The troublesome definition of art

Abstraction: Drama raises persistent question about modern art.

March 02, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

It's tempting to condescend to the three characters in Yasmina Reza's play "Art" whose 15-year friendship almost comes undone when one of them buys an all-white abstract painting.

After all, monochromatic paintings are nothing new. The first one, titled "White Square on White," was created by the Russian Constructivist Kazimir Malevich way back in 1918.

Malevich's contemporary, Aleksandr Rodchenko, made an all-black painting a few years later, and in the decades since then artists as different as Ad Reinhardt, Yves Klein, Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden and Frank Stella have created canvases of all one color.

All of these works achieve their aesthetic effects through the artists' manipulation of subtle variations in scale, texture, touch and material support -- a minimalist visual language that even novice viewers have been taught to appreciate.

Still, to merely dismiss the characters in Reza's play as provincial rubes begs the question the play raises, which is: How is anyone really able to tell what is a work of art and what is not?

As a practical matter, even experts rely as much on history, context and prior experience to determine what is art as on any innate quality of the object itself.

A thicket of twisting lines scrawled on a neutral background means something quite different when viewed on a museum wall than when seen in a public restroom. Likewise, pictures of large bodies of water beneath cloud-filled skies are usually art when painted on canvas but almost never so when photographed from weather satellites.

The point is that art is in large measure a set of visual conventions that are completely arbitrary and that vary widely according to time and place. Since there can be no single, universal definition of what art is, it follows there also can be no hard and fast rules about what it is not.

That is the philosophical conceit at the core of Reza's clever play. The central character, Marc, believes it should be obvious that an all-white painting cannot possibly be a work of art.

The audience may think it knows better. But substitute for the white painting a sculpture of cow parts pickled in formaldehyde or a bust of the artist fashioned from his own frozen blood -- to take two examples from last year's notorious "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art -- and suddenly Marc's visceral prejudices don't seem so outlandish.

Marc's uneasiness arises from his inability or unwillingness to recognize one of art's major functions: to teach us to see reality in new ways. But precisely because art presents us with things that we have never seen before, we often cannot recognize it for what it is, at least not in the beginning.

Take, for example, the monochromatic painting. Aesthetically, it celebrates the eye's capacity for making extremely fine distinctions at the limits of perception.

Applied to physical reality, that principle foreshadowed major scientific advances into the realm of the very small that eventually produced such new technologies as the harnessing of the atom.

Picasso's brutally distorted figures in "Les Damoiselles d'Avignon," the 1905 painting which shocked even his friend Matisse, embodied the new conception of the unconscious described by Freudian psychology.

Similarly, the cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque, which baffled viewers of the time, are in hindsight brilliantly intuitive visualizations of the revolutionary new concepts of space and time developed by Einstein.

Through a mechanism that is not fully understood -- and possibly may never be -- great artists throughout history have somehow managed to create art that gives visual form to principles that scientists can only describe in the abstract language of mathematics.

As for Damien Hirst's cut-up animals and Mark Quinn's bloody bust, one can only speculate about what new revelations, if any, they portend.

Both artists, for instance, are concerned with manipulating three-dimensional space in ways that confound ordinary notions of outside and inside, open and closed. Their highly unconventional visions suggest, as did cubism in its time, how ordinary objects might look from the perspective of some higher-dimensional reality.

If scientists succeed in discovering how to bend spacetime or fashion vessels for intergalactic travel, Hirst and Quinn probably will be remembered as visionary geniuses far ahead of their time.

If no such discoveries are forthcoming, they will probably be forgotten as minor curiosities.

No wonder passionate art lovers like the character Serge in "Art" are excited by works that might give them a glimpse of a future most of their contemporaries can't even imagine.

In a way, it's a kind of poetic justice, because the excitement also helps ease the heavy burden of scorn they often must bear from their peers -- and sometimes from the judgment of history, too.

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