Mythologizing classic art

My friend Joe Patti just wrote an interesting essay exploring the fallout of making classic works of art consumable for contemporary culture. Its the kind of issue that drives some of us in the arts batty. Both main perspectives aspire to justifiably worthy goals. Both things are worth aspiring to: Keeping it pure and making it real. So why is this so divisive? Why are we so confused about the right things to do?

I have some thoughts.

We tend to think of the product of our creative exertions as the art, as if once it gets emitted from the artist it has become this ‘art thing’ objectively manifest. We venerate these ‘originals’ as having the potential to exist through time, pure and uncorrupted, almost like a platonic ideal from the allegory of the cave. The further we move from that ideal the more things become translated and debased, the mere shadows cast on the wall. We take it for granted that the artist is engaged in the manufacture of idealized essences. We take for granted that when we understand the shadows well enough we are moving to a better understanding of the ideals themselves.

Joe asks, "Does it help people understand The Last Supper if it is digitized or parodied?"

Joe asks, “Does it help people understand The Last Supper if it is digitized or parodied?”

And for sure, the object-like qualities are very convincing. They seem solid and stable, real and persistent, and in many respects they are. They are plucked from the stream of an artist’s creativity and cast up on the shore, harvested for our consumption.

The interesting thing is that what seems finished from the outside almost never has that quality to the maker. The only reason the book got published is that at some stage it had to get sent to the printer. That doesn’t mean the writer was done with it, that the ideas used in its generation had been exhausted, or that further improvements and changes could not have been made. Its an artificial whole.

And the funny thing is that most artists I know, if you gave them a chance to take one more pass on a published work, WOULD make changes. The drafts get better, and what ends up being published is usually just the best of those better drafts. The thing we outsiders hold sacred and dear exists only in our own minds. For the artist its almost always a work in progress, even when it has already been launched out into the world. That is an amazing fact that we chronically and willfully ignore.

For some artists (such as myself), what the public gets to see is only ever sketches, because the finished version is itself a figment. The object anyone gets to see is merely what I have to show you at this time. The objects themselves are simply the transition points that get recorded, and their permanence is a feature only of having been used to get from where we once were to where we are going. We imagine we are seeing a bridge as the thing itself, but the reality is that we simply used this piece of architecture to get to the other side. We are not stopping there, but have already moved on. Its the litter we leave behind, the cast offs of our growth. Its the skin a snake sheds to become its new self. Every work of art ever is just a point on the map of where that artist is headed.

So there are two sides to that coin, at least. The mythology asks us to accept that once it has been set to type, cast off into the world, its own nature is established for all time. Written in stone. Embalmed. And in a sense that is correct. Essentially it is no longer a living thing, flopping about messily on the shore, but has been humanely yet soundly killed and put on ice to preserve. As soon as the harvest has landed on the docks it gets pickled and sealed up in jars. Hermetically insulated. Bolted in place. That, basically, is our model for considering works of art.

They are not simply whole things, they are dead things. They do not grow or evolve. They stay the same in some abstract fundamental sense. Its only the outward appearances, we suggest, that are entitled to be different. Updated. Its like looking back at the kid we were growing up and seeing the new clothes, the inches grown, the extra pounds put on, more hair or less hair, but failing to see that the person him or herself has also changed. That is entirely preposterous.

Some things are familiar, sure, but we are not the same person we were. And to us art does not have that luxury of growing up because it seems locked in time, preserved in some antiseptic unambiguous and ‘safe’ state. As if art were untouched by the real world. Everything else about culture evolves, but art objects themselves, we like to think, are transcendent. Its a nice dream at least……

Duchamp had a great insight that needs to be spoken here:

“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

An art object is neither a whole thing necessarily nor is it timelessly defined by an essence. It is part of a people’s engagement with the world, and how and where they place it matters. The object is important, surely, but its not the only thing.

Yes, the dead things wind up in museums, lost treasures of ancient cultures, but are we saying that all art deserves such a fate? Maybe its better thought of as zoos, where living creatures are preserved in an almost natural environment. But if cages are better than pedestals, isn’t accepting that art walks everyday streets even better? Are we simply uncomfortable with art that isn’t dead? Have we really understood the difference between when art dies and when its still living? Have we really understood what it takes to keep it alive? Does it matter?

Those seem like important questions…..


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mythologizing classic art

  1. Did you even read the post, Lee?

    • Lee Love says:

      Carter, yes I did. I read your private email too. Sorry you are offended. I was only pointing out that the post-modern view of art may be the real problem.

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