Discovering Art – Towards a Product
How far have we come? We found that artists create in a context, with a medium, moving through a process. But where to? Towards a product – the completed piece of artwork. What is this finished creation? It is a gift. Artists create a work that they give to the public. This is risky; and our reception is ruptured with problems. Let’s talk buildings.
Architecture is a robust art form. It functions practically, containing elevators, restaurants, classrooms and offices; people work, play and live. It accommodates aesthetics: bricks and wood, domes and spires, arches and columns. Architecture is collaborative, requiring the skills of many. It is lasting, symbolic and necessary. But most pertinent to our discussion: architecture is extremely public. At a single moment, a building stands before the eyes of thousands. Rarely do other art forms rival this publicity. A city would need to continually blast music through its streets, fly canvases overhead or raise sculptures as towers. But this is not the norm. Architecture soars.
Consider New York City. It houses the Wall Street Bull, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Broadway plays, quirky craft shops and nightly music shows. But what looms more prominent than any of these? The Empire State Building, and formerly the Twin Towers. I realize the Statue of Liberty, a sculpture, is quite noticeable. But she is an exception; the Empire State Building still enjoys much of the artistic limelight. If New York is unconvincing, consider Shanghai’s Oriental Tower, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Eiffel Tower and Sydney Opera House. If any sound unfamiliar, look them up. You’ve seen them. Architecture is art, readily available and highly exposed.
How is this exposure significant for the architect? When the artist says, “It is finished” and releases their work to the world, it stands vulnerable to the judgment of all. What do musicians do with their latest album? They host a “release party”, or “launch” it. Like a bird and her peep. Momma Feathers nurtures her baby in the nest and releases her. Artists birth their work and offer it to the world, consigning it to the public. Creating is risky. How do we, the public, respond?
We respond to art in three improper ways. But there is hope for renovation. Let’s consider films and cathedrals, beginning with our vilest tendency and proceeding to the more innocent.
Our worst response to art is to misuse it. You are a toy salesman and you saw Toy Story. Hoping to sell Buzz Lightyear and Woody figures for the upcoming holiday, you play the movie in your toyshop to convince the kid-customers that your dolls will come to life like they do in the movie. Children are then tugging on their mom’s wrist, begging for one. Of course after the holiday these kids are patiently holding Mr. Potatohead, waiting for him to walk, or shaking his eyeballs off because he will not talk. Funny? Yes, but twisted. A more debased example involves architecture.
Most cities in the U.S. have a Catholic cathedral. Whether spired or domed, the insides coruscate with jewels, mosaics and statues. Architects designed cathedrals to honor God; riches and grandeur reflected his majesty. How is a cathedral misused? When a priest bids you to give your money by appealing to the surrounding palace. Something has gone awry. The issue is not whether a divine Being deserves our money. The problem is that a cathedral created to display splendor has become an instrument for monetary persuasion. It magnifies beauty, a beauty now exploited. It persuaded worship, but now persuades a guilt offering. The architect promoted reverence; the priest, a payoff. This is misuse.
Another response is no response, that is, rejection. I do not mean disagreement, as in rejecting a message or ideal, but simply refusing to listen. You watch Toy Story, turn off the television, and go about your business. You contemplate nothing about the film. On your commute, you pass by the cathedral and ignore it. Eyes closed, ears stopped, you dismiss or remain totally apathetic to the artwork before you.
If you have not perverted the artist’s product or barricaded your mind, then you meet a work of art. The product confronts you and you must respond. Instinctively, you try to make sense of the work; that is, you interpret it. The problem is that we tend to do this poorly. Yet misinterpretation is an honorable fault compared to the previous two. Watching Toy Story, you hear “To infinity, and beyond!” Clearly, you think, Buzz Lightyear’s motto is a subtle stab at suburbia. There’s an entire universe out there and we must escape our sterile bedrooms! Is that what Mr. Lasseter and the writers meant? Or, you and a friend visit a cathedral. Exploring inside, your conversation goes something like this:
“Hey Sid, look at this. You see this lamb? The sun is shining behind it, there’s a halo around its head, and it’s in a lofty position. It’s looking down with a calm expression.”
“Yeah, it’s so peaceful, and it’s so white.”
“Look at this other one. I think this is the Christmas scene. Those are the wise men and baby Jesus. And those donkeys are kneeling around him. A pretty solemn episode.”
“Uh, huh,” says Sid. “It’s like God and the animals get along. He must really care about them.”
“It’s almost like he is the lamb over there. High, radiant, gentle and kind.”
“Yeah,” Sid remarks.“I don’t see how people can kill animals.”
“What? Don’t you think it’s more about God?”
“Well, animals seem important. I mean look at that one, there’s a dove flying over Jesus.”
“Yeah, but this is a cathedral. The whole building is about God.”
“I saw a lot of birds outside.”
Interpretation is a tipsy enterprise. How can we ever really know what the artist meant? Were the Catholics extolling God’s affection for critters? Is Toy Story toppling common American households? We want to make sense of these things. Is there hope for correct interpretation? I think so. But how? We will discuss this and a more important question next time. But we must cooperate with the artist and employ a few virtues. Only then can we unlock the wonders of their art.