Notes from the first session of Seven Ways of Thinking About Art
Tate Modern, Monday evenings 6.30-8 pm, admission by ticket only
Week One: Art as Thought-Provoking
The main focus of this week’s session was the tension between treating works of art as catalysts for subjective musing and the idea that they might have definite objective meanings. I presented these two approaches as at opposite ends of a scale, though these may not be mutually exclusive.
Take Donald Judd’s ‘Untitled, 1972’, a large open-topped box made of copper and painted with a red cadmium bottom that is reflected in the internal sides of the piece. Judd’s work is declared to be about the material objects themselves, and is expressly not meant to evoke personal reflections (certainly that is the impression given by the captioning in Tate Modern: Judd’s art is not about representation or metaphor or suggestion, but rather presents the formed material objects themselves). If you want to learn more about Judd and his art, there is an interesting series of short webcasts made by Nicholas Serota on the Tate Modern Website (you will need RealPlayer to listen to and watch these, but they work well on a modem connection as well as broadband)
Yet the photographer Thomas Demand’s written reaction to the work (currently placed in the gallery next to the main caption in the 'Bigger Picture' series) is deliberately personal and subjective, describing the images the work evokes for him, well aware that this was not the sort of response that Judd would have hoped for...
Viewers of Joseph Beuys’ ‘The Pack’ 1969 in our group last night reacted in a variety of ways from feeling unmoved by the piece, seeing it as vaguely threatening when viewed from the front, to the more autobiographic reaction of being reminded of expeditions. Yet for Beuys there were very specific meanings attached to the content of this installation: the animal fat and neat rolls of felt on sledges allude to his alleged experience after a plane crash in the Crimea during World War Two when he was saved by Tartars who covered him in fat and wrapped him in felt. Although this story has been shown to be a fiction, it created a myth in which the materials of fat and felt became symbols with definite meanings, as is evident to anyone who has seen a range of his work. This is how Beuys put it (listen to Beuys saying this here on track 5):
“I didn’t take these stuffs only as a kind of immediately dramatic stuff because I was in a dramatic situation in the war, no, not at all. I wasn’t interested to take such things. But later on, when I built up a kind of theory and a system of sculpture and art and also a system of wider understanding – anthropological understanding of sculpture being related to the social body and to everybody’s life and ability - then such materials seemed to be right and effective tools to overcome, one could say, the wound of us.”
Once you know the key to his use of these symbols it is relatively easy to unlock this kind of meaning (which then may have a wider significance than Beuys’ personal myth, perhaps lined to care,compassion and nurturing). Without the key, it is just not possible to read off Beuys’ meaning, and we would be left with the personal reactions. One of the questions that was raised last night was whether the purely subjective and uninformed reaction to a work such as this has value; whether it is an appropriate and adequate response to a work of art.
The dangers of relying entirely on the reactions of someone uninformed about the original context of the work, the artists’ actual or presumed intentions, the rest of the artist’s oeuvre, and so on, is that the viewer may not truly appreciate what is front of him or her (particularly if you believe that there is more to seeing than meets the eyeball). It can result in a kind of aestheticism that relies heavily on an appreciation of visual beauty and form, often at the expense of other features of the work. On the other hand, many people derive great pleasure and interest from their subjective musings inspired by works of art (and perhaps having as their main source what the viewer brings to the work rather than what pre-exists in the work). It is even possible that most gallery goers treat works there in more or less this way…
Next week we will building on this discussion, focussing on how much weight to give to artists’ intentions as presented in their manifestos, interviews and other writing (which are always made in a particular historical and artistic context) and whether it even makes sense to say that we can know an artist’s intentions. If you want to think about this before next week, this entry on The Intentional Fallacy is a good place to start.
If you have mislaid the Course Aims handout it is here: Download 7ways-aims.rtf [8KB rtf file]
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