"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
Art today can be troubling. It doesn't always tell a story that's immediately recognizable. In fact, we sometimes wonder if we're being had. Is this piece that is splashes of color or repetition or intentionally shocking just a grand joke the artist is having at our expense?
Interpretation is always open to our individual experience with the painting or sculpture. What experiences you have had in your life can change a piece of art in your eyes. Say you have looked at Rothko paintings at Moma many many times. One day you are hit by a cab on the streets of NYC. You are on your face in the street looking at your red nose bleed mix with the oil on the pavement, perhaps a slight concussion. You think of how close to death you came. To relax after your near miss you visit the Museum. That same Rothko now comes alive. You can see the present, the past and the abyss in a painting that you once thought might only be about how colors relate. Did I get hit by a cab in NYC, you ask. No. I hope this illustration doesn't forever mess with you when viewing a Rothko. It was just to bring home a point. I was almost hit by a bus on a London street, but, that is a different story.
When I look at a Rothko specifically, I take in his process. He lays on layer after layer of stain. He rubs it back with turpentine. You can see the turpentine burns creating those soft wispy edges. It does pull me in like contemplating the purpose of existence can do.
Much more is going on there. Is it going on because that was the artist's intent in the making of this piece to begin with? Probably. Can you only contemplate it more deeply now because of your red bloody nose on the purple oil of the pavement? Maybe. Is it because you contemplated your own demise in a new and profound way? If so, is it that everything that seems more alive now, not just art? What is certain. Your experience is yours whether it is deep and full of meaning or confused and head scratching. If you feel an art critic's interpretation of what a painting means is mostly making stuff up, don't give up on the art. Come back again, look more deeply. Art does change over time. It changes because we change. It changes because of the effects of time. It changes because all things change.
That is the impossibility of art. Through most of history part of the necessity of art and even the definition of art was to create objects that transcend our mortality. We try to stop time, we try to create objects that will be cherished long after we're gone. We now have telescopes in space that see millions of light years into the past. Our existence in the universe is only a microscopic speck on that time line. Nothing that we traditionally associate with our existence will remain much more than a few more specks on that time line. Art is not the exception. In this light, Art is taking on new roles. It no longer is about our own vanity extending itself into the future. Sometimes it's about the very futility of that vanity. Still, it is always about what you observe it to be in that moment you give over to observing and thinking about art. In reality all we have is that moment.
Artists spend their lives asking, "What is the most true thing I have to offer to my work, to my viewers, to my community?" They find their meaning in creating, they work hard to make objects that connect us to ourselves. There are exceptions, but that is for another blog. Artists devote their lives to creating work that asks profound questions. For them, that may be the only pursuit worth doing. Our part in this activity is also profound. Their work isn't finished until you, the observer stand there looking at it, either scratching your head or having a profound moment in relationship to the universe. Don't give up if you're scratching. Come back again and again. And, watch out for taxis in NYC!!