Monday, October 27, 2008

But, What is Art?

The cliché in the title most often refers to the ultra-precious art critic who superciliously hides behind posturing to avoid the risk of a definitive stance. It is also a phrase that evokes effete wine and cheese gallery show openings, with competing artists' and patrons' bitchy gossip about each other. All of these have recoiled in horror whenever I have made the philistine suggestion that the art of our time is commercial.

Think of it for a moment.

Recall three or four posters on buses or billboards, selling whatever it was. Couldn't you connect immediately with what the images were about, with the thousand subtle messages in every detail? Couldn't you do that without Sister Wendy explaining what each item meant?

That was how the contemporaries of Leonardo or Giotto reacted to the paintings that today are in museums. The contextual message was obvious.

In the Italian Renaissance, the established (though weakening) worldview was European medieval Christianity, a world of Christs and Madonnas and of ferocious biblical events. That view was propagated in a largely illiterate society through artifacts sponsored (as in paid for, just like modern commercial sponsorships) by the Church.

The maecena, or patron of the arts, shared this worldview. The world had been created by God, who had called certain patriarchs and prophets until Jesus Christ, who had then called upon certain saints to give witness to the truth. All art illustrated the commonly held narrative.

But that's not all.

Renaissance art rarely attempted to be historically realistic. People from antiquity are dressed as Florentines or Parisians dressed in the 1300s, 1400s and 1500s. There's some interpretation, often veiled for fear of the Holy Office of the Inquisition: Michelangelo painted on Hell's denizens the faces of some cardinals he found obnoxious.

What's the difference? Our narrative is about our god, money, and the power, pleasure and freedom it promises to give us all. Every commercial poster, every TV commercial is really selling the uniquely American mythology that everyone can be and have all they want.

Get X (a BMW, a certain deodorant, a certain credit card) and you will be a beautiful woman or be surrounded by them, on a beach near crystalline waters and be envied and admired by all. Note that I used "BMW." Does any reader not know what a BMW is?

And the technique!

The modern, sophisticated television commercial conveys a whole contextual storyline in seconds: we know immediately she's his wife or he's her father. There are emotions: women fall in love with their cellular telephones, or think that their "chocolate" color is appetizing.

Andy Warhol, perhaps one of the first people to recognize commercial art, where he started, as art, and put the message in the following way:
What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too. A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
That is why you can go to some foresaken village in the Peruvian Andes of the mountains of Afghanistan and find, somewhere in or outside the general store that red circle with 1890s lettering that reminds everyone in whatever language that the product offered is "the pause that refreshes."

Sure, in our current economic crisis, those who did not realize that mythologies are, well, myths, are suddenly discovering that, just as God and theist religions have their shibboleths, inadequacies and downright fantasies, Mammon will not, in reality, solve all your problems, or even be there when you're in trouble -- any more than God will.

My point is not about money or religion, but about art. When archeologists of the future come upon your skull or mine and mutter, "ah, primitive man!" they will find ubiquitous among our artifacts a circular red metal emblem.They will thereafter write endless papers on the meaning of the words "Coca Cola" in the art of the ancient past.


heartinsanfrancisco said...

In "What Is Art?" by Tolstoy, which I read long ago, he states that art is a feeling or idea which is capable of causing those who perceive it to experience the same emotion which compelled the artist to create it.

There is no better example of this than advertising, although I would hate to think it the only example because this would lead to the uncomfortable conclusion that since I do not like Coca Cola, I am incapable of appreciating Art.

I do think you're onto something in that the artwork of centuries past was commissioned for the purpose of expressing the worldview of the patrons who paid for it, exactly like advertising.

Goya, for example, is famous not only for his brushwork but for the fact that his portrayals of the aristocracy were like editorials clearly displaying his contempt for his subjects whose egos precluded them from reading between the lines, as it were.

Geneviève said...

So you mean that art, like advertising, is the vehicle for the contemporary dominant values to be expressed thanks to the ones who pay artists.But if art is not subversive, it is not original art, as the sovietic social realism proved it, it is just efficient technique.

