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The effect of 200 years of scientific examination of our world on our education in the west has been to move our focus to the object.
Scientific culture focuses on the object under examination (only recently has the experimenter been seen as influencing the results of the experiment). Capitalist culture focuses on the collection of objects. As a result we have become more aware of things than of values, of objects than of sensations. This is not a uniform trend: 18th century England valued gardening and conversation as two of the greatest arts; the Romantic movement in Germany and then England focused on reactions to landscape; and the decadent movement in late 19th century France and then England focused on emotions such as surfeit, disillusion and despair. But the almost complete destruction of 20th century culture in two world wars has made the present age one of our most materialistic.
I spend a lot of time experiencing works of art. Books, films, music, and a few pictures, which I think of only marginally as material objects. But some of the reactions I notice around me are: bestsellers – books are valued by how many copies are sold; popular music is focused on because it can be quantified into gold records, platinum records etc; films become influential not because of their artistic techniques but because of their marketing techniques.
First of all I have to modify my statement. I am talking about what is written about the arts. Journalists in particular find it easy to apply criteria of measurement to the arts. Perhaps individuals in their private sphere go on loving the stuff they love as they always have, some intensely, others superficially. A distortion in our reaction to art is taking place, though, as we are now, via the internet, nearly all journalists.
Look around you and you find that communication about arts is largely the domain of the measurer, or a cultural pillar used by a smug conservative to shore up the establishment. The reactions of those who shed tears over Michael Jackson’s Ben, or enjoy Ang Lee’s film of Sense and Sensibility unaware it is based on a novel by Jane Austen seem more authentic, no matter what one thinks of their value.
Painting is an art form of which I know little. The painter Van Gogh has impressed me as a suffering visionary, a stranger in a strange land enduring tortures of isolation. I was left feeling angry after reading David Sweetman’s 1990 biography The Love of Many Things (“the best way to know God is to love many things” said Vincent to Theo). My reaction to the paintings was a comfortable one. I looked at Irises, Starry Night and other reproductions and admired the landscapes, enjoyed the influence of ukiyo-e (which I also enjoy) and that was that. Then in 1984, at the Impressionist exhibition at the Australian National Gallery, I found myself actually in front of some Van Gogh paintings. The effect was not what I considered art at all, at that time. It was visceral, galvanic, expanding, violent, far from comfortable. I understood at once why viewers have turned away from Van Gogh, Picasso, and probably at first Leonardo, Giotto, Zeuxis, Apollodorus and the first Egyptian tomb painter. An artist is often out of synch, jarring with the period he works in, and in that sense a revolutionary. An artist has the power sometimes to jolt an audience out of their comfort zone, change their assumptions about the world. It is an experience few appreciate.
My point is that I’ve never duplicated that experience, I’ve never stood in front of a Van Gogh painting again. Yet I’ve never forgotten it, it’s always ‘there’ as deep experiences are. Turning to discover more about the painter I learnt that seven Van Gogh paintings have bought in a total price of $660 million dollars. So he must be a good painter, right? And I’ve seen his paintings in books and on calendars and it’s been ‘great art’ and eminently comforting.
It seems there are two things happening. The blazing, confounding, disorienting experience we have in front of a work of art. And the way we absorb, classify, value as an object, turn our focus away from self to artwork, objectify and tame it. It is a truism that successful revolutions form the establishment against which later generations rebel, a truism in art as well as politics.
There has often been a dualism at the heart of our thinking. The universe began when the Big Bang occurred/god said “let there be light”: the One became the All and the world we know a flux between being and becoming. Zarathustra believed the world was a battleground between the forces of light and darkness (what I would liken to forces of integration and dispersal, modern astronomy to expanding and contracting universe) and that no person could stand aside from this battleground. Heraclitus thought that we can only understand the world by understanding ourselves, by experiencing the reality of our souls wherein lies the spark of the divine origin that underlies the ceaseless change around us. For Democritus the world was made by combinations of the indivisable atom, the self merely a laughable delusion distracting us from the unchanging reality around us. Becoming and Being, the Weeping Philosopher and the Laughing Philosopher.
To which I add, the experience of art and the object of art.
The reality is more complex than I have supposed. Heraclitus and Democritus are complementary, not opposed. Art is a triangle, one apex is the artist, one the interpreter (critic, dealer, publisher), one the experiencer. When we experience a work of art we travel from one apex to another and the experience becomes part of our lives. When we stop at one particular apex and remain stationary, the work of art becomes a thing, and no matter how many millions of dollars it costs, it loses its value and becomes merely a thing.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.