Friday, September 18, 2015

I understand contemporary Art.

I understand contemporary Art.And after reading this you´ll know you do, too.

I love art museums, always did, but all too long I felt that frustrating feeling of “what am I even looking at”.  Sounds familiar? You want to look smart, feel you care about culture, maybe just want to take a selfie with the Mona Lisa, it doesn´t matter, now you´re there in front of this huge art collection that looks, well, very artistic. You´ll take a stroll through the centuries and try to make sense out of it, very soon you´ll start wondering if they´ll have bagels in the cafeteria and look for the toilets to check your hairdo, but right now, you´re motivated.

It starts easy. Cave paintings, Stone Age Venus, all right, look what those apes 2.0 did there, of course my five year old nephew can do something like that, but we´re talking about half-brained Hominidae here (yay I used Latin, being here makes my QI rise by the minute). Imagine starry skies and mammoth hunts, maybe consider turning paleo, discard the idea half a minute later.

Next, Egyptians. Egyptians are always cool, they look half elves half Persian, did they really have such long necks and full lips? They must have been hot as hell. This one´s Cleopatra?  Where´s Tutankhamun? Cleopatra and Caesar must have been the most epic love story of all times. And the pyramids! Now that´s something I can relate to. I see it, I understand it, it looks awesomely cool and difficult to make but I get it, stacked rocks, neatly cut, rolled on tree trunks and up sandy slopes. Everyone wearing the same white cloth around their hips, the Pharaoh over there with the majestic headpiece and the scepter and the Dog God and Ra, the Sun! Great! I love Egyptians, they are so memorable. All their symbols are just perfect to recreate scenes in your head, mummies, cats, the Nile, fanning with big palm branches. Scribes sitting cross-legged. Hieroglyphics.

From scorching desert sun to rainy Britain, knights and castles, pretty maids with laced dresses, long broad sleeves and braids. Medieval times are dark, violent and cruel. Cold rooms, but hot hearts. In their art they all look extremely ugly, glassy eyes, ghostly pale, an expression of repressed sufferance (which reminds me, whenever you feel down google Elisabeth Stuart, the pearl of England, hottest woman of her time, she´s really ugly). Pointy shoes, curly hair, long coats, huge horses, monks, the Bible, Heaven and Hell. Those illustrations are fun. Tapestries and icons. Every panel is a different time or scene of the narrative. Wooden frames, painted glass windows.

The roman, the gothic, cathedrals! Up, up to the sky! We want salvation for our Souls! But quiet, if your fever rises we´ll have to bleed you with leeches. That will purge the evil humors. Repent, your time is near. Here, have a blunt sword and go die in a horrible manner, at least your pains will be over. If you´re dead at least you won´t be hungry.

Renaissance comes like dawn, now the light is soft, comfortable, now it´s Florence and the machines are at work, they flap their leathery wings and turn their wooden gears and ropes are pulled and sails blow open in the full wind, where´s Marco Polo? We´re departing! Manchuria awaits with rivers of golds and rubies hanging from the trees. For the ones who stay, paintings are the most delicate and detailed expression of reality, skin is soft and rosy, pearls are glowing from the inside, brows are thin and serene. Superb needlework adorns rich robes. Everything looks even more real than a picture, no dark bags under the eyes, no litter on the paved streets, no flower ever faded. There comes Leonardo, Raffaello and Michelangelo and when you see their sculptures it´s awe and wonder, the way it should be. They are white and perfect to the point some people want to hit Pietà´s Virgin Mary because her beauty is too heart-breaking.

You can deal with this, this is a journey to technical perfection, where every single hair is a stroke of brush, colours and shapes, light and dark, perfect proportions. It´s so difficult to make, it must have taken ages, that´s what I value, manual skills and time, everyone understand what those are in the same way, we have a direct experience of it. Now this, this is talent, so this must be Art!

