Sunday, July 26, 2009

Public vs. Private Art

Franz West, "The Ego and the Id," 2008 (Freedman Plaza, Central Park South)
Augustus Saint-Gardens, General William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback following Winged Victory, c.1903
Last Friday’s Weekend Arts section of the Times article by Ken Johnson, Well-Behaved Street-Corner Sculpture, brought up some issues I’ve been thinking about lately. 

Contrasting Franz West’s colorful welded aluminum sculpture to the nearby General Sherman sculpture, Johnson wrote: "Outdoor art isn’t what it used to be. Once it honored heroic individuals and upheld values that whole populations could embrace. Today, excepting memorials like the Vietnam veterans wall, outdoor art serves rather to divert, amuse and comfort. ...contemporary outdoor art tends to offer unobjectionable, mildly decorative or entertaining and relatively empty experiences."  

1) I’m glad our culture no longer embraces the authoritarian and militaristic (not to say fascistic) values exhibited by the Sherman sculpture. Public monuments like this now seem pompous, grandiose, and even risible -- and that, imho, is a good thing.  

2) Johnson writes: "The big problem for outdoor art is the absence of any consensus of values in our pluralistic, multicultural society." Well, to “divert, amuse and comfort” ARE some of the values our society shares. What’s wrong with that? Matisse showed great art can be decorative and pleasant; and Duchamp showed it can be playful and funny and still be profound. Why does art have to be somber and difficult to be taken seriously?  

3) There’s a difference between public art and, for lack of a better term, “private” art -- art shown in art galleries and in people’s homes. Public art, I believe, should not offend. (Which is not the same as saying it should be “inoffensive,” meaning tame or innocuous).  

I was put off by Richard Serra’s grandstanding over the removal of his Tilted Arc, the curving wall of steel, 120 feet long and 12 feet high placed in Federal Plaza in 1981. People who worked in the building hated it because the wall imposed itself on them while they were taking a break in the Plaza. This may have been what Serra wanted, but it shouldn’t surprise him that it wasn’t what they wanted. Serra’s response was provocative: "I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing. Art is not democratic. It is not for the people to decide." Serra’s stance was vociferously supported by the art world. And this is the crux of the whole matter: I agree with Serra when it comes to private art, but not if it’s in a public space.
4) The distinction between public and private gets complicated in the case of semi-public institutions like museums that take government subsidies but are not exactly public spaces. No one is forced to go to a museum or to an exhibition, whereas public art is foisted on unwilling people. And while people may not want their taxes to go to art they find objectionable, too bad -- everyone has something they object to in the budget (e.g. the F-22 airplane).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

More on “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese” at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston

(Click on an image to enlarge it).
I have a few more thoughts on a mysterious late Titian in the Boston exhibition: Boy with Dogs in a Landscape, c. 1565 (above). I used this as an opportunity to do some art historical research and speculation, something I haven’t done for about forty years. I’m finding it’s kind of fun (now that I’m not worrying about a grade, that is). I’m frankly unconvinced with my own speculation here, but in any case this is one haunting, and no doubt profound painting that deserves more study.
I was attracted to it not only because of the beauty of the loose brushwork and glowing color, but I was also captivated by the strangeness of the subject: why is a little boy (I assume the child is a boy) alone with the dogs? The white dog seems protective of the boy and the nursing dog and pups. Why? The boy has his arm around the dog -- is he blind? He seems about to cry. What is he holding in his skirt? What’s with the burning city in the background? Why is the area around the nursing pups glowing? The nursing dog seems to be looking at us suspiciously. And look at the play of paws and feet: the white dog’s back right paw is touching the back right paw of the nursing dog, and the child's feet look like paws. 

So what’s all this about? The only attempt at an interpretation I was able to find is that the boy represents Bacchus because there are grapes behind him, and he may be holding grapes in his apron. I think that explanation is pretty lame because it doesn’t explain the prominence or meaning of the dogs, the burning city in the background or why the boy is alone with the dogs. Also, Renaissance symbolism wasn’t so simple-minded. 

In the Middle Ages, symbolism was very literal (e.g. a lily = purity, grapes = Bacchus), but in the Renaissance, symbols took on a more expressive and visceral quality. As a result, dogs became a more common subject in Renaissance painting because of their expressive possibilities. They could express a wide variety of things, some of them contradictory: a dog could be protective, faithful and loyal, or evil, promiscuous and unclean. The meaning is determined by the expressive manner in which it’s depicted: the posture of the dog, its facial expression, what it’s doing, etc. In the case of this painting the dogs express, in a very visceral way, protectiveness and nurturing.  

