It’s Provocative, But Is It Art?

Last November, My parents took my Fiancee and I to the Emily Carr exhibit at the Vancouver art Gallery. I must say, the poster prints of Carr’s paintings do not do them justice. One must see the paintings first hand to truly appreciate the unique and deliberate mixtures of color and shape. Upon a close inspection of the brush strokes, the paintings take on a 3 dimensional quality.

The second floor however, was a different story, and unfortunately more consistent with my previous experiences with art galleries. Works were set up merely to confuse rather than to enlighten and communicate. In an attempt to deconstruct the “illusion” of painting, someone had simply hung up a canvas painted the same shade as the museum wall. At one of the looping video displays, I wondered if i could deconstruct the illusion by simply turning it off.

I came away from the exhibit feeling that the art had progressed to the point where ideas were more important than the art itself. Saying something, anything, had gained greater importance than establishing control of a medium to communicate those ideas effectively. According to my 20th Century Art History course, this was the triumph of artistic freedom. Kandinsky taught us that paintings could be free of representing objects, John Cage taught us that musicians were free from playing a note, and Yvonne Rainer taught us that dancers could be free of rhythm, technique, or intention. I have to ask, what exactly are these lessons teaching us? Is this progress?

More recently I came across a website called the Art Renewal Center. It is (and promotes itself as) a rallying cry against this brand of Modernism. In opposition to the abstract installations that lurk in galleries all over the world, the site sports paintings so real that they are almost photographic. The curators write article after article disputing the modernist claims that realistic representation is “false”, that abstractism is “freedom”, and that commercially commissioned works are “profiteering”.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything the site says. In fact, they may take issue with Emily Carr’s abstract representations of the forest landscape. They highlight an important fact that the drawn image as fine art is struggling for it’s own cultural relevance. Abstract forms of art are now dominating museums, alienating people all over the world, and yet government funding is still provided to produce this art that no one wants to see. What’s the point of having artistic discourse if no one is around to see it? Furthermore, the modernist idea that all viewpoints are created equal negates the purpose of having a debate at all. When we lose the ability to recognize the validity of one idea over another, we can’t make decisions effectively and in essence lose the ability to control our own destinies.