Thursday, January 1, 2015


And that's just Western art history; there are dozens of other cultures we didn't even touch on! Anyway, there it is in a nutshell. Although this is hardly near anything like a comprehensive examination of the subject, hopefully this has been helpful in acquiring a basic, big-picture understanding of art history. There is far more to be said, but this is where I shall pause, as I've reached the limits of my own personal goal for this study.
Looking ahead, I'll update with new posts as things turn up, try to keep this blog still active and running. Hopefully this can be a place of open discussion as well as a resource of catalogued, informational entries and some cool images. It's possible now, with a more across-the-board vision of the material, to have the kinds of broader conversations one at last gets to in the conclusion paragraphs of essays and papers (or perhaps this was merely an introduction or preface?), and with everything laid out on the table like this, all our terms defined and key works cited, it becomes easier to remain on the same page with people. So, is art indefinable? Can we, even after years of study, still not arrive at a complete and all-inclusive theory of art? Perhaps we missed something, or maybe it is all there yet undeciphered. One thing's for certain: this discipline of philosophical and creative expression harbors still more mysteries and wonders that span the full breadth of human history and continue today, always showcasing the light, shadow, and color of the human spirit with perhaps as unfathomable a representation as the hearts of those who make and enjoy the medium, and of all people.
What we've looked at is a very brief history of Western art. It consists of casual, generalized historical overviews and analyses of selected key works which can be found in a typical syllabus of Western art history. This is a relaxed look at the material for unofficial, non-academic, independent study and is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive. I would also like to reiterate that the final section, labeled "Contemporary Art," uses its title liberally and is probably much less "contemporary" today than when I learned it. Art continues to move forward, and many, if not all, of the works in this category are already outdated and old. Very well, but I have maintained the designation of "contemporary" to remain true to the format in which I was taught. If there are any questions or comments, please post your comment on the blog or send me a message on Blogger. I trust that this study has been useful to you. I know I've enjoyed going through this syllabus; it was like shooting fish in a barrel!

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
-T. S. Eliot, Preludes

This long essay on art history is dedicated to a friend of mine, who has made a big difference in my life and to whom I now would like to say, thank you.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 11)

In our world of instantaneous global media, social networking, and handheld devices, much of the contemporary expression of art comes through popular culture and the media.  Our society finds the most immediate connection with popular art that is instantly recognizable; consequently, much of art today deals with pop culture—everything from music and movies to news and politics.  This 2008 print by Shepard Fairey became a national icon during the first campaign of President Barack Obama.
This is certainly an article of propaganda which has since been accepted by the general public (some more than others) as a culturally relevant work of art.  But propaganda isn't new to art history; remember the court paintings of Napoleon by the French artist Jacques-Louis David?  Here we have a similar kind of approach.  The poster is vertical, intending to make the subject appear tall.  The image of the African-American senator looking upward with the slogan word "Hope" beneath implies a positive future for the nation, and the rich red and blue colors indicate the figure's patriotic devotion to his country and its flag of red, white, and blue.  His dual-colored face also implies his willingness to compromise between both Republican and Democratic parties (whose representative colors are red and blue, respectively).  It's a symbolic work that has since been received by the general public as an iconic creation of American art, not to mention the basis for numerous parody imitations.  This speaks of pop culture today and, in turn, the direction of art in the new millennium.
And, can you believe it?—that's the last artwork in my notes.  We've come to the present day (more or less) and, therefore, the end of our study of Western art history.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 10)

