Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Packing for Paradise: What to Bring?

Now, moving from the ridiculous to the sublime: I mentioned last week that we were due to engage the question of the Desert Island Test in class, as a way of backing into a discussion of criteria of worth. Students submitted a variety of choices. Among the first to be discussed were a pair of pictorial designers par excellence: Alphonse Mucha, the Czech master of Art Nouveau, and his American admirer and imitator, J.C. Leyendecker.

The arguments offered in defense of these choices were aesthetic: these works offer formal pleasure, or the intellectual stimulation afforded by the well-made thing. It was also suggested, if less forcefully, that formal pleasure entails an emotional experience, by definition.

By contrast, another student submitted the example of Banksy, the British street artist who responds to social conditions with grafittish gestures. Here the argument was based on social relevance and currency, in addition to the skill and visual power of the work. It was observed that acutely social work–like up-to-the-minute popular music, stirring via the thrill of now, exactly now!–might well lose its force on a desert island. The solitude of such a setting might well argue against relevance as typically understood. Even so, to formal pleasure we may add social relevance as a criterion of record.

One student, who did not attend the session, had offered Hokusai as an exemplar. Another, pinch-hitting, stepped in to argue that a View of Mt. Fuji offered formal pleasure as well as spiritual value.

We looked at Bernini's Apollo and Daphne, offered by another student as an unlikely item to get in a suitcase, but nonetheless desirable if transportation could be managed. Discussion of the sculpture (among the small number who had been its presence, at the Borghese Palace in Rome) focused on the transcendent power of the object, which I can well vouch for. A totally astonishing thing; breathtaking. Bernini–an artist and architect of fantastic skill and range–raised the question of ambition. Perhaps the most nourishing works (or sets of them attributed to a single creator, as per the coffee table book) were likely to be those of high ambition.

Finally Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes" received a vote for the sense of recognition his work creates in the viewer. That is, the evocation of "universal" childhood experiences warms the heart and creates a connection between artist and audience member. In addition, this image shows Watterson engaging the history of his own medium, by quoting Thomas Nast. Such signalling of self-awareness, known as intertextuality, is often cited as a marker of big-time art.

When you write them all down, the criteria established in our discussion were:

formal pleasure
social relevance
spiritual value
creative ambition
human resonance

These criteria give us a good start toward establishing a critical method for engaging and evaluating works, projects, careers, even schools and eras.


Does this summary correctly record your sense of our discussion?

Is there a missing criterion, one we didn't come across or recognize?

Emotional power is not explicitly included in these criteria. Is it implicit within others?

Think of an unambiguously important figure. Does s/he embody a value that isn't listed?

Please provide your thoughts in the comment section. And stay tuned for an opportunity to apply these criteria in another post...


Wendy said...

I think one criteria which was left out which I suspect a lot of people used in choosing the items on their desert island list would be the ability to revisit the work over and over. I chose one of my books because of how many times I have read it in the past and not gotten tired of it.

While at my apartment I own a lot of very intelligent, thought provoking movies, I often end up watching Seinfeld on repeat. Seinfeld is a good show, but it does not have much in the way of spiritual value. I think the choices people made when selecting works had a lot to do with the possibility of revisitation, which causes people to choose the work they wouldn't mind seeing everyday, which may not necessarily be the most ambitious. Though personally I would never get tired of looking at Daphne and Apollo.

David said...

I don't think I made a particularly compelling argument for it in class, but I'd like to add narrative to the list. Storytelling - regardless of Mr. Greenberg's assessment - is one of the primary functions of art, visual or otherwise. Perhaps it is not the highest function, but I would argue that experiencing a narrative is perhaps the biggest reason the public engages works of art.

Very few of us outside fine arts and academia watch films, attend plays, or read books without expecting to be told a story. Even in a fine arts context, I can't count the number of times I've overheard museum goers trying to figure out 'the story' of a painting - from Renaissance to Modernist works. The only popular arts I can think of where a story is not expected are music and video games - though both usually benefit from a strong narrative.

