Work of Art

Andrea and I are hooked on the Bravo! reality show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. It is really interesting seeing the “art world” on television, and despite what misgivings you might have about reality TV I think the pedigree of the program (with guest appearances from Andres Serrano, Ryan McGinness, etc.) as well as the quality of the art that is produced (most of the time) makes it a really good way to frame the age-old question, “what is art?”

Last night the final five contestants presented pieces. One was essentially a meticulously crafted display of bleach stains; another was a charcoal work with undertones of baptism and death; there was a tree-sculpture with little paper people pasted onto it; a luminescent orb under a fuzzy mound (I know, these descriptions are not very compelling) and a few photos of the ocean with a gold piece of rock suspended between them as a sort of immanent horizon. I don’t mean to trivialize the pieces with these descriptions – in fact, I thought most of them (including the bleach stains) were stimulating, interesting, well-conceived and provocative. Some of them were quite beautiful in their own way (especially the charcoal drawing, the bleach stains and the “orb”), while others were visually bland and cold (the horizon). But considered together this representative slice of contemporary art does suggest the question of what good art is supposed to look like in this day and age. Pure abstraction? Cultural commentary? Art for art’s sake, or perhaps beauty for beauty’s sake? Are aesthetic considerations – questions of the beautiful, which historically have been linked with questions of the True and Good – even relevant, or are they one set of concerns among many (eg. technical skill, intentionality, impact, process, context, relevance)?

Arthur Danto has argued that the uncoupling of art from beauty in the twentieth century has made possible a broader ontology of art; what makes something a “work of art” is not just its aesthetic appeal. Instead, he introduces categories like “aboutness,” ie. meaning, as well as the way in which an artwork functions in its (social, cultural, religious) context, especially important when considering art that is explicitly political. Some of the art on Work of Art is visually stunning; some of it is conceptually driven but aesthetically disappointing.

This makes me wonder if I’ve been relating art, beauty and spirituality a little too closely. When I’ve been thinking about “the spiritual in art,” for example, I’ve mostly been thinking of Abstract Expressionism, or the work of someone like the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris, where beauty, form and striving after the sublime or transcendent are bound together. Or at least that’s how I “creatively misread” them. Danto still makes space for Beauty as a transcendental (alongside Goodness and Truth), and moreover as something essential to human culture, but he wonders whether its dissociation from art is not perhaps a necessary step towards a fuller appreciation of what art can be. I think an account of spirituality in art needs to take this rupture into serious consideration.

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