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Serious art - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Serious art
So I was reading an article about getting men back into church. It was mostly a long tirade about getting "manly men" back in the pulpit (which I didn't get, as some of the things the guy talks about are equally attractive to women... the problem he's addessing is sentimentalism, not femininity), but in the course of it, he made one comment that made me go, "Well... yeah." The comment was to the effect that churches are filled with shallow, saccharine art, and not things that make you stop and really go, "Whoa."

This is a problem throughout art, I think, and writing as well. Where is the line between real feeling/thinking and kind of surface, saccharine sentimentalism?

It's not always easy to spot. I know that in the art world, people will reject anything positive as "sentimentalist," though honestly, knee-jerk nihilism isn't particularly deeper, and unsubtle metaphor is even worse than sentimentalism, so I don't find that I can trust the so-called "art establishment" on the subject.

There's also the matter of individual taste. The person who is deeply offended by something, or who just doesn't connect to a style, isn't going to peel back layers to look for deeper meanings. I can recognize intellectually that Monet was a great artist, but I think that if I were surrounded by Monets for too long, I'd fall into a coma from boredom. Other people would find him sublime. My mom finds Picasso irritating and annoying (but loves Monet; I could spend a whole lot of time looking at his paintings. So you can't really base it on "Do I like this or not?" Both men are acknowledged as great artists, after all, and both have enduring legacies.

Then there's "statement art," which people will tend to flock to if they like the statement. I think that's the impulse behind both the most saccharine cherub on a lime green hill and the most offensive religious icons dipped in bodily fluids. They're both in-community affirmations of a particular mindset, which you are either in or not in. At the most, the saccharine is meant to make you think about your good fortune, while the offensive is meant to be shocking. Neither is a particularly intellectual response.

And no, I'm not saying pure intellectualism is the point. If it were, then you might as well just draw a diagram or a graph and call it good. Ideally, if you'll forgive the Freudian terms, art shouldn't be all superego or all id--in fact, it should be the middle-ground, ego (or "identity," since "ego" has a different colloquial meaning). Emotions processed through the brain, or thoughts processed through the emotions. I tend to lean more toward pointing out lack of the intellectual simply because the "burst of feeling"/"express your emotions" school of thought seems to have more sway. (The John Singer Sargent murals, "The Triumph of Religion" (here, click on sections to see art) come close to being pure intellectualism, but because of the colors he chose and the way he designed the room where they're installed, it also has a cumulative emotional impact.)

What about aesthetics? I know several people whose opinion is that art that isn't pretty isn't worth anything (art should make the world a better place), and others who seem to think that if it is pretty, its worth is somehow lessened (the world is ugly, after all). And what is pretty to one person may be somewhat odd to another. That goes back to personal taste.

Ultimately, I think the difference between serious and non-serious depends on thought and layers, skill at visual metaphor and/or good understanding of aesthetic psychology. Does it come back to haunt you, as either benign or malign ghost? Does it need to be examined? Does viewing it a subsequent time bring new insights? Was the artist's brain engaged? Does the imagery show reflective thought, or is it either taken flat out or put in the crudest of metaphors? Is the image a cliché (chubby cherubs), or, if it's common, an archetype which the artist has rendered in a new and interesting way? If it's an uncommon image, is it one that makes some kind of sense in intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic ways?


Thought I'd toss it out there for conversation. And since I know that most of my list is fannish, I'll add the question, "Can art derived from pre-existing sources be considered 'serious'?" Why or why not, and in what circumstances?
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leelastarsky From: leelastarsky Date: December 16th, 2006 04:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
"Can art derived from pre-existing sources be considered 'serious'?"

Oh, definitely. Consider all the art done illustrating the Bible or myths of one kind or another. Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, Romantic painters like Waterhouse, Alphonse Mucha, even today's Alan Lee, who was painting LOTR art, and was considered the LOTR artist, LONG before Peter Jackson got hold of him.

I used to think Picasso was demented, until I realised he was illustrating feelings. And, personally, Monet's art did nothing for me. I liked it well enough, but it was little more than a pretty picture. Until I saw it in real life. Hanging on a wall in front of me. The printing/reproduction process kills his art DEAD. His brilliance at painting light is...I've never seen anything like it.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 16th, 2006 04:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
Interesting. Alas, I don't think the MFA has any Monets on exhibit, though I should check.

Another form that gets totally lost in translation are the colorfield paintings. I grew up with them in Albright-Knox. My mom didn't like them, and I can't say they're my favorite style, but being able to see the motion of the brush makes all the difference.
ivylore From: ivylore Date: December 16th, 2006 07:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
They do, they do! There are several. I saw him there last summer.