This brings me to my second visual arts desert island selection - The Art of Okami (www.artofokami.com). This is a collection of concept art from the 2006 video game 'Okami'. (The artists are Kenichiro Yoshimura, Sawaki Takeyasu, Mari Shimazaki - it's difficult to tell who made what piece, as they're signed in Japanese.) Certainly, I derive formal pleasure from this work in the same way I derive formal pleasure from Alphonse Mucha. But I also value the work for its narrative content. Some of the pieces are scenes describing a story, but the majority of the work is isolated characters and environments, in which design (the layout of facial features, the shape of a body) and props (tools, clothing, architecture) provide narrative content.

So that's my brief argument for the inclusion of narrative as a criterion. As a side note, I think we risk our list becoming a little unwieldy at this point. I would condense and combine some of the categories. For example, I think spiritual value and emotional power could be folded into human resonance - all are different ways of connecting with work on a non-intellectual level. Social relevance and narrative could fit into the broader category of compelling content, which would allow for other subject matter that might give a work value. I might even argue that self-awareness is an element of creative ambition - that works which aspire to greatness are necessarily self-aware. Alternatively, self-awareness could be a form of content, as with the reflexive nature of abstract painting.

Here's how the scheme would look:

formal pleasure

compelling content (social, narrative, reflexive)

creative ambition

human resonance (emotional, spiritual, personal)

DB Dowd said...

Wendy, good thought. Do you think that the desire to revisit is a cause or an effect? Is it possible that we go back because of other criteria are met?

What are the markers, qualities or characteristics of something you go back to?

DB Dowd said...

David, you and I posted at virtually the same moment. Excellent ideas, worthy of pursuit!

Two questions occur to me immediately: is narrative a category or a criterion? It seems potentially a little narrow to disqualify abstraction from the outset for its lack of narrative. Does Keats' formulation (from the Grecian Urn, truth=beauty and beauty=truth require a story?

I wonder if narrative isn't a tool or strategy to achieve human resonance.

What does "compelling" mean? Is it a useful term? I'm not sold on it, but maybe you can elaborate a bit. Seems too subjective to serve as a criterion...

Noah said...

I want to chime in briefly on the idea of emotional impact of a work of art. i think that all of the work selected for the Desert island packing list had some level of emotional impact on the person who selected it but that this property is difficult to categorize. I think that it is acheived through some combination of the other properties that have been described. As a viewer i am as active in the emotional impact of the piece as the maker. independently, the maker can be sure that their work is formally well resolved, or socially relevant through subject matter but the emotional impact is reliant on the viewer.
i think that bill watterson and banksy actually have a lot in common in the way that they achieve emotional impact. Both depend fairly heavily on surprise. they are smart artists and aim significantly higher with their work than the majority of their peers in their respective. The physical forms that their work take are straightforward and very much informed by their media. they embrace the limitations of media and are often self-referential in a way that makes the work the power of the work comes when you realize that there is much more embedded in the work than you expected. with calvin and hobbes this can amuse you or bring you back to childhood. in the case of Banksy the work can also amuse or start to turn your stomach. in either case the emotional power is significant and comes from carefully married formal achievement, power of content, and the viewer's sense of surprise.

Louise Smythe said...

I agree with David's argument for narrative, but that doesn't mean that works without it should be excluded from our list. The first example that comes to mind is Rothko, but even he has a strong narrative influence, or so I have read. My point is that at first glance at a Rothko painting, you'd think there isn't a narrative, but upon further looking you can get a sense that one is there, which I guess would fall into the spiritual/human resonance category. It's like Norman Rockwell vs. Rothko. I think there's a subtle line of difference between storytelling and narrative. Storytelling seems to be a more literal way of thinking, as in there is something actually happening on the page with characters in some way or another, while narrative could be found in something more abstract. I think poetry does this. (And we bring it to your comment about "Ode on a Grecian Urn".) I hope I'm making sense.