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Lesson Plans

re: art is..

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
Mon, 3 Jun 1996 23:27:23 -0500 (CDT)

Dorothy Pierce and Henry pose some valid questions about a recent posting of
mine and I would like to clarify a point or two.
When I used the term "commercial", I referred to the trading of services for
money or support. As Henry points out, people have (probably) always
produced art for personal gratification. However, today we seem to feel
that society has a responsibility to support our personal self-expression.
I don't believe that this was true until relatively recent times. In Dogon
culture, those who can work metal are absolved from tilling the fields and
other communal activities NOT so that they may produce items of personal
self-expression. They are supported by the "patron" - in this case the
village - so that they may create the religeous artifacts the village
requires. In the Huichol culture of central Mexico, each individual
produces artwork based upon peyote-induced visions as a part of their
journey toward "becoming". But these personal expressions are never offered
for sale. Separate, commercial items are produced to help generate income.
The vast majority of art and artifacts we study as "art history" were
created for some sort of patron: the village, the church, the king, the
merchant, etc. I am in no way suggesting that the Medieval monk or nun who
poured his or her soul into an exquisite manuscript illumination was not
creating a piece of personal self-expression. I am simply saying that the
mind-set was far different. These artists would have been considered
craftspeople in the service of God or the Church. Their work had to follow
certain guidelines - it certainly was far from "art for art's sake".
I agree with Dorothy that serious artists have always valued "discipline
and judgement". I simply believe that, unfortunately, society has come to
equate "discipline" with "punishment" and "judgement" with being
"judgemental". I find discipline and judgement good things - I was simply
bemoaning the lack of these virtues on the part of certain contemporary
artists and patrons.
I like the definition Dorothy gives for art (although it will probably drive
Henry's anthropologist friends crazy) - "...a conscious organization of
materials in response to experience" - if we are discussing a DESCRIPTIVE
use of the word; I think the problem is defining "art" in the EVALUATIVE
sense. What many of us are looking for, including my English teacher
friend, is a definition of GOOD art (what Daniel Pinkwater would call "Art
with a capital 'A'"). I may recognize that something is the result of
artistic activity without necessarily being able to evaluate it. Are we to
accept every endeavor by every artist as equally "good" or "successful"?
How does the above definition help us judge? I think it will come in very
handy in a class discussion which questions the validity of conceptual art,
for example, or in discussing the broader range of "commercial art", but I'm
not sure it solves the basic dilemma. And as I said before, that's okay. I
want my students to THINK. If all of their questions are "answered" in
class, they might stop doing that.

There are two ways of looking at fine art (certain utilitarian artifacts
aside): either artists use their art to simply EXPRESS themselves or they
use art to COMMUNICATE. The former does not require a "receiver"; the
latter does. I tend to view art as a form of communication. Not all art,
all the time, but generally. Like any other form of communication, it has a
vocabulary and structure and levels of meaning. The more I study the
"language" of art, the better I will be able to understand what the artist
is trying to "say". As in any form of human interaction, what I ultimately
"hear" will be filtered through my perceptions and experiences, but the
more fluent I am in the language, the more I will get out of the exchange.
That is generally the approach I take with my students: I want them to get a
lot out of the "exchange". And while we may not be able to agree on
standards for evaluation, I feel that the more the student learns about
elements and principles and methods and art history and aesthetics and
criticism - the "language" of art - the more likely the student is to HAVE
standards and the higher those standards are likely to be, whether they are
evaluating their own work or the work of others.
Finally, the Murphy Brown I use is the one where she enters her 18-month-old
son's work in a gallery show to confound some pompous art critics (this is
actually loosely based on a true incident which occurred in England) and
yes, Henry, it does have a candy pile. But there is another episode where
Eldon sells a piece for a lot of money which I want to call about. The
Sixty Minutes segment is the one about the auction of conceptual artworks,
and like Henry's son, my kids go crazy - it's GREAT!
I apologize for another long post. I'm trying to avoid the staggering
amount of work I have to do over break! Have a good summer, everyone.

Eileen Prince
Sycamore School