The Impressionism is where most of us split. There´s early Monet and who doesn´t love it, his world, no, his environment is so beautiful! You can almost see the water splashing, almost hear the seagulls crying out for your bread crumbles, little smiles on the corner of lips, you can almost see them opening in a full laugh, or maybe seal in a giggle. See the flickering light bulb in the lonely street covered in snow, hear the carriage that left those dark marks in the mud clang noisily away in the fog, smell that steamy cup of coffee, or is it cocoa?

Then, like the vacant gaze of the woman sitting with her crystal glass of absinthe, our vision too seems to get blurry. Colours don´t fit in anymore, shapes are out of perspective, figures lose their proper contours. Time and subjective perception seep in but okay, I get that. I might not agree, but I still recognize what Van Gogh and Picasso are showing me, there´s a narrative, something is happening and I am part of it, and then come on I mean the guy cut his ear off, he must have had something pretty interesting to say at a dinner party, while the other one is just too famous not to fake being familiar with. Why, of course, Picasso is amazing. He´s the one with the sunflowers, right? Just kidding, everyone can at least recall Guernica?

Aaand that was it. Now we enter abstract art. Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko.


Rothko …

Wait what? What happened? Why would anyone call a red square of paint an art piece? How did we get to this point? And if this is the sublimation of it all, then what are artists still doing out there?

Let´s see. Prehistoric Art was stickmen and stamps of hands, they were really like kids in the sense that were learning to depict something from...well from nothing. There was nothing before, no precedent. They might have noticed footprints and maybe found resemblances between, say, a pattern on a rock and a leaf? So they realized they could make an image of something by copying it, for example with imprints, or represent it. Can you imagine how it must have felt when for the first time ever something that was not there was indeed there, somewhere else than in your own head. Just because the first one to think about it used a burnt stick to trace it on a cave wall, it existed. Just coming to the idea that your thoughts could be visible, and how. It must have been mind-blowing. 

Slowly, signs were coded and evolved into hieroglyphics, together with more and more representative images. The idea of animal heads on human bodies, or forecasting, through words and signs, a more abundant harvest. Here again, something that wasn´t there before, like a God, or a hope, was brought into existence thanks to the power of imagination. These skills made communication through an universally understandable medium possible, no words required. Almost like reading each other´s mind. No wonder the Pharaoh was God. He created things, like the Afterworld.

Decoration and writing became the weapon of the rich and powerful, which in turn became even more rich and powerful, because they could keep their communication within a smaller circle. Think about monks, who were writing books, prayers and rituals, and were the only ones who would not die in battle or from hunger, and lived in stone buildings erected “for God”.

Eventually, tools evolved and art found new applications, for example in wood carving and window decoration, very handy if you need to create a “magic”, evocative atmosphere, or just hide the shallowness of an empty church, the coolness of naked stone, entertain during incomprehensible mass service or attract prayers and pilgrims, along their charitable donations of course. So art as a weapon of power, a show off, look, we have beds, you see? Beds! No more smelly hay for the five of us, look how comfortable we look under the blankets side to side like sardines, we´re, like, the highest point of civilization.

With tools taken care of, paints that would last and not crack or fade, stable supports like frescos, and smooth soft marten brushes, artists were all set. Ready to discover perspective. It needed a genius and a genius they had. Geometry they already knew, to build cities, you know, now it enters the two-dimensional space and makes a party! We didn´t know we missed her until she arrived, now we just can´t do without. What a great invention! Space pops up everywhere, the canvas is deep, deep and full of items, they can be arrayed here and there and light, oh light makes so much more sense now that objects are at a different distance.

Wait a minute, light is the key! It´s not the object I see, but light being reflected from it! What do you mean, water is blue? Why blue? No look, water is black, and it´s white when clouds pass over the sky, and there, water is bright orange in this sunset. Monet´s wheat sheaves are blue and pink, Rouen is afire, a coral reef, everything but white stone. Light travels in time and time too is part of the narrative. That girl has just turned, the dog just ran away barking, leaves are trembling in the light breeze, flags roar in the brave coastal wind. Nature is alive, we are alive! Doesn´t it feels great standing here above the clouds, looking down on a sea of fog, Mr. Friedrich?

