Today I am 55 and I still don’t know most of the answers to the things that really matter to me.
I understand the difference between the choice in a person to change, vs the choice not to change. It has to do with intention. ( see blog post: “What I Know About Change” ) Choosing to change is not just the first step — but the greatest percentage of the distance between what we are now and what we want to be. Ask anyone who has ever changed their life — and they will describe in elaborate detail the moment that “clicked” — where they went from being what they always were to the person who is actively changing. What I don’t know is why that “click” occurs in some people and not in others. How it is that some people go that great percentage step toward what they want to be — only to turn back, or be swept backwards.
I also understand the difference between art and non-art. It may also have to do with intention. I’m not sure. It may have to do with energy and meaning and the human spirit. Or divine intervention. As the Supreme Court said about pornography — I know art when I see it. Sometimes. Some art has to grow on you, while other art leaps into your mind like a panther. Some art is context dependent, while other art spans centuries and still carries its meaning and emotions. (or the artist’s meaning and emotions?) Some art depends on context, while other art seems to be permanently imbued with its own context. Some art is beautiful and appeals to everything we know about beauty and perfection; while other art is edgy and confrontational — and seems to challenge us to think differently every time we see/hear it.
When Pompeii was excavated, the archeologists didn’t just find the shells of people who were frozen in negative space and preserved as they were at the moment of the volcano’s eruption — they also found art. They found ART.
From what I understand, this couple’s portrait was found painted into the plaster (fresco) of one of the rooms in their home. Now, it reaches across time and tells us about them. So is it information — a decoration in a dining room — or is it great art? Does rarity — just surviving such a cataclysm, or surviving this long — somehow elevate it to greatness sufficient to be studied in art history classes and catalogued with the most impactful works of all time?
From where I sit, the portrait is somewhat badly done. They eyes aren’t right. Her fingers and hand are curved instead of jointed, and not proportioned well. Or maybe that’s what hands looked like back then, or a convention of the day.
The truth is, this wasn’t the best painting in Pompeii when the end came. There were probably better paintings and great sculptures there in town that didn’t make it. But this is the one we have, so this is the one that goes into the history books. Who these people were, what their lives were like, what they did for a living — those are things we will never know — but we know their faces and their curly hair, and their focused brown eyes. We assume it was painted by an artist who made his living decorating the walls of homes in Pompeii with tribute-like portraits of the residents. He was a commissioned/ commercial artist. Compare it to our popular idea of all the paintings on the walls of castles — portraits of the owners of the residence going back centuries — uncle Posh, his father, his grandfather, his great uncle and maiden aunt — and on and on back as far as there were pennies to pay the painters. In Pompeii, instead of hanging the portraits on the wall — they just frescoed them into the walls.
The cave paintings found in the Caves at Lascaux are also in the history books — but for different reasons. The couple from Pompeii were probably well off enough to afford or be gifted with a fine decoration for their home –that may or may not necessarily be the best work by their artist — but the paintings in Lascaux are masterpieces for the time and place in which they were created, and thousands of years later, communicate to us more information about who we were and still are than most of us can bare.
The Pompeii artist probably did not work alone — he may have had a “paintman” who prepared the paints. The Lascaux artist just had black soot from the fire; blood; red, yellow and brown dirt; a little chalk; the grease dripping of his cooking fresh-kill; and spit. Man’s first attempt at visually recording the world around him was pretty good considering there were no Art Institutes, or mail-order art schools to teach him about motion and perspective and dimensionality. Whether created to record the events of the hunt; as an offering or communication to the spirits of the animals or the gods of the earth; or as illustrations to the stories told around the fire — the cave paintings are great art. If they started out as religious, historical, or even as protection banishing the evil from the cave– they have evolved or magically transformed into information about who and what we are. –which is what the couple on their wall in Pompeii do for us. They tell us about ourselves.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is not a painting, but part of a series of sketches and notes from the artist’s collected notebooks. Vitruvian Man is basically Leonardo, thinking on paper. While almost everyone would agree on the “great art” status of Leonardo’s artworks, the “great art” status of his notes, scribbles, idea-journals, and engineering designs is less clear. If he’d had a good CAD program and a home computer, Vitruvian Man might have been drawn there, rather than being worked out on paper. It’s status as great art is a questionable bet. Even less certain is the art by association bestowed on Ceninno Ceninni, Leonardo’s paintman who wrote a book called The Craftman’s Handbook, and whose nearly alchemical recipe for turning the beautiful stone, lapis lazuli, into the rich, clear blue of the artist’s palette has obtained the Holy Grail-culthood of Erich von Stroheim’s 10+ hour-long silent masterpiece, Greed; William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labors Found; and Aristotle’s Comedia.
