Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Explaining Art

Rivet and stress fracture on an old Union Pacific caboose, Laramie, Wyoming.

I recently listened to Alain de Botton's wide-ranging TED Talk about what atheists can learn from religion.  His central theme was that even if you don't believe in God, there are a lot of good things in religion that all of us could benefit from -- educational techniques, the concept of the sermon, the importance of time, community, and the power of institutions.  Rather than having to take the whole pill, Alain asserts that secularists could adopt some of these characteristics of religions by themselves and benefit from them.  

He also talks about how religions handle art:
"The two really bad ideas that are hovering in the modern world that inhibit our capacity to draw strength from art: The first idea is that art should be for art's sake -- a ridiculous idea -- an idea that art should live in a hermetic bubble and should not try to do anything with this troubled world. I couldn't disagree more. The other thing that we believe is that art shouldn't explain itself, that artists shouldn't say what they're up to, because if they said it, it might destroy the spell and we might find it too easy. That's why a very common feeling when you're in a museum -- let's admit it -- is, "I don't know what this is about." But if we're serious people, we don't admit to that. But that feeling of puzzlement is structural to contemporary art."
 I look at a lot of photography on the web, in books, and at museums, and I have to admit that often I see photographs that I just don't get.  A lot of contemporary photography is that way for me--photographs of sterile suburban neighborhoods or images designed to look like snapshots.  My wife and I sometimes watch movies that we both acknowledge were "good," but then we go to the web reviews to try to figure out what they were really about.

Alain de Botton goes on to say...
"Now religions have a much saner attitude to art.They have no trouble telling us what art is about. Art is about two things in all the major faiths. Firstly, it's trying to remind you of what there is to love. And secondly, it's trying to remind you of what there is to fear and to hate. And that's what art is. Art is a visceral encounter with the most important ideas of your faith. So as you walk around a church, or a mosque or a cathedral, what you're trying to imbibe, what you're imbibing is, through your eyes, through your senses, truths that have otherwise come to you through your mind."
I attended a workshop last fall at the UW Art Museum in which we were asked to just study a single piece of art for 10 minutes and write down everything we could about it.  I was able to fill several pages with observations of a weird piece of sculpture that I otherwise would have spent 10 seconds looking at before moving on to the next one.  Maybe it's the same with photographs--I need to slow down before hitting the arrow to move to the next image.

I took the photograph above of a detail on an old caboose that used to be mothballed on the West Side of Laramie but now occupies the new railroad park near the historic train depot.  It was an intuitive composition for me--I didn't think explicitly about how to frame it as I made the image; it just felt right.  The image has been popular for me--I've sold a few in shows--and now it is part of the UW Art Museum's traveling exhibition.  But I have never given it a lot of thought.  What makes it appealing? (or is it?).  Is there something about the shapes and how they work together?  Or is it the color?  I don't think I'd like it as a black and white image.  Is there something about the pattern of rust flecks?  Does it matter that it's an old UP caboose--does the nostalgia of the railroad add to the image, or is it irrelevant?

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. I love this photo for its color and composition. Both scream "happy".