We´re on top of the World. We got trains and can travel to distant, exotic lands faster than ever. Have you ever seen an Ostrich, my dear? Those birds are two times taller than you! Here - this is an Ostrich egg, I got it at the World Fair last month. Pretty expensive, but the spirit of adventure and discover, what´s money to it, my Beloved! Oh but what would you know about that, woman, you are only thinking of the omelette you could make with this, ain´t you? I very well know you, yes I do.

Expressionism taught us that no, we don´t know everything. We know very little, to be honest. What do you know, about what´s going on in my mind? Here, I´m going to show you. What is this? It´s rage, frustration, despair, desire, all at once. It´s what I´ve seen and what I want to see, it´s my dreams, my fears. Do you understand? No, Mr.Kandinsky, no, Mr.Nolde, Mr. Matisse, Mr. Magritte, Mr.Munch, Mr. Van Gogh, I don´t see any of that here, I don´t understand. What are you painting? Why? Oh well - I guess I´ll just enjoy the colours then, although those also look rather … disturbing. Are you disturbed, Mr. Artist? Is the lead in the white paint poisoning your eyes and your mind? Can´t you explain? No, no, how can you explain feelings? Look, I am actually showing you! Here it is, see? Sometimes it´s a black well, others a rainbow blur, sometimes its painful, other times is just empty, void, melting down, I can´t even start describing you what I feel, but here, feel it for yourself! Just look at it, see what I mean?

Then something happens. Emotions, we all feel the same, right? Blue reassures and red makes our hearts beat faster. But what is causing emotions, what is there that makes me able to feel, what is there that makes me think about the fact that I am feeling, how is it that I know this one is a good or bad idea, and oh, there´s so many things in my mind, and the canvas is so small, what can I possibly show here, that will contain it all? What can this tiny brush do for me, this pencil? 

Wait, what can this pencil do? Everything!
Everything is here, all the powers that ever where and ever will be, are here, in this ink. This is a pen, and a piece of paper, and all the possibilities in the world. I don´t need to do anything else than put it down. I begin, I place my pen on the paper. A point. Now a line. A black sign on a white background. Is it the horizon? Or a table. And the point above it, is it the sun? And if I turn the canvas upside down, what is it then, a fish in the sea? Degas, many years before, has cut his supports in such unexpected ways, pulling the gaze of the observer out, out of the frame, as if to say look, this is only a part of the whole. It´s the corner of a dancing hall, the dancers are cut in half, one leg here and the other outside of the canvas, so what? I´m sure you can hear them tip-tapping their fairy feet while they warm up for class just as well.

Now abstract art is the same message, look, what do you see? Good, and what else? Amazing, yes, all that and much, much more! Come back tomorrow, maybe you´ll see something you have missed today.

A point and a line, the beginning of it all, the units, they can´t be found in Nature. Nature has no “point” size, no “line” thickness. It has marbles and sticks, which are usually not really round nor straight. There is the power of the mind, the power of abstraction, of symbols. Everything came from rational thinking. We were waiting for blizzards to have fire, now we type away on screens. Some of us are sharing their thoughts online, through data files built out of points, that become lines, that become surfaces, that can bend and fold and be observed from all sides before being extruded with our 3D printers. We are still drawing stickmen though, still displaying them in art galleries, 35,000 years ago just as we do today. Still wondering what does it mean? 

So to finally prove to you I understand contemporary art and you do, too: art is witness of her time, she documents and escorts us in the journey understanding ourselves. What do we like, what don´t we, and why. What do I see in a point and a line, in a field of reds, what I don´t see there. Sculpture, in that sense, is even more stunning. Three-dimensional space of possibilities, and we´re not just in front of it, we´re in it.

Art is not the object in front of you, it´s what´s happening within you while you are looking at it.

If you want to see something as art, you will. Art is everywhere. So why does some art enter galleries, who decides? Well you do. Do you have something to say, do you want to give us something to think about? Well there you go. Give it a shot. The world is always hungry for the show, for something to think and talk about.

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