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Old 01-09-2009, 12:00 AM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

Originally Posted by stlukesguild
All art is a language. You cannot assume that the "meaning" of a work of art is fully self-contained to the point that the audience need have no knowledge of the vocabulary in which the artist speaks nor the historical precedents.

This is true. But:

Malevich was striving toward something similar... the idea that pure abstract form might convey a deeply spiritual/emotional content (just as it can in music).

So was his idea that his abstract form can convey spiritual content in itself, or that it can do so only for viewers who know the historical context? And what exactly is the historical context, and how does knowledge of it help us to understand what Malevich is trying to say?

With much of art and music, it is not so difficult to point out the answers to such questions. For example, pre-Raphaelite paintings can be quite obscure if one does not have knowledge of the particular legends they portray, and of the symbolic conventions of the times. To 'explain' such a painting to someone then simply requires one to fill him in on the history, and pointing out that at the time, this or that flower was seen to symbolize such and such human virtue, etc. etc. Then he becomes capable of interpreting lots of such paintings all by himself.

And even without understanding the meaning of the painting at all, anyone can see that it requires very substantial skill to make, so that one can enjoy and appreciate the paintings for their sheer virtuosity, even without any deeper knowledge of their meaning. What's more, because they use established forms and conventions, there is much meaning there that anyone can see without requiring any explanation (because any normal person can decipher such things as facial expressions).

The same goes even in such very abstract fields as music: one can explain to people the context of such things as Bach fugues, after which they have no difficulty in following his musical 'arguments,' and indeed a whole lot of other music by lots of other composers.

So I would say that for art to 'make sense', if it does not speak completely for itself, there still needs to be a fairly obvious 'language' that will follow from the art in combination with historical context. In the case of modernist art, this is no longer the case: even with extensive knowledge of what preceded Malevich, it is actually not at all clear what, if anything, any of his paintings mean. There simply isn't enough established visual language there.

We can see this if we do a little thought experiment: suppose he had painted a pink square instead. What would its meaning then be, and how can we tell? What about a green square, or a blue triangle in combination with a red circle? How would the meaning of such a painting differ from that of the black square, and how can we tell?

There simply isn't any way to tell. This is inevitable: without a very clearly established set of symbolic meanings, there really are limