If it's pretty, can it be art? May 7, 2017 18:43

I was discussing a review of a Dale Chihuly exhibition at the de Young museum a few years ago with a 30-something architect.  I was relating that though I had some reservations about the depth of the artistic experience the exhibition provoked (these were large room-filling works containing hundreds of often quite large and stunning hand-blown pieces of glass — in each work), I was surprised at the rejection of the local art critic of the work having much value at all. In my memory of the critique, he wrote at length trying to explain himself, with what I thought were less than compelling arguments.  Basically he seemed to be saying that beauty cannot comment on the human condition.

The reaction of my conversation partner was that when she was in school the overriding theme of the art instructors was: if it’s pretty, it can’t be art.


This summation struck me, and upon reflection of all I had seen in the last dozen years made a great deal of sense.

Artists are the great divining rods of society, sensing where we are going before we know it ourselves, expressing reactions that we aren’t yet fully aware of.  But of course, good and great art is more than just being an expression of its time.

Artists, of their time, have recently brought us many visions of our massive failures as individuals and as a species, failures often magnified by powerful technologies. 

Many works initially derive a great deal of power by being very much of their time, but if they are mostly this, as times change they lose some of their strength. I think we can see this with some of the mid and late 20th Century artists whose once burning strengths now can feel a bit diminished as the challenges they once presented, challenges that then caused us to re-evaluate ourselves with a greater awareness, have now become mainstream.

What happens to the power of a comment on society when society no longer reflects the comment?  Art needs to be more than this.

I think the definition of what is art is easy: it is what gives us an artistic experience; that is, an experience that brings us beyond ourselves.  It’s defining what gives us a valid artistic experience that’s difficult.  

Beauty can give us an artistic experience; it can definitely make us pause, even sometimes make us cry — and leave us unable to explain why we are struck down with such emotion.

But is this beauty we see or merely something shiny? We are often betrayed by shiny objects.

I’m reluctant to admit this (because I think it’s part of the trap he’s laying), but this is exactly the issue the work of Jeff Koons deals with.

I succumbed to an opportunity to view his retrospective at the Pompideu Center; it was shown alongside a retrospective of Marcell Duchamp’s work.  This made perfect sense.  I finally got it.  

Shiny object: kitsch or valid?  Large shiny object, hand crafted, expensive materials, large price tag, desired and vetted by many: still kitsch — or valid? Or maybe just asking these questions is your artistic experience. Or maybe it’s thinking that maybe we could be so insipid as a culture (or a person) we don’t know what a valid emotion is — is our artistic experience?

We don’t know what love is. Lust, or infatuation — or maybe it’s the real thing.

We might be leery of love, having been betrayed, but sometimes it is the real thing.  Can we see it, can we believe it?

If it’s pretty, can it be art?

I think so.