Friday, March 18, 2011

To Rembrandt or Not to Rembrandt

Every so often I have to dust off my Master's Degree. Having a graduate degree in art history means never having to say you're employed.

So, what is art? Discuss.

It's the eternal question among art historians, critics, artists, and people who dress in black everywhere.

About 20 years ago the Dutch decided to set up the Rembrandt Commission to answer part of this question.

It seemed there were hundreds of Rembrandt's, supposed Rembrandt's, and out-and-out crap with fake Rembrandt signatures on them. And they wanted to deal with it. So they put together a panel of art historians, scientists, scholars, and others to examine every so-called Rembrandt in the world and give it a thumb's up or down.

Museums and collectors all over the planet held their breath as the fate of their art rested in the hands of these experts. Some were so concerned they wouldn't allow the commission to examine their art. Who wants to be told that they Rembrandt they paid $4 million for was, in fact, a worthless fake?

There was, as you can imagine, great controversy. The commission had a few verdicts. Paintings were graded as authentic Rembrandt's, from Rembrandt's workshop, in the style of, by a 17th century artist not Rembrandt but not a forgery, real forgeries, and various other categories.

And this raised the question of: why does a name de-value a painting? If a painting is beautiful why is it suddenly worthless just because some guy named Rembrandt didn't paint it? That's the big question. Is it the artist or the art that defines it?

Who or what really decides the label "art?" It seems to be a matter of opinion. And I have a very narrow one.

I am a Classicist. To me good art ended with Impressionism and everything done after that it crap. (Yes, I exaggerate.) But I do find myself responding more to representational art than splotches on a canvas. I will always, always, always think Van Eyck was more talented than Picasso. I get PIcasso. I understand why people consider him a genius. But I don't have an emotional reaction to him.

I marvel at brush strokes, use of light, reflections, the creation of life. I can lose myself in the detail of the sleeping dog in the town square, the peasants in the field, the glow of candlelight in a quiet chamber. But when confronted with a square of black and a square of red, I don't lose myself. Usually I laugh. I'm just that much of a Philistine.

I love art that you can describe in literal detail. "Vermeer perfectly captures the quiet moments of a quiet life." True. On the other hand, I usually screen with laughter at phrases like "this painting conveys the disharmony between the curious now and the unbalanced when." Oh bite me. This shrimp-pump claptrap isn't a real art conversation. It's a way to convince people you're worth having sex with.


Kittie Howard said...

To quote someone I know, you nailed it, lady!

We visited Rembrandt's house/studio last year. He had so many pupils (the dude needed money) and, oh, he had this cute custom of 'advising' and adding a brush stroke here and there and, hark, his signature.

The above pretty much condenses my knowledge of art histroy. By way of opinion (your lucky day, LOL) I think Picasso looks great on a coffe mug and that Vermeer would look great on my living room wall!

Kittie Howard said...

Oops, forgot...have you been pinging? You're not showing up on my blog roll. Sorry!

Duke said...

I use a short logic diagram to define art:

Does it have a cat in it somewhere?
YES - It is art
NO - It is not art

I'm starting to think I might be a little too restrictive.

Decca said...

You all make me so happy. Duke, I like your idea. Though I have to say that when I wrote my Master's thesis, the subject had no cats whatsoever in it.

Lori said...

First visit to your blog and loved it!

You had me with the first sentence, since I worked for 5 years on an UG art degree at three different places and was then told I would have to do one more to get the degree (accreditation issues). I decided to get a job instead! Lately I have wondered if I should have gottent the degree. (I now work at a university handling accreditation processes - is life full of irony or what?).

Two squares and a dot - uh huh.

The Calico Quilter said...

Your opinion on art mirrors mine on classical ("serious") music - if it was written after about 1910, whatever it is, it ain't music. Now, some people might think Philip Glass' and John Adams' works are just peachy - to name two contemporary composers who leave me scratching my head in bemusement - but I'm not one of them.

I'm trying to remember the author of an essay I read years ago which basically claimed that the purpose of art is to provoke confusion, confrontation and responses both emotional and cerebral, and thus had to be ambiguous and non-representational. Thus, a painting of something that was recognizable, however well executed, ipso facto, wasn't art. It could be pretty, but it was basically decoration for your wall, like nice wallpaper. I wish I could remember the idiot's name that wrote that.