Is Art Obliged to Engage the Viewer?

Richard Friswell
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Bansky, guerilla street art, Undated

And by obligation, of course, I mean the artist’s motivation to deliver a work of art to the world that represents a highly individualized statement about a relevant theme or subject. In doing so, should the impact, legitimacy and enduring success of that creative effort be measured by the response of the viewer, alone? Is art only deemed ‘important’ or ‘timeless’ if it resonates with the consciousness of the public? Or is it ultimately a private exercise in expression by the artist, requiring no moral or didactic justification, wherein capturing the attention and interest of the viewer is merely incidental? Is it true, as French artist and critic, Théophile Gauthier, argued in the 19th century, that the artist’s embrace of, “Art for art’s sake” would protect him from the purely utilitarian and pragmatic demands of public taste and other external influences? And must art remain aloof from the currents of public taste to remain cogent today? This polemic is at the heart and soul of the long-standing debate about the creative forces that have shaped the artistic arena in the post-modern era.

Through the ages, art’s primary function has been to inspire, instruct or document. The threads of both narrative and spiritual content have woven their way through art since the dawn of civilization: that of the Neolithic cave paintings of Lascaux; the fecund sculptural fetishes of the Etruscans; the Egyptian tomb reliefs of Tutankhamun, laboriously-executed illuminated Biblical texts, Medieval tapestries, Orthodox Christian iconography and even early Gothic paintings from various regions of Europe, were all created in the service of nobility and the underlying tenets of a particular culture’s shared beliefs. For millennia, art has served to glorify military victories, memorialize royal accomplishments, offer devotional guidance for illiterate and errant religious devotees (as well as to reinforce the message for the faithful) and capture, for all time, the countenances of both the privileged and working classes from centuries long-past.

Right: Winged Stag and Lions (tapestry, circ. 15th c.). From the court of Charles VII (Capetian).

Greco-Roman Classicism represented, for many, the epitome of beauty, form and balance. In art, architecture, literature and philosophy, the Golden Age of Reason has long endured as a standard against which all beautiful (read: aesthetically pleasing) objects d’art are judged. For Plato, beauty and pleasure go hand-in-hand; for one, “cannot experience ideal beauty without being provoked to pleasure while in its presence.” While over the ages, the objective definition of beauty and its effects on the viewer have remained elusive, the debate over the role of the artist in the creation of visually-pleasing forms of expression has, in the last 150-years-or-so, become a source of hot debate.

Left: Raphael Sanzio, Plato, from Scuola di Atene fresco (1510-11).

This debate had its beginnings in Florence, Italy, in the 16th century, when the city became center-stage for the emergence of a new sensibility about Man in the world. History had reached a ‘tipping point’, in the form of renewed interest and re-examination of the presumed moral high ground of Greek and Roman culture. A unique concentration of brilliant minds, power, money and regional political influence propelled Florence and men like, Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Filippo Brunelleschi and others there into the mainstream of intellectual debate on the world stage (then, central Europe). The progressive thinking and creations of these men, along with Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Emannuel Kant, Francis Bacon and others reflected a bold (if not heretical) view of man’s role in the natural order of the universe and a diminishing role for the Church in defining and enforcing its dogmatic principles. Ironically, it was this revival of Classicism and the enlightened writings of a handful of philosophers and scientists that truly ushered in the dawn of modernism.

Below: Leonardo da Vinci, Code on the Flight of Birds (“Codice sul volo degli uccelli”), 1505 – 1506. Biblioteca Reale di Torino.

Modern thought was not propelled by philosophy and scientific inquiry alone, with its underpinnings in a new belief that the rational mind could seek answers through observation and deductive reasoning. Additionally, a sea-change in the political and economic realities of Western Europe had reached critical mass by the middle of the 18th century. The success of the American Revolution in breaking the back of the world’s most powerful colonial power, the humanitarian and social reform movements of the period, mass migration to European urban centers in search of economic opportunities, the emergence of machine-powered manufacturing techniques and the weakening of oppressive empires in the face of human rights initiatives–all helped set the stage over a period of two centuries. This confluence of forces helped plunge Western European civilization into the throes of lasting change.

Right: Busy mid-19th c. English waterfront, showing co-mingled commerce, urban mass housing, church spires.

By the mid-19th century, the stage was set for a new frame-of-reference to be applied to the work of artists. The liberal leanings of the Humanists were still at odds with the more conservative schools of thought in the classically-influenced fields of the arts and humanities. But, increasingly, artists were embracing the humanistic vision of a search for ‘truth’ enjoyed in other circles of society, in their own particular creative arena. The initial battleground was France, where the traditionally-trained painters of the Écoles des Beaux-Arts were pitted against the experimentalists. The more permissive government of the Second Republic, under Louis-Napoleon, cleared the way for artists like Manet, Delacroix, Courbet, Monet and others to break ties with the art establishment and develop their own means of self-expression through paint.

