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  • Arthur Bacon

What is Art? (Salt Lake Magazine)

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

In case you have ever pondered the question, “what is art” (or what isn’t) the current two exhibits at the Salt Lake City Main library gallery are a perfect opportunity to see the difference between art and non-art. One is a group of paintings by the Spanish-born painter Aitana de la Jara, and the other, digital landscape photographs by the Russian-born photographer, Alex Kravtsov.

At some point or other, around the middle of the Nineteenth Century, certainly in 1863, at the first Salon des Refuses, people began asking the question, “What is art?” It is a good question and despite the fact that a large body of contemporary opinion makes the claim that “anything can be art” or that “art is in the eye of the beholder”– among the plethora of philistine expressions — the question remains important for those of us personally, philosophically, and professionally involved in the manufacture of photographs, paintings and sculpture. I was in a small Italian restaurant in San Francisco once with two old painters and after we had all visited the restroom one asked us if we thought the little facsimile landscape painting above the toilet was “art” or not. The discussion, enlivened with a handsome litre of house red, carried us through the antipasta and well into the brasata in bianco.

First of all, admittedly, I myself struggle with a convincing definition of this ineffable thing we call art. I do believe that only “artists” can make art (which of course, begs the question; who is an artist). I rebel at labeling lovely primitive crafts as art (whether from ancient Africa or present-day Guatemala) and I do not think “anybody” can make art any more than I think “anybody” can play a Mozart violin sonata. I sort of believe that all artists are like all great athletes in the sense that you “either have it or you don’t;” (try as I might, I could never run a hundred yards in less than twelve seconds). I also believe that good artists have an uncanny sense of the age in which they live and have something important to tell us. And like the top-flight brain surgeon or concert pianist, art is everything…all-consuming in the artist’s life; you can’t simply take time off from your investment business and “make some art”. Indeed, I am an unapologetic snob about it. I am delighted that more and more people are enjoying art but lets not democratize it altogether.

There were several people at last Saturday’s opening of the library show with whom I spoke, or overheard talking, who took umbrage at Ms de la Jara’s paintings for being too inscrutable, morose, violent, scary…even “ugly”. They would point to the digital color photographs from southern Utah on the opposite wall and exclaim, “Now there is the kind of art I like; very pretty don’t you agree?”

It could be argued that “pretty” began to disappear from mainstream art in the German Expressionist paintings leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914, notwithstanding earlier instances of “ugly” such as Grunewald’s famous Isenheim Altar Piece painting and Goya’s “Disasters of War” etchings. Fin de Siecle artists agreed with Wordsworth, The world is too much with us; late and soon. One of the unique things about great artists is that they usually have their ears close to the ground and if the trenches at Verdun weren’t enough to extinguish forever the predilection toward prettiness, Dachau and Auschwitz thirty years later certainly corroborated forever the existence of a new, vast and violent, Cormac McCarthy dystopian world which would inevitably show up on canvas from Paris to San Francisco.

One of my favorite art works is Vito Acconci’s Pier 17 performance piece in which he waited at the end of an abandoned pier in New York every night between one and two AM and if you were intrepid enough to get through a lugubrious neighborhood and then make your way to the end of a dark, rotting pier without falling into the river he would tell you something disgusting about himself (reenacting, so to speak, the Catholic sacrament of confession). I happen to love Beethoven but I confess that so far I have not been willing to walk out to the end of the baleful pier to understand his last quartets. Art is not meant to be easy.

So no, I did not agree at all with the philistine and her penchant for prettiness. First of all, prettiness has nothing to do with whether or not a painting or photograph is good art. Is Guernica pretty? Is Rodin’s Gates of Hell pretty? Then, I asked one woman who was troubled by de la Jara’s work, “Are you familiar with the story of Romulus and Remus?” “No” she said. “Then of course you would be bothered by the fact that the woman in that painting has four breasts. The whole painting must just seem weird to you,” I said. I refrained from indulging further in academic sophistry (such as by explaining the story of the founding of ancient Rome) but I couldn’t help but ask her if she was familiar with the work of Georg Baselitz, Georgio Morandi or Phillip Guston (painters who are also referenced in de la Jara’s work) and she said she had not heard of them. I said, “Hmmmmm.” Whatever.

It is noteworthy to recall the derision and ridicule heaped upon those icons of modern art such as Renoir, Manet, Monet, Millet and even Degas back in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. How about this tidbit of criticism of the most likeable painter of all time, Pierre Auguste Renoir; in 1860, Albert Wolff said, Try to explain to M. Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of flesh in the process of decomposition with green and violet spots which denote the state of complete putrefaction of a corpse.

In tenth grade English we all read Edwin Markham’s “Man with a Hoe,” invariably illustrated by a two by two inch reproduction of Millet’s seminal painting of the same name. While we marvel at this little reproduction in our Houghton Mifflin Anthology of American Poetry, when this painting was first shown it elicited the following response from a notable viewer in Paris: M. Millet …sets out to look for an idiot; he has looked hard and for a long time before finding this peasant resting on his hoe. Similar types are not common, even at the Hospital Bicetre. Imagine a monster without a skull, with one blind eye, and idiotic expression, planted in the middle of a field like a scarecrow…Has he just finished working or has he just killed someone? (Ian Dunlop. The Shock of the New. P35)

De la Jara’s decapitations, skulls, blood, four-breasted women and boxed figures would indeed pose a problem for somebody looking for that facile reaffirmation we desire in front of a painting or photograph. We all want to “know,” to be in on the secret so to speak, to understand, to feel confirmation, to have a relationship with the artist. I confess that when I stand in front of a Ryman (white on white painting) I do not “know” and I am bothered by the fact that I am ignorant about his intentions to paint white on white over and over again, year after year. This is where the work begins though. Time to walk out on the moribund pier.

