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Overemphasizing ideas in art

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In the last four days, I've seen Israeli videographer Yael Bartana's show, "and Europe will be stunned," at the Moderna Museet Malmö in Sweden and Anselm Kiefer's self-titled show at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.  Between those two exhibits, I've been taken with the impression that contemporary art privileges ideas over artistic skills to its detriment. 

Yael Bartana has great ideas, but from a film-making perspective much of her work looks rough and amateurish.  Anselm Kiefer also has great ideas (I laughed out loud at "Martin Heidegger," a book depicting a brain partially black with rot), but neither his drawing, sculpture, composition or use of color strikes me as particularly exemplary. 

I can't help thinking, having recently been in Italy, that Renaissance painters and sculptors wouldn't have countenanced this divorce of concepts from skilled execution.  Of course, during the Renaissance, the ideas animating the paintings were less varied (e.g., mostly related to religion and patrons), and the importance of a human's artistic capacity was paramount: the glory of human capabilities was the point of the Renaissance.

Now, however, when photographs can render life more exactingly than a painter, and film can capture life even in movement and over time, viewing a human's artistic capacity as superfluous is tempting: why not use the technology?  Similarly, now that art has been unshackled from religion and (for the most part) from private patronage, why not prize the ideas over the the execution?

The reason is that ideas without aesthetics aren't art.  Art (when it's good) operates on an intellectual and visceral level simultaneously.  It presents ideas that activate the mind, but it also - through aesthetics - engages the viscera.  (The effectiveness with which Renaissance art accomplishes these twin objectives contributes to its overwhelming beauty; contemporary art's ignoring of the visceral is surely a cause of its often numbing ugliness.) 

This visceral engagement is neither fanciful nor a luxury: it is necessary.  Without it, a work is not art, but argument.  Without the visceral engagement, artworks communicate not intuitively, but rationally. 

Moreover, much of the rational communication must be conveyed, not visually, but through verbal texts that explain the ideas undergirding the work.  But explanatory texts, be they on the wall of museums, or published in exhibition catalogs, ought to be unnecessary.  Works should speak for themselves. 

Nonetheless, very little contemporary art speaks for itself.  Without textual explanation, the circumstances of Bartana's works, "Summer Camp," and "Wild Seeds," are opaque.  Kiefer takes the trouble to write words (often the title of the work) on his canvases; Louisiana provided a "Kiefer dictionary" to explain Kiefer's common references.  Going to these contemporary art exhibitions requires an awful lot of reading; so much reading, in fact, that a visceral (that is to say, irrational) response is practically suppressed.  

Moreover, the tone of the text is exhortatory:  viewers will be questioned about . . .; viewers will confront . . . ; viewers are made to feel / think . . . .  When I read what I'm supposed to be thinking and feeling, all I can think is: bullshit.  The text is telling me what to think and feel because extracting that experience from the art itself is too difficult.  Often, the work is too boring to hold my attention.  I have to exert my will to stay and look at it.  Aesthetically engaging work doesn't encounter this problem.

I am struck, as well, by the difference between contemporary visual art and literary art.  While visual art seems to be losing its aesthetic capacities, literary art is refining them.  In fiction and poetry, the way an idea is expressed is often more important than the idea.  "Half of a Yellow Sun," Chimimanda Ngozi Adeche's novel about the Biafra war, is hampered by dull ideas; but it's well written.  Kay Ryan doesn't tell me anything I didn't know in her poem, "Turtle"; but the poetry is transporting. 

Good ideas presented in bad writing is only acceptable (and only unofficially so) in non-ficton (and explanatory texts for art exhibits); in the realm of fiction or poetry, scintillating ideas encased in bad writing isn't called art.  It might be a guilty pleasure; it might be a commercial success; but it's not art.

I don't see anything wrong in expression of rational argument in broad varieties of media, be they films, performances or paintings.  I'm not suggesting that Yael Bartana or Anselm Kiefer are unworthy of their audiences. 

But humans need art as well as argument, aesthetics as well as ideas, visceral as well as cerebral engagement.  The systematic preference for ideas to the detriment of aesthetics in contemporary art reflects a painful imbalance in our modern lives.  While this message may correspond to reality, humankind has known eras when art was more than a cry for help.

(Image of Anselm Kiefer's statue, "Das Sonnenschiff," from White Cube)

Trees, not flags

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Today I went to Sweden.  You should, too.

I went to the Moderna Museet in Malmö, where I saw an exhibit of five films by the Israeli video artist, Yael Bartana.  The show is called, "and Europe will be stunned."  I was stunned, too.

One of the films, called "A Declaration," involves a man rowing out to Andromeda's rock, off the coast of Jaffa near Tel-Aviv, on which stands an Israeli flag.  The man has an olive tree in his boat.  He docks the boat by the rock, takes down the flag and replaces it with the olive tree.

The swap - plant for flag - is deeply moving, despite its apparent ambiguity.  As curator Joa Ljungberg observes in the exhibition catalog,

To exchange the Israeli flag for an olive tree can mean to remove a national symbol in favor of a universal symbol of peace.  But the olive tree is also closely associated with Palestinian nationalism and thus the gesture can mean to replace one national symbol with another.  As an integral part of the Israeli national emblem, the olive tree could furthermore represent two nations, or two peoples in one nation.
(p. 15.)  I realize that "ambiguity" is the watch-word of today's pluralistic, multi-perspective, globalized society, but I think you have to place too-heavy emphasis on the conceptual to find ambiguity in "A Declaration."  My own interpretation is rooted in the aesthetics of the film, which is visually gorgeous.

I was inspired by the arresting images of the man rowing an olive tree out to sea.  A man, a boat, an olive plant: I saw Noah, as Noah might have been in a different narrative. 

Say that, instead of landing on Mount Ararat, Noah had kept sailing.  Naturally, others on the boat - like the animals in their two-by-twos and the other humans on board - objected, so Noah dropped them off and kept going: "Sorry guys," he said, "but I'm a sea dog by nature.  This whole flood episode helped me find myself, and I can't give up this hard won self-knowledge just because some of the water is drying up."

So Noah keeps going, just him and the olive branch brought to him by the dove.  And eventually the ark suffers some wear-and-tear, until it's reduced to a dingy.  But Noah's unfazed; he just starts rowing.  And the olive branch keeps growing because it's a hardy creature.  And Noah's pleased; he's grateful for the company, even if it is a plant.

So Noah sails on - and since 6,000 years is a long time for anyone to live, even a Biblical character caught in a fanciful alternative narrative, let's have him sail through a time portal that transports him to the Med coast, off Israel, in 2006, in time for Yael Bartana's video shoot.

And so there he is: Noah, the last good man on earth, pre-flood, pre-Abraham, pre-Ishmael and pre-Isaac, pre-nation state politics.  Noah is back-to-basics humanity, our common ancestor returned to remind us that what every inhospitable rock needs is a plant, not a flag.

Seems pretty straightforward to me.

(Still image from "A Declaration" from Artnet)

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