Art and connection

In an amusing example of the way in which conversations can take unexpected turns, somebody on a mailing list I frequent posted the question “Are Xena and Buffy Really the Same Show?”. As a long-time Buffy fan, I immediately had to jump in to claim that they were not because Buffy was far superior. As did another fan. Somehow the discussion that ensued turned to the question of what made one piece of media superior to another, whether there were any sort of objective criteria and eventually the topic of what is art. It’s gotten me thinking about these sorts of topics, and so I figured I would capture some of my ideas, cribbing liberally from my recent emails on the topic.

Let’s start with the question of what is art. I’ve talked about this before and even specifically on what makes art powerful, but let me recap. I currently think that art is about creating a connection between the artist and the observer. A work of art, in isolation, is just an object. It has no intrinsic value. We should judge the quality of a work of art by how successfully it delivers its message, how it reaches its audience. That audience may be as small or as big as the artist desires. The piece may only be intended for one person. But there has to be a connection made for it to be art.

When I sang in a chorus, there was some part of me that enjoyed the process of mastering the music, getting it technically perfect. And I sometimes wondered whether a group that only rehearsed, but never performed, would be satisfying. And the conclusion I came to was the one above; it would not be satisfying because there would be no connection made (well, there would be between the singers, but that’s not the same thing). To complete the artistic process required an audience. Up until the work was performed, it is craft; it may be technically excellent, but we rarely think of a well-executed piece of engineering as art. To use a sports analogy, figure skating measures both the craft of skating with its technical ratings, and the art of skating with the artistic ratings. They are two separate things.

A lot of modern art strikes me as being full of craft, but lacking in connection. It may be craft in terms of theory, where I admire the way in which the artist is commenting on a particular mode of thought or whatever. But it still doesn’t work for me as art. Stuff like John Cage and Schoenberg fall in this category. I think that they were trying to do interesting things, things that pushed the envelope and made people think about what music was. But sitting through the performance of one of their pieces is downright painful. Schoenberg’s alleged disdain for the audience is made pretty clear by his music. But then again, he wasn’t speaking to them. So does it work as art even if I’m not the intended audience?

What’s interesting to me these days is how we try to impute the artistic work with a given value, as if the value were measurable in some objective sense. And I think that is just not the case. We all come from different backgrounds, we have different perspectives, we’re at different places in our lives, and that has an effect on how we perceive a work. So for any of us to say that a given work is objectively better is presumptuous in projecting our own experience and our own connection to the work onto others.

There’s also an interesting discussion to be had about the ownership of art, and in particular the appropriation of shows by fans. But I think that will be a separate post that I will write at some point when I don’t have 6 chapters to read for homework.

9 thoughts on “Art and connection

  1. One thing, re: modern art – I think the issue is that for much of modern art, the creation is intended to be understood by people with extensive understanding of the context in which that work appears. I think a lot of art, modern or not is like that.

    When we went to the Louvre, there was a specific level of enjoyment we got from looking at the various paintings, but it was very much in the vein of admiring the craft of it.

    When we got the audio tour, however, that understanding was magnified tremendously, because an understanding of the context was applied. We now knew why the piece was created, what the artist’s intention was, etc. in as much as anyone knows definitively.

    But the painting itself is only a painting, and without an understanding of that context, largely meaningless. Maybe the symbolism of the piece was more obvious to the average viewer at the time, but certainly not today.

    I mean, when you sing, the audience responds on a variety of different levels, right? Some people hear the technical achievement, and stop there. Some people understand the ideosyncracies of the process of singing, and can parse more emotion from the performance than others. Even still, others understand the intention and context of the original composition, how your performance of it in a different venue, in a different time, might alter its meaning, and what sort of interpretation each singer brings to the performance, and how that personal contribution affects the whole.

    Someone else might just think it sounds pretty.

    I don’t really have any point to make, though.

  2. A lot of modern art strikes me as being full of craft, but lacking in connection. … Stuff like John Cage and Schoenberg fall in this category. I think that they were trying to do interesting things, things that pushed the envelope and made people think about what music was.

    I completely agree–the concept of twelve tone music is pretty interesting (make an arbitrarily ordered scale, and build music out of that), but in practice, it is often unlistenable.

    Reminds me of that wag–‘What’s Schoenberg’s most melodious creation?’ ‘Alban Berg’ (yeah, serious musical geek joke).

