James Ross Kiefer
Art is a combination of talent, skill and objectivity. When an artist lays down canvas, composes a phrase or choreographer’s movement, at some moment art becomes more than what’s simply presented. It becomes a statement, a message, a reflection or something of value. This is where perspective enters.
Before delving into different ways art can be perceived, there needs to be a defined line between thought and style. Style is what gives an artwork character and alludes to classification. This is effaced by the art right away and has little room for interpretation. This is scene in performance all the time. If a cellist is to perform is to perform one of the Bach Cello Suites, it’s expected they’ll articulate notes and include embellishments appropriate for the Baroque period. Dynamics are supposed to be either loud or soft, abruptly so which reflects instruments from the period. Space between is supposed to vary depending on rhythmic value. A musician also notes if something sounds predominantly “French,” “German” or “Italian,” as the Baroque era saw the first trend of pairing nationalities to music.
The idea of style also translates over into the visual art world. It’s evident when a painter uses watercolor paint, as opposed to oil. How wide something is bordered or the amount of depth added via shading. The point is that style is something exists in art regardless of meaning or value.
Meaning is given to art because it fulfills an emotional itch. It feels good when we can look at a sculpture, see a dance performance or a film and use our elicited reactions to create definition. Of course this leads to a myriad of interpretations, both positive and negative, and some less informed than others.
Stravinsky was treated to riots when his ballet “Rite of Spring” premiered in May of 1913. Audience members were offended by the ballet’s orchestration, as it was of Stravinsky’s more dissonant works. Paired to this was the choreography depicting rituals performed by tribes in ancient Russia. Movements of the dancers the original choreography are jerky and erratic. The dancers also seemed inherently arched downward, hiding them from the audience. This also defied notions in ballet of presenting the performer to the audience.
Although such brutish behavior isn’t expected from today’s audiences, the effect remains the same. Stravinsky and his choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, created a completely alien experience at the premiere. By removing a setting and music thought the audience could identify or cling to, they elicited feelings of disgust and anger. This shows how art can change from a passive experience into a form of visceral expression. It also helps frame the idea of context.
The social period surrounding art can affect the way it is produced. Outside factors influence the artist’s creative process as much as internal ambitions. This was seen in the 1940’s with the birth of the Abstract Expressionist movement.
This period of American history saw World War II, the Cold War, and the rise of McCarthyism. It was a time that valued efficiency, industry and patriotism. Artists like Jackson Pollock and Clifford Still countered these ideals with paintings that championed simplicity and ambiguity. Pollock would use non traditional tools to create unique textures in his work. He used knives, sticks, glass shards and would even physically throw paint onto his canvases. Erika Doss, professor of American Studies at Notre Dame comments in her book “Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism” how reflective the Abstract Expressionist movement was. “Abstract expressionism became… a weapon in the Cold War,” says Doss, “as its abstracted anxiety was translated, ironically, into a symbol of uniquely American freedom.”
This movement also saw it’s fair share of criticism. Pieces were said to lack intellectual capacity and skill. Critic Lincoln Kirstein said, “Experiments are passed off as fully achieved and mature art.” This was in response that many artists from this movement sought to include their own personal styles in their work. Motifs like shape repetition and similar color palette across pieces was common. Kirstein thought this inclusion of personal flavor would disillusion the public. Even though to distinguishing different styles from each artist made the works more accessible, he thought it would cloud an audience’s’ ability to recognize good content.
One of arts most important traits is its ability to transcend era, and it perpetuates itself. Part of being an artist requires a reverence for the past. Art students go to school, learn the ways of the old masters, and use those teachings to create something new. This is why much art shows elements from various eras. Hector Berlioz, a composer of the Early Romantic era, included fugue in the fifth movement of “Symphonie Fantastique.” Fugue something commonly experimented with by Baroque composers, especially Bach.
Today this is seen in artists like Kehinde Wiley, who is experimenting with the style of grand portraiture once exclusive to nobility. His portraits reimagine the famous paintings of old by replacing historic figures with people of color. He shies away from painting celebrities, instead asking random strangers, a process he calls “street casting.” Wiley’s works make use of lush backgrounds, and presents the subjects with intense degrees of power and beauty. His work also turns the art form on its head, “…once you get up in there, you realize you can actually embrace the history of Western European easel painting and how to make s–t look sexy and beautiful and glamorous,” says Wiley. “…but you can also be attempting to slash the throat of the empire that gave rise to that system.”
Art has attained a type of permanence throughout culture. It has remained outlet of human expression with an ever changing trajectory. Whether it be music, sculpture, the theater or dance, something of aesthetic value can always be found.