What is Art? Part II: Making Special

“All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.” – Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

We have already said that in order for something to be considered a work of art that it must communicate. But what else must it do or what quality must it possess? It must “make special” those ordinary things that we see every day. Just as Plato looked at a horse and thought “there must be perfect horse-ness in existence” so we look at something in the world and say “there must be perfect beauty in that thing.” It is a sort of world of forms we live in as artists. What is special to you, you must create in order to make special for another. We have held Michelangelo’s David in awe for centuries, because he saw the human form and knew the David story and said to himself “I must share that beauty with the world.” (okay, okay, he was also commissioned to make it, but that’s beside the point). We know from the timeless beauty of David that it is a masterpiece and that it is, very simply, a work of art.

David_von_Michelangelo

Artists look into the world and think, as Mary Oliver so wonderfully put it, “What does it mean that the earth is so beautiful and what shall I do about it?” I believe it is our vocation as artists to delicately and reverently share these moments of beauty with those who haven’t the eyes to see it. I had this very experience when I was in the middle of sculpting my first half life-size figure. I looked at the intersections of the muscles, how you couldn’t see any of them because of the skin, but still instantly understand that that is her leg and that is her arm. I cried while I was sculpting her because for the first time I had a moment to realize the perfect beauty of God’s creation; the perfect beauty of each muscle; the perfect beauty with which the whole body works together to let you walk, talk, see, think, feel, and love. I knew that each dip and curve of Selah‘s figure would showcase the intricate beauties of the human form. Have you ever taken a moment to watch what your patella does when you bend and straighten your knee? Have you ever noticed that there’s a groove that your patella slides up and down so as to make that transition smooth and protect your knee from harm? Have you ever noticed that some people’s patellas are the shape of a teardrop while others the shape of a heart? Think about it. Make it special, if only in your thoughts.

Some may say that mathematics may also complete this task of making special by illustrating with numbers, letters, lines and other symbols frozen moments of perfect time. While mathematics may not be quite a form of art, it certainly runs alongside art in history. Non-euclidean geometry, just like Michelangelo’s David, transcends time and is forever beautiful.

The beautiful, however, must also be useful. (I’m just going to throw that statement in here without any explanation, because that can be done later.) And art must communicate, so when the following questions arise, we know how to answer them. “What about Art that makes you shudder in horror like Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon?” Remember that art is making things special. It does this by making the ordinary extraordinary, no matter the content. During WWII, artists needed to convey how confused, hurt, and angry the world felt that such terrible things were happening. Their art displays this magnificently. Sure, it’s not beautiful in the way we normally think of that word, but it does communicate and make special that agony of loss and destruction.

Art must simultaneously make special and communicate, otherwise it fails in its being and its purpose. It fails to be art. Just as a problem in mathematics without a solution fails to prove anything or illustrate the beauty of the known world.

What is Art? Part I: Communication

This evening, I had the pleasure of listening to three of my favorite professors discuss the meaning of art (my favorite topic, in case you haven’t figured that out yet.) While none of them gave any perfectly concrete definition, they all centered around the same principles. Mind you, this was a panel made up of a Professor of Art History, Professor of English and Provost of the College, and a Professor of Mathematics. The beautiful thing about panels like this is that they leave you feeling inspired, ready to work, ready to write, and (most importantly) ready to think. Here are some of the requirements for a work to be a work of art. This post will only talk about the first of many points. Because I don’t want you to be sitting here for “five-ever.” (So it turns out that this is longer than I expected. I’m only kind of sorry.)

Art must communicate.

Throughout the ages, each civilization, each culture has had its own forms and work of art. Keep in mind that we are not just talking about the visual arts here. “Art” includes dance, poetry, painting, sculpture, and so much more. Let us not forget this. We also know that in each culture there have been masters. Over the centuries these masters have communicated with each other through their works of art. There are themes throughout human history, which each of us have experienced. We have all experienced pain, suffering, joy, love. Art is able to communicate these feelings in a way that nothing else is.

toiletteWe can try to describe love itself until the cows come home, but when you look at one of Mary Cassatt’s paintings, you feel that you immediately understand the love of a mother for her child and vice versa. In these paintings, Mary Cassatt is participating in an ancient conversation, a conversation that revolves around the different types and different qualities of love. This is the same conversation that Pablo Neruda participates in by writing his tender love poems. This is the same conversation that Tolkein participates in with his impeccable descriptions of friendship.

These, my friends, are works of art. While they may or may not be great works of art, they still manage to participate in greater conversations. Through each of these works of art, we feel that we better understand love.

