But Is it Art?

Red Leaf Circle, photomontage, © 2018 Michael Maurer Smith

Everyone has an opinion about what Art is or isn’t. When asked to explain their opinion they may say art is whatever the artist says it is. Or, I don’t know much about art but I know what I like. Neither response is satisfactory and each is a protestation of ignorance.    

But what then elevates something to the status of art with a capital A? In the Balinese language, for example, there is no word for art or artist, even though the Balinese people produce exquisite paintings, carvings, weavings, music, writing and dance. In their culture artistic expression is an inextricable part of their religion and rituals. 

And then there is the question of beauty. Many people, probably most, would aver that art must be beautiful. But what constitutes beauty? 

In his poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” His words posit that the measure of art is how close it brings us to the truth‚ regardless of whether that truth is pleasant or disturbing. So a truthful painting, depicting the horror of war, may be a beautiful picture brilliantly executed by a skilled and passionate artist—a genuine work of art. But it will not be pretty or pleasant to behold.

The following are some of the many questions about what is art that defy definitive answers but are worth pondering:

  1. How broad and inclusive can the definition of art be before it becomes meaningless?
  2. For something to be a work of art, must its maker have intended it to be art?
  3. Marcel Duchamp said of his work, “It is Art if I say so.” In today’s art world this is an accepted dictum. But, is art really whatever the artist says it is?
  4. Can one become a legitimate artist just by proclaiming that they are? Am I a chef because I can scramble eggs and brew coffee?
  5. If everyone can be an artist, and art is whatever the artist says it is, what meaningful measures of artistic quality and excellence can there be?
  6. Is art always political? 
  7. When a work is fabricated by skilled craftspersons and technicians, following the artist’s specifications, are they all the artist? 

I’m Looking

1950 Plymouth © 2007 Michael Maurer Smith

NOTE: The following quote, about the late photographer Robert Frank’s experience of looking in America is taken from, The Art of Looking Sideways, written by the renown graphic designer Alan Fletcher. Those of you with much experience photographing in public will likely have had similar experiences. I know I have. Moreover, in recent years it seems to have gotten worse.

Robert Frank spent 1955 criss-crossing the United States, photographing cafeterias, flophouses, shoe shiners, public lavatories, the abraded faces of retirees, assembly lines in Detroit. In the south a sheriff asked him what his business was. ‘I’m looking,’ he replied. He was given an hour to get out of town and in Arkansas spent three days in gaol for the same offense—observation. ‘To look’ was un-American.

Alan Fletcher
The Art of Looking Sideways, page 187

The Enlightened Window

A little after 2:00 p.m., on 15 December 2005, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I photographed the front window of Evangelo’s Cocktail Bar. It displayed a melange of images taped and painted on the pane, including: a partial events calendar, a cash only sign, an ice blue and yellow hand-painted welcome star or flower, a spindly yellow painting that appeared to be a Christmas decoration, and two Xeroxed copies of photographs originally taken by the renown photographer W. Eugene Smith, during the Second World War, of Angelo Klonis, the founder of the bar. Behind all this a table, or some other piece of furniture, leaned against the glass.

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Evangelo’s Window, Santa Fe, NM

This was not a window dressed by a professional. It was not conventionally beautiful, pretty or appropriate to the season. But it was an intriguing assemblage that called out to be photographed. And for me it was a pleasing find—a Christmas gift.

I find windows fascinating aesthetically and for what they reveal about the people who made them and those who live and work behind them. Windows are historical, cultural, social, political and artistic statements both in their form and by whatever appears on and behind the glass.

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City Lights Bookstore window, San Francisco, CA
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“Storrer’s” (vacant storefront window), Owosso, MI
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1947 Dodge Pickup, Davison, MI

The fundamental purpose of the window is to allow light in but some emit enlightenment. They are portals for vision and imagination. They can be promises, gifts or disappointments. They demarcate the here from there, the then from now. They show, tell and inspire.

© 2018 Michael Maurer Smith

 

A Contemporary Art Museum?

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The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, photo © 2012 Michael Maurer Smith

The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, which is located on the campus of Michigan State University, is, quoting their website, “Expressly dedicated to exploring contemporary culture and ideas through the probing gaze of international artists, the MSU Broad is a place where artists’ ideas, words, and actions create a vibrant center for questioning and understanding the world.”

Housed in a stunning building that was designed by the late Zaha Hadid, the 2004 Pritzker prize winning architect, and financed by the largess of Eli Broad, the “Broad,” as it is called around here, has generated a range of reaction. Some people love it. Some loath it. But few who know about the place remain indifferent to it.