And really, the difference between serious and non-serious art when it comes down to it (all theories aside) is the artists' intent. Non-serious art is most often dubbed 'art for arts sake', but it doesn't matter in the end, because if an art critic reads something into a painting, that painting is instantly elevated to the top of the totem pole, regardless of the level of craftmanship.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 16th, 2006 07:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Deleted and re-added, because with all the stupid tweaking LJ's been doing, none has been in the direction of being able to edit a comment that has a goofy HTML tag in it!

And occasionally vice-versa. I was looking for Dali's Christ of St. John of the Cross, a very interesting alternate perspective crucifix with surrealist elements, and one of the pages I found it on said that art critics of the time just dismissed it as trite. (Of course, the fact that it was apparently just voted Scotland's favorite painting will probably serve to convince the art elite that it's clearly meant for "the masses" and is therefore not valuable.)

I will have to make an MFA pilgrimage soon. Maybe Friday. I'm off Friday. Though I think they had a special impressionism exhibit last summer; I know they did at some point. I missed it, even though I was a member at the time. Grr. I keep meaning to go there more, but then I don't.
ivylore From: ivylore Date: December 16th, 2006 10:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
When I went to the MFA last August, the textiles exhibit (of all things!) was closed and I was so disappointed.

Don't forget about the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum just around the corner. They have discounts if you see them on the same day. It's much smaller than the MFA, absolutely unique.

Weblink here: http://www.museumsofboston.org/museums/gardner.html
ivylore From: ivylore Date: December 16th, 2006 10:48 pm (UTC) (Link)

Forgot to add

Agreed with your point.

Photography, for instance, wasn't initially considered an art form, just a tool for recordkeeping and assisting painters. Then Queen Victoria purchased Rejlander's The Two Ways of Life and that began to change everything.
galaxianomiko From: galaxianomiko Date: December 17th, 2006 05:30 am (UTC) (Link)
The printing/reproduction process kills his art DEAD. His brilliance at painting light is...I've never seen anything like it.

It's really shocking seeing what paintings actually look like in person, or even in video, which seems to capture a lot more of the detail than the reproductions. I watched a television show the other day showing various famous paintings in museums, and was totally floored by the difference between what I thought the painting looked like (from the repros). The colors, in particular, are so completely changed (and any fading much more prominent.)
ratcreature From: ratcreature Date: December 16th, 2006 04:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I think liking the art in churches and going to church aren't all that related. I like looking at art in churches if I like the style or the era(s) they've been built in, for example I like medieval altars but find baroque one over the top. I even like the feeling of being in a church, because for example the techniques used in a gothic cathedral, the high arches, the accoustics, the art etc. certainly work on me like intended, and I find churches in general soothing and comforting for that reason, but all that isn't going to change that I'm an atheist. And along similar lines I'm dubious whether certain kinds of art would sway even Christians who aren't churchgoers to attend church after all.

I mean, the art isn't really the main point of a service, is it? But then I have never been in a church that had awful tasteless kitschy art or anything, I think the worst I've seen was kind of pompous neo-classical paintings in a neo-gothic church. Even in Baroque churches which are kind of kitschy I can certainly acknowledge the skill, like it's not like there's pink angels or fake plastic Jesuses or anything. But then I don't think I've ever been to a church that was built after 1900, so maybe it's worse with new churches, and I just can't envision how horrible and off-putting it could potentially be.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 16th, 2006 05:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I think the guy's thought was that it was all of a piece with warmfuzzy namby-pamby-ness--that churches were now buying art meant to be all soft and cushy, which was part of what he considers a soft-headedness that drives people, especially men, away, whereas good art makes them feel like the people in charge are taking things seriously. Or something. At some point in one novel or another, Stephen King refers to stained glass windows where fluffy white sheep graze on fields "exactly the color of lime Jell-o." I suspect that's the kind of thing he means.
ratcreature From: ratcreature Date: December 16th, 2006 06:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
Huh, somehow I doubt that "serious" contemporary art would count as any less namby-pampy by these dubious standards. I mean, thinking about this, I now recall visiting at least one church for its modern artwork, i.e. the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Harlem for its Keith Haring altar among other things.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 16th, 2006 06:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, the article itself is made of WTF. It just got me thinking about the issue of serious art vs. non-serious art.

Keith Haring, honestly, I'm on the fence with on the issue.
ratcreature From: ratcreature Date: December 16th, 2006 07:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't think to divide art like that makes much sense, mostly because I still don't know what you mean with "serious".

