Jim Mott begs to differ

Jim Mott at work

Jim Mott at work

Some worthy notions from the mailbag, this time from Jim Mott, moderately incensed by a work of art he saw on a visit to the Memorial Art Gallery here in Rochester:

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These thoughts were prompted by the MAG’s recent acquisition, a red sign that says “Knowledge is Power”. It has been mounted on the exterior of the museum, at the entrance. It is a jarring presence, an eyesore in what was one of the museum’s best parts. And the slogan itself is just very irritating in that context – a piece of empty visual noise, and the sad fulfillment of Tom Wolfe’s prediction for contemporary art in The Painted Word (1975): He noted that contemporary art had become so reliant on verbal theory that eventually words alone would be the visual art…

After a few days of extreme, maybe unreasonable, irritation, I did some research and found out the slogan was taken from a protest sign at Ferguson. <Jim went to Ferguson to paint for a bit on one of his itinerant tours. –dd> So it’s politically “relevant”…. But I think it’s idiotic for the acquisitions people not to see how the meaning has been lost – or worse – in the process of appropriation and decontextualization.  It’s so opposite of what’s needed for art and for people viewing art. (I think I might not object much at all if the sign were inside, thoughtfully situated, with some contextualization. Maybe.)

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Every artist – maybe every person – must feel, in childhood and youth, early stirrings of inspiration, intimations of power, glimpses of access to some great mystery that’s behind everything but usually hidden. The first question is, do you take it seriously, this elusive thing that no one else seems to notice or talk about? A sense of beauty and wonder and maybe later terror and uncertainty, all deep within, and deep without, maybe glimpsed in a dandelion, a speck of dust, a beam of light, frost crystals, the flight of a bird, the tone of someone’s voice… a significance barely there yet suddenly looming to a cosmic scale?

Do you serve the source or try to make it serve you? Is there a right answer? One, the other, neither, both?

I’m reminded of a conversation recounted by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers From Prison. I read it in college. He said, when he was young, he had a friend in the church who wanted to become a saint. Bonhoeffer decided his ambition was to have faith. When I first read that I did not understand the significance of the choice. They were both abstractions and somehow did not feel relevant to me. So much was based on intuition back then; I did not have definitions for things.

Now I see how it might apply to anyone, of course, but particularly artists. It is about external status, worldly accomplishment versus relationship. Do you want to be a saint or have faith? Do you want to be famous, recognized, celebrated… or find ways to relate as transparently as you can to the source of your inspiration and to other people. Do you want your work to be bought by a museum or to move someone – not through sensation but through the realization of something deep or subtle shared.

The two are not of course mutually exclusive, even though I tend to think you must choose to give priority to one or the other. Sharing or relating – truly reaching people with your art can be enhanced by success, being collected, being deemed important. And in some cases art that effectively shares truth, beauty, inspiration, depth, wonder is taken seriously, does well in the marketplace. Sometimes there’s a hunger for it even there, if its packaged right. Although beware the hunger of the marketplace, that chews up and spits out and serves a power very different from the one that incites us to reverie and wonder.

Faith or honor, relationship or status. The people or the market. An artist should not have to dwell too much on such considerations, but a little bit, yes.

I think what bothered Jim most was the word “power” in the piece at MAG. My reaction would have been to be more skeptical about “knowledge.” The idea that visual art conveys “knowledge” puts it into a very Western, post-Enlightenment box, and constrains the way someone looks at the work, prompting them to ask of it certain things it may not have been meant to deliver–because it was busy conveying something more vital. Visual art is uniquely able to convey something far more encompassing than conscious knowledge strictly through perception, before thought can get to it.

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