The most critical thing you must understand about art. Part 5/5 / by Kirk Dunkley

(The most critical thing you must understand about art. Part 5/5)

In the previous ARTicles in this series, I discussed the first 3 of 4 sub-concepts that define the overarching notion of art. If you haven’t read them, it might be worth looking at them first before diving into this one.

For quick reference, here are the links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Have you ever notice that when someone performs a particular action or task at an exceedingly high level, they are referred to as an “artist”? Many would argue that basketball great, Michael Jordan was an artist. The list of so-called artists goes on within the sports world, and would obviously include Wayne Gretzky as well. Moving outside of the sphere of sports, one might admire how Steve Jobs artfully lead apple to create some of the world’s most profound technical innovations. Business mogul Warren Buffet could even be regarded as an artist. Although these individuals were not literally “artists”, the term artist is applied to denote a certain transcendence of normal skill or genius. These individuals became greater than their professions, and re-defined where the highest standards should be within their respective areas. When someone makes a statement like this, they are passing a form of aesthetic judgement. The actions observed have passed a particular subjective threshold, and activated an aesthetic experience within the observer.

In context with the concept contemporary art, this is the fourth component- the aesthetic dimension.

A good artwork will activate an aesthetic experience. There is certain information embodied in the artwork by the artist; the intrinsic qualities of the work will deliver the deepest and most meaningful aesthetic experience. Within the contemporary definition of art, the aesthetic dimension really goes well beyond superficial judgement of whether an artwork is physically beautiful or not.  Without intrinsic aesthetic value, an artwork is just superficial; ugly, beautiful, nice etc. (much like most contemporary pop culture actually). The extrinsic qualities of an artwork don’t necessarily mean that the artwork will deliver an aesthetic experience. The true aesthetic experience goes well beyond the superficial ones; this is why an artwork can be ugly or appear to be totally banal, but have entrenched aesthetic value. It is the deeply entrenched emotions of the artist that are embedded in the work. The state of mind, and potentially the genius. It is the feeling of melancholy, nostalgia, happiness, anger, loss- the emotions experienced when you listen to a moving piece of music, an exceptional dance performance, or fully experience an artwork.

 Jeff Koons,  Tulips  (1995-2004

Jeff Koons, Tulips (1995-2004

Artworks by Jeff Koons are often criticized as lacking any and all aesthetic communication. Beyond the pristine and beautiful surfaces, there really isn’t an aesthetic experience- the works are in a sense quite empty. Depending on how the viewer interprets the works conceptually, the complete lack of aesthetic communication might be a brilliant component of the overall concept about delivering artwork for the sake of consumption: pure kitsch.

  Jackson Pollock,  Autumn Rhythm  (1950)

 Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (1950)

On the other hand, Jackson Pollock’s paintings are considered by many to be ugly. In terms of their aesthetic content, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Pollock’s paintings are transcriptions of the feelings and struggles that he personally faced daily while battling depression and addiction. There is violence, struggle and imprisonment embodied within the work. The paintings serve as artifacts, forever documenting Pollock’s state of mind by way of abrupt, aggressive, and highly physical techniques he used to create his works. When gazing beyond the superficial value of the work, it is possible to access this content and feel a deep sense of empathy, or unfortunately for some, identity.   

empty book.jpeg

In much simpler terms: don’t judge a book by its cover. Making a statement like “I like the way that looks”, or “I hate that, it looks grotesque” is not the aesthetic experience embodied within the work, it is an observation of superficial value. People who have learned how to savor the mental flavor of an aesthetically loaded artwork are often referred to as “people of taste”, while people that only regard extrinsic values are referred to as "shallow". The aesthetics of language and content can’t be downloaded by simply looking at the cover of a book; the book must be opened and the words read. The phrases that deliver the content must be appreciated for their ingenuity, and the subsequent mental image conveyed should be allowed to dwell in the mind, much like tasting wine. The aesthetic experience of a book is downloaded when the reader is able to connect to the genius of the author via the writing.

 Arnaldo Pomodoro,  Mount Sinai  (1966)

Arnaldo Pomodoro, Mount Sinai (1966)

Taste comes with experience and is acquired through practice. There are distinct sensitivities that must be developed in order to appreciate when wine is exceptional, or has corked. In terms of visual artwork, an aesthetically loaded work of art will leave a lasting impression that goes well beyond its superficial value. It’s almost as though it has the ability to inject a new string of coding into the mind, forever adding to or changing one’s perspective. Sometimes a work must be viewed and then further contemplated to fully access the aesthetic content. Sometimes it is immediate, other times it requires multiple viewings. Sometimes the artwork is aesthetically rich and layered like a great bottle of wine, and other times it is completely empty like flat soda- but even this can be intentional and critical to conceptual content. The challenge is to look at all art with an equal unbiased impression, and without any preconceived ideas or feelings. Keep an open mind and allow the experience to wash over you; who knows, you may even experience the domain of the sublime