Much of contemporary art, as we had begun to notice, deals itself with new mediums and materials, not just new styles.  The shift of focus toward popular culture did not end in the 1960s with the Pop Art movement.  In the same way that Roy Lichenstein borrowed from comic books to create some of his most famous paintings, artists today blend mediums with cultural phenomena and challenge the community by daring to label their creations art.  Some of these recent, controversial trends have gravitated closely to what could be considered pornography, while others border the limits of ethics and legality with other approaches.  One such growing area is the street art genre, which consists largely of graffiti art and mural-making.  In this field, one of the most culturally prominent figures today is the graffiti artist who goes by the name Banksy.
He insists on anonymity as part of his theatricality and overall statement to the public.  Elusive and totally independent, he makes his own itinerary of locations and images to produce whenever he likes, and many of the walls on which he spray-paints have since been torn down and sold at art auctions for thousands, even millions, of dollars.  This dive-bombing graffiti artist is, among other things, a political activist, author, and filmmaker—and yet no one claims to ever have seen him in the act of tagging buildings (or, at least, certainly his true identity has not been revealed).
This is still a touchy subject; is all of this legal?  Banksy's graffiti art has frequently made a home for itself on public as well as privately owned property, and many critics of the artist's work have qualified this as vandalism.  And, according to most state laws in the U.S. (and Banksy has not exclusively worked in the U.S.), by now the artist should have risen to the level of felon given how many murals he has produced without the consent of property owners.  But what do you think; is this graffiti painter a criminal or an artist?  Does his creative ingenuity validate his medium, or has his art gone too far?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 9)

On the flip side, art which doesn't contribute anything to the developing breadth of artistic ideas and possibilities may be qualified as kitsch.  The term "kitsch" is an urban word which appears to have only entered the English language in the last century.  It is not a term with an altogether precise definition; however, it does carry a very specific meaning and connotation—and the connotation is always negative.  Art which is cheaply sentimental, insincerely overgeneralized, and inanely cheesy is called kitsch.  This type of art shows almost no regard for creative ingenuity and offers nothing to the art world in areas of style, technique, subject matter, and thematic ideal.
This is not a question of beauty; it's a question of integrity.  Much of the artwork we have looked at over the course of this study has been beautiful: we've looked at breathtaking landscapes, regal portraits, dramatic scenes of action and profundity; we've seen stained glass windows over 30 feet high, delicately precise still lifes, gold-plated sarcophagi, colorful Rococo portrait paintings, idealized Greek statuary, an unbelievable fresco by Michelangelo measuring over 130 feet long, the thick, oil paint globs of Van Gogh's artwork, and so much more—surely some degree of beauty is to be found in such wonderful creations.  But all of these works shared a common devotion to creative integrity on the part of the artist, whereas contemporary kitsch art devotes itself not to genuine creativity but instead marketability (and if pretty pictures is the way to satisfy an audience, then these artists will often sway that direction).  In the modern world of American consumerism, some artists shift their focus largely to commercial ends for that most common and widespread goal of our time: to make money.  It is still generally considered today that the better artist is the one who remains true to his or her own medium, craft, and subject, not the one who produces for the sake of public consumption, mass popularity, and personal acquisition of riches.  However, this type of art, especially in America, continues to rack in huge profits and sometimes even overshadows the more sincere artists.
Kitsch is fairly easy to spot.  An artist's disingenuous approach to a medium, genre, or subject will come out in his artwork.  One rather infamous example of kitsch is the paintings of Thomas Kinkade.  His hackneyed persistence, over the course of his nearly thirty-year career, with the same, repeated subject of cottages has been called tasteless and tacky and has earned the artist disrespect and scorn from critics and artists.  Though his art has been labeled "Christian," this self-proclaimed "painter of light" was known to have led a lifestyle unworthy of such a title; and yet Kinkade's cottage and Disney paintings remain among the most commercially successful bodies of artwork in the United States today.  Though the art world disdained him, this kitsch artist managed to earn millions by signing contracts with Hallmark and other commercial venues to generate greeting cards, calendars, puzzles, and a barrage of other retail products based on his paintings.  On numerous occasions and in several interviews, Kinkade publicly announced his indifference to the art community, claiming that he didn't care what the art world thought of him.  He could just, as my uncle says, "laugh all the way to the bank."  Thomas Kinkade died at his home in 2012 of an allegedly accidental drug and alcohol overdose.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 8)

