Tag Archives: mark rothko

art and meaning

My friend Gabe recently asked me: “When did art become important to you?”

It’s a question I’ve never been asked — it made me pause and consider something that I haven’t ever really given my specific attention to before.  It’s clear that art is important to me, as one can tell from the alleged thematic devotion of this blog and, if you know me, the concerns about my future as “an artist” (whatever that is…) that keep me awake late at night and drive me to wander the streets in a sort of divine despair.  But I guess I’ve tended to treat the importance of ‘art’ as sort of a posteriori knowable, when in fact it is, from most perspectives, a construction of vast cultural construction.  This is not to say that what we call art is itself culturally constructed — there are works that are intrinsically whatever they happen to be, perhaps even pre-culturally, so the application of the label, ‘art’, is independent of the thing in itself.  But does it change the thing, in itself?  It changes, at least, our perception of it, since culture is fairly inescapable, and depending on whether you believe in phenomenology, maybe this changes the thing itself simply by changing how we create, psychologically, the thing itself.  Hmmm.

All that aside, my response in the moment was to tell a particular anecdote about a time that I had stood for nigh on an hour, transfixed, before a certain Mark Rothko painting that hangs in the MoMA.  I mythologize this moment for myself as some rite of passage, a recognition of my true Self and an utter giving up of that Self to a work of ‘art’, to the power of vision and the patience to be — the patience to be moved.  I find I tell this story often, actually, and now I question the sincerity of my intention in telling it.  Maybe, at age 15, I did stand there and know the importance of art, but now the more I tell it, the more it seems like a prop in my artistic, hipster-clad, surface-oriented, post-modern presentation of self, a tale of appropriate name-dropping and passion, rather full of sound and fury…but signifying something.

Photographs hardly do him justice.

Perhaps I was so moved because I had recently seen a documentary on Rothko, or because I was at the appropriately self-constructing and angsty age at which I happened to be, or because it was a very hot day and my subconscious mind knew that my body did not want to leave the air-conditioned space of the exhibition hall or even to move a few inches…who knows.  Context, and knowledge, and everything that is decidedly not pre-cultural, could very well have come to bear on this.

I can think of any number of other instances in which art has, I suppose, ‘moved’ me, and these all seem to rally as proof of its importance, if for no better reason than that I am selfish for emotional and sensual experience, that it is good to be moved.

But Gabe’s question: when?

Have I always valued art?  I know I haven’t always liked the same art throughout my lifetime, but what of my evaluation of art as whole, as a thing distinct from other things, as something that we seem to elevate as a culture?  I don’t remember suddenly beginning to find it important, some precise transition from a dis- to acknowledgement…such a transition would require a negative value judgment to begin with, an awareness that could be switched, like poles, into the positive.

But art is never not a part of life; I go back and forth about whether art is life and life is art.  So when did I know that life was important?  Perhaps in my first brushes with death.  Perhaps, too, such brushes with the potential for eternity and for nothingness are what awaken me to the power of art.  Perhaps this is why, in spite of my misgivings about my most hispterish intentions in its telling, I keep coming back to the story of the art of Mark Rothko, who himself made the decision to plunge into eternity.

Now, to answer Gabe’s question: if only to remember the moment I knew that I would not live forever.

pablo picasso and the potential parasites*

Today’s class in the land of Carleton College CAMS New Media consisted of a guest lecture by Matthew Clear, a professor at IES Barcelona, on Picasso, followed by a guided visit with Matthew to the Picasso Museum in El Born district.  Despite the fact that I was dead tired from staying up until the wee hours this morning editing video (I am a CAMS major, after all), both the lecture and the tour (especially the tour) were completely engaging.  Prior to this morning, I knew enough about Picasso to rattle off his various Periods (Blue, Pink, etc.), expound a bit on his influence (or fathering, one might say) of Cubism, recognize (some) of his works, comment on his proliferate womanizing, etc. etc.

But I definitely discovered a great deal more of the depth of Pablo Picasso, and particularly the fact that there is, in fact, a continuity in this body of work that at first glance seems almost disjointed at times, so varied and shifted in its style.  That continuity, I think, is his constant curiosity about his art and himself — translating into a consistently autobiographical and medium-experimental approach to art.

I’m sure this has been written on extensively by scholars before me, but I think it’s particularly interesting that if we consider his curiosity to be a inherent part of his character, his self, then even his experimentation, medium-wise, is part of an over-arching autobiographical thread, tying together all the reflections of his sexuality, his relationship with his family, his lovers, events in his life, his varying levels of wealth, that run through and define and inspire his art.

Of course, this approach to interpretation is very much author-oriented, so now I will turn about-face (of a sort) and talk about one particular work that we saw today that I think has special meaning located in the image itself, and in my own subjective appreciation of it.