I mean, in the end if an artist wants to live s/he has to sell something, whether it was the church paying for some fresco or Nestle paying Alfons Mucha for a baby formula ad, it may end up in a museum, get looked at and analysed by art historians, etc. so the factor of how "commercial" some art was at the time it was created ceases to have much meaning especially once the original context has faded a bit in the minds of the audience. And well, I find plenty of art that hangs in museums kitschy and sentimentalist, like I don't care at all for much of the 18th and 19th century art in the academic realist style that seemingly always depicts some kind of heroic battle or scene from Greek mythology in gigantic realist oil paintings. That doesn't evoke anything in me. Though some art from around that time is at least consciously sentimentalist rather than just pompous, so I like romanticist realist style slightly better, because at least there often is some irony or self-referential element. But I only start to like art again once modern styles from impressionism onwards begin. Strangely enough I like some modern realist artists just fine, but the neoclassicists from the 19th century just all rub me the wrong way.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 16th, 2006 07:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
I still don't know what you mean with "serious".

Well, that's mostly what the post is about--to figure out what is serious art and what isn't. I think there's an instinctive line that most people feel and know when they've crossed it, but the border is muddy and murky.
ratcreature From: ratcreature Date: December 16th, 2006 08:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, personally my definition of "art" is very, very broad and doesn't include any quality or style judgments at all, it's simply all art. For me it doesn't have to be "good" to be "art". Basically I call all human activity that is neither relevant for survival/reproduction nor falls under the sports and games umbrellas "art". So basically any kind of creative expression in any kind of medium that isn't 100% utilitarian is art to me. I mean, as soon as you decorate your storage box with silly flowers instead of sticking with a plain carton I'd call it art, because it is basically the same kind of impulse and activity that leads to some gorgeous piece of art nouveau furniture. The rest is mostly taste.

Okay, obviously there is an element technical proficiency and craftsmanship that can be evaluated more or less by shared criteria, at least if there are goals stated, e.g. if something is supposed to be a realist drawing perspective and anatomy can be done right or wrong, that kind of thing. But since art is fully or (in the case of design and such) partially non-utilitarian the goals are subject to taste too.

So I really just distinguish between art that I like and art that I dislike. But it's all art. I mean, hideous plastic flamingo lawn ornaments? Art. Kitschy Santa Claus figures hanging from houses? Art. An so on. I dislike it, but still consider it art.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 16th, 2006 07:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
FWIW, I don't think being in a museum proves much of anything other than something fitting the aesthetic of the era in which it was purchased. Some museum work is wonderful. Other museum work? Not so much. Like I said in the post, the opinion of the art community isn't always a good indicator of what's serious and what's not, and I'm sure that was as true in the 19th century as it is now.
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: December 16th, 2006 06:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
Art is intrinsically involved in Eastern Orthodox worship. Iconography is considered necessary for Orthodox worship and ugly or overly sentimental icons do distract from worship.

Icons tell the stories of our faith but also serve other purposes, and thus, have a set of artistic rules that are to be followed to produce (some people will say "write," others use "draw" or "paint") a good icon.

As to music, there is a trend in Christian music toward simple, boring music. The songs' messages are often focused on "self" rather than worship of God.

If you haven't been in a church that's less than 100 years old, you're missing (or not!) some truly awful things built in the name of religion.
musamea From: musamea Date: December 16th, 2006 05:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
I find that I subscribe to the Kantian view that beautiful or sublime art arouses attention and feeling simply for what it is, in the medium through which it is conveyed. The sublime moment of taking in beauty occurs when our brains almost shut down in the face of the object... we don't know why we are struck by it, only that we are. (And to begin to intellectualize the wy is to stop focusing on the art itself and to try to fit it to a purpose. I think Kant would have said that "statement art" isn't true art because it tries too hard to be purposive, to awaken sentiment or emotion, rather than just being what it is.) Didn't Emily Dickinson say something along the lines of, "I know it's poetry if it takes my head off"? Maybe we know it's art when it takes our heads off and our breaths away. /two cents

On another note, that sounds like an interesting article. Is it online anywhere, or were you reading a paper copy?
vytresna From: vytresna Date: December 16th, 2006 05:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
Tch, no wonder Ayn Rand thinks the guy is destroying humanity. Can't have anything where intellect isn't involved, don't you know.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 16th, 2006 06:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, can I e-mail it to you? I posted the link and then realized the WTF level is too high even for me to grit my teeth and get past; I'd rather discuss the art issue here!
musamea From: musamea Date: December 16th, 2006 08:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
Certainly! musamea AT gmail DOT com. (And I'd meant interesting in the "This will probably make my brain explode" way. *G*) Thanks.
simibee From: simibee Date: December 16th, 2006 06:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
hear, hear! I'm studying Illustration at a religous university, and this is a question that comes up quite often. The instructors are very much against sentimental art- while the general poulation here cna't get enough of it. I've never heard the argument put quite so clearly. i could never manage to get my thoughts into words, but5 you've nailed it. Anyways. Thank you for that.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 16th, 2006 07:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
What an interesting class to take in that environment!

