There are two ways that I want to think about art and its meanings when I write these blog entries.
1.) ART is a visual language of shape, color, line, gesture, texture and materiality. Art is an object of attention and there are purely formal aspects that need to be considered.
Thanks to Bernard Williams’ amazing book Modernism’s History, I’ve become keenly aware that what we think of as “art” is something rather new and quite specific to our own culture and time. Williams argues for an over-arching style or way of seeing in Euro-American art that he calls the “Formalesque”. To judge something through the criteria of the Formalesque is to see art as something that must first be judged for its formal characteristics (those traits outlined in definition 1). This is a universalizing mode of seeing and thinking, since all works of art (all cultural productions placed into the “art” category) can be judged in this way. Williams argues that this is a perfect tool for capitalism as well as empire. Works of art from any place and time can be taken out of their contexts- there is in a sense a level playing field for all art is judged in formal terms. The ruling economic and imperial powers can absorb all works of art under the rubric of the Formalesque- taking them out of their contexts (other cultures, other times) and transforming them into works of “pure art”, objects of commodity.
2.) ART is a creation of an artist working within a culture and in historically contingent circumstances. Art must be understood as something that is embedded in a specific context made up of meanings, symbols, traditions and practices.
This is the path of historians, anthropologists and culture/social critics. Although social scientists and humanists sometimes take the formal aspects of a work of art into consideration, what interests them is what the work of art tells us about its time, place and culture. Art may be beautiful, shocking, moving or mysterious to a viewer (and of course as Duchamp reminded us long ago the viewer is half of the equation when it comes to art), however, we must bear in mind that the viewer is a changing entity! The people who built and worshiped in the Cathedral of Chartres saw, experienced and felt things that we can probably not understand unless we have some knowledge of their culture and their world experience. This fact does not negate or diminish OUR experience of Chartres as a work of art, but it does mean that a deeper knowledge is needed to understand WHAT Chartres was when it was built and HOW is was integrated into the lives of the artisans and the community of its origin.
I want to keep both of these ways of seeing ART in mind at all times.
* The clever, illusionistic paintings of Arcimboldo are an excellent example of artworks that can be richly appreciated on both of these levels. The sensuous colors, the highly rendered fruit and flowers, the clever illusion of a portrait made up of smaller elements all delight the eye and stimulate the imagination. We can have a full experience with this work of art without knowing anything about its maker or owner.
However, when we learn that Arcimboldo painted at the court of Emperor Rudolf II and that he was part of a culture that prized “wonders” of this sort we begin to get another dimension of experience. Alchemy was a pet obsession of the emperor and Arcimboldo’s paintings celebrate a magical moment of transformation: human into vegetable and/or vice versa. The late 1500′s was a time when science and magic were still deeply connected, and when the “New World” was spilling its mysteries and wonders into the consciousness of Europe. Arcimboldo’s magic painting is a part of this dense, strange historical period which historians call “the early modern”.