Two details: Andy Warhol is an example of an artist who has been a great inventer but then didn’t manage to move, he just kept on copying himself at the end. Maybe this is a conter example, the limit of the power of success and money, as S Maugham in his novel The Moon and Sixpence showed it.

As to the coca cola box, this is exactly the story of the South African movie The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)

Cecilieaux said...

Heart, your not liking Coke (how did that get started?) need not make Coke ads and commercials ineffective with you. Wouldn't you still "want to buy the world a Coke" in the sense of wishing for some all-American, egalitarian drink that would help make everyone smile? If so, you're in tune with the advertising. I see the values and ideas of ads as transcending the product.

Thanks, too, for the Tolstoy and Goya references.

Art needs to communicate, Geneviève. The problem with a lot of "subversive" art is that it's full of code-words from the artist's in-crowd and doesn't reach the common man. That could be said of the less representational instances in the work of Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martir Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso.

As to Warhol, all artists, in all the arts, eventually spend themselves. So what?

Finally, it's not a Coke box I'm referring to, but the metal sign. You can see it (fourth on the top row) at

Thanks for the comments.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

A quote I love from Picasso: "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."

Now that you mention it, I do kind of like the "Buy the World a Coke" jingle, although I may be the only person in the Western world who has refused to take the Pepsi challenge because I so dislike all colas.

I totally agree that art must communicate, which was also part of Tolstoy's excellent definition. Like the tree falling unwitnessed in the forest, is it Art if no one understands it?

Geneviève said...

I think you misunderstood the English word "a vehicle" I probably misused to say that art like advertising is supposed to translate dominant values: what is a vehicle but a mean to communicate??? (for what I agree, of course, that is so obvious)

When I say" subversive", that is exactly what your heart meant with Goya whose, for instance, paintings "The young woman" and "The old women" are is in a museum close to my house

and where the old woman that the painter mocks at is Queen Maria Luisa as every educated person of his era could recognize her thanks to the jewel in her hair.

Because, on the contrary of what you said, most of the paintings except the ones in the churches were not done to educate illiterate people (you may confuse with the stained glasses in cathedrals) but for private mecenes and their buddies who visited their house. That was true in the past but is still a little true if you consider what kind of persons haunt the museums even though there are more "common men" in a museum now than in a private palace formerly.

Fun that you quote Pablo Clito Picasso, because he is a good example of the reverse of Andy Warhol whose style didn't move all his career (for what I have been said), while Picasso 's style evolved constantly from the beginning of his work until the end.(for what I could see with my eyes)

Finally, have you seen the movie I quote? Bushmen discover in the jungle a coke bottle (like your heart I dislike that too) and are puzzled about which magic sign, a message from the gods it may be - and where the strange object, which may be a remain of a disappeared civilisation, first is useful for everybody until it causes fights among people and they decide to get rid of it..

(the link you give does not work, but although I don't live in your western world, I can see what you mean)

Cecilieaux said...

Genevieve, a vehicle is not for communicating, it is for transporting.

In the United States we have abolished slavery, so Heart could never be "mine," but her sense of the subversive seems to be quite different from yours, as -- politics aside -- Goya was expressing the conventional sense of tension in his part of the baroque era.

Picasso's legit short name was Pablo Ruiz y Picasso, or Pablo Ruiz, with Clito being merely one of his many forenames.

The bushmen in "The Gods Must Be Crazy" find a Coke bottle, not a Coke sign.

For a sign see and look for signs. I mean the round ones.

Geneviève said...


"From Webster:

Function: noun Etymology: French véhicule, from Latin vehiculum carriage, conveyance, from vehere to carry — more at way Date: 1612

1 a: an inert medium (as a syrup) in which a medicinally active agent is administered b: any of various media acting usually as solvents, carriers, or binders for active ingredients or pigments

2: an agent of transmission : carrier

3: a medium through which something is expressed, achieved, or displayed: an investment vehicle ; especially : a work created especially to display the talents of a particular performer

4: a means of carrying or transporting something: planes, trains, and other vehicles: as a: motor vehicle b: a piece of mechanized equipment"

Goya, baroque era???!!! OK I give up.