The Greater Good and the Lesser Evil

The more art web- and paper-based publications I read, the less I want to read. Such a polarized landscape. The dumbing-down, super-mass audience camp has been reporting on the same type of subjects over and over for years. Then there are the upper-crust writers that because they self-publish their own blog or magazine feel entitled to say what is good and what isn’t without giving a thorough argument. There is no non-defensive-sounding way to say that; the logic follows that If I’m critical of other writers, it means I’m simply jealous because I can’t bring it. I’m not defending crappy art though. For every snooty artist or critic, there’s a glut of uneducated painters that take their fairy watercolors and abstract acrylics veeerrrrry seriously.

I acknowledge that some art coverage is better than none in the legit and self-published media. But I think the question we should be asking ourselves is, “What does the most good?” Should we in the educated art community enable schoolchildren to draw comics as they please, or should we lead the sliver of the population that really are interested in art in our highbrow ways? Should major newspapers continue writing about dead white guys without a fuss from the local art scene, or should we leave the serious writing to erudite journals with a circulation of 5?

Let’s be honest. We can’t engage everyone. Entertainment is inertia. The acutal learning of information and learning from experiences is a choice (how many times have you told a friend in love to break up with their horrible SO?). I think the key to doing the most good in educating the general public about contemporary art lies in finding means to challenge the hearts and minds of as many people as possible.

But intellectual stiumulation will not get us very far. There’s that pesky emotional factor to consider. Connecting. Meaningfulness. Sincerity. To roughly quote Kant, “To persuade people, you have to appeal to their emotions and desires.” The key also lies in encouraging intimidated viewers and reluctant participants. The key lies in reaching out not just to inform but understand (to live with, to respect, to not appropriate) the marginalized. The key lies in inspiring the average and empowering the promising talent.

For the past week, I’ve been winding my way through a meticulous history of the golden age of the Venetian empire. I checked out Culture and Society in Venice 1470-1790 at the library because I noticed as I was browsing through, there were some thick chapters about art collecting, commissioning, and the role of art in education and society. Yes, I’ve been skipping sections because weeding through its densely-written paragraphs of name after name is like reading the Old Testament books of Chronicles: Hathshebaz begat Jethanashat, Jethanashat begat Uzbekiah, and so on). Overall, reading this book has also brought back slideshow memories of all the undulating (as my professor described them over and over and over) Baroque facades, gilded ornamentation, flourishes of all kinds, robust physiques, elegant gestures and profiles that I absorbed in Italy some years ago. It is obviously incredible to think how much technically difficult and thickly decorative art and architcture were constructed in an intense period of about 100 years (1530-1630), but more impressive is how patient patrons were to wait decades for their palazzo or church to be comleted.

I thought I might be able to glean some nuggets of wisdom from these art-related chapters. The previous book I read asserts that while political history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, it does tend to stay in patterns for centuries. But this theory does not seem to correlate to art history. Although one could consider the West to be in its golden age of development (perhaps one that the sun is setting on), the societal structure and religious system could not be more different than ours, which formed the basis for most artistic commissions. The writer does raise some interesting points though.

  • The noble class was expected to know something of art, or at least understand that having good art in one’s home and being a patron was necessary to exemplify and thus maintain their status.
  • This art-producing burst occurred in a less prosperous, stable time after a trade bust due to some conflicts and plagues in the mid-1500’s
  • Patrons who were educated and/or enthusiastic about art wrote letters to less-knowledgable cronies, educating them about art in a non-condescending tone. They also promoted and encouraged support for certain artists in their sphere of influence.
  • Art theory was highly cohesive–and perhaps limiting–and based on representational (as opposed to purely conceptual) stylisic qualities: invenzione (overall direction, as in a work of theatre), disegno (draftsmanship and formal composition), colore (color, brushstrokes, modeling), naturalezza (realism, capturing the unique character of an individual as shown through their physical form in gestures and facial expressions), belleza (ideal beauty that surpasses nature), grazia (intrinsic elegance, gracefulness).

In some roundabout ways, these ideas sheds a shard of light on the questioning the judgement of good and bad, and offer some means to achieve more incorporation of art in everyday public life while supporting artists financially, and challenging all. Art history may not repeat itself, but history does judge societies on their treatment of art.

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