Personally, I am still working to figure out what art is, what the purpose of art is, and why some human beings even bother to make art. When I go back to the beginnings, the earliest expressions of what we now call art – cave paintings & carvings – I am captured by the thought that those primordial people had something other than making art in mind. I don’t think for an instant that our primordial ancestors asked about what they were doing. It’s almost as if an urge needed expression and carvings and cave paintings were simply the necessary outlet.
I believe as well that expressions through singing, chanting, dancing, drumming and the like all came into being and developed because of a rising need for the release of celebration and expression that could not be suppressed. They could not simply sit on their hands and ignore these creative urges that were rising up within them.
Today – and I promise to be very brief – art is treated as are all human products as an economic commodity. Those who buy and sell art, after stealing it from the artist – that is all but the motion picture artists – run off with the many objects of art in the world to buy and sell them with vigorous abandon. Success is often measured by the auction block price tag. And while the artist never sees a dime of those later transactions, that artist is deemed a great success because some of their work sold for thousands, even millions, of dollars. These are transactions which completely exclude the artists.
How did we get from our ancestral heritage of mark-making to today’s “art market”? It’s a question that has interested me for the past decade. Before that time I was all too willing to sell whatever artwork it was that I had made in order to become a “success”. No longer though. I’ve absolutely no interest in playing the art world game with all of its sham, glitter, and goo. I know why I make the art I do and the source from whence it comes. I even know the purpose of my art, and it isn’t to garner personal fame or fortune. In fact, since there’s little or nothing that I want to do to change that condition, is the question even worth my asking?
I think it may be of some value on a personal level because I am still trying to grasp my role as an artist in this world.
As I’m “talking” here, perhaps the question that I’m after is indeed deeply personal and can best be shaped by asking, how I can reconnect with those primordial ancestors who made such innocent and selfless marks? How best do I draw from their drive because I believe that, for them, it was a spiritual drive. So is mine.
In those primordial days, I don’t see someone sitting around thinking in terms of bison anatomy and landscape beauty that they wish to capture visually. I see someone whose entire world was spiritual. This is one of the marks of the emergence of humanity, the acknowledgment of connection with the spiritual realm(s).
I see a duality of vision – harmonious to be sure – wherein those early peoples could see both the living animals as well as their spirits at the same time. I neither know nor care what that looks like in literal terms. What I do care about is the fact of this dual vision they experienced and carried within themselves.
Somewhere, somehow, a person chose to celebrate and express that dual vision in imagery. Carving – even desiring to carve – and painting developed into a means of that celebratory expression. I want to know this selfsame celebration and expression – the primordial essence of what it means to be human and to make marks of meaning.
In my own parallel experience, my life has been deeply touched by Father God. He and I developed a relationship and to this day we live in that relationship. Because Father created me as an artist, something of our spiritual relationship rises up in me and will not be silenced or ignored. I must express and, yes, even celebrate, this relationship through my artmaking with Father. It is this celebration of relationship that leads me to see our artmaking together as an act of worship. If I’d been born as I am, millennia ago, I would have experienced this selfsame life, not of creativity, but of artistic expression.
As it is, I do chant and play drums as worship. I do paint and write as worship. The writing I am doing right here, right now, is an active celebration of my relationship with my Beloved Father God. In a way, I suppose I am that so-called caveman who has dire need to share, celebrate, and express his dual vision of the physical and the spiritual with the others of his tribal clan.
I 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?
It’s called The Rape of Europa, and I’m not talking about the famous painting by Titian (1562). This historic story began as a best-selling book by author Lynn H. Nichols and was published in 1994. PBS produced an extraordinary two-hour documentary in 2008 based on the book. In fact Nichols is featured as a major commentator in this masterful exploration of the most monumental culture theft in human history; the wholesale theft of Europe’s cultural and artistic treasures by the Nazi regime in World War II.
Previously I’ve seen another documentary telling of the extraordinary efforts of the Monuments Men, those professional artists and art historians who over saw the return of these same priceless treasures to their rightful owners. What sets The Rape of Europa apart is the incredible in-depth look at Hitler’s thinking and justification for this horrible crime, the means and methods used by Nazi soldiers in these thefts, and the callous regard by Hitler’s inner circle regarding the “collecting” of art. Not only do you come to understand the “how”, but the “why”.
This is a riveting, engaging look at a very dark episode in world art history, the displacement, and sometime loss of cultural treasures, and the impact such removal has on the people of the nations being robbed. This is historic documentary at its very best.
From the official PBS website;
THE RAPE OF EUROPA tells the epic story of the systematic theft, deliberate destruction and miraculous survival of Europe’s art treasures during the Third Reich and World War II. In a journey through seven countries, the film takes viewers into the violent whirlwind of fanaticism, greed, and warfare that threatened to wipe out the artistic heritage of Europe. For twelve long years, the Nazis looted and destroyed art on a scale unprecedented in history.
The Rape of Europa is a “must see” for anyone concerned with the question of the power of art in culture and society. If anything, beyond the crime, this story demonstrates the deeply seated affection nations have for their cultural heritage, and how its presence and potential loss threatens national and social identity and integrity.
Never let anyone say that art is superfluous. This remarkable story proves otherwise. If nothing else can be said, our value of something is often found only when it is taken from us.
Check it out from the library, buy the DVD, but see The Rape of Europa. You’ll never look at art or art history the same way again.
For more fascinating information you can see the official PBS website, or the official Europa website. Both are filled with in-depth, interactive materials of this unprecedented episode of cultural history.
Lastly, here’s a link to the production company, Menemsha Films of Venice, CA., where you can read reviews, see production photographs and more.
Look. Listen. Become More.