Unfinished is fine

The work is one that Picasso half-executed in 1917, at the age of 36, a foray into yet another style in his never-ending process of self- and medium-exploration.  Matthew asked us why we thought it had, like every other attempt Picasso made at pointillism, remained unfinished, and I raised my hand to suggest that Picasso must have simply gotten bored, knowing his tendency to work fast his constant to desire to move on to the ‘next thing’ — whether a new painting, a new artistic style, or a new lover.  But while this is a likely (and interesting) explanation for the painting’s unfinished state, I want to question whether this painting should, in fact, be called unfinished.  Clearly, Picasso was done with it — he had ‘finished’ with the pointillistic approach not long after he took it up.  This, in some ways, could be seen as a mechanism of the medium itself — like the mechanically inherent aspects of the photographic practice that at times places the act of creation more in the body of the camera than in the hands of its operator, the artist, the mechanism of pointillism produces inherent impatience in some of its less ‘devoted’ practitioners.  And as a result, we are left with this beautiful trace of the medium, this ephemeral story of coming-into-being, a story we would not have been able to read had the medium been any other.

Picasso's unfinished attempt at pointillism.

To me personally, this painting is beautiful and mesmerizing (I aver that the rendering above holds no candle to the actual painting — shout out to Walter Benjamin!) precisely because it is ‘unfinished’.  The balance of space and color, of lines and dots grows together so organically.  There is a sense of fleeting existence, or simultaneously disappearance and reappearance, that I see in this painting.  For me, it is finished.  Or rather, it is not unfinished — it is always still being finished.  In a way, no work of art is ever finished, if we allow it to ‘mean’ subjectively, because it’s meanings and its context grow and change, almost imperceptibly, every time it is viewed or discovered and drunk in by museum-goers like myself.

the critic as tourist?**

I am as always, interested in how we attend museums, the paths we take through them, why we look at certain works and not at others, and how the architecture (literal and institutional) of the museum structures our visit.  As a large group (25 people counting Matthew) taking a tour in an extensive but rather small-roomed museum, we tended to cause blockages, but one thing I found fascinating was the way that other visitors to the museum would sort of attach themselves to us for varying lengths of time.  Undoubtedly, this is a credit to Matthew’s excellent tour-guiding, but it got me thinking about whether this is okay.  Sure, if you’re looking at a painting a tour group is looking at as well, it’s rather unavoidable that you will hear their guide’s explanations, but there was one point where we had accumulated at least a dozen hangers-on who were actually moving with us from room to room, which, practically speaking, creates serious traffic issues.  Then there is the question of whether these non-group members should be allowed to join a tour that was not, technically, public — we had some clinging Asian tourists for 5 or 6 paintings, and one older American couple that stuck with us until the very end in the ceramics gallery.  I guess as long as they aren’t preventing the students for whom the tour was intended from seeing or hearing, then it’s probably fine, but I’m also fascinated by the extent to which this fascinates (read: kind of bothers?) me.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for open-source, especially in academic contexts.  And it seems wrong that I should be bothered by the fact that other people were taking an opportunity to learn more about Picasso by listening to Matthew, who is a veritable expert.  But beyond speaking to a potentially unsettling elitism in myself, an elitism that I am beginning to suspect is in fact produced by the museum structure and the way it privileges certain art and an intellectual approach to the aesthetic, might this accumulation of tour group ‘parasites’, if you will, speak to a general lack of knowledge of how one engages a museum?  And how one engages art in general?  When I am feeling energetic, I like to go into art museums and look at everything, especially if the particular exhibit compels me in some particular way, as if it were a photograph with some Barthesian punctum to reach out and interpellate me.

The Louvre, where I am not afraid to admit, I get lost.

But not everybody does this, and I certainly don’t in every museum: I walk into the Louvre and feel lost, partly because it is physically dwarfing and mostly because I am looking for the modern and contemporary art that I personally know how to engage with (and which the Louvre tends to lack, since you must be dead to be exhibited there — unless, of course, you are Picasso, who was the first living artist to have his paintings hung alongside the likes of his idols El Greco and Velazquez).

Guided tours, then, are all about solving this confusion of what to look at, a method for dealing with the image-overload of entering the museum space.  They are a way of having our sight instructed.  In this sense, they have the potential to be both incredibly useful and incredibly limiting.  Approaching any museum through both the tour format and the free-form (as free-form as an architecturally-structured space can allow) act of exploration can be differently rewarding in different situations.

Centre Pompidou, where I know exactly which route to take so I can stand in front of the Mark Rothko for half an hour.

So I understand, on some level, these other tourists’ desire to join our group, a desire perhaps influenced, if they spoke little Spanish, by hearing a continuous stream of clever and enlightening and lightly-accented and familiar English in a foreign country.  Perhaps my unease at being joined is that, as a student here, I tend to Otherize tourists, hypocritical as that may be.  I conveniently forget that I myself am also from America, am also only marginally skilled in speaking Spanish, am also engaging in a number of activities that could be considered ‘touristic’.  I see American (and other) tourists as Others, in a separate group, while they see me (and the CAMS group) as Self, part of their own familiar space of English-speakers excursioning abroad.

So thinking about museums and the relative private-ness of guided tours reveals almost as much about how I see others as it does about how I (and others) see art — which in itself speaks to the interdisciplinary nature of visual studies, my tangential foray into my own psychology and some anthropological musings.  Speaking of (visual) anthropology, I should end by saying that, as tempted as I was, I did not sneakily follow the Japanese tour group that kept crossing our path in the museum.  At least, not for that long…

*I’m thinking of naming my band this, if I ever start the post-twee extravaganza I’ve always dreamed of fronting…
**Syntax and implied reference to parasitism lovingly attributed to J. Hillis Miller.