I went on a docent-led tour at the museum this afternoon. The topic: artists bending the rules.
The docent was a seventy-year-old woman with marked arthritis of the spine. To turn to look at something she had to turn her whole body; her neck was frozen. She has not allowed her body’s aging limitations to keep her away from her love for art.
One painting that we looked at showed a variety of brush strokes, a variety of ways of applying paint. Much of the area of the painting was laid down with a full brush, the paint thick on the canvas, dripping before drying; a few areas were flat and matte and these surprisingly effectively punctuated the work.
Many pieces that Hilda featured on her tour were huge pieces for public spaces. In this they were like the huge works Renaissance art patrons commissioned for churches and palaces in Florence, Padua, and Venice. Many of these works were executed by American women artists. I found myself thinking how modern art might be called post-modern. Through the centuries, artists gradually learned to give their one-dimensional paintings the illusion of three dimensions. Modern artists, on the other hand, knowing well enough how to add depth and perspective intentionally create flat images, subvert conventions about light, volume and media, and on the whole create thrilling experiences for us who are inured to reality TV and mobile-device games.
Art, whether in photography or other visual media, often shows the extraordinary effort taken by the artist to create it. One video installation showed the artist trekking through sun-baked mudflat with his Fresno glass scorching lines on the earth. What an intrepid imagination! But doing this under the blazing sun for two days is artistic effort.
The museum currently displays Ai Weiwei’s latest works. One installation memorializes the death of thousands of Chinese schoolchildren in Sichuan after an earthquake. Weiwei collected steel rebars from the collapsed schoolhouses, straightened and heaped them on the floor to create undulating lines of shuddering earth. A database of victims’ names with their dates of birth covered the whole of one wall, a tape recording of hundreds of people softly speaking each victim’s name. Art uses circumstances like tragedy to fire up the creative process.
Art seems to require an organic connection to an actual object or event that the artist transforms through his vision into its equivalent, the equivalent no longer constrained to its figurative representation but presented in the artist’s own artistic vocabulary. While artists before the 19th century worked to try to capture verisimilitudes of reality, modern artists use reality as a springboard to release their own creativity to represent the energy of that reality.
To appreciate modern art one has to cultivate one’s own capacity to listen to our own inner voices, see with our own inner eye, feel what the artist feels that we experience the artist’s experience in our own language. This link to an actual object, an actual event, an actual voice or sound or feeling seems necessary to bound the artist that he does not wander in structureless space. The artist’s native culture or cultures that he acquires of necessity add shape to his work and the sum of these and many other dynamisms pour into the final product: a piece of articulate, articulating art.
Maybe because I’ve come to art so late in life I like experimenting with lights, lines and hues. Someday, maybe when I’m the docent’s age, I may find my own rebar vocabulary. Meanwhile I’ll enjoy discovering art’s rules and breaking them when I need to in the service of creating something fresh and new.