Art For Art’s Sake

(image courtesy)
I mean that title literally.
There’s an interesting thread over at WhiskeyFire dealing with a rightwing pundit, Michael Moynihan, who posits that political correctness is destroying art of all stripes.
In other words, because art should not be politicized, and if it’s controversial, should be viewed through an artistic lens rather than a political one, we get crappy art.
Bullshit. As Thers points out at WF, long legal and political battles have been fought over “art for art’s sake,” from the Bovary trial, all the way down to our own Serrano and Mapplethorpe controversies.
For me, art is an exaggerated reality that provides the artist’s perspective on what he sees (or imagines).
Take that Hopper .jpg at the top of this post. It’s a fairly mundane scene: a couple, a single man, all sitting at a coffee shop counter while the counter guy tries to engage anyone in conversation. For me, there’s a sense of tension and mystery in the picture. For instance, the man with his back facing us: what’s he up to? He seems lost in thought. It’s late. The place is empty. What happened to him? The couple. Lovers? Is she a hooker? She’s dressed kind of trampy and looks bored. Married?

We’re all familiar with the concept of interpretation. We can all look at the same event, the same real event, and based on the sum total of our experiences and knowledge, view it through our own particular lens.

The really good artists are the ones who get us to see their perspective and realize things we missed. That’s art, and it doesn’t matter if the artist is five or Edward Hopper. What makes Hopper Hopper is his art affect us on an emotional level enough that someone wants to buy it.

But there’s a larger point I’m missing, and that is for the culture at large. As JohnR in comments put it:

I’ve used a simple definition of “art” for most of my life, reinforced by a recent visit to our local MoA with the wife: Art is anything that someone thinks is art. Do something; think it’s art? Then it’s art. It helps if you can convince somebody else that it’s art, which can be surprisingly easy, but that’s optional.

It occurs to me that art is a communication, as I pointed out above, but like all communications, it is subject to individual accents and understandings. A rock is a communication to someone, somewhere.

And I mean before it’s even thrown at your head. It provides information, for one thing: there are likely other rocks nearby, which could mean there’s a large rock either under the ground or up on a hillside.

Or it could mean that there’s a riot nearby and you’d better duck.
I have thousands of photos I’ve taken over the course of my life and I’ve discarded thousands more. All of them mean something to me, so all of them are art for me. They remind me of times and places and faces. I have an emotional reaction to each photo, even if that reaction is so subtle that it cannot be measured easily.
But for the rest of the argument…
Politics is emotional. It has to be. Laws are created in order to govern behavior under agreed-upon standards. Politics establishes those standards of behavior. Behavior is emotionally-driven.
All of us have emotional impulses, most good, some evil. After all, who among us hasn’t at least glimmered on the feeling of punching someone in the nose? This is what determines our humanity: can we feel?
Most of us can feel anger, which is really just fear incorporating itself into our psyche. Most of us can feel happiness, which is really just love incorporating itself into our psyche. We can feel compassion, guilt, greed, envy, shame…the list is pretty extensive, but I think they all boil down to components of either love or fear in various compositions.
Art is emotional. It has to be. The combinations of colours or sounds, actions or words, shapes or people, all conspire to draw an emotional reaction from us. We all interpret them differently, distinctly. Effective artists, and here’s where my viewpoint has altered slightly from the discussion at WhiskeyFire, make the emotional reaction so compelling that we want to live it, over and over again. We want to live with it and let it beat within our breasts.
What determines our society is how many of us act upon those impulses and how. Which brings us full circle to politics.
Politics is emotional. Art is emotional. Art is politics. It’s impossible not to polticize art.

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  • Nice post, but geez, the woman is either a hooker or a wife? It’s easy to see which lens you’re looking through. But as you say, the interpretation of art is a personal thing.

    In a detailed description of this painting (Nighthawks), the woman is referred to as ‘a female customer’. Others have suggested it was an ‘estranged couple’. Hopper’s wife said she posed for ‘the girl’.

