Monday, January 24, 2011
Why I Do This
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.
Posted by Counterlight at Monday, January 24, 2011