Leap forward a few centuries and we have Picasso paying bar tabs with scribbles on cocktail napkins.
Somewhere in there, the line between great art and a great tale for the art history books gets blurry. I have Vitruvian Man hanging on the wall in the office — and truth is, if I had a Picasso signature on a cocktail napkin — I’d probably have that on a wall somewhere, too. Or in a safe deposit box. But that has more to do with capitalism than it does with aesthetics.
What I do know about art is that it has to do with communication. Whether poetry, dance, music, painting, sculpture, film, architecture, story, drama, or some subset, combination, or totally new medium — it has to do with getting some kind of thought/idea/emotion/information/energy from the mind of one artist into the minds of other people. It is made with the intention to create this transfer of energy — and to send it on its way out across time. Whether in the form of the stolen Elgin Marbles, or the silent footage of Isadora Duncan dancing across an empty stage, or El Greco’s idealized view of Toledo, art manages to touch us, alter our state of mind, and burn itself into the collective unconsciousness of humanity, so that we recognize it as “us.”
If communication is one of the marks of art vs. not-art, then is it safe to say that an object, dance, piece of music ect. that does not touch us, alter our state of mind, or burn itself into the collective unconsciousness of humanity is NOT art? This is an awfully strict list of requirements. Is this the difference between the popular song that becomes a “classic” and the 4 million songs that we hear once or twice on the radio and then release into the ether of forgotten rock and roll?
Then there’s also that “if a tree falls in the forest” question: If a painting is painted in an attic, remains in the attic, and never sees the light of day — can it be great art? If Shakespeare really did write a play called Loves Labours Found, can we say it was great art even though it no longer exists, nobody is alive who remembers seeing it, there are no quotes (that we know of) in the common vernacular from it, and we don’t have any published analyses of it? If the whole communication thing is central to distinguishing art from not-art, then is the artist loading communication-energy into an object sufficient to make it ART without other people there to receive the energy?
If Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo, couldn’t find anyone who “got it” (it being the commuicated-energy of Vincent’s paintings and drawings — then were they really great art? The brothers only managed to sell one. Ever. Until after they were both dead.
So did the Vincent canvases suddenly become art at a later date — long after they were completed? The paintings didn’t manage to communicate what Vincent painted into them to the people of Arles, and all those who ambled through Theo’s gallery. How is this possible? Were they bad art for the first few years, then suddenly magic happened and they became GREAT?
Probably not. Which means we must have changed.
We changed. Let’s drift back to the first thing I know for sure — people can change. People do change. All the time. Individuals change, and societies change. Cultures change. And in the case of van Gogh’s art, we changed into human beings who could “get” the communication Vincent embedded in it. Either we changed to meet Vincent, or Vincent predicted what we would choose to become. I’m not saying he consciously laid out the cards and then painted toward that prediction — but I am saying the one other thing I believe to be true about great art in general:
Artists change first (if they choose) and their art is liminal. That is, their art is the edge — the bridge between what was, what is, and what’s next.
Whatever the magical fairy dust is that makes artists into artists in the first place — it allows them (when they choose) to write, paint, or tell the story of what lies ahead, and to paint or draw in a way that communicates with the new and improved us.
Art is liminal and predictive, and artists change first. Great art communicates energy. Change is possible, but only with intention as the engine.
Everything else is up for grabs.