Sunday, November 1, 2009

Do artists really devote their lives to something that means nothing?

According to Jonathon Jones of the Guardian, the best artists do. In a recent column he suggests that too many times we are overly concerned with finding meaning in art. That we look for the message over form and style. Jones says, "The most deadening influence on art in our time is the belief that content matters more than style." Of course as a professor of art history I am (happily) guilty of searching for a work's message and contextualizing art. But this is not to say I ignore style over content. Both are equally important. Style is the language that expresses the content or its meaning.

This argument against the meaning of art emerges as if new and edgy every few months. And each time I am compelled to argue against it. Not only do I think art has a message, but I insist an art work must have something new to add to art's discourse for it to be good art.

Jones, like too many of my first-year college students believe, "Real art doesn't have a message, doesn't necessarily say anything. It is an arrangement of shapes, a pattern of words." Of course this is an argument students use so they don't have to think about art long enough to write a cohesive analysis.

Does Jonathon Jones really believe the work of Rothko, Kandinsky and Dylan is meaningless? Perhaps Jones should think longer about the meaning of his own work.

4 comments:

samthor said...

i believe it should be a marriage of style and substance. technique and idea.
I am always trying for a better look (more control over my material) and a deeper more profound message )my personal world view).
swinging too much in either direction has its problems. if there is no message, then its just decoration....?

Anonymous said...

Something cannot be a work of art without three essential components: subject, form, and content. Each of these may trade places as the primary component from one work to another. And they may even refer to each other (being the same thing) for specific works (such as in cases where the form IS the subject).

What Jones says is: "The most deadening influence on art in our time is the belief that content matters more than style." The emphasis here is on the hierarchical bias towards content - or conceptualism. As a statement it is not anti-content.

I agree with this, just as I would agree with the inverse - "The most deadening influence on art in our time is the belief that style matters more than content."

When the work of art (the form or 'style') becomes too subservient to the content, the product becomes a glorified illustration - something that only exists to supplement the idea or concept being conveyed.

Many programs of 'fine art' are gradually becoming programs of illustration by virtue of this process.

sabrina mantle said...

Well I guess it depends on what you call 'meaningless'. When I get inspired to paint I am not thinking about concepts or meaning, I am excited by the image blooming in my mind. I am dreaming of color, texture, composition and what techniques can I use to bring that image out. As I paint it often changes and takes on a very different look than I started with, which is part of the fun. But I have not yet thought 'what does it mean' or 'will they get what I was trying to say'. I just want to create something I find exciting and like to look at, and hope someone else enjoys it too. I guess by the above description that make my work not art, maybe so, but what is it then?

Anonymous said...

"I am excited by the image blooming in my mind."

Then that IS your content, at least evolving content. My description of content as a primary component did not include the prerequisite that the artist be conscious of the 'why' of the art as they are in the process of discovering it. That is not to say that some are not fully aware at the outset, but many discover it through the process. Knowing the why, and being aware of it, would help many artists in making better work. In these cases the content evolves right along with the work, just like the form does.

But it is interesting to read your question - "what is it then?" More people should ask this question.

It could be therapy, it could be media practice, it could be just marks on the paper/canvas (form only).

Our processes has content, and our products have content. Sometimes these are the same, sometimes they are different. And sometimes one has it (like process) but the other doesn't.