The Performance of Contemporary Art (Part 2)

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Portrait of Carey Chrome, an art model living in Easton, PA

In part one, I wrote about a theme that has emerged in this column of the mercurial nature of artistic quality. i.e. one day this is good art; the next day that is good art. Even the eye of the beholder is fickle.

I continued by identifying some trends among the professional artist community. In general, the traits listed were those of non-conformists because conformity is antithetical to individualistic creation. If one is expressing oneself, then one is not marching in formation.

Expression of truth is inevitable because the human animal is not strong enough to suppress it indefinitely. Even a poised exterior houses an inner conflict between what is felt to be true and what is said to be true. And that expression surfaces in myriad ways, art being only one of them.

Contemporary art is simply an aspect of human nature. Human beings create art when they don’t know what else to do. Automatic expressions such as body language, whistling, fidgeting, and doodling happen all day every day. Much of art education is pairing those expressions with an explicit societal purpose.

A satisfied mind—one at rest completely and content—has no reason to create artwork or express itself in any way. A mind like that reacts to events as they occur, drawing on past experiences to resolve conflicts and sustain the well-being of self and community. It’s when the mind gets confused that art appears.

In the early 20th century, a group of French painters set the tone of modernist expression. The small but impactful group, which included Matisse, became known as les fauves, the French word for “wild beasts.” It was a reaction to early industrialization and its incomplete understanding of human potential outside of formalism.

Artists are artists because they are outcasts, not the other way around.

 

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Relativity in Art School

 

 

There are lessons learned in art school from the coursework, and there are lessons learned in art school from the experience. Both are instructive.

The lessons taught in classes generally relate to the history, theory, technique, context, and vocabulary of that discipline. This is true across the arts and is the basic structure of an education in those various fields. To what degree each aspect is taught depends on the school, the nature of the class, and the teacher.

There is no objectively correct way to teach art, so sometimes the balance between two of those categories can cause conflict—a common one being theory vs technique. A conceptually minded artist may dismiss a craft-oriented curriculum as undesirable since it is focusing too narrowly on a specific set of skills. Meanwhile, a technically minded artist will lament that the tradition they admire is being constantly called into question and not being taught as it was to artists in other cultures at other times.

Art school, as it exists currently, is a relativistic affair. Once, when I was in graduate school, a professor suggested that we move on from such designations as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when critiquing work. She didn’t mean that she wanted us to be more specific. She was suggesting that statements regarding quality in any way were not productive. That position did not appear to outwardly surprise or trouble any of the MFA candidates in the room.

It didn’t surprise me either, but it confirmed something I found troubling about art school—its illogical structure. If nothing is better or worse, then how is improvement possible? Why have an art school if not to improve?

I understand her position better now, and concede that it has merit. It may be fair to say that artists do not actually improve; they just learn new methods of expression. What is the measure of a quality? What scale does one use?

While I’m tempted to conclude with a working theory of how to rate artwork fairly, it would be disingenuous. The truth is I still struggle with this one. I have never found an objective way to judge art. When I need to pick favorites, or make creative choices, I still simply rely on intuition.

 

 

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