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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Content Concepts

Color Harmonies, Josef Albers
Yesterday we explored conceptual art. Today, let's talk about concepts in general. The concept or idea is the root from which the work's message grows. Earlier, in discussing "art for art's sake," I noted that such art is often limited to formalistic design elements. We see this in the various squares and color juxtapositions of German-born artist, Josef Albers from the 1950s (above). Just assigning a title for each one (and keeping track of them all) must have been a major chore. There were hundreds of them.

The Three Wings, 1967, Alexander Calder
"Art for arts sake" is not necessarily divorced from all but the reality of its own existence. Alexander Calder's physical shapes and his title, The Three Wings, (above) tell us his concept is one of graceful aerodynamics, in which he contrasts its physical presence with the earth, wind, and sky of its environment.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, Umberto Boccioni
Boccioni employs a stylized figure as a means by which to explore time and space in suggesting the element of movement these two combined concepts allow (above). Unlike Calder, Boccioni demands a neutral environment typical of "art for art's sake" art. And unlike Calder's mobiles, which are physically moved by the wind, here movement is in the mind of the artist and the viewer, making the concept purely one of imagery and imagination. Thus, communicating the concept is much more demanding of the figure itself and the viewer's interaction with it.

Worker and the Collective Farm Girl, Moscow, Communist Art
For most of its history, art was much too important a vehicle in communicating concepts and ideas for the self-conscious dalliances of "art for art's sake." Nowhere is this fact more obvious than in patriotic art and its close cousin propaganda art. The line between them is real, though sometimes quite thin. Not only that, but the labels are interchangeable according to the viewer's point of view. Virtually every culture, every nation, every political faction, every ethnic group has an abundance of both. Is the towering sculpture Worker and the Collective Farm Girl (above), soaring over the streets of Moscow, patriotic while the billboards below are merely propaganda? Both are art. They communicate concepts in a creative manner. Americans might consider both to be Communist propaganda.
Tragic Prelude, 1938-40, John Steuart Curry
A close kin to both patriotic and propaganda art is history painting as seen in John Steuart Curry's Tragic Prelude (above). The difference, if there is one, is mostly a matter of timing,. In this case, the work was painted well after the Civil War (or War Between the States). As in the disputed name for the tragedy the title refers to, the strident figure of John Brown, who is either heroic (as Curry tends to see him) or dastardly as viewed by those who hung him in 1859.
Liberty Leading the People, 1830. Eugene Delacroix
In a similar vein, Eugene Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People (above), perhaps the French equivalent of Washington Crossing the Delaware or the Statue of Liberty (also French inspired and created). Liberty is a very French concept and the very fact that we have some degree of liberty today we owe figuratively, and in fact, literally to the French. (Remember Yorktown?) Though the French would claim Delacroix's work to be highly patriotic, in 1830 it was seen as a vitriolic piece of revolutionary propaganda. Those who win the revolution also write the history of the revolution and likewise get to label its art. Concepts are often controversial. Artists should not shy away from such concepts for fear of offending when in fact, virtually every social concept worth exploring is likely to offend someone. One person's patriotism is another person's propaganda.

Cookie Monster Leading the People, Combat Art—2011
Art should do more than merely entertain or decorate, it should also enlighten, seeking to persuade. Sometimes art can do all three as seen in the North African Arab Spring painting I've dubbed Cookie Monster Leading the People (above). The image entertains in making us laugh. I guess some might find it decorative to a degree, and even in its humor, we have to admire the revolutionary spirit which, if we compare it to other works in this genre (the previous three images), bears a number of similarities—lots of uplifted arms bearing arms.
The Creation of Adam (detail), 1508-12, Michelangelo--how we see God.
Throughout much of history some of the most powerful concepts employing art have been religious. Long before Pope Julius II browbeat Michelangelo into literally rising to the challenge of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and giving us the image of the ultimate Creator in the act of creating (above), art and spiritual concepts were intertwined. Religious concepts are, by their very nature, difficult to comprehend. God, himself, is difficult to comprehend. Think about it. What does God look like? If you find yourself picturing an old man with a white beard, thank (or blame) Michelangelo.

The Last Supper, 1495-98, Leonardo da Vinci
If, in partaking of Holy Communion (Eucharist, Mass, or the Lord's Supper), you find yourself contemplating Leonardo's deteriorated masterpiece purely from habit (above), then perhaps you might want to switch channels and try recalling Salvador Dali's more modern take on the concept (below). Though somewhat (perhaps unavoidably) influenced by Leonardo's imagery, Dali breathes new life into both the concept as well as the execution. His version seems much more spiritual, yet in its surrealism, more physically real.

Last Supper, 1955, Salvador Dali. The painting is close to overwhelming in person.
Some might claim that without a concept the creative effort has nothing to say, nothing to communicate and, in failing to communicate, does not rise to meet the definition of art. Of course, the concept of the concept is a relative concept. Scratch your head and read that again. Let me translate: The concept (idea) of the concept (message) is a relative concept (philosophical entity). It is relative in that a concept may be minimal, trite, tired, passé, overused, overexposed, hackneyed, and needless to say. From there they range all the way up the figurative ladder to the explosively, obscenely, outrageously controversial--that which is apt to offend not just the proverbial "somebody," but the universal "everybody."
Copyright, Jim Lane
Some content concepts might entail reaching too far.
Because of this broad range, some might say that art automatically has some kind of concept at some level. If true, then predicating one's definition of art on the concept of the concept is, to mix metaphors, skating on a slippery slope of thin ice. Perhaps it's a pointless debate in any case. The important concept here is not whether there is one but in choosing which one to communicate. The important matter for the artist is to consider the concept first. Doing so should cause an artist to climb that figurative ladder and pluck his or her concept from the highest shelf they can technically and intellectually reach (communicate). Anything less will cause the resulting work to be conceptually handicapped.


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