boil down to components of either love or fear in various compositions.
Art is emotional. It has to be. The combinations of colours or sounds, actions or words, shapes or people, all conspire to draw an emotional reaction from us. We all interpret them differently, distinctly. Effective artists, and here's where my viewpoint has altered slightly from the discussion at WhiskeyFire, make the emotional reaction so compelling that we want to live it, over and over again. We want to live with it and let it beat within our breasts.
What determines our society is how many of us act upon those impulses and how. Which brings us full circle to politics.
Politics is emotional. Art is emotional. Art is politics. It's impossible not to polticize art.