Monday, January 24, 2011

Why I Do This

Guercino, Saint Luke, 1653

Why do I do this blog?

Well, partly it's to scratch an itch. It gives me a chance to vent and rant that I don't normally get in the rest of my life. Also, I can indulge my curiosity from time to time. The best way to learn about something is to explain it to someone else. Art has always been my passion, and how it intersects with history and with larger matters of human life interests me especially. I use this blog to get to know better things that I've always known about, and to get to know things that I don't really know all that well, but intrigue me.
I also use it to promote my own artwork, something that I'd always like to do more often, but my work tends to be labor intensive and my studio time is frequently limited. I'm far from being the only artist to deal with those issues. That's probably life for almost all artists these days.

Like other bloggers, I've noticed my comment traffic is much lighter than it used to be, but then I never expected a blog that has long posts on art history to be much of a crowd draw.

Why do I do those posts? The last thing I want to do with this blog is turn it into an Art 101 class. These posts aren't really serious academic scholarship (my language skills are too limited for professional academia in art history, nor do I want to be a full time art historian). I write for a broad audience who I assume are not experts, though I assume they have a little more educational background and maturity than the average college freshman. I am doing something like being a tour guide, but I want to do something much more. I don't want my Florence posts to be some kind of Merchant-Ivory-presents-Florence-how-exquisite! type thing. I do have a serious purpose in those posts beyond recounting history. They are about the question of civilized life. Not just the life of polished speech and fine manners, but life in cities (the word "civilization" shares the same root as "city," and for a reason, that's where civilization happens). Cities are more than just concentrations of people and buildings, they are places where people come together to build a life for themselves and together. All of those basic issues of life such as the rule of law, how to make a living, what kind of society do we want, what is right, just, and fair, how are we to be governed, what do we believe about the meaning of life and death as individuals and collectively, how do we express it, what does it mean to live a good and happy life, and who gets to try to live one, what is our relationship to our past and to our posterity as individuals and as a society, all of those questions were lived out in very dramatic and strikingly productive ways in that little city on the Arno river. We are all still living out those issues, only today under different historical circumstances (especially in technology and the scope of the global economy).

I did that whole series a long time ago on the origins of Christian art, not just to be professorial, but to address the very issue of the role of imagery in the Christian religion, a question that has been around for 2000 years and is no more settled now than it was at the beginnings of Christian history.

We in the English speaking world tend to privilege the word over the image as a bearer of meaning. Perhaps that is the legacy of Protestantism and its deep suspicion of images and symbolism. In my own small way, I try to show audiences outside the charmed circle of the art profession (both fine and commercial) that images are filled with many dimensions of meaning and can be every bit as rich and complex as literature. Ours is a commercial culture saturated with images competing for our attention. I tell my students, and I'm telling you, it is better to understand how they work and what's at stake and to take control of them rather than have them work their spells and control you.

Finally, a big reason for these art history posts is my inner Socialist demands it as a kind of moral imperative. I do not think that art and commerce can be reconciled. They are two sharply different and even opposed enterprises. The artist, no matter what she does, tries to find meaning, or even to create it and expand the whole dimension of what is meaningful. Commerce must necessarily reduce meaning to what is marketable. One enterprise always seeks to expand meaning, and another must reduce or eliminate meaning in order to function. The artist must make meaning in a totally commercialized world that denies even the possibility of meaning. The previous sentences are probably the most truly heretical thing I've ever said on this blog.

Art in this day and age is two contradictory things at the same time. It is a very high-priced luxury item, a very demanding kind of entertainment, that adorns the homes of the rich and powerful, and the public halls of power, as status trophies and as tokens of legitimacy. Art is also the incarnation of thoughts, experiences, dreams, hopes. and fears that we all share, and as such, is the common property of all humankind.
Like the reformers of the 19th century, I teach these things to the broad public so that they may rightfully claim them, and claim their share in the enterprise of civilization.


JCF said...

...and you do it so well!

The best way to learn about something is to explain it to someone else.

Extremely insightful (Explained so well, you must have learned a lot! ;-p)

Thanks, Doug---please keep it coming!

June Butler said...

Doug, I'm another who appreciates your writings on art. Even if your posts are not Art 101, I've learned a lot. I hope that's OK.

Tom and I both have a love for hand-made objects, including art. Over the years, we've purchased a good many paintings and prints, mostly by local artists whom we admired and could afford. We have hand-woven baskets, hand-carved duck decoys, and other hand-made collectibles, because we love the objects people create with their heads, hearts, and hands. Our collections are not our trophies. They're what we like and can afford.

Thank you for what you do. I started to read your post on the Tang dynasty, but I have not read all of it, yet.

it's margaret said...

I love all your posts. Art. Rants. Politics. Love.

Thank you.

MadPriest said...

There's no need for you to justify your blog. Like all good art, it's speaks for itself.

Counterlight said...

Mimi, you are one of the very last people on earth I would ever accuse of purchasing art for the sake of polishing the edges off ill gotten wealth.
It sounds to me like all of your collecting is a labor of love, the best kind of collecting.

I'm delighted that you learn from these posts, and I hope to continue the education.

Counterlight said...

Thank you Margaret, JCF, and Maddy.

Dan Baedeker said...

Just discovered your excellent blog. I am a pseudo-doctor (of political science), but a real life-long student and lover of art and architecture (and an Italophile blessed with 28 trips to Italy).Your essay on the iconography of the cross is superb, and I look forward to reading all of your other essays.

- Dan Baedeker

barry young said...

do not send for whom the blogger writes: he writes for me said...

Dear Counterlight

Your blog is excellent for the very reason you refer to: the fact that imagery, just as much as the word, can impart truth.

Your "Passion" series of paintings really stopped me in my tracks, and your photography of stained glass etc reminds me why, despite what so many say, Anglicanism has its place in Christianity.

You are doing a wonderful job.

Jane Smith (Pretoria, South Africa)

Moldy Martha said...

I came across your blog while looking for information on the mosaics of Sant' Appolinare Nuovo and am extremely impressed by the quality and depth of the articles I've seen so far. I am by training a biologist, a serious if somewhat unorthodox Christian, and a painter currently working using the techniques and vocabulary of late 14th century Italy. The interface between art, art history and philosophy fascinates me.