"Like the study of science and art, accounts of historical events can be intrinsically fascinating. But they have a wider significance. I believe that people are better able to chart their life course and make life decisions when they know how others have dealt with pressures and dilemmas---historically, contemporaneously, and in works of art. And only equipped with such understanding can we participate knowledgeably in contemporary discussions (and decisions) about the culpability of various individuals and countries in the Second World War. Only with such understanding can we ponder the responsibilty of human beings everywhere to counter current efforts at genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to bring the perpetrators to justice."
"...we humans are the kinds of animals who learn chiefly by observing others---what they value, what they spurn, how they conduct themselves from day to day, and especially, what they do when they believe that no one is looking."
----Howard Gardner, from The Disciplined Mind, published in 1999

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Importance of Being Earnest; or, Can You Hear Me Now?

Julian Schnabel Ethnic Type #14 1984 oil, animal hide, wax and modeling paste on velvet; 108 x 120 http://www.artcritical.com/DavidCohen/SUN98.htm

Ecstasy of St. Theresa Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1647-1652
Marble, height 150 cm
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria

One of the things I enjoy about my friendship with the blogger Artist Formerly Known as Purple Worms is our ongoing dialogue about the nature of art, and the relationship of art to artist. We've been engaged in this topic, off-and-on, for several years now.
It never gets old.
So when I wrote an earlier post about kitsch in response to reading Howard Gardner's take on the matter, I was fairly confident that AFKAPW would definitely be game to engage in the matter. And so she did!

AFKAPW wrote about kitsch yesterday in response to my earlier post. She informs us as to the origins of the word, and all the cultural attachments that are both origins and results of the word's usage. Please follow the link to read; she is ever more erudite than I, and I therefore won't attempt to paraphrase her words.
In her conclusion, she ekes out the relationship, if any, of art to kitsch:
Is kitsch art? So that gets me back to one of my all time favorite paradoxes - trying to define Art. (Capital A art.) When push comes to shove, I guess I resolve the issue by narrowly defining what I believe to be art. FOR ME (please note that narrowing there),
Art must

1. Communicate some kind of message or meaning (The meaning may simply be that art in the past has been ovely wrought and fraught with meaning and I am protesting against this past idea or that art has ignored the craft of working carefully with its materials.)

2. It must have access to and address society and issues important ot more than one person (thus be seen or heard - if it stays in the bottom drawer - for me it is not art - it is creative expression.)

3. (And here is the one that upsets lots of my colleagues in the Art department) It must have ideals, and have more than a superficial level - it must communicate about something metaphysically important (yes the nature of art itself fits in this category) In short for me art must speak to truth, justice, beauty or some such form.For me this solves the problem of kitsch. If the object is superficial with no depth, then it is kitsch. Now we have the question of audience - for me - if there is a group that finds depth in the object (it has a social/societal component) it is art. Of course that doesn't make it good art, but it is Art.

As is our custom, her words are most thought-provoking for me.

So under these conditions, how do each of the works above measure up?
One is Bernini, one is Schnabel; each labeled as Serious Art: yet the frequency of the transmission, the style of the communication is very similar.

Or is it?

AFKAPW speaks to the referent.
Is the referent absolutely necessary?

If so, how can each of us agree to the referent? Perhaps one could agree with others that the best referents that Art may address are the examples that AFKAPW gives: truth, beauty, justice, or some such form. Yet if this is the case, does it not also seem appropriate that such referents, such ideals, by their very nature, need many ways to be spoken of, the proverbial elephant to the blind men?

She then writes that :
I get tremendous joy in kitsch and alas I have to report it is in a different way than my tender and compassionate friend Neroli finds kitschy joy. I am at heart a nasty and critical individual. While my generous friend Neroli joys in the abundance of feelings and its excessive expression in kitsch, I have to admit to enjoying it as Schadenfreude 9another one of those untranslatable German terms). May the universe forgive me, but I get a certain vindictive glee out of laughing at the grotesquely exaggerated nature of kitsch and looking down my nose at. I just can't quite escape that one-up-man-ship inherent in being an insider looking at the ostracized outsider. In short I am the worst kind of snob. While Neroli laughs with, I alas laugh at. Now I will go to my zabuton and try to meditate on the nature and necessity of compassion and yes after all that I still love kitsch and find it stupidly reassuring.

And it is here that my experience with kids on the spectrum of autism and pervasive developmental disorders comes to bear: my feelings and thoughts about kitsch have everything to with my life experiences and nothing to do with any positive character attributes; all of us have generousity and compassion.
Communication, in all its forms, has become more and more my focus of interest. When I first came out of the gates of early adulthood, I thought that art was my passion; since my experiences of living so long with violence and isolation, and the subsequent implications of their workings in living without them, I've come to understand that it is really communication(Perhaps that in and of itself could be a component of a working definition of art?), particulary outside of the verbal realms , that engages me. Working with autism has brought this fact into focus.

Often, our kids with autism will speak to the same kind of referent that our kids without autism do; yet will do it in such a manner that would appear, if I may, kitschy: they are often displaying behaviors that anyone would be able to produce, and would be considered socially exuberant, exaggerated, or without any congruency at all to situational context. Yet, these behaviors are communciation nonetheless.
To extend the metaphor: often, these kids will produce opulent velvet paintings when their general-education-population peers are producing Zen brushwork: both are happy responses to the same experience.
For example, I've known one little person that we'll call Naples Yellow. In response to a happy feeling, Naples would jump up and down, pigeon-toed, all the while with one arm half-extended to the front, elbow bent, as if drawing another person into a one-armed hug; the opposite arm extended out, its hand moving in rapid circles, hitting that one-armed-hug-hand on the downstroke to affect a rapid and rhythmic clap, all in time to the jumping.
The other students?
To continue the metaphor: once they understood that this was Naples' way of saying "I'm really happy about this," they made room to hang this baroque, kitschy work next to their own.

Generousity? Tenderness and compassion?
Children making room for one another, often despite the models given to them by less enlightened adults.
Arguably the best Art of all; art with a capital 'A.'
There's the makings of that kind of Art within us all; there's the means of receiving that sort of communication within us all; and there's most definitely room to hang it all on the wall.
You'll know it when you see it, dear reader.



captain corky said...

It's amazing how much you care about your kids! I wish everyone cared like you do.

neroli said...

Corky, as always, your generousity and good nature are a welcome addition to anyone you encounter!
I have to say that it's the kids' generousity that is amazing.
I've greatly benefited from being with them.
I can't change the world.
But I can love the world I'm in, and show that love.
And so it goes.