And yet – when we fall in love for the first time, Neruda’s poetry suddenly has new meaning. When we give birth to our first child, Cassatt’s paintings seem to have been made only for us. These moments happen because the conversations of the great artists transcend time. Part of successful communication is an ability to explain human experience with a beauty and a reverence that speaks to our basic humanity. The creation of art is inherent to us as human beings. As my art history professor so lovingly put it: “God enjoyed being a creator and we, as made in His image, ought to enjoy creating.” True art, real art, speaks to our deepest humanity, “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” (As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Gerard Manly Hopkins)

Michelangelo

I love Michelangelo.

I love the human body. Especially knees and butts. In fact, one time I started crying while I was sculpting a butt because it was just so amazing and beautiful. If you’re an artist, you won’t get weirded out by that. If you’re not, I’m not sorry at all.

Anyway, back to Michelangelo. Each of M’s drawings and sculptures are a love-letter to the human body. When you love something or someone, it/they are more likely to take precedent in your life, thoughts, and actions. Michelangelo’s drawings and sculptures are known to be “larger than life.”  In a time when the human body was just beginning to be explored, Michelangelo was on the cusp of creations of human majesty.

While I don’t agree with his theology of art (see rage-fest on the Sistine Chapel), his innovations in drawing and discovery of the human body as something worth looking at, is a great thing. I’m forever thankful for Michelangelo.

But enough words. I’ve decided to make this post more of a photo-journalism type thing, so we can all appreciate M’s work together.

david-hand-760x970
Detail from David, Michelangelo, marble, 1504, Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence

Here, we can all tell that Michelangelo was taken aback by the action of the veins in a man’s hands when he is tensing his whole body. He also knew that when a hand hangs down, all the blood in the arm tends to rush to the hand. Delicately carved in Carrara marble, David’s hand looks shockingly life-like.

 

Male-Figure-1530s
Male Figure, Michelangelo, 1530s, Musee de Louvre, Paris, France

All right. Let’s get something out in the open. Michelangelo was OBSESSED with back muscles. Once when I was copying a drawing of his, I had to ask my professor what was going on because Michelangelo had emphasized muscles that you can’t actually see in a normal back. His dissections had introduced him to the wonders of muscle layers. So if you ever look at the drawing of a male nude by Michelanglo and you think it looks lumpy, know that those muscles are actually there. You just have to understand how they all intersect. But isn’t this the perfect example of how Michelangelo had fallen in love with the intricacies of the human body?

 

Detail from the Pieta, Michelangelo, 1499, St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, Italy, marble
Detail from the Pieta, Michelangelo, 1499, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy, marble

Now, I’ll probably give Michelangelo a lot of flack throughout this blog for his manly women. But here is one instant where that is not at all the case. The Pieta perfectly freezes this moment in time that none of us can imagine. We know nothing of what it must have been like to be Mary holding Christ after his death on the cross. Yet Michelangelo has reverently carved all the tenderness, sadness, and a slightly-hidden joy in her delicate features. This is why this piece is so famous.

For more geeking out about the beauty if Michelangelo’s work, visit this site. They have categorized all of his works and have really decent pictures of all of it. …and you can order paintings of all of the photographs?

 

Elements of Responsiblity

When I was in 6th grade, I began taking formal art classes from a wonderful artist and family friend named Caryn Harris. Her skill with pastels and oils leaves me breathless on a regular basis.) Her way of teaching art combines her extensive knowledge of art history with her cultivated skills in every medium. As we traveled through art history from the Caves of Lascaux to the Impressionists (which, I might add, was over the course of four years), she had all of her students imitate the artwork of each culture. By the time we were in our freshman year of high school, we had all created cave paintings of bulls with charcoal dust mixed with egg yolks, cartouches of our names in hieroglyphics, illuminated manuscripts with accurate historical designs and celtic knots, and copies of John Singer Sargent watercolors. (Okay, maybe I was the only one who chose John Singer Sargent, but it was awesome.)

1185_o_a_fountain_on_a_sunny_day
John Singer Sarget, A Fountain on a Sunny Day, 1907, watercolor.

But I think the thing that stuck the most with me was the responsibility she placed on all her students to understand the historical importance of what they were imitating and creating.

Many art teachers now focus so much on the students’ ability and opportunity to “express themselves.” I think for most students, this can be incredibly frustrating. If you give students no guidelines, they will soon become frustrated and give up on their ability to craft a work of art. The way Caryn teaches her students gives them a background and skill set that enables them to be creative in a productive way.

