Focus on Art

By Rob Mohr

What is Great Art? You be the Judge.


Have you ever said, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”? If appreciation of great art is an acquired taste (consider public rejection of Van Gogh’s paintings) like good wine or great music, is this “initial liking” an adequate approach?

Recently, critics Hollond Cotter, (NYTimes) and Philip Hensher, (critic/novelist) have played a major role in naming future greats. In December, 2010, Hensher shocked the art world by selecting Susan Philipsz winner of the prestigious Turner Prize ($50,000) for her “Sound Sculptures, speakers placed under bridges in London continuously played a haunting Scot’s Ballad she had sung and recorded. Runner up Dexter Dalwood’s contemplative painting “Burroughs in Tangiers,” incorporated elements from works by Matisse, Hans Hoffman, Robert Rauschenberg, and Tom Wesselmann, to create a powerful sense of déjà vu. Take a look at the finalist and pick who you think has created great art.

When Lucius Furius in Genius Ignored wrote, “Casablanca is not only a great movie, it is great art,” he understood some of the complexity and refinement that goes into works of art that change our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. Art at its best pushes us to accommodations never explored. Consider how the prehistoric (ritual) cave paintings at Lascaux unveil ancient rituals, or how paintings by Robert Rauschenberg combined found objects with symbolic images to release deep-seated human memories. Or how Paul Gauguin, in his painting “The Spirit of the Dead, where his love Vahiné lays naked and frightened on her bed while the ghosts of the dead stand by, used surreal colors and simplified form in an archetypal way to convey profound psychological impact.

(Check out these links and judge.)

Paintings, like poetry, express deep feelings and reveal hidden psychological truths hidden under the surface of our lives. Like great fiction, which combines enduring stories with refined writing full of nuance and metaphor, paintings assemble visual components to create new realities. Great art expresses the innermost soul of a people, and pushes us to reflect on who we are. One of the great painters of the 20th century, Henri Matisse (1869–1954), shared, “I desire … to express what cannot be expressed…the emotion that objects produce upon me.”

19th-century novelist and art critic Stendhal (1783 -1842) believed when confronted with great art, many are affected psychologically and experience rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and hallucinations. Great art transforms - hits you in the gut, in ways that expand human imagination. Astute collectors have learned to test the emotional power of a work of art, by whether it demands that you experience it over and over. Weaker works hang on our walls as unseen decorations.

Philip Pearlstein (1924) saw the subdivision of the “square” as the essential work of the visual artist. He insisted that how the viewer is pulled into or pushed out of the painting, line quality, interest at the edges, forms, colors, and “analogous components,” must all work together to form a single harmonious reality. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), in contrast, offered less analytical advice, “What I wanted, at all cost, was to escape the monotony of life.” Defining great art is elusive – Pearlstein and Bonnard were both right.

Great art promises excitement while pulling the viewer into a wonder-filled ritual of discovery. New heavens and new earths are unveiled: new worlds are created where no one has walked before, and where one encounters ways of being alive that never age. Through great art we enter where only the awake are admitted.

paul_gauguin dexter_dalwood_burroughs-in-tangiers

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