So what’s this painting about? I haven’t found anything in Classical literature that might explain it, but I am far from an expert. Any suggestions out there? Jonah?
If the subject is from the Bible, the Apocryphal story of Tobias from The Book of Tobit is a possibility. Dogs are mentioned more than 40 times in the Bible, almost always negatively -- the Tobias story being a rare exception. Also, there may have been a personal reason for Titian’s interest in this subject. There are contemporary reports of Titian’s eyesight dimming at this time, probably from cataracts. A story about cured blindness might hold great appeal to him. And finally, because of its appeal to merchant families whose sons were often sent to do business in distant cities, Tobias and the Angel was a popular theme in fifteenth-century Florence and sixteenth-century Venice. 

In any case it’s an entertaining story and worth considering. Here’s the story in summary: The righteous Israelite, Tobit, exiled to Nineveh after the destruction of Jerusalem, blind and nearing death, sends his son Tobias to collect money held for him in the far-away city of Media. Tobias is accompanied by a dog and a man who offers to aid and protect him on his journey who turns out to be the angel, Raphael (handy). Meanwhile, in Media, the beautiful Sarah is in despair because the demon of lust, Asmodeus, kills every man she marries on their wedding night, before the marriage can be consummated (seven in all -- she must have been REALLY beautiful). Along the way Tobias and Raphael are attacked by a large fish (honest -- I’m not making this up). Raphael instructs Tobias to keep parts of it. On arriving in Media Raphael tells Tobias he should marry the beautiful Sarah, and he instructs Tobias to burn the fish’s liver and heart to drive away the murderous demon. After Tobias and Sarah marry (and successfully consummate it with no fatalities) they return to Ninevah where Raphael instructs Tobias how to use the fish’s gall to cure Tobias’s father, Tobit, of his blindness. Tobit, cured, sings a hymn of praise and then tells everyone to get out before God destroys Nineveh as prophesied. Tobias and Sarah return to Media where they live happily ever after. In the Renaissance, the story was usually depicted showing an adolescent boy with the Angel Raphael and a little dog at their feet:
Verrocchio, Tobias and the Angel, c. 1470-80. (There is speculation Leonardo was Verrocchio’s model for Tobias, and that Leonardo may have painted the fish and the dog)
There were, however, many depictions of Tobias as a boy, such as the above: Veronese’s Holy Family with the Child Baptist and Tobias and the Angel, c.1527. Still, none were as young as the boy in this Titian. It’s possible then that Titian is depicting, not the destruction of Nineveh, but the destruction and exile from Jerusalem, in which case Tobias would be very young indeed; and the large white dog would represent the boy’s protector, the Angel Raphael.  

But so far I haven’t accounted for the nursing pups, and especially the strange glow emanating from the nursing dog’s teats. I think, as we saw with the Veronese above, it’s possible there are multiple subjects and sources in this painting, which together form the ultimate meaning of the work. In one of his first major paintings, Titian combined the Tobias subject with a radiant Saint John The Baptist. I was not able to find a good image of this work, but it was described by Giorgio Vasari, a Renaissance painter and architect who wrote biographies of the famous artists of his time. From Vasari's Lives of the Artists: Then in the year 1507, while the Emperor Maximilian was making war on the Venetians, Tiziano [i. e. Titian], according to his own account, painted an Angel Raphael with Tobias and a dog in the Church of S. Marziliano, with a distant landscape, where, in a little wood, S. John the Baptist is praying on his knees to Heaven, whence comes a radiance that illumines him... .  

There’s something holy about the radiant glow around the nursing pups that recalled for me, and I don’t mean to be offensive, paintings of the Nativity. There’s a sense of leaving the burning city and the child going back to nature; and that it’s scary but nature (the dogs and grapes) will provide. I think it’s possible to read this painting as symbolizing, in a more visceral way than usual, the transition from the Old Testament -- the destruction of Jerusalem -- to a rebirth of sorts -- the New Testament.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Titian’s Venus with a Mirror, c.1555 (Click on an image to enlarge it.)
Veronese's Venus with a Mirror, Mid-1580's
This is one of the best exhibitions of the year, and is well worth a trip to Boston. There aren’t many great large Titians in this country, and one of them is in Boston anyway -- The Rape of Europa at the Gardener Museum, just a few blocks from the MFA. Getting to see 19 major Titians, and seeing them in the context of the two other great Venetian painters, Veronese and Tintoretto, is an experience you won’t want to forgo.

It’s a huge show, 57 paintings all together, 14 brought over from Italy. You probably don’t have to buy tickets in advance anymore (I walked right in), but you should hurry -- the show closes August 16th.

Seen by themselves Tintoretto and Veronese blow me away. I am dazzled by the bravura of their brushwork, especially Tintoretto’s, and the ambitiousness and complexity of their compositions. Then there is Titian -- the true master. He does all that with apparent effortlessness, a virtuosity that never intrudes on his subject. Tintoretto and Veronese, on the other hand, have a self-conscious affectedness, a desire to please and sometimes show off, to the detriment of their subject.