By including art history in a lesson, the students are given a cultural context for their project. This grants a certain responsibility to the students to accurately portray their project.

For instance, I was volunteering in an art class the other day and the 7th graders had been given a project to create a stained glass window. In the middle of their black paper window, they had to draw a picture of Mary and Jesus or the Star of David as the centerpiece. One girl called me over to help and asked “Is this star okay?” Her star was tiny, off-center, and a little oddly shaped. I asked her “How big do you want to make it?”

Student: “Big enough to get a good grade.”

Hannah: “Wrong answer. Think about the point of this stained glass window. What’s the point of making a stained glass window?”

Student: “To get a good grade.”

Hannah: “Think about the point of making a real stained glass window. How big would this star have to be if it’s the entire point of the stained glass window?”

Okay, so she really didn’t care about the point of the window, but as you can see she didn’t understand the responsibility she had to uphold and honor the traditions of stained glass windows. She didn’t know that these windows were created during the late middle ages to help the illiterate common people know their Bible. If they can’t read it and they don’t know Latin, then let’s give them pictures so they at least know that the crucifixion happened or that a virgin gave birth to a child, who was the Son of God. Artwork was given to the masses for educational purposes- education about things that had eternal consequences. But my little 7th grader didn’t know that. And maybe not many 7th graders care – it’s been a long time since I was in grade school. I honestly think, though, that if we make art education more academic, then many children will feel more capable of “doing art.” (More about this later).

If your 7th graders don’t understand this, then of course they’re going to make something just so they can get a good grade. Responsibility is key for success for many children. This is why having a theology of art is so important when teaching the subject. This is why having and sharing your knowledge of art history is so vital.

Beginnings

Beginnings are my least favorite. It’s rather difficult to know how to start something, especially when you’re not exactly sure what it’s going to end up looking like.

My current sculpture is a little like this right now. Écorché hasn’t ever been easy for – oh wait – anyone. Yeah, not even Michelangelo, people. So when you’ve got the gluteus maximus and all those ridiculously wonderful leg muscles, but no pecs, it’s a little difficult to imagine how the figure will turn out. I’m sure The Bod will turn out fine eventually, but, as I said, beginning is always the hardest.

What I’m attempting to do in this blog, is to discuss and hash-out rather vehemently my own thoughts concerning the purpose of art. Having studied both studio art and art history at college, it was a question that burned in my mind almost constantly. And often resulted in many freak-out sessions to my mother. The biggest question that my studies of art raised was the place of artwork in the church. More specifically, the place of religious artwork in the context of a reformed church. Growing up in a Baptist church, I assumed that all sacred artwork was a form of “graven images.” Now, this is not to say that they would openly condemn sacred artwork. I think they would rather say that it’s “dangerous.” I agree that it can be dangerous, but I also think that for those of us who are artistically-inclined, it can actually be incredibly helpful. We also should think about the fact that the visual is one of the most powerful methods of teaching. During the Reformation, a resurgence of iconoclasm occurred because of the reactions to Catholic teaching and tradition. After the few hundred years that have elapsed between the Reformation and now, there is a group of intellectuals and artists in the reformed church who no longer view sacred art in the same way. There will be more on these types of ideas throughout the lifetime of this blog, but this is all I’m going to say for now, in hopes that the length of my first post doesn’t overwhelm.

Now, I’m beginning to understand that there are (at least) two camps within the reformed church:

1. Sacred art is idolatrous.

2. Sacred art, done properly, is not idolatrous, but may, in fact, be used to glorify the Lord.

Many people are of the second camp, but in order to protect themselves from entering into idolatry avoid the topic at all costs. Or they use such vague and careful language that it sounds like they’re pitching their tent in the first campsite.

My senior year at Hillsdale I worked on understanding the Byzantine theology of art. Namely, the theology of the icon. While I wasn’t able to completely agree with their theology, it was an important struggle for me to go through. And it made me question everything I thought I knew about Michelangelo and his fellow Renaissance artists. (Of course the Renaissance was the most glorious time for artwork, right? Eh. Debatable.)

Okay, okay. Here are some of the biggest questions I would like to explore throughout the existence of this little website:

What is the purpose of art? What is my theology of art? What is the proper place for sacred art in a reformed church? What exactly does art celebrate? If it’s not “pretty,” is it still art? What is visual beauty? If beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder, but rather an objective standard, as I’ve come to understand, then what is that objective standard? How will we judge art based on that standard? Which is higher: painting or sculpture?

There are sure to be more questions later. And, yes, all of these also have to do with Classical Education as well.