I wrote recently about moments when the cosmos is revolving — an expression used by a good friend to describe those times of synchronicity in our lives, those times when our attention seems directed toward a specific thought, when the universe itself seems to be conspiring to lead us in a particular direction.
At the time, I was reading A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story. I then picked up the latest issue of Artist magazine and found an article about the color, red. It was titled “A Study in Scarlet.” Interesting — and fun — little coincidence. I took it to mean I should play around with a bit of red pigment, and I enjoyed creating my own little “study”.
And then a new issue of Mystery Weekly magazine arrived on my Kindle. Lo, and behold! The entire issue was dedicated to the memory of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth — and along the way, let us not forget that I drew on the fictional character of Holmes to create Stretch, the Inktober detective who solved the murder of the missing mother. Clearly Sherlock Holmes is an iconic symbol of logic and reason, an intelligent look at the principles of deduction.
I suppose I should not have been surprised in the least when I then received a new issue of Philosophy Now, a magazine I have come to love with something akin to true passion, and saw the familiar face of Sherlock Holmes staring back at me from the cover. Oh, yes, dear Sherlock. You seem to have become a permanent fixture in my life, to the point where you’re even guiding me in my art studies.
But wait! There’s more. Indeed, there’s much more to this story than another mere coincidental appearance of the inimitable Holmes. For there, beneath the illustration of the pipe-smoking detective in his deerstalker cap was a question in big, bold letters:
What Is Art For?
I did a double-take, of course. Once again, Sherlock Holmes was encroaching upon my art, pointing me toward a path of inquiry that I might otherwise have missed.
What is art for? We all know that art can certainly be a bit of a mystery.
I took a deep breath and stepped onto that pathway, unsure where I was headed but knowing I must follow. And like a good detective, I should be observant, non-judgmental, and open to whatever clues I might find. That soon proved to be impossible.
To guide us in our thinking, the magazine’s editorial begins by speaking of the specific functions of art — functions which have changed over time.
Plato believed that art could influence character, and not necessarily in a good way. He criticized art and literature based upon representation, explaining that the emotions provoked could lead to an unbalanced soul and bad temperament.
Aristotle agreed that we could be influenced by art, but saw that fact in a more positive light. The knowledge we gain through viewing art can be cathartic, leading us to a greater rationality. Do I hear subtle hints of Sherlock Holmes here?
Philosopher Friedrich Schiller found links between morality and the ability to appreciate beauty and idealism in art. Emmanuel Kant also saw beauty as the purpose of art.
Now, though, that seems to be changing. Beauty is no longer a requisite part of art, and those of us who view and contemplate art — and its meaning — appear to be at the mercy of galleries and art critics who are quick to decide what we should consider to be art.
I quote from the editorial here:
Nowadays, what’s at the leading edge of art is decided by galleries, and the functions of this art include investment, prestige, and virtue signaling. The primary concern about the art with which the high-end dealers currently deal, is its marketing. In our info-overloaded world, the publicizing and selling of creative work is often a bigger problem than its creation. High art has been evolving for decades to accommodate this need. This is one reason why so much new art we see in galleries is concerned with provocation or shock: whether it’s dead sheep, or dirty unmade beds, or stacks of oranges you can eat (all real artworks). Shock is what’s perceived to be necessary to gain attention in the modern market, and indeed that may be the case.
As I read through these thoughts, my mind went back to the recent HFAA art show and judge Phil Schmidt’s discussion about emotions in art and his tendency to look for — and award — those works which included a bit of shock value or a fear factor.
The editorial continues:
Since the art sellers and curators are competing among themselves to display their fashionability, the need for high art to be ‘in the lead’ has eclipsed other artistic values. In this way, the primary point of an artwork is now not its aesthetics or how pleasing it is to the senses — what used to be called ‘taste’ — nor is it necessarily how profound the ideas being communicated are: it is its novelty.
For me, this explains why so much of the art I see in current art magazines and displays seems almost meaningless to me. Art has lost much of the traditional values I feel are important. While that form of art still exists, it isn’t going to be lauded as great art, or even good art. Instead, it’s simply brushed aside, scoffed at for being too old-fashioned, and chided for its sentiment. Beauty, love, idealism, romanticism … all those qualities which I consider important in life are seen as weaknesses in art, hallmarks of those who haven’t kept up with changing times.
And so it is that Sherlock has led me to look at art in disturbing new ways, to see it not as an expression of meaningful thoughts and emotions, but as an uncomfortable visual essay on the state of society. I don’t like what I’m seeing, and I hope in time the pendulum will swing back the other way, that we will once again prefer beauty — even imagined beauty — over the ugly realities of life.
And then I look at my painting of Fire in the Forest and wonder if I’m also being influenced by modernity, by a need to show the dangers and devastation of our world today. Did my intuition lead me there because this is where art has gone?
I don’t agree with the new direction of art. Oh, I agree as to how and why it’s happened, but I don’t like it. I want idealism in art. I want art to reflect what is good, what is beautiful, what is meaningful, and what is best within us.
Your opinions, please.