“The junk that passes for Art these days…” “Now Sally, dear, you know trees are NOT purple.” “It is time you do something practical with your life.” “Johnny, try to keep the colors inside the lines.” “Art may be a nice hobby. But you need a job, a real job!”
Above are a few very old tapes that have played in my head for most of my life. Recently I had three papers, a sculpture, and the mid-term portfolio review in drawing all due in the same week. I got all but one of the papers in on time. Not bad for an old lady with five children, a spouse, company for dinner, (and an addiction to Lie To Me and Survivor–ahem). This semester I have 12 credits in art, next semester I will have 12 to 15. I love it. I hate it. I am challenged. I am stretched. And I am never, ever bored.
Last week a video by Natiale Djurberg was shown in my Art Criticism class. Afterward the professor went around the room and asked each of us to give an adjective to describe it. Pornographic, disturbing, red, vulnerable, anonymous, ugly, voluptuous, black, overwhelming, secretive, sexual, and repulsive were just some of the words we spouted out as our first impressions. The video was difficult for me to watch. I was glad I did not know anyone in the class well enough to have a sit down discussion about it. You can watch some of her work on YouTube if you Google her name, though be forewarned the class was not exaggerating and most of her work runs a long a similar vein. So, what is the point? Why would someone want to make art so graphic, so disturbing to the vast majority of his or her audience? Why do we have a holocaust museum? Is it the same thing?
I for one am glad we have moved away from the formalist art of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Donald Judd, where blue or red or a line or a box in its purest form was all that mattered. (Boring). I am also relieved that I do not have to compete with the perfected realism of a Michelangelo or a Di Vinci, though I am in awe of their artistry. The paper I finally finished (late) was to research the Turner Prize*, look at the art of the four artists who made the short list, predict who we thought would win and explain why. Besides needing to start the paper a little sooner than I did, the reason it was so difficult for me to write (AKA took me so long) is because comparing the four very different entrants, moving beyond my personal taste toward an objective analysis, and coming to terms with what art is and how to talk about it in post-modern contemporary culture has been a fairly big leap for yours truly.
Having said that, walking around in a post-modern culture excites and frightens me equally. I love questions. I love wrestling with ideas and pushing the edges. And, I am excited about the possibility of doing so through art. (Ironically, it has taken me this long to realize how “late” post-modern thinking has come into the realm of religion, at least for me). At the same time, the flip side of questions in a post modern culture often looks like cynicism, apathy, self-indulgence, or unresolved anger. Those parts of where we have landed in our post modern world concern me. I get we have problems when the laws become more important than the people the laws are meant to protect. Still, it does not translate that we then need no laws. A favored creative writing professor often told me, “You need to understand what the rules are before you can effectively break them.” I believe that holds true for much more than writing.
Earlier I asked why someone would purposely make art which offends. Can there be a purpose worth keeping for such art? Other things offend our sensibilities that we keep around and even honor, like the Holocaust Museum. Is it the same? Obviously these two examples of something which offends are not exactly the same. Yet, both point at an event or an issue an say LOOK–this deserves our attention, our acknowledgment, our support, or our repentance. We should never forget. We need to change. These problems must be solved. WE ARE RESPONSIBLE.
Who we are and what we have done (or merely allowed to be done) to others is sometimes shocking. Art which calls our attention to those issues can be equally shocking. I believe one role art can and should play in a post-modern culture is to help us see the truth of who we have become. Until we are willing to look in that mirror what hope do we have of finding a better path.