Artitude: Defining art enters tricky territory, with even trickier terms — beauty, for one — Naples Daily News Article
February 1, 2016
What was ostensibly a luncheon for the Collier Child Care Resource Council’s student art awards Thursday turned into:
- a disquisition on the definition of art that propelled at least one audience member out of her seat to disagree;
- comments on a controversial slide that led to a online search for one high-resolution can of caca
- a Naples Daily News office resumption of the controversy that ended — at least by 5 p.m. Thursday — with declarations by a Daily News crime reporter on the world state of visual arts and a suggestion by a friend of this writer that whoever used the offensive word in a lecture in front of children should be fired.
All this adrenaline came from gallery owner Leeza Arkhangelskaya’s talk to the council’s Big Impressions by Little Artist luncheon, in which she pounced on much contemporary art as “junk.”
“I used the word junk a lot,” she said of her address. In fact, she said, she warned the Collier Child Care Resource Council that some of her slides might be graphic, and actually eliminated a few of them, such as Damien Hurt’s bisected animals, because she knew some children would be at the luncheon with the adult supporters.
No one actually uttered the word, but one of Arkhangelskaya’s slides for the show is a can of human excrement, labeled by its street term in three different languages so we all get the point. Arkhangelskaya might even agree with the creator’s broad hint that contemporary works are certainly all artist guano.
What she doesn’t agree with is that it should be sold as art. Or added to museum inventories.
“This is something I feel very strongly about,” she said in an interview that evening. “You take your children to a museum and they see things like this.
Fast moving junk
Arkhangelskaya is a contemporary art gallery owner herself, but she had bad words for thrown-together art that she feels is driven by consumer gullibility. She cringes that Jackson Pollock’s dot-sprayed wall-eaters look “like a messy house painter’s drop cloth, yet bring as much as $120 million.”
But galleries love them, she said: “If it took a man 10 years to finish a painting and Picasso could punch them out in a day, what artist is going to be more popular in a gallery? The one the gallery can sell more of.
“So much modern art doesn’t have any redeeming value,” she lamented. “It just shows ugliness.”
But can ugliness move one? Not for Arkhangelskaya. There must be some beauty involved, even when the painting is as tragic as a battle scene. One can do some verbal sparring with her on the beauty of a 75-foot photographic mural of the massacre at Ezeiza, during which Juan Peron supporters were gunned down as they awaited the former dictator’s arrival at that airport outside Buenos Aires. She points to the details of people helping others in a desperate attempt to flee the “Last Day of Pompeii.” (Karl Brullyov, 1830-33), ones she feels may be in that mural as well.
That leads to the question of whether the beauty only needs to be in the subject matter, or does it need to be in the technique as well?
Brullyov’s leaves no question; it’s a skillfully done piece of art. But what of the haunting, if jumbled, mural in Buenos Aires? And what of ugliness created to make a statement that moves one to actions that, in effect, produce beauty? There is doubtlessly environmentalist art that hasn’t gone to beauty school but evokes a response that says: I will help change this.
Eye of the beholder
If there is another element to art that Arkhangelskaya insists on, it is the capacity to move the viewer. But her definition is intertwined with beauty. If we leave beauty to the eye of the beholder, Leroy Neiman’s sports programs will do the job for some sports lovers.
And while Arkhangelskaya wouldn’t agree, I found Jeff Koons’ shiny pink vacuum cleaner in the Indianapolis Museum of Art some years back a moving experience: After my new-tools heart lusted after the lanky machine, I realized Koons had snared me. I had to admit I was looking at everything as a candidate for consumption.
I was committing two sins with that judgment. “It’s art If I say so” has a history dating back to Marcel Duchamp’s Dadaist urinal, which he titled “Fountain.” Those types of pieces have the term object-as-art now, and they come in for one of the lowest niches in the junk pile from Arkhangelskaya.
It’s a hard time of week to get commentary from some neutral parties such as area museums on what defines art.
Arkhangelskaya had a happy ending for her provocative speech. The woman who had objected to her definitions came up for some discussion afterward. “It turned out she is an artist. I’m actually going to speak to her group,” she said, beaming. And she emphasized a point both of us agree on, without art terminology involved: To save humanity, we need a world with beauty.