By nieznany, zm. przed 1930 (archiwum rodzinne, sztych, praca własna) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Back in the bad old “white dead guy” days, artists used to have Salons. Salons weren’t just fancy-dress parties for artists and their sparky, well heeled fans. Another term is Symposium, and there would be scientists giving papers and performing experiments in front of a live audience, philosophers taking apart various new ideas from friends writing from far distant places, and theologians talking about various edgy theories about interpretation of scripture. People would speculate on the movement of the heavens, talk about the latest unearthed documents from Arabia and whether or not they were really written by Aristotle– or Hermes Trismegistus. There were dances, musical performances and back room card games… and other entertainments. There was something for every taste, and if you were in the know, you couldn’t miss it.
Yes, these things seem to slice between various historical eras– I did that on purpose. These things, in varying degrees of formality, mind, were happening all over Europe in private homes and specially built chambers, hosted by the best, brightest, and most wealthy. Not only were the rulers of the day interested in these things but so were the artists.
Before we start trash talking this institution because “only wealthy people showed up”, let’s think for a moment about the artists themselves. ”Starving artist” is a long tradition, and the people who came weren’t always just those whom the host patronized. Yes, going to such things were expensive, but it’s unfair to say that these are exclusive to wealth. Besides, the aim was to improve things for everybody– because, believe it or not, that was the value system they had. Not everyone prescribed to it, I admit, but it was a big part of the culture. We just don’t see it today, because we aren’t looking. I mean, who wants to read about the saints, anyway? Anyway– back to Art.
I talk about salons, because I find every trip to a major art gallery or museum with a modern art exhibit distressing. Why should I care? In school I studied art– Art History wound up being my major. I did however, at various points have Illustration, Oil Painting and Design as majors. (At first I was indecisive– then I wasn’t so sure.) Thanks to the vagaries of my financial aid and situation, I was unable to attend a single course of photography or sculpture in college, because my scholarship paid at the last possible moment, and the school required that you pay up before you attended class.
I did take at least two 3D design courses, and a few 2 D as well. But mostly it was life drawing oil painting and a survey course on techniques that ranged from etching to wood engraving to “press art” derived from using a acetone spray on printed material and collaging “prints” from printed material. I also made digital art/design on a student copy of Adobe Illustrator on a 486 bought with donated money when I was in the 9th Grade. Before that, I was having fun making art with Paint III on the Amiga– which was the inspiration for Photoshop. I’ve been doing this for a while.
So when I go into a gallery, I’m not only thinking about what the context of the art is, what it looks like, and what they are trying to say, but also how long they probably worked at it, and the techniques they probably used. I have friends who are everything from industrial artists working for auto manufacturers, to jewelry makers and designers, to people who make a living (or a portion of it) selling art to publishers and at science fiction conventions. So I feel I at least have enough of a vested interest to speak on it properly.
So what does all this have to do with salons, and today’s modern art?
Well, used to be that art was speaking to the world, about the world– yet reaching for higher things. Artists were immersed in the culture of the day– not just someone’s favorite Ytube videos de regur. I’m sure they had their equivalents in those days, but it seems that not only have people gotten more isolated (in a sense) but even more so
, the artists that speak for our culture on a national level and only talking to themselves about themselves. Also, outside of a few artists I know personally, (and some who’s websites I’ve seen) they tend to just do art and it’s a full time job. And what they actually accomplish doesn’t seem to reflect the time and effort that whole isolation would suggest.
This is a lot less impressive when you remember that Rembrandt was also a diplomat. I suspect he would have joked that this was his day job. Fortunately, anyone can probably point out a counter example. Indeed, I tend to find the better art in smaller galleries, say from artist colonies in obscure places that any self-respecting New Yorker would sneeze at.
But the truth of the matter is, the closer those artists have to be to making a living for themselves, the better artists they tend to be. They don’t have the luxury of living on the largesse of the government. For some reason those people who you’d think would have less time and energy for true innovation put more skill and thought into their work.
Even in flyover country, there are people who buy art not just to match the couch– you can get that at any cut rate factory warehouse. Yes, there is “popcorn art” everywhere you go, but there is also serious art that is magnificent. I wish there was more attention and love for them from a wider audience. Seriously, one of my favorite painters sells her wares at a coffee shop and a local art supply store in Birmingham AL. Not exactly podunkville, but also not (to my knowledge) a place renowned for it’s artists.
