April 18, 2012 at 7:31am
CONTENT IN ART MAY DESERVE MORE ATTENTION >>>
I'm becoming a softie in my old age, reevaluating some long-held ideas about art. For instance, I've always been a formalist in the Clement Greenberg mold and have resented the trend toward content over form that has dominated the art world since the 1970s. It irritates the crap out of me when I read review after review after review in Art News and Art in America and Art Forum and all they talk about is the message, personal identity, symbolism, the ideas expressed by contemporary artists (often cleverly hidden in metaphor and symbol) - whether those ideas are clever or earth-shaking or banal and older than the malfunctioning heart they took out of Dick Cheny - and they never once mention color, harmony or line quality or texture or balance and contrast of form, the visual elements that make art art.
OK, I take it back. I'm not such a softie after all. I still hate that, and furthermore, I've quit reading all those magazines; they never have anything worthwhile to say. But I have to admit that a few shows I've seen lately have made me start thinking that content in art may deserve more attention than I've been willing to give it. The HIDE/SEEK exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum is a prime example. I can marvel at the edge quality in Marsden Hartley's paintings and the play of shadows in Alice Neel's portrait of Frank O'Hara, but without the messages inherent in so many of these works of art the show would suffer. Likewise, content is all-important in Lynn Di Nino's work at Flow, which I recently reviewed.
In architecture there is the old dictum: form follows function. Similarly, in visual art it seems there must be a balance between form and idea. I have always held that it is not enough to state a good idea; one must do it in a way that is aesthetically pleasing or challenging. Di Nino's Hostess Cupcake sculptures are fascinating and make an important statement in a humorous manner, but they suffer slightly because there's not enough emphasis on form. By way of contrast, the works by Karen Utter and Angela Wales Rockett at the Handforth Gallery are more formal but would be better if they had more to say. Rockett's paintings, and Utter's pastels to a lesser degree, verge on what used to be called art for art's sake - something I used to be all for but not so much anymore.
Last night I watched for the third time a DVD of the film The Cradle Will Rock, written and directed by Tim Robbins. There was a scene in it where Nelson Rockefeller (played by John Cusack) and a cadre of capitalist bigwigs were talking about promoting an international art-for-art's-sake movement with all abstract art, which they said was safe because you can't make political statements with abstract art. The precipitating event was that Rockefeller had commissioned Diego Rivera to paint a mural and then was horrified when Rivera included a portrait of Lenin in it. The artists they wanted to promote included some that I have long considered to be among the greatest painters of the 20th century: Pollock, de Kooning and Motherwell. I still think they were great and that Abstract Expressionism was the most important movement in the history of American art. But after watching that scene I begin to feel like promoting art for art's sake is traitorous to the liberal/radical beliefs I've held throughout most of my adult life. Ironically, those artists and most modern artists also espoused liberal/radical beliefs. They just didn't use their art to express their beliefs.
That brings us back to an age-old question. Should artists engage in their social and political world through their art? I think there comes a time for some artists when their conscious no longer allows them a choice. That time came for Picasso with the bombing of Guernica. He could no longer justify art that did not speak to the current political realities. That time also came to Robert Mapplethorpe and David Hockney when the AIDS crisis began to kill their friends (and eventually, of course, Mapplethorpe himself).
So maybe I'm not changing my views after all. I've always believed there must be a balance between form and content. I'm just beginning to see that the fulcrum needs to move a little more toward the content end of the see-saw.
Off duty rules.
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