    But in regards to craft vs. connection–I have found that some modern art seems to be lacking in craft to my eye. My personal litmus test is, “Would I trust this guy to install a kitchen for me?” For instance, I remember seeing a sculpture that looked like 2x4s nailed together (badly), with nails sticking out, and painted with house paint (sloppily). While you might argue that this was the artist’s intent, it would fail my test. However, granite countertops built by Isamu Noguchi would be another thing entirely [grin].

    Seppo’s point about context and understanding of the field is pretty important, and it could be extended to the engineering analogy you mentioned–‘elegant structural solutions’ or ‘elegant proofs,’ to include another field. And some engineering can be appreciated on multiple levels–a layman can appreciate the aesthetics and grandeur of the Golden Gate or Hell’s Gate bridges. But that ties back to the fact that in those cases, a connection is being made.

  3. Damn. I had to look up the Alban Berg joke. Funny!

    I knew I shouldn’t have thrown in that modern art paragraph in at the last second. Of course I’m aware that context matters a lot. A lot of it is incomprehensible to the average viewer/listener precisely because they are not the intended audience – it is making a theoretical point to other people enmeshed in an intellectual debate. And I guess my question, which I didn’t think through clearly before posting, is when do such entries in a debate become academic theorizing and/or criticism rather than art? It’s almost as if Schoenberg created twelve-tone music as a thought experiment in an academic debate rather than as an artistic statement.

    That being said, I do find the context of modern art to be fascinating – I had a membership at SFMOMA for several years (and now at MOMA) precisely because I wanted to better understand these pieces of work, and the only way to do so was to make myself repeatedly go and experience it on a regular basis and see a lot of it so I could understand the ecosystems in which the artists were operating.

  4. It’s almost as if Schoenberg created twelve-tone music as a thought experiment in an academic debate rather than as an artistic statement.

    Or to put it in lowbrow terms, that school of music was all about intellectual masturbation.

    BTW–the Anonymous comment was me, just in case it wasn’t obvious from 20th century music geekery + bridge fanboyness + knows who Seppo is.

  5. First off, I agree with your definition that art is about connection, though I don’t believe that is a complete definition.

    Art can be experienced on multiple levels – the purely subjective, and the contextual. For example, Duchamp’s toilet in the SFMOMA is a piece of art precisely because it appears outside of its natural context. It makes me think about the connections that led to its being placed in the museum, and the relationship between purposeful design and function. Duchamp’s toilet in my bathroom, on the other hand, would have an entirely different purpose, connected to elimination rather than rumination. Without knowing very much about Duchamp or the context in which he practiced, the appearance of his work in the museum has its intended effect (at least on me).

    In that sense, art is a disruption of one’s routine thinking process. To me, John Cage is diruptive in an unpleasant, if harmless way, but to the music nerd, it’s a disruption leading to new patterns. In that sense, much art can be relative – just because it has different indended audiences doesn’t make it any more or less “art”.

    I probably have a lot more to say on this topic, and one of these days I will…

    PS: How did the Xena/Buffy argument end? Has it ended?

  6. What I love about the Duchamp toilet is that it asks you to see something you would normally re-see several times a day without really looking at it. Nearly anything can be beautiful, can establish a connection with a viewer, if presented in an accessible way, in a new way, in a way where you’re asked to really look at it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all look at everything with fresh eyes? As if we’ve never seen a toilet or listened to music before, just sound, sight, contour, light….

    I remind myself of the whole baby Mozart thing. Sure, to a lot of us much of Mozart is a bit fluffy-wedding-cakey. But for some reason studies find (or do they? I haven’t examined them — it could just be marketing) that listening to Mozart helps babies become smarter later in life. Why judge art? We know what we like, but do we have any idea what anyone else will respond to?

    In a way, we’re all just humans running around trying to connect with each other and our surroundings. I loved the commentary at the Louvre. I loved it even more when my friend’s older sister told me what she thought the paintings meant. That said, I’m not comfortable with anyone one individual deciding what art is. Maybe it’s my contrary nature, but if an artist choses to put their heart and soul and mind into producing something they feel expresses their innermost self, isn’t that enough?

    It doesn’t surprise me that I’m hurling arguments in every direction like a dog shaking off water. I guess what I really want to say is: why does it all have to be so heady?

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