On wall after wall in museums and galleries hang story after evolving story. Until the Realism of the mid to late 19th century and the Modernist painting of the 20th century most visual art in Western culture was designed to communicate a very specific message. From cave art that was used as talisman, to religious art professing the power of God and the church, to art about the political powers that be, to the portraits of the rich and famous, the meaning of visual art seemed to tell a tale of the subject’s power. Visual literacy meant understanding certain symbols and thematic concerns putting everyone in their place and teaching them how to behave. To most viewers in whatever the period in which the art was created, the messages were clear.
Development through the late Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution continued to bring more freedom and equality for the populace. And with it a new sentiment regarding art emerged. Oscar Wilde in an 1891 issue of the Pall Mall Gazette wrote: “A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.”
This view, as you all know by now, is where I live and from where most of our exercises stem.
The contemporary discourse around art, however, is once again centered on the preconceived message. Not that the message is to necessarily satisfy some demand, but art’s merit for today’s critics is found in the quality of the idea behind the image rather than its formal appeal or even its visual impact.
Conveniently for us we have a fast food explainations of this in the TV show “Work of Art—The Next Great Artist”. Where we usually follow an impetus set forth by either a compelling model or the attributes of our materials, all the young artists fresh from art school on that show begin their work with an idea.
This week we are going to follow their lead and create a work of art relating to an idea thought about ahead of time. We will be working on this for the next two weeks and the week after Christmas. So take your time to think about something you want to say in a painting. Then figure out ways in which you might communicate this thought. You will need source material and media specific to this predetermined message. I know there are groans about now, but just think of it as a challenge. Let ideas roll around in your head for a couple of days then we can bat them around in class. Some of you like Susan and the two Lauras do this very naturally. Others will have a tougher time. But it is a muscle that needs flexing in order to be relevant. And if you don’t want to be relevant, it’s good for brain function.
Remind me to point out a noteworthy result from last week’s episode and of the dichotomy of art practice.