Ah, what is art?

“I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly,” Robert Rauschenberg once said, “because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.”

Yesterday, Robert Rauschenberg died at 82. I only studied his art briefly in an art history class, clumped together with the likes of de Kooning and Joseph Cornell. At the time, I remember resisting all of their works. It felt too simple, too obvious. Anyone could go and collect “found objects” and arrange them in a shadow box or shellack scraps of fabric and paper onto a canvas. Or splash around color on a canvas.

I don’t remember learning that Rauschenberg did all of that and more; he was a “painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, onstage performer, set designer and, in later years, even a composer, Mr. Rauschenberg defied the traditional idea that an artist stick to one medium or style,” says Kimmelman in his NY Times article. That’s more impressive to me, somehow, that he wouldn’t just settle with one. That he had the compulsion to work in several mediums, searching for the best outlet for what he wanted to express.

As far as creating art out of “found objects,” it’s still true that anyone could go out and collect these and fasten them to a canvas or in a box. But it never occurred to anyone to find beauty and mystery in the everyday things around them until Cornell and Rauschenberg came along. And that’s what makes it revolutionary. Sure, all along, anyone and everyone could have done that, but no one did. But there’s still the question of whether or not it’s art.

As I said earlier, I used to resist this kind of art. I like realism and even though art made of real objects is in some ways the only kind of realism, the art produced by it actually feels more like poetry, specifically poetry that requires me not only to think as I read the poem but to think afterwards as well. To actually spend time with the art, not just be able to look at it for two seconds and in that two seconds be able to realize something beautiful is in front of me. At the time, I was, in many ways, a lazy art lover. Appreciating the accuracy and beauty of portraits and landscapes done in the realist style is easy. It is easy to say, “That looks life-like and I know that’s hard to do. So I’m in awe.” And I think that’s valid and good and wonderful. But I think that I, at least, didn’t want to move past that.

When art wasn’t about accuracy and life-likeness, then I had to work harder to find the achievement. I love the Impressionists, and some of their work does push the boundary of realism, but it’s still so close that it isn’t a hard leap for me. In fact, I enjoy the loose realism and the dazzling interest in light. But found objects and abstract expressionist painting felt different. Too big of a leap.

And in some ways, their art still is difficult for me to accept fully and completely and without question as Art. I want to know what I’m looking at and why. If I see a portrait of a little girl with a watering can (Renoir), then I’m confident I understand what I’m supposed to be seeing and understanding. It’s a beautiful painting of a little girl. The content is simple. The execution is not. But overall, I do not have to work hard to understand what I’m seeing. And that’s good, as it was intended. It’s easy. (That is not to imply that all of Renior’s work and the Impressionists’ work are easy to understand. But many of them are.)

But when I look at one of Rauschenberg’s works, like “Skyway,” I struggle to understand what I see. I have to piece it together, look closely, and try to make sense of it. And I’m not also sure that I’m successful, but that’s part of the pleasure, as with poetry. Likewise, Cornell’s boxes, like “Untitled (Pharmacy),” require that first I enjoy the objects themselves. I’m a bottle lover and these little bottles at once intrigue me. Cornell has arranged them as if they’re in a medicine cabinet, but the contents don’t appear to be medicinal. So I look closer. I see a butterfly in one, seashells in another. And soon I realize that the contents are all natural (including the pieces of paper). And then I’m forced to step back and think. Bottles filled with the natural world, a subversion of my expectations. The contents are beautiful, like little ships in bottles, found beauty trapped in glass. I feel like I’m close to understanding. So now what am I supposed to do with this box of bottles? I can’t immediately define it. And I believe that’s what Cornell wants. Because often, as soon as we define something, we check it off our list and move on. But I can never fully move on from Cornell’s works or Rauschenberg’s or any other’s of this same style.

And that leads me to what I already know about art. Art is the least interesting to the artist and the art lover (whether it’s painting, drawing, poetry, writing, etc…) when it’s easily figured out. The Impressionists were trying to figure out how to truly capture light (or at least, some of them were). Their images aren’t perfect and don’t want or need to be. And when I write, I write to explore, to figure something out, though I’m not always sure what that is. If I’ve already figured out my characters and their stories, then what’s the point? Art should be an act of discovery for both parties involved. If it isn’t, it might still be enjoyed. But it won’t last in the artist or art lover’s mind.

Rauschenberg sad during a 2001 interview: “I usually work in a direction until I know how to do it, then I stop. At the time that I am bored or understand — I use those words interchangeably — another appetite has formed. A lot of people try to think up ideas. I’m not one. I’d rather accept the irresistible possibilities of what I can’t ignore.”

This to me seems key. Work by artists like Cornell and Rauschenberg require us to keep searching for understanding. And that can be exhausting. But it’s what much of enjoying Art is all about.


One Comment

  1. Okay, I really don’t have time to spend thinking about this at the moment, so maybe I’ll write a little bit and then come back to it later.

    I can relate to what you’re saying about complexity, particularly in literature. Certainly the best books are the ones that are complex in both story and also in meaning. But they have to be understandable in the story for me to enjoy them and want to consider the meaning. And because they use words to convey the art, I have a shot at understanding both the story and meaning.

    With art, I see paint strokes or objects or whatever, but, unless I know a great deal about the style or perspective of the artist, it is extremely difficult to determine their or any meaning. Then the question becomes, is it worth my effort? Sometimes the art is “pretty” to look at but seems way over-priced and over-valued. The meaning is inaccessible or perhaps even unknown. I think I read an article here that said that R didn’t create with a meaning in mind. That bothers me and probably reflects the totally different premises that some artists approach life when compared to me. If I can live with those differences, I may be able to live with their art.


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