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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Dale Chihuly And Anselm Kiefer–Do They Belong In The Same Artistic Canon?

Dale Chihuly is a well-known glass-blower, appreciated for his fanciful, colorful creations, imaginative designs, and masterful techniques in blowing, shaping, and configuring his works. 

Few people would call Chihuly an artist because for most, art should be a matter of purpose – a statement of meaning, interpretation, or definition.  At the very least art should challenge perception, the way we see the world.  The works of Anselm Kiefer, for example, are unforgettable images of desolation and loneliness; admonitions, visions of an apocalyptic future; and striking for their darkness, representational hints of fields and scored landscapes, strange, suggestive abstractions, and frightening perspectives.  There is no classic line, composition, or form – no golden mean, understandable perspective, balance of color, light and shade.  His works cannot be deconstructed in any familiar academic way.

The works of Francis Bacon are more traditional than Kiefer’s but no more understandable from a classical, formal perspective.  His triptychs recall Medieval works meant to show relationship or progression when painting was still static, formal, and thematic; but they are disturbing, perplexing, and emotionally demanding.  They have no obvious meaning or evident purpose, yet their radical disassembly of the human form – abstract but with hints of reflection, repose, or unease – is somehow familiar.  There is something suggestive and sympathetic about the figures represented, an element surprise and trouble.  In many ways Bacon goes far beyond Picasso and the Cubists who revolutionized the representation of form.  Bacon’s reconfigurations are distinctly human and recognizable, but suggest something unfamiliar.

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His works of religious figures also recall classical paintings of the Renaissance, but add a frightening psychological dimension.  The meaning of the screaming archbishop is not clear, but the scream certainly is.  it is more human, elemental, and personal than anything Munch ever painted.

Oscar Wilde offered perhaps the most concise and most accurate of definitions of art:

All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests that it is impossible to come up with one definition, and there are inherent contradictions in the major three:

The standard candidates [for the definition of art] are representational properties, expressive properties, and formal properties. So there are representational or mimetic definitions, expressive definitions, and formalist definitions, which hold that artworks are characterized by their possession of, respectively, representational, expressive, and formal properties. It is not difficult to find fault with these simple definitions. For example, possessing representational, expressive, and formal properties cannot be sufficient conditions, since, obviously, instructional manuals are representations, but not typically artworks, human faces and gestures have expressive properties without being works of art, and both natural objects and artifacts produced for the homeliest utilitarian purposes have formal properties but are not artworks.

Post-modernist Deconstructionists reject all the above.  A work of art has no unified artistic integrity as Formalists say.  Its meaning cannot be found in the complex network of relations between its parts (allusions, images, rhythms) and judged in one singular way.  Art per se does not exist.  There is nothing especially creative or ennobling about artistic enterprise because it will always be an aggregation of the many social, economic, and cultural forces that have determined its execution.  The only way to ‘interpret’ a work of art, then, is to deconstruct it into these elements and learn from them.  Post-modernists have debunked the Canon, saying that any text is the equal of any other because they all are predictable in their secular, non-inventive, deterministic origins; and their view of ‘great’ art is similar.

Formalism and the Canon have been under siege since the 80s when Deconstructionism emerged out of academe and influenced contemporary art.  Art is nothing and everything said Derrida and his colleagues; and minimalists, loosely interpreting the Post-Modernist canon, took this theory to heart.  Yet both Formalism and Deconstructionist minimalism do co-exist.

Needless to say neither Formalists nor Deconstructionists have any use for Dale Chihuly and his craft show colleagues.  Even the Deconstructionists begrudgingly give credit to the likes of Anselm Kiefer, Picasso, or Francis Bacon; for they more than other artists give us more to deconstruct.  Chihuly, however, gives nothing.

Where to fit Minimalists whose intent is never clear.  They give too little to suggest deconstructionist interpretations of gender, society, and behavior; and nothing at all that compels, moves, or demands any emotional or personal response.  Theirs, to all but the most generous critics, is a selfish art – one whose purpose and meaning is known only to the artist.

Modern art – abstract expressionism and its offshoots – was a period of experimentation.  Motherwell, De Kooning, Kline, and Pollack felt that representational art had had its day, and that the revolutionary insights of psychology and philosophy had a distinct place in the plastic arts.  Yet, the movement came and went, and few observers have felt either the emotional response provoked by Kiefer or Bacon or appreciated the formal grace of Sargent, Whistler, or Leonardo. 

Most art is periodic and temporal, illustrative of society and culture, reflective of either classical or modernist norms; and only occasionally brilliant and unique.  Yet to deny a canon – that is, works of art that are recognized as universal and meaningful outside of time and place – is to ignore human nature and perception.  Whether this perception is limited to form, line and color; more inclusive and appreciative of portraiture and landscapes; more acknowledging of the reverence and workmanship the Pieta; more inclusive or artistic craftsmanship like Bernini doors; or reserving the highest judgment only for works of intellectual insight, technique, and power like Kiefer or the Guernica, few deny the relevance of the canon.

Where, then, does this leave Dale Chihuly and his craftsman colleagues?  Why is an exhibition of arts and crafts any less relevant than a museum opening?  The Renwick Gallery, now converted and rebranded as a museum of contemporary art, used to exclusively show works of craft.  Its curators saw no distinction between craft and the ‘art’ displayed across the Mall. 

Does it matter that far more people appreciate Dale Chihuly than Anselm Kiefer; and that millions buy blown glass figurines, sculptures, and vases in imitation of his?  Where does one put Native American crafts?  They have their own display in The Museum of the American Indian, but presented as cultural expressions and examples of fine indigenous workmanship not as individual works of art.  The artists/craftsmen who designed and made them are less important than their cultural reference.  How then, can they be considered art? At the same time Indian motifs are central to American popular design.  Why doesn’t popular currency count for much in an assessment of art?  Like popular fiction and Hollywood movies both of which have audiences in the hundreds of millions, crafts are everywhere, either appreciated for their handiwork or as decoration.

Wilde was exactly right when he rephrased the old adage ‘Art is in the eye of the beholder’; and the range of artistic expression ranges from amateur watercolors to Francis Bacon and everything in between.  The issue is not necessarily quality, but category. Why should one dismiss any one type of artistic expression or value any other? 

At the same time it is harder to reject the artistic canon than it is the literary or the theatrical.  An easier case can be made for Daphne Du Maurier, Gladiator, and Turkish soap operas than one for Dale Chihuly or Hopi turquoiser; yet the question remains the same for all.  Are canons simply academic artifice?  Or are there such things as universal standards?

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