Left: Eduard Manet, Olympia (1863). Musee D’orsay, Paris.

By 1890, there were further indications that artistic endeavor was being reduced to a matter of color, form and line. Progressive, modernist painter and ex-patriot, James McNeil Whistler wrote, “Art should be independent of all claptrap —should stand alone […] and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like. All of these have no kind of concern with it.”

Right: James Mcneil Whistler, Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter (self portrait), c. 1872, Detroit Institute of Arts.

Just a year later, the rebellion against public appeasement (driven by a need to establish a ‘line-in-the-sand’ against the conservative community of critics that dogged them) gained another voice, when Oscar Wilde wrote: “The beauty [of art] comes from the fact that the author is what he is…The moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered an artist.”

By the early 20th century, modern technology held a firm grasp on the intellectual community. Science and industrial innovation promised a bright future for the world. Progressive artistic communities in Italy, Germany, Russia and France met to plan and find ways to deliver their artistic vision, so that society, as they knew it, might be reshaped. Hopes ran high, but the notion that a painting could alter the course of history was soon dashed by the horrors of World War I and political and economic upheaval in its aftermath. The modern dream of a brave new world, defined by technology, would have to wait.

Left: Wassily Kandinsky, Color Study. Squares with Concentric Circles (1913). Munich, Germany. The Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus.

In the ensuing years between world wars, the modernist message emphasized form over aesthetics, self-referential artistic intent over formalistic studio techniques and the promotion of socially disruptive or disturbing imagery by such movements as the Cubists, Dadists, Supermatists and Surrealists–all aimed at challenging the viewer’s conventional notion of art–through deliberate manipulation of content in their work. While considered only modestly provocative by today’s standards, artists working in the first half of the 20th century managed to set a standard that pitted the artist, with his personalized agenda, against the viewer in a way that still echoes today. It reverberates in the common misuse of the word ‘modern’ to describe, for many, all art that is not easily understood or which falls into the realm of the non-representational. While this definition of the modern period spanned the years from 1900-1950 (approximate), the term continues to be applied to formalistic and stylistic elements of any work that appears to break with traditional painterly methods or themes readily connected to our everyday lives.

Right: Pablo Picasso, Femme assise, robe bleue (1939), oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm. Private Collection.

Contemporary artists have struggled to bring social and personal relevance back to the visual arts (including performance and installation art). To this end, they have sought alternative materials and methods to achieve optimum emotional impact. Artists are, once again, embracing real-world themes and collectively extending their creative reach into socially significant areas. Today’s art argues for confrontation, paradigm shifts and disquieting moments. The risk that art will succeed or fail in the public arena is greater today than ever before (e.g. -will not engage the viewer). Painting a beautiful picture (in the Platonic sense) can insure that public opinion will likely fall in your favor. But, philosopher and critic, John Locke, argued that there is a distinction between ‘beauty’ (joy and cheerfulness) and ‘sublimity’ (awe and amazement). The Hudson River painters of the mid-1800s strove to achieve the sublime in their monumental works. For us today, that connotes the awesome specter of nature bathed in the divine light of the Creator. It is John Updike, in his book of essays, Still Looking, when reviewing an exhibition of Hudson River School painters, that he references Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise on, “…Origin of…the Sublime and Beautiful”. There, Burke cites the sublime as, “analogous with terror; that is …productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” Updike equates ‘the sublime’ with Burke’s reference to, “the storm, the precipice, the waterfall”—imagery that repeatedly finds itself at the heart of the Hudson River genre.

Below: Frederic Church, Niagara (1857). Oil on canvas, 102 × 230 cm. Corcoran collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

By this distinction, today’s progressive artists are seeking sublimity, not beauty, in their work. Their desire and intention is, as Updike says of post-modern landscape painter, Barnett Newman, regarding his painting, In Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51): “The danger and pain of the Abstract Sublime belonged to the painter, performing his high wire act with only intuition and impulse to guide him across the immensity of the canvas. The painter assumed the role of hero…in his visible wrestle with the paint itself.”

The unanswered question is whether contemporary artists are able to span the chasm between their private world of emotions to succeed in engaging ours—the viewer—absent the narrative and spiritual bases that guided our relationship with the painter’s craft for so many centuries? Is the museum or gallery visitor prepared for a sublime, rather than a beautiful experience?

By Richard J. Friswell, Managing Editor

One Comment

  1. Amy Henderson

    Great piece! Enlightened notions of the “sublime” notably stressed the awesome character of nature–eg, Jefferson’s ‘headache’ response to the Natural Bridge.
    Today, “sublime” is rooted more in “shock and awe” than in something inspiring “awesome.”
    Interesting migration of idea of art as personal–from late 19th c. ideas of”art for art’s sake” instead of what Whistler called the “claptrap” of creating art for others….has “personal” today migrated into immersion of the “Self”?

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