Art is Communication, Getting Yelled At by Art Is as Much Fun as Getting Yelled At by People

This post is the third of what I hope will be a series. My friend Adrian Hanft and I are going to try having an ongoing conversation about art and creativity. Initially it was going to be held via email, but we’ve agreed that it might be more interesting to have it via our blogs by way of the internet. With any luck it won’t end up being a bunch of ill-thought drivel.

We Need People to Take Art Seriously

Sometimes “art” feels irrelevant in the same way that I struggle with organized religion. People just prefer to ignore it. I think that is sad, because both art and Christianity have the power to rise above the mediocrity of everything else. It is much easier to ignore the meaningful things in life and embrace the “safe” stuff. As a result the kitsch rises to the top and things with substance get attacked – or worse yet ignored – because these things are uncomfortable. The people who create and have passion for them seem absurd because they have the guts to be different. People don’t have time to wrestle with deep thoughts when there are simpler ways to entertain themselves. Why would anyone want to stifle an endless stream of gratification by confronting things that aren’t easy to understand or appreciate?

—Adrian Hanft
from his post “Invisible Artwork: If We Ignore It Maybe It Will Go Away

I can relate to this perspective, but I also wonder about its validity. Sure, that’s the way things are right now, but was human culture ever any different?

I am quite sure that any time in the last 2010 years (at the very least) the ‘general public’ has had a consistently limited interest in any visual art that would not be considered ‘folk art’ or ‘kitsch’. Like public education, visual art as we know it has simply not been available to the general public for most of human history. There have always been objects and visual art in the home that fall under what we would call folk art. I think those items were focused on functionality and cultural meaning. Only the children had art objects that were purely for amusement. The act of selecting a painting or print to be hung on a wall in the home is something relatively new.

Only recently has the general public had the free time and money to attempt to emulate the rich by thoughtfully decorating their homes with the mass-produced copies of images that have already been defined as ‘good art’ by rich people in the past. Its as though they have a nostalgia for someone else’s past. They’ve replaced what was most likely their own relatively simple but rich folk art tradition with thoughtless, mass produced imagery.

Your culture is composed of your general understanding of how the world works, the things that you do every day and why you do what you do. Having any of those things put into question is unpleasant and potentially disastrous. It is a certain kind of educated, intelligent and intellectually hungry person that seeks out and enjoys encountering things and people that challenge their own culture. To have any hope that the general public would embrace this practice is foolish. Most people, especially in Tennessee, are uncomfortable negotiating a four-way stop at an intersection.

There are a lot of art enthusiasts that feign this difficult approach to art, but most of them are simply looking for art to reinforce their own culture and beliefs. To have something on their wall that reminds them that what they are doing is right and good.

As a person educated in the history of art (four, maybe five semesters of art history at college and I frequently napped in the art history section of the library) I have a difficult time choosing pieces to display in my home. I can’t look at a piece of art without considering its historical context or the context of its artistic influences. I am quite self conscious about why or what it means for me to hang this or that painting on my wall.

“Will having this in the living room make me look clever or make me look like I am trying to look clever?”

“Will having this in the living room be very clever or is it so clever that most visitors will just think it’s a ripe pile of poo?”

Adrian, your Jesus painting might be coming off as an insult to your visitors. Or at least as socially comfortable as saying, “You know, Jesus died a horribly painful death to save you” in the middle of a conversation about the stylish new shower curtain you bought at Target. Knowing you, that’s probably your intention. Hell, you’ve pretty much said as much in your post. If so, I would look at your visitors being uncomfortable as a success. If they had seen it and proceeded to discuss everything about the painting but the explicit subject matter, then I would consider it a failure. One that the organized church is all too familiar with in contemporary USA.