I guess the art historian in me is distressed because it seems that the voices that are supposed to speak for our civilization are telling a very dark tale indeed. Our art has been decrying a collapse of civilization for over 100 years. To hear that statement, we have been reeling out of control since just after the First World War. The grim talk going around the internet these days is nothing new. What bothers me more, is that those big voices that are supposed to be “representative”– aren’t.
They are cut off from the culture, in an obscure, artistic cul de sac that is textbook definition of “sound and fury signifying nothing.” What’s worse, is that they are proud of it. They are proud of the blank stares, puzzlement and revulsion that they imagine their work receives. By now, most people who would have been offended have just stopped paying attention. We have all the world and wikimedia. We don’t really need poseurs who strive to abuse and offend us.
Knowing how popular my slumming on Wikimedia Commons is, I don’t think it’s because people are sick of beauty and don’t care about it anymore. People cared about art while starving in the streets of Rome after the collapse. Folks were making art in Haiti after the cascading disasters and poverty would sap the energies of the strongest soul. We aren’t there yet, fortunately. I have seen real art adorning subway tunnels that are supposed to represent territorial tags ordered by street gangs. Art is in our blood, and we can’t abandon it completely. It follows us wherever we go.
Ironically enough, this is not even about artistic style or medium. We artists live in a world characterized by an embarassment of riches in this day and age– expanded by the largesse that our decadence embraces. Another of my favorite artists uses spray paint to make– real art. There are plenty of people doing amazing things with found materials– and I’m not talking about the cheap cop-out of signing a salvaged or stolen urinal. That is a stunt– a practical joke, not art. Unfortunately, too many people haven’t gotten the joke.
I know what you are thinking, but I actually like quite a number of the Dada artists. I’m not even talking about artistic style. I’m talking about aesthetics
. I know what you are thinking. But I’m telling you, we are talking about different things. The clearest sign is in architecture. There you can see a plethora of styles, and yet– it is obvious to the least knowledgeable layman that some of those simple streamlined designs are better than others. Some seem designed to assault the sense, not soothe them.
Aesthetics used to be a science. It used to be a thing that artists studied. It was about what forms, proportions shapes, and colors were naturally prefered by the human person. If you look at art around the world, you see that many of those principles really are universal. You will note that this is not because we are all the same– style is not what I’m talking about. From Japan, Ancient Egypt, to the Dark Ages, to Classical Greece to African Villages you see these principles in action and you can study them. Yet, no one does anymore.
Well, almost no one.
The irony is, the art school I went to was known for having a very good art department. I’m not talking about prestige– you transferred at the last possible moment to UofM or CSS to get that. But your grunt course work– life drawing, design, sculpture, photography, art engineering– they specialized in the mechanics, or I should say the craftsmanship of art. Heck, you could learn glass blowing there, too. Even they didn’t have a class in aesthetics either. YOu got it in dribs and drabs in life drawing and especially the illustration and drawing classes. Ironically, you didn’t even see it in 2D or 3D design courses either.
Nope, my first explicit and intensive dose of this concept was actually in my art history courses. When we studied the building up of Western art from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance we talked about the development of these ideas. We then analyzed the blossoming of Japanese art from it’s primitive origins, the Ancient Greeks, and also the ancient Egyptians.
The most striking cultures who’s art captivates us use many of the same rules to define balance and proportion and beauty, it’s just the ornament that changes. It is a beautiful reminder that we are all human– and that, no matter the label that culture assigns you, universals matter, and are TRUE.
However at a certain point, certain artists and architects decided to give these principles a miss. Then people started tolerating them
and really, it ceased to be art. Not because of the judgment of the people,
but because they broke the rules of art without having a rational reason to do so. What to me is even more sad is the fact that by the process of ignoring those principles and the world around them, they have made themselves irrelevant, and rendered their own work non-art. An art gallery or museum does not art make.
Art is defined by what it does, not by what it is. If it raises you out of the everyday miasma of hostility we dwell in– even if it’s a want ad or a car commercial– it becomes art through it’s ability to inspire .
If you are just flinging more crap around because you are a pissed off artist– congratulations, you have rendered yourself an artless hack, no matter how much skill you employ. We get enough crap from the world, thank you very much. It is only because the dilettante culture of today has forgotten this fact– that the day-to-day isn’t the insulating bubble of our caricature of the past– that anyone gets away with this. Our language for describing beauty and inspiration is stunted because we have forgotten what the words we possess actually mean.