    I’ve looked at some of his other works – Hopper is an interesting painter.

    I love this one

    I completely identify with the man reading the book. That’s what I’d be doing as I hate sunbathing.

    And this one. Nice to see a woman’s pubic hair. Her body looks realistic.

    • That late at night, if they were lovers, they’d be home balling by now, Adrena. So they’re clearly bored to be with each other, but for whatever reason, unable to be apart.

      Which means one is getting paid or both are married to each other. Take your pick.

      • Now lemme see … the title of the painting is: “Nighthawks”.

        Through my lens, I see entirely different scenarios. You see bored, I see contemplation. You see sex – paid or otherwise – I see companionship. Maybe they went to the theater together and dropped by the diner for a coffee or tea.

        I’m amazed how you can fight against the injustice of inequality on so many fronts yet keep dividing women into two classes: the whore and the wife. Your script for changing the world is a failure from the start.

        The following is what I wrote a long time ago. It still applies.

        To write about the prostitute is akin to engaging in a discussion about the psychological condition of a split personality. Except, in this case, the split is not in one person but rather, in the sexual nature of an entire gender as expressed by the different expectations of a wife and a prostitute. This unnatural duality is a measure of how female sexuality has been ripped apart, distorted and used to subjugate and denigrate women with the prostitute being the lesser of a lesser species. The principal function of the prostitute woman is to sexually please the male any time and in any shape or form without reciprocity; that is the raison d’etre of her existence.

        Her soul and spirituality have been extracted from her sexual nature that is often equated with vileness. In other words, her sexuality is dead; she is a mere vesicle, a cavity, a hole for the male to masturbate into.

        Conversely, the sexuality of a woman who is molded to become a wife is stunted and is insecure in its expression as it is required to follow society’s strict rules as to when and how it can manifest itself At times therefore, her sexual nature is also forced to be dead. This creates great confusion, feelings of guilt, and extreme frustration within the female as her sex drive is constant and strong and is not attached to a dimmer switch that can adjust it and turn it on or off. Both culturally induced aspects of the sexual female have been used to divide women into good and bad and to pit them against each other – all in the name of paternity.

        Rather than giving equal responsibility to both genders to ensure paternity, patriarchy selfishly chose, through the use of brute force, to make women the sole gatekeepers. Thus, it created the prostitute.

        Although prostitution originated in Mesopotamia four thousand years ago (see Part 1), in today’s society, the role of the prostitute remains strong. This, in spite of the fact, that the continuation of a separate and inferior class of females is at odds with the advances made in the principles of ethical thought as well as in liberal and progressive discourse, not to mention human rights.

        Read the rest here

  • Everything anyone except a hermit does is political (and being a hermit might be a political statement), but such a definition isn’t fine-grained enough to be very useful. Similarly, saying that politics is emotional doesn’t really get at the core of politics. Our particular political stances and behavior may indeed be influenced by emotion, but influence is not control or totality and emotion is not the only factor. How those emotions are manifested is more what politics is about.

    We respond emotionally to many things but that doesn’t make them Art. On the other hand, I would agree that Art is about evoking emotion. The reasons for creating art are many: propaganda, education, pleasure, profit (all focused on the viewer), self-expression, pleasure, compulsion, insanity….

    I’ve known a lot of artists – painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians, photographers – and unlike the guy flipping burgers, stocking shelves at Walmart or adding up numbers in an office, the artists all enjoy what they do. That may capture some essence of artists, but doesn’t define Art (with a capital A). As I noted elsewhere, the artist perceives something more than the non-artist. It’s not just a question of perceiving differently (we all perceive differently but that doesn’t make us artists). It’s a matter of perceiving more. I am reminded of the sculptor who was asked how he carved a statue of (I believe – it’s been a long time) an elephant. He replied that he started with a block of stone and chipped away everything that wasn’t elephant.

    He and everyone else saw the block of stone but he was the only one who looked at the block of stone and saw an elephant.
    That’s not just different. That’s more.

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