It could be argued quite persuasively that all art is, to some extent derivative, referential or, at the very least, dependent on the art of the past; after all, as human beings we all come out of a cultural, historical milieu which is inescapable whether we like it or not; Mozart could not escape Bach and Beethoven could not escape Mozart any more than Michelangelo could ignore Giotto or Degas could ignore Ingres and so on. An experienced artist could see, just from looking at her work, that De la Jara comes out of a long tradition, which includes Giotto, Fra Angelico, Piero de la Francesca, Kokoschka and Man Ray, Abstract Expressionism, Keifer, Baselitz, Morandi, Marsden Hartley and Guston. Of course her work is difficult to understand if one is unaware of historical references, literature, mythology, art technique and politics. Ulysses is difficult if you have not read The Odyssey. How about listening to Shostakovich’s 10th symphony based on the notes from the initials of his name DSCH, (S being e-flat in Russian and H being b natural)…Yikes! In her catalogue, Course of Empire, de la Jara mentions Shelly’s memorable poem Ozymandius. If the viewer has not read the line, “Look on my works ye Mighty and despair,” the skulls and stones in de la Jara’s desert paintings might seem unfathomable. Art is a two-way affair; the viewer needs to cooperate in the effort. I have friends who buy complete scores (of Bach, Beethoven or Stravinsky etc.) and study them before going to the symphony concert.

Photography is easy and it is fun. Buy a camera and you can call yourself a photographer. Remember the old Kodak advertisements, “You press the button, we do the rest”? Buy a flute and about all you can say is that you own a flute. This is an age-old problem with photography; ANYBODY can do it…as soon as they walk out the door of B & H Photo on 9th Avenue; voila, c’est la photographie. The non-artist knows nothing about the conviction, the loneliness, the never-ending practice of drawing, color theory, figure-ground, push-pull and the long hours at the Louvre, the Prado and the Met. The non-artist has never experienced, much less imagined, the terror of an art school critique in which one is publicly humiliated, scorned and abused for insufficient work (virtually all contemporary artists, in lieu of apprenticeship in the old master’s atelier, spend those same years getting MFA’s). Novelty means nothing to the non-artist. What doctor, nurse, lawyer or accountant thinks of some new, revolutionary (wacky) way of doing stuff? The non-artist is terrified of le petit quelque chose qui fout tout par terre (“the little thing that fucks everything up”) sort of like Rousseau’s nude on a red sofa there in the jungle). But EVERY artist has to think about this; as Ben Shahn said, “Non-conformity is the precondition for all art.”

So, if you are still going to ask me why the pretty photographs are not art, why not ask me why isn’t croquet a sport? I think we have an answer in there somewhere. Real sports like baseball, tennis, wrestling and skiing require a lifetime to learn and excel at. If you don’t take up one of those sports before you are ten or twelve you will never catch up. This is a fact and nobody argues with its ineluctable truth. So why do people think they can just go out and buy a camera and be an (art) photographer? A member of the audience at the opening asked Alex a question all artists have to deal with — where he thought he was “pushing the boundaries” of photography (which, of course, already contains an enormous catalogue of images of sand dunes, sunsets, slickrock canyons and seagulls). Alex made no cogent reply because it has never been his intention to “push boundaries” and express a new vision of a slot canyon.

As I said earlier, we all come out of a milieu, a history, a culture with inescapable influences on us and I am not opposed to plagiarism but; for example, when I was teaching photography I often played about five different variations (Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Liszt etc.) of Paganani’s 24th Caprice just to illustrate to my students the point that even great artists plagiarize, that Ansel Adams does not own Yosemite any more than Gary Winogrand owns New York, but when you do copy and plagiarize, that is, if you are gonna go to Yosemite, The Matterhorn or Antelope Canyon you damn well better throw in a ground-breaking point of view or suffer the critic’s fatwa! Once in London somebody came up to George Handel after a concert and said he had heard the same melody in Vienna a year before and Handel replied, “Ja, but I just vanted to show the swine vhat could be done with it!”

What is it about photography that invites copying anyway? I have seen many photographers at Ansel Adams’s workshops trying to copy  Ansel’s iconic photographs (such as, Fern Spring, Yosemite Falls and Clearing Winter Storm). I think some guy actually went around and put his tripod in exactly the same places as Weston did for his book My Camera on Point Lobos. I don’t get it. But it is a huge problem with (landscape) photography. Everybody is running around taking pictures just like everybody else without a thought about novelty and non-conformity much less personal conviction. A twenty year old might be flattered if somebody says his photographs look like Ansel Adams. Fine. At twenty Beethoven still sounded a bit like Mozart. At some point you have to move on even if it is scary to venture out onto new turf (Brahms was terrified to write his first symphony with the shadow of Beethoven hanging over him). But you gotta take some chances. For God’s sake, even if it is “ugly”…Show us something we haven’t seen before! Show the swine what can be done with it.

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