Personally, I'd love to see some thoughtful modernist techniques applied in Bible illustration. (Not the more vulgar stuff, thanks, but some of the interesting uses of line and color and perspective and so on.)
lilacsigil From: lilacsigil Date: December 17th, 2006 01:55 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't know if great art is going to help much with religion, though - I've been an atheist my whole life (I can't ever remember believing in higher powers of any kind) but I love religious art and literature for its beauty and the strange feeling of humility in portraying splendour.

Art (and, particularly hymns) that like to trumpet the artist's belief or stance (religious, intellectual, nihilistic or otherwise) often contain little that connects or moves the emotions and mind. I'm really not invested in emo!pain, cute angels or in slogans - it's as if the artist is reaching out only on a single level, assuming that whatever they portray is universal, rather than communicating, and attempting to entice or repulse the viewer with the viewer's own experience and emotion.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 17th, 2006 03:09 am (UTC) (Link)
My assumption is that he's talking about men who are believers, but who feel uncomfortable in church communities because they're so fluffy and full of non-challenging ideas these days. I doubt he's talking about converting anyone.
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: December 17th, 2006 04:21 am (UTC) (Link)
My personal opinion on what makes art good is: if you feel you've been enriched from having looked at it, then it's good art.

Art in church was quite controversial for my people, until recently. Mennonites banished all art from their churches back when they split off from the other Protestants, believing that art in church lead to idolatry (not wholly without cause: the old-time Catholic church ascribed all kinds of powers to some of their statues). My church has only just started putting art on its walls, recognizing that creativity is a God-given talent that can be used for His glory.

There is an argument to be made that the modern church is sliding into a soft sentimentality that can be off-putting to male believers, and the art is a symptom of it. (For that matter, I find it off-putting.) Every popular image of angels is of fluffy beings of light, usually protecting fat-cheeked children, rather than the terrifying powers that they really are, battling the chaos of Hell. I think it's a greater symptom of people forgetting what an awe-ful place the world really is, both in the spiritual and physical sense. We've lost our wonder in our cozy suburban nests.

So that's me, completely off the subject...
galaxianomiko From: galaxianomiko Date: December 17th, 2006 05:40 am (UTC) (Link)
I attended a church with no artwork in it when I was young, so when it comes to church art, I really only find objection with the truly terrifying-looking things I've seen in some churches. D: I shouldn't walk into a church and want to scream, "WTF IS THAT??"

Otherwise, I want to completely agree with your method of questioning the work of art. If there aren't any layers, or if it doesn't somehow grab me and make me look again, it's not that serious.
mrkimi From: mrkimi Date: December 17th, 2006 06:29 am (UTC) (Link)
Musamea's view seems about right to me. It it touches you in the right place it is art, even if it is something functional like a spoon.

Just how it touches you may be different from what the artist intended and this ability to inspire creativity in others makes the artist different from the engineer who, to follow the example, is just trying to make a working spoon.

So how serious the art is has to be how serious we take it. You can look at Picasso and laugh, or you can let it inspire you. At least the material is there to work with.
tunxeh From: tunxeh Date: December 17th, 2006 05:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think the line between serious and sentimental may be best explored if we factor out other issues such as the subject matter — religious art (what you see on church walls) vs antireligious art (Piss Christ) is too extreme and polarizing a difference for the level of seriousness to be visible. Here is a comparison I think much more relevant, on Thomas Kinkade vs Caspar David Friedrich; both explore the same subject, in similar enough ways that one might claim Kinkaid to be plagiarizing Friedrich, but the depth of meaning in the Friedrich is much greater.

Which is to say, I agree with your paragraph about thought and layers.

"Can art derived from pre-existing sources be considered 'serious'?"

Certainly, if the artist adds new thought and layers rather than merely taking from the original. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, for instance, is heavily derived from Hamlet, but certainly serious. I don't have as clear an example at hand in the visual arts but I don't see why they should be any different.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 17th, 2006 05:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Interesting article, and a great way to look at the difference, though I shall have to just ignore his swipe at politics, as goofy nonsense on both sides is equally common, and equally irritating, and I'm reasonably sure that the people who like trite left art are voting Democrat. (There's a particular piece of bad art I'm thinking of that's a mural of women's history, meant with the nice feminist message of "Look, there are all these historically important women!!!", and it's so trite it makes the Kinkade look deep... and badly executed as well. But it has pride of place and... :weeps for art appreciation skills: And this is in a building full of great art. There's just no excuse for it. It doesn't even fit with the architecture, which lends itself to gigantic abstractions more than even good portraiture, but... er, I digress.)
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