What art is about outweighs how it looks

September 07, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

SOME revolutions announce themselves loudly, with trumpets blaring and cannons booming. Others unfold right under our noses, but no one seems to notice the world is being turned upside down. Such has been the transformation of art in our time.

I was reminded of this by the art of Chevelle Makeba Moore, whose work is the subject of an article by John Dorsey elsewhere on this page. Among Moore's paintings is one created for Absolut vodka as part of a series of ads the company commissioned from prominent artists.

The thing that intrigues me is the comparison of Moore's painting with the work of other artists in the series. Some of the works, including Moore's, are quite beautiful. Others seem almost deliberately ugly. Each artist's work is highly individual, but even so it is difficult to imagine that all were created within just a few years of one another. There is no one style or "school" that describes them or locates them within a particular historical context.

This strikes me as a tremendously exciting development. In earlier eras it was possible, even obligatory, to distinguish broad characteristics that defined a style or movement -- the baroque, impressionism, cubism, pop. Such labels expressed the spirit of the age and the aesthetic problems its artists set themselves to conquer.

But today, literally anything goes. Artists borrow freely from previous periods or appropriate contemporary images. There are rules about how a work of art should look or what it should be made of. Contemporary artists have even abandoned aesthetics, the whole set of assumptions that art should somehow be "beautiful," to the ash heap of history.

There is no way Warhol's "Brillo Box" or his paintings of soup cans are beautiful in traditional terms. They are, on the contrary, artworks that are utterly indifferent to the idea of beauty.

They exist not to give us the pleasure of aesthetic contemplation but precisely to teach us that there is no particular way a work of art ought to look. In effect, they present the viewer with a conundrum: "I am a work of art, but I am not beautiful. How does that make you feel?"

What many people feel is bafflement or outrage. They feel they are being mocked, toyed with, condescended to. And so they dismiss such art as a bad joke, or as the expression of a neurotic mind, or as an element in some sinister conspiracy by the powers that be to make them feel small and stupid.

It is an understandable reaction, but it has the effect of cutting off the imaginative dialogue between viewer and artwork. In fact, Warhol's pieces were created precisely to remind us that objects become artworks because of their meaning, not their appearance.

This is the great lesson progressively revealed over the last 600 years of Western art history: To be a work of art an object must be "about" something, and it must embody the meaning of what it is about. These are the sole necessary and sufficient conditions of art.

Of course this doesn't mean art has to be ugly -- anymore than it means art has to be beautiful. We are accustomed to thinking of art as beautiful, and habit has lulled us into identifying the beautiful with the good and true. Yet, strictly speaking, how an art object looks -- whether beautiful or ugly -- is utterly irrelevant.

To the conundrum posed by Warhol's "Brillo Box," for example, one might respond: "Why are you a work of art, and not just a Brillo box? What makes you different from the Brillo carton at my supermarket?"

This is a question that traditional art criticism based on aesthetics simply cannot answer. The practiced eye of the museum curator, art critic and art historian, whose training and experience have been devoted to developing a connoisseur's appreciation for pattern, form, color and line, is suddenly rendered useless, because there is no visual difference between Warhol's "Brillo Box" and the one at the market.

Yet one is a work of art, and the other is not.

How can this be?

Certainly it has partly to do with the artist's intention. But if that were all there were to it, one could dismiss the entire effort as a pretentious fraud.

What distinguished Warhol's "Brillo Box" as art was that it announced the particular time in the early 1960s when artists finally realized that there were no longer any restrictions on how a work of art had to look. It celebrated the ordinary world we take for granted and, in doing so, democratized the experience of art.

Warhol's discovery that the essence of an artwork lay in its meaning, rather than its appearance, was profoundly exhilarating for his followers. Others found it disturbing, even depressing.

Those disturbed by the new turn art had taken went so far as to denounce such works as "the end of art." And in a sense they were right, if by art one meant objects primarily created for

aesthetic pleasure.

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