Thursday, July 10, 2008

Reflections on Modern and Contemporary Art

When the little purple book fails to generate enthusiasm for a topic I must resort to digging through journals for pieces of inspiration. Hence the following post, written sometime after visiting the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, D.C. in May.

It has occurred to me that perhaps I should first hunt down the distinction between "contemporary" and "modern". I've been using them interchangeably, and my sense is that it is not correct to do so. I confess the idea of displaying ignorance on this subject is akin to my reluctance to display ignorance of the French language.

I entered the museum intent on giving an honest effort to appreciating and attempting to understand the art inside. Being aware of my propensity towards assuming the opinions of others in an effort to be agreeable I thought it best to go alone. I struggled with much of the art within the museum but in different ways.

I've always been reluctant to accept that a canvas painted with one bold stripe is art. Anyone can do that, surely. How is it that the person who chose to do it this time became famous - or at least was noticed? And in these pieces, what is being communicated - is anything being communicated? At the very least, if a walk through a museum is a monologue, it is still assumed that the listener can understand what is being "said." If that is not the result, is it the fault of the artist/communicator or the listener/viewer?

And along those lines, what is the purpose of listening if one comes to a completely counter understanding? In other words, if the artist is attempting to communicate and does so with a bold display of color in intentional disarray with a deliberate agenda of evoking a thought or response but the viewer/listener looks at the piece, attempts an analysis and ends up in a world hundreds of miles away - who is at fault? Is anyone, or is it chalked up to everyone bringing a different perspective to the piece and thus a different interpretation that adds to the complexity and universality of the art?

If it is the viewer (and in my case I'm not at all inclined to believe otherwise), then how does one come to that conclusion or appreciate the depth of the work? Many pieces had rather drole names and more than one was "untitled" - that is no help at all.

If the fault lies with the artist then why is the work considered worthy of display and how is one to comment in a manner to convey a disconnect (perhaps that is the job of critics)? On these points I am less articulate - it is not my intent to question any of the works, but I should like to understand better.

I will return to the role of the observer and the naming of pieces. For those pieces where I could not depict form other than bold color, "untitled" was particularly frustrating. But even more so were names such as "Black and White with Red". Really? I can see that, thanks. So what is the purpse of a title? Is it simply to distinguish one piece from another, lead the observer in a direction of understanding (my personal preference) or nothing at all? Even in traditional works considered masterpieces, titles such as "Woman with an Umbrella" are mere expressions of the obvious, but when something is purposefully more abstract, is a title helpful or a distracting?

I was screaming for some clues while looking at some pieces but then another titled piece led me to argue with the artist - it did not look like a "city moon" - in fact, the moon in the piece looked like a sun that resembled an African lion and the sunburst took on the characteristics of the mane. The rest of the work suggested to me a more rural landscape (albeit with a barbed-wire fence).

In a sculpture piece, the title brought a much fuller and pleasant appreciation. It is titled "sub-committee", and I immediately identified the circle to heads beneath a question mark-shaped extension. There were so many other elments of the work that were apparent after seeing the title. But, is that lazy? Should I have sat there staring at the piece until enlightened? Should I have researched that time period or the sculptor's life at the time of creation for clues? Even if I had done that would I have enjoyed the sculpture and stopped to ponder the dimensions it represents without a nudge in that direction?

Then this leads to a much broader question of what is the purpose of art? Is it to awaken a social conciousness, challenge the current accepted norms, evoke a response in the observer or serve as an outlet for the artist?

If it is the first or third then it seems that there should be a way or method for an observer to hone their ability to appreciate and dissect the pieces - to understand them both in the reality of the artist and the reality of the observer.

If it is the second or fourth, then the purpose of art is an internally-focused medium. The purpose and understanding is for a select few and only to be grasped by them. The popular masses will likely wander through a museum, pretend to understand (or not) and leave unchanged.

My sense is that the purpose is a combination. That art is in fact meant to be a dialogue. The type of conversation it invokes depends on the participants. For myself, the conversation was about overall purpose and meaning. Perhaps if I were to continue in my quest to better understand modern and contemporary art (and the difference therein) the conversation would naturally evolve.

To do so I would need to search out some answers - and that would probably mean talking to someone knowledgeable in the field and displaying my embarassing ignorance (heaven help me if they're speaking French to boot!).

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