This can be seen in a comparison of two paintings in the exhibition: Titian’s and Veroneses's Venus with a Mirror. Veronese’s Venus is a staged pose, an impossible Exorcist-like turn of the head, whereas Titian’s Venus is serene and naturalistic, if idealized. Veronese’s Venus overtly looks at the viewer in the mirror whereas Titian is more subtle about it, as is his Venus’s reaction to the intrusion of someone entering the room (Titian? The viewer?). One gets the feeling Veronese is more interested in the play of undulating lines and the sensual textures of the drapery than capturing the erotic and tender moment. (Titian cared so much for this painting that it stayed in his studio until his death -- I’m not surprised.)

And speaking of erotic, Titian’s Danae, c.1544-46, has to be one of the greatest paintings ever made in that respect. It depicts the moment in the Greek myth when Zeus came to Danae in the form of golden rain, and impregnated her. Titian brilliantly captures Danae’s awe and receptivity to what’s happening to her. (It would be interesting to compare the way this subject is handled to depictions of the Visitation -- the Virgin Mary would never be allowed to relax and enjoy it.)
Throughout the exhibition I was aware of the relationship of the viewer (me) to the painting, or more precisely, to the subjects in the painting. In the case of Titian’s Danae I am a witness, a pure voyeur, not in any way involved. With the paintings Venus with a Mirror I’m caught in the act of seeing and have had an impact on the subject in a way reminiscent of Edouard Manet’s, Bar at the Follies Bergere. And the staged quality of Veronese and Tintoretto’s art in itself implies an audience. I think this is something these painters were consciously aware of and played with.
A particularly striking example of this is Tintoretto’s Susanna and the Elders, c.1555-56. The story is from the Book of Daniel and is about two lecherous old men who secretly watch Susanna as she bathes. The creeps threaten to blackmail her unless she has sex with them. She refuses and Daniel comes to the rescue proving they lied about her. The interesting thing about this painting is the old men aren’t looking at her. She’s looking at herself in the mirror, and we are looking at her. Is Tintoretto making a statement about our (the viewer’s) prurient interest? Or am I projecting?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Art exposion: New Orleans

One of several Banksy tags seen in NOLA

About ten days ago I suddenly decided to hop in a van with volunteers from the NOLA Preservation Society and drive to New Orleans. I had always wanted to see the city, and after the national attention given to P.1 and the fact that one of the magazines (ArtVoices) I write for is headquartered there, I couldn't resist the trip. The perks of freelance! Twenty-six hours and 1300 miles later I found myself working on a documentary, interviewing artists and cultural preservationists about the the evolving creative life of the city.

Surprisingly, when asked how the arts in NO have changed post-Katrina, most people said they've gotten better. It was like the city had taken a step back to examine what really made it unique, realized that it was music, art, and food, and actually took the steps needed to protect and infuse those industries with new life. In a city of 300,000 and growing (June 2009 census estimate), where you still see abandoned, condemned houses lining the streets, there are over 70 functioning galleries. Think about it. And this doesn't include those ubiquitous restaurant/cafe/bar/hotel crossover spaces. For reference, Jersey City has a population of about 242,000 (2007 census estimate) and 7 galleries (my count of spaces that are full-time, single use).

Yet what is striking about New Orleans is not only how similar it really is to Jersey City and Newark population-wise, but how close the three are demographically, and how many of the same problems they share. Sub-par schools, inadequate recreational activities for kids, high violent crime, economic inequality, undereducated populations--I won't launch into a play-by-play, but what New Orleans has done to try and address a lot of these issues is turn to culture. By recognizing the importance of the city's art and music people have begun to both preserve their own cultural heritage and turn it into a vehicle for community development.

Now, this is me we're talking I can't say all the art I saw was stellar, all the non-profits well-functioning, and all the galleries beautifully curated, but what struck me about the local "arts scene" was that it was more of a way of life. Musicians and artists alike are nurtured, supported, and criticised by the community--their neighbors, their friends, (and their government)--not isolated in studios. I wasn't there long enough to experience the full-extent of this "phenomenon"--but artists from all over the country are flocking to NOLA just to be a part of it, and I'll definitely be back.

Compare as much as I like: Jersey City is not New Orleans. Culturally speaking it's not nearly as developed, communal, or unified, but I wonder: if Jersey City chose (and really committed) to build itself around one unique, marketable trait, what would it be? Not art. Not music. (Those have a hard enough time existing as it is) Not science or industry, not food....definitely not green-space. History's first high-rise suburb? Ouch (sorry, it just slipped out). Is there something I'm missing here? Some magnificent heritage that could become the backbone of a rebirth? Shout it out.