When I go to a museum, like the National Gallery in Washington, DC, I look at their collection as a doorway into time. I know when I look at a Titian or Rembrandt I’m not seeing an actual view of the past, but an artistic view. Art works on many levels, but the level that is most important to me is what it communicates across centuries.
What I want to see when I look at a great work of art is communiqué from the past . When you look at this painting what does it say to you about 1659? Scroll through Rembrandt’s paintings on Google Image Search, or his gallery at the Google Art Project, or read his entry at Wikipedia. The more you study, the more you are pulled into the past. If you become hooked you’ll even start reading history books.
[Click on photos for larger views.]
Rembrandt’s self portrait says so much. He’s looking at us looking at him. He knows we’ll see his world through his eyes, the ones that stare eternally from this painting.
Here is a photograph by Miru Kim. In four hundred years what will people make of it and our times? Will they think that was when humans discovered their cruelty to animals? That early the 21st century was when we began to identify and empathize with our fellow creatures?
But what does this work by Mark Handforth say about our lives?
Now I’m not criticizing modern art. Contemporary art is very successful, as Morley Safer reported on 60 Minutes recently, and written up as “Even n tough times, contemporary art sells.” If the future will look into our souls from the art we leave behind, what will they see?
In our times art is about about how much it’s worth in dollars. Art speculation is big business. That’s a dimension of art that I’m not interested in, nor want to analyze. I doubt “Vespa” will survive 400 years to be seen – pop sculptures look fragile to me. I tend to think contemporary painting has been overshadowed by photography and film. The future will know us through our documentaries. But I think the Miru Kim photograph will communicate something to humans centuries from now if it survives.
Today I was reading in Anna Karenina, at the part where Anna and Vronsky are visiting the Russian artist, Mikhailov living in Italy. They study his painting of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. Mikailov is trying to capture history, but tell the story from his unique time and place. This scene allows Tolstoy to express his views on art, and he sends a literary message across time about the timeless of art.
Most of the art that Morley Safer showed us on 60 Minutes won’t last no matter how much people pay for it. It either doesn’t send a message or sends the wrong message. I’m not even saying it has to be a coherent message, it just needs to convey a piece of our collective soul in some way. I think this one says a lot, but I can’t put it into words.
Then we have the problem of science fiction art. It’s about the future, but is really about the present. What do you make of this Richard Powers painting? What does it say about the 1950s?
When I looked at the 60 Minutes piece I felt tremendously disappointed by most of the art is saw. I worry that the future won’t look kindly on us because our art is so lacking in beauty and imagination, and it says so little about our times. Like Mikhailov in Anna Karenina trying to paint something that’s been painted thousands of times before, the struggle to be unique is a dangerous quest.
Which takes me back to Rembrandt. Why don’t artists paint more faces? Why is the 20th and 21st century so faceless?
The art I like best features people. Modern art seems to have moved away from people. I guess painters think photographers have people covered, but I actually preferred painted people. Here’s one of my favorites.
JWH – 4/12/12