Thursday, July 30, 2009

Everything and Nothing



In a recent post, I acknowledged my new found appreciation and studies regarding poetry. In addition to this, I've also found myself realizing that my studies of art (namely painting, sculpture, and architecture) are even more lacking than my lowest understanding of poetics were. Even if a subject doesn't interest me, I do my best to seek out texts that offer a view or a subtopic that may catch my eye, all for the goal of trying to educate myself as much as possible. I love art, but I haven't done much studying in the area. I took two art history courses in college, and found the subject matter endlessly fascinating (the professor was another matter, but I digress), but since then, I haven't really revisited these interests, since I tend to focus on art in the form of books and film instead of canvases and oils. I dabbled in painting while in high school, and I've spent many quiet afternoons strolling the exhibitions of Chicago's Art Institute. Hoping to familiarize myself with with some names and concepts, I recently read Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity by David W. Galenson. Even at first glance, this isn't a work for someone just looking to read an overview of art history. However, any look at creativity, even when filtered through media in which I'm not completely versed, is always a welcome diversion for me. Having just completed this text, I'm at a loss for what I think of Mr. Galenson's arguments. One one hand, he provides excellent historical background information and looks into the lives of various artists, ones both universally recognized and not as famous. However, the book's theme is such that the point is made either obviously or not at all, bordering on ideas that, while important, do not necessitate an entire book.

An immediate example of this wide-ranging duality is Galenson's profession. he's a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, not an art scholar. As I read the first few pages of the book, I could not help but wonder whether this would be a blessing or a curse. A reader might prefer a book written by someone with a more specialized understanding of art criticism (however, in the author's defense, he is extremely well-versed, even if it's just on the student level), but also, his "outsider" status had the potential to work on another level. I'm not attempting to make this sound too cheesy, but I had hope that it would be a sort of journey between the author and the reader, a joint study on the dynamics between creative prodigies and wise, experienced masters. Almost immediately, however, I came very close to putting the book down for good, after reading this passage:

"My initial analysis of the auction prices for the American painters produced the puzzling result that the work of some artists (including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko) increased in value as their careers progressed, whereas other artists (including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol) produced their most valuable works at very early ages. To understand why these age-price profiles differed so much, I began to look in more detail at the careers of individual painters (Galenson xii)."

Once I had read this, I was worried that he would take a strictly, well, economical approach to his observations, viewing the works for their financial values above everything else. Yes, famous works of art command unthinkable prices and values, but at the core of creativity, it's just impossible to hang a price tag on a piece of creativity, no matter what the medium. Luckily, my fears were temporarily eased as I read on to find this observation:

"There are many common misunderstandings of the history of art, but perhaps none is more basic than the confusion over what determines the quality of art. Although it is of course possible to consider separately the quality of a number of different attributes of an artist's work, the overall importance of art is a function of innovation (2)."

While Galenson still borders a little too closely on basing values on appearances in textbooks (many concise tables and charts illustrate the various ages and representation of artists at exhibitions and in textbooks), he doesn't focus primarily on dollar values. However, the book really does not do much except to state the obvious. Some artists peak early, while others peak later after many attempts, changes, and failures. Of course, this is just a basic summary of the text, but some of the passages and examples border on insulting. This is especially true in regard to Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"In the two decades since she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lin has pursued a career as an architect and sculptor...That a 21-year-old artist could conceive an innovation that would be fully expressed in a single enormously successful project, and that would be followed by no others deemed significant by art scholars, is a phenomenon unique to conceptual art, and in this Lin's career resembles those of [Paul] Serusier, [Meret] Oppenheim, and [Richard] Hamilton (80)."

Once again, my personal views return to creativity and success as not always being visible on public platforms or general consensus. I cannot get into her head, but I highly, highly doubt that Lin would consider herself a failure just because her works following the Memorial have not received international acclaim. Even if she, to this day, desperately wants to be recognized for another design or project, this is not to say that she has failed. Galenson also seems to confuse his definitions, especially in relation to other media. He devotes several pages to writing and film, and I had to re-read his defintions of "conceptual" and "experimental."

"Susan Sontag described [Jean-Luc] Godard as a 'deliberate destroyer of cinema,' and compared his innovations to the radical conceptual departures of Cubism: 'His approach to established rules of film technique like the unobtrusive cut, consistency of point of view, and clear story line is comparable...to the challenge of the Cubists to such hallowed rules of painting as realistic figuration and three-dimensional pictorial space (158-159)."

This is his book; he's free to use any signifiers and definitions as he sees fit. However, reading the above passage, wouldn't it be much more logical to classify Godard as an "experimental" filmmaker as opposed to a "conceptual" one? Sontag's quote seems to point in the direction of 'daring' instead of 'straightforward.' I'm merely going by my own definitions. Yes, these are heavy criticisms, but this is not to say that Old Masters and Young Geniuses is without merit. Galenson provides some excellent footnotes, observations, and essential quotations both by and about some of the most lauded, yet misunderstood artists in international history. I would not hesitate to pick up a book by Galenson on art history and concepts, however, I'm not sure if he truly presents any insights or hypotheses that are groundbreaking or, in the words of Wired magazine's Daniel Pink, "audacious and controversial." Artists of all stripes have different times and ages in which creativity and production are at peaks. The problem is that Galenson attempts to classify such a broad idea into an economic logarithm, an idea so intangible that he tells us a little bit of everything about the lives, approaches, and creations of the artists in question, but nothing that makes the book's existence necessary or different.

Work Cited:
Galenson, David W. Old Masters and Young Geniuses. Copyright 2006 by Princeton University Press.

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