Living at the convergence of faith and art.

American Visions and “Contemporary Art”

Lew CurtissI am watching American Visions by Robert Hughes. It’s a wandering journey through the American psyche via our art and architecture, and it’s very telling. These two great institutions offer us a truthful vision into the historic depths of the American mind.  These 5-episodes explain very well where our American thinking comes from, and why. It’s an amazing journey into an America our own history books do not, and will not offer. It’s a critical program, but that’s because Hughes lifts the romantic veneers we humans so often adopt to reveal demonstrable truths. He does get a thing or two wrong, revealing his own leftist worldview. But he can easily be forgiven that because he does not abuse his audience. Instead he gets on with doing what he set out to do, and rather balanced I might add.

This program is wonderful stuff, and for me, a visual artist, it is the best way to grapple with American history. It’s a panoramic portrayal of the American human landscape as seen through art and architecture, artforms which were reactive creations of our beliefs and values. Hughes is an extraordinary writer, and his narration is excellent, accurate, and clear. His choice of words is one of the delights of watching this impressive, and important series. I suggest that it become a mainstay in art history and American history classes of this country. I will watch and watch again, because I am certain of discovering new, deeper revelations with each viewing.

Something I sense in Hughes’ documentaries is an indication that most of the art of which he is speaking is a response to what’s going on at the time; a response to the context in which the artist is living. The art in the series is reactionary, being driven by the times in which it was conceived. Today however, it seems that contemporary artists are working diligently to drive society, culture, and especially governmental institutions. It’s almost as if artists today are no longer content to merely encourage, recommend, or suggest, but to force, insist, and demand. In this context, maybe most of what is deemed contemporary art, simply isn’t. Instead it is more akin to propaganda; a demand that the rest of us uninformed neanderthals ought to get with the program – whatever that is.

 In watching, I am reminded of my younger days in which I could not penetrate the words of either the Bible, or the works of William Shakespeare. The Bible, I have been able to comprehend deeply. Shakespeare still eludes me, and I no longer try.

For me, the world of art in general has been just such an elusive construct.  Robert Hughes, and others, have helped me grasp a good deal partly because I am a show and tell learner, and because I repeatedly view and re-view these documentaries. I learn best through repetition. Mine is not a mindless viewing.  I am always listening deeply, and thinking about what I’m being shown.  As I walk, one step at a time, closer to penetrating the “literature” of art, I am coming to understand where art comes from, why we make it, and what it means to us as human beings.

Because art is a product of the human enterprise, in our unique self-examination, it seems to offer ideas of what it means to be a human being in our own time. I think this means of explanation, even more than fads & fashions, is what drives much of the change we see in the art-making of each generation. Each has its own concerns, beliefs and values, and they’re not always cumulative. More often than not, the newest art movements are rebellions against the last, seeking to create a “new vision”.

Visual and performing arts are often physical manifestations of social philosophy. Lead by the artist, we seem to be looking for answers, trying to make some sense of life. The contemporary artist, seems however to have abandoned his fellow human beings for selfish introspection.  This retreat is at the heart of my complaint about so much of the drivel so-called contemporary artists give us today. Contemporary art seems to be little more than a material rendering of one’s personal philosophy. It abandons all meaning, all worth, all highly skilled creative expression. I hate most of it.

I am a maker of story for people, of people, and by people. To my mind there is nothing of greater importance than the relationships we forge in our lives. Who cares about what some self-absorbed halfwit thought of a decade ago in light of our deep need for one another. It’s ironic, I think, that so many so-called contemporary artists seek mental solitude, and yet empty their already empty minds onto the stage of art galleries for all to see. It’s as if they have some deeply valuable secret of which they will only reveal the container and not the contents. I suppose we’re expected to become jealous of whatever it is they have holed up in their “works”.  I’m rather inclined to call out, “The Emperor has no clothes!”

Art without an audience isn’t. And if the viewer cannot engage these deeply cryptic, self-absorbed, introspective offerings, then there may as well not be any audience at all.  It is the relationship between the artist and the audience which makes this transaction meaningful. One without the other is simply mental masturbation and useless. Who writes anything except that someone, someday will read it? Who takes a photograph, in the context of making art, only to make the print and throw it into a box so that no one will see it? Who writes a play or makes a film only to shelve it so that no one views it?

Likewise, who, in their right mind, creates hyper-convoluted, cryptic nonsense within the empty confines of their own head, only to put it on display and bore us all to tears with a prolonged verbal explanation? The thing ought to speak for itself and if it needs prolific explanation, it’s an indication to me that there is nothing of any worth in it.  Certainly there is nothing of any merit in the heart and mind of the person who created it to be shared with an audience.

Give me narrative, or at least the illusion of narrative so I can find my own, but don’t expect me to make an effort with no semblance of context or story. If you’ve nothing to offer me, why should I waste my time paying any attention?


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