The invention of the internet has also brought in an entirely new genre of art: digital art.  This can range anywhere from Photoshop images to computer graphics.  In this medium, larger possibilities present themselves to the artist by way of multi-point perspective, broader color palettes, and, with high definition enhancement now, almost infinite space for design.  Above is a digital matte painting made in 2008 by digital artist Jaime Jasso.  Not all digital art embraces stylistic realism, but the medium most often sticks to that approach, since it applies to most of its main forms of production in the business and media world.  Today, digital art finds usefulness in everything from video games, tv shows, and motion pictures to commercial advertising, architectural design, underwater mapping, and countless other uses, both practical and artistic.  But what digital art has perhaps become most popular for in contemporary culture is its branch devoted to special effects, such as the kind we see in movies.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 7)

Getting even more controversial, in 2007 Damien Hirst produced this work of organic art, a cast of an authentic human skull from the 18th century which has been coated with diamonds, and titled the piece For the Love of God.  Because the work is a platinum cast, this piece, unlike the dead shark exhibit, does not run the risk of decaying; however, the artist used real human teeth to place along the mouth of the sculpture.
Similar to the Dutch vanitas paintings, this work is a Memento Mori, a token intended as a reminder to the viewer of the imminent mortality of existence (in Latin, it means, "Remember, you will die").  The striking glitz and almost-Rococo extravagance of the piece creates an intense contrast which is shocking, indicting, unsettling, and darkly humorous all in one.  It's a skull, the symbol of death, and yet it's totally decked out with expensive jewelry.  It's reminiscent of the Ancient Egyptian method for embalming a dead pharaoh and surrounding his mummified corpse with expensive finery.  Can art make anything and everything glamorous, even dying?  Or perhaps this is a joke on the futility of riches and wealth, bringing to mind the old adage that "you can't take it with you."
Once again, there is perhaps a question of morality to an artwork such as this.  Certainly the Dutch Baroque artists recreated images of skulls in their paintings, but is it something else to here use a cast of a real human skull—and, what's more, to use actual human teeth?  Is that ethical?  The question came up in my class, I remember, about the Bodies Exhibit which has become a popular phenomenon since its opening in 2005.  In the show, as I'm sure you're aware, authentic human cadavers are put on display in various poses and cross-sections.  Originally conceived as an educational science program, the exhibit has since associated itself more with the arts.  What do you think; is it wrong to publicly display dead bodies in museums for public viewing?  Perhaps this is the ultimate question of art's limits: making artwork out of body parts and dead things, even those of our own race.  Should we call that art?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 6)

Speaking of death, here is a work of art from the 1990s that has grown significantly in acclaim.  A quasi-vanitas piece of thematic profundity and immediate shock value, Damien Hirst's artwork pictured here is emblematic of the new age of art entering into the current millennium, a kind of hyper-expressionist kaleidoscope of mediums and materials.  Anything can be used as art, in the aftermath of Duchamp's Fountain and, the slightly more validating example, Warhol's Campbell's Tomato Soup Can.  Here the artist has appropriated a dead tiger shark and encased it in an enormous display case of formaldehyde.  Hirst titled the work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
This is not the first time that art has been made from something once-living.  Spanish painters going back as far as the 1500s painted with cochineal, which is a red pigment derived from the insect of the same name.  Oil paints were scarce, and the cochineal extract provided a brilliant pigment to add to an artist's palette.  Italian and Dutch painters made use of this organic paint in the 1600s as well.  This painting by Jan Vermeer shows carmine red, a pigment made from cochineal.  We perhaps don't know it when we see it, but we're looking at paint made from dead bugs.
And yet there is something to Damien Hirst's shark artwork that might sit uneasy with us.  Is there anything unethical about placing a dead animal in a glass container and then putting that dead animal on display to the general public as a work of art?  This is a real, rotting shark, not an artist's creation (in fact—rotting so rapidly that a new specimen was brought in for a replacement in 2006).  Is this art?  There undoubtedly is something to be found in such a piece which makes us feel uncomfortable (and not just that it's playing on my fear of sharks).  It was initially met with staunch criticism but has since become, in the eyes of critics, artists, and the general public, one of the masterworks of contemporary art.