A museum, by definition, is a place in which objects of established historical, scientific and cultural significance are housed and exhibited. So then how can there be a museum of contemporary art? How can art being made in our current social and cultural milieu already be deemed worthy of preservation and veneration?

The Broad, in its current guise, succeeds in provoking thought—encouraging the visitor to ask such questions as:

  • Is what I am seeing/experiencing Art? Why or why not?
  • Am I open to seeing and perceiving in new and uncomfortable ways?
  • Does the Art reside in the object? Or does it reside in the guiding concept?
  • Am I, the viewer/experiencer, necessary to complete this art by my presence?
  • What knowledge of art should I bring to this encounter?
  • Do I need to broaden my thinking about what art can be?

The Broad, however, continues to struggle with its identity. Who is it for? What is its fundamental purpose? It calls for people to come and be culturally and artistically enriched, even as it confronts them with art that is often alien to their life experience, comfort level, knowledge, education, tastes and values. This, of course, is a good thing—provoking curiosity and learning—expanding the individual’s horizons. But it is also the privileging of the artistic values and tastes of the museum directors, curators, art collectors, dealers, investors and the art press who decide what will be shown and promoted and what they currently consider a good investment. But, contemporary art by its very nature is not art which has been proven worthy over a period of decades or centuries.

In my opinion the Broad should not be called a museum or pretend to be one. It cannot promise that what it shows today will be remembered as significant one, five, ten or a hundred years from now. Instead it should call itself what it is—The Eli and Edythe Broad Contemporary Art Center.

© 2017 Michael Maurer Smith

Unresolved

Saint Podius by Pietro Francavilla, 1589, Duomo Museum, Florence, Italy

This past year I was in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance. There I stood rapt before Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Primavera, Fra Angelico’s Annunciation and Brunelleschi’s dome crowning Santa Maria del Fiore. I was surrounded by much of the greatest art and architecture ever conceived by the human mind and made by human hands—most of it done at the behest of rich, ruthless and proud patrons seeking to aggrandize themselves and extend their power.

The Florentine ruling families of the Renaissance, the Medici and Strozzi along with the Cardinals and Popes of the Roman church, used the greatest artists and architects of their time to enhance their image and assert their authority. This art and architecture, however, was not the free expression of its makers. It was not done to further artistic ideals and exploration. It was done as a service to those who could demand and pay for it. It was commercial art.

Nonetheless, what I saw in Florence filled me with an awe albeit tinged with sadness. So much skill, sweat and talent had been expended on furthering the aims of the wealthy and powerful.

Today, we as tourists come to admire these frescos, paintings, sculptures and buildings that were commissioned by rapacious, amoral patrons some 500 to 800 hundred years ago—works depicting scenes of battle, beheadings, poisonings, rape, and murder—works done to adorn the halls of power and walls of churches—churches ostensibly dedicated to Christ’s teachings of love and compassion.

Five centuries from now will people travel the world to admire the art and architecture commissioned by Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Mussolini? Can something done to further the regime of a tyrant or to glorify the pain and suffering of war truly be a beautiful thing—genuine Art? If so we must concede that certain machine guns are exquisite in their function and form and deserve to be appreciated as art and their creators as artists. If so Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK47, would then be the artistic equal of Leonardo Da Vinci. Surely his invention has had as large an effect.

© 2017 Michael Maurer Smith

Agnes, Awe and Inspiration

On the fourth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, almost hidden away, there is a small gallery in which hang seven paintings by Agnes Martin. This past November I sat there in bliss.

“ Art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings.”
Agnes Martin

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Agnes Martin: (l) untitled #9  1981 (r) untitled #5  1988  SFMOMA

Martin’s paintings are not clever. They do not tell stories. They are not about verisimilitude. They do not portray myths or celebrate battles. They were not done to adorn the halls of power. They are not demonstrations of the artist’s facility with a brush. They are simple but not simplistic. They are beautiful but not pretty. They are done with an economy of means—color washes and pencil markings on gessoed canvas.

To sit with Martin’s painting is to sit in peace in the presence of essential beauty. They bespeak reverence but not for any god with a name. They are pure in their imperfections.

A little more than 2 months before visiting SFMOMA I was in Florence, Italy. There I stood in awe of Michelangelo’s David and works by such masters as: Fra Angelico, Donatello, Uccello, Botticelli, and Vasari. All these artists were and are unsurpassed in skill. But awe is not the same as inspiration.

Martin made her own rules. Working in solitude in New Mexico, after leaving New York in 1967, she developed her own visual lexicon. And unlike the renaissance masters, her art was not restricted and directed by the demands of the church and wealthy bankers. Her art was the manifestation of her own vision, truth and integrity.

I am in awe of what the old masters accomplished. But I am more inspired by the life and work of Agnes Martin.