Friday, July 9, 2010

What is art? (#1 of 2), excerpted from Art History through Innovators: Sculpture

Over the next month or so, I'll be posting several of the theoretical parts from my new lecture, “Art History through Innovators, Part 1: Sculpture” The lecture is designed as a walking tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but comes with a PDF of images so that you can listen to it anywhere in the world. The references to images below are to the PDF. The entire lecture (26 MP3 files and 50+ pages in PDF format) is available at 

This first excerpt comes near the beginning of the lecture.

EXCERPT 1A: What is art?
A standard art history course covers the characteristics of the art of every major civilization and every time period, from ancient through modern. In Art History through Innovators, I focus instead on one question: In 5,000 years, how did we get from a sculpture such as Mykerinus and His Queen (#1A on the handout) to Frishmuth's The Vine? What I want to show you are major innovations in art. That’s why the title of this tour is "Art History Through Innovators."
If you have an inquiring mind, you should immediately be asking two questions. Number 1: What is art? Number 2: What counts as a major innovation?

So: What is art? You might be surprised to hear that there’s no widely accepted definition. If you ask 5 staff members at the Metropolitan Museum, they’ll give you 5 different definitions. Same thing if you ask 5 professors who teach art history.

The most difficult part of writing these tours was making sure that when we start, we’re on the same page about the meaning of “art.” So let’s try this.

Look at the Nike logo on the list of sculptures.

Do you know who that is?

Do you know what he's doing?

Is he good, bad, or mediocre at what he does?

How did he get that way: skill, practice, luck, transcendental meditation?

If you recognize this figure as Michael Jordan, then the image isn't just a blob of ink on paper. It carries with it a set of ideas about excellence, and about how you achieve excellence.

Sculptures carry ideas with them, too. For example, look at Michelangelo's David on the supplementary photos. Most people see in it a combination of courage, strength, and alertness.

But a sculptor doesn’t just show any random idea that pops into his head. Art works often endure for centuries, but artists never do. So an artist can’t sculpt an image of every single thing he sees. Nor can he include every microscopic detail of what he does choose to sculpt. He has to choose his subjects and his style based on what matters enough to him to spend days, months, or years working on.

So by showing courage, strength, and alertness in a work of art, Michelangelo says: “Such things are important to me.” A sculptor who represents Uncle Dave drinking beer in a La-Z-Boy reveals a different set of values. In either case, when the artist creates his work of art, he tells you: "This is important, this matters, pay attention to this— this value, this idea, this action." Sometimes it's this kind of place, this sort of person, this kind of feeling. But it’s always something the artist considers profoundly important.

We’ll talk about why that matters to you, as a viewer, after we’ve looked at a couple millennia of sculpture.

Coming shortly: Excerpt 1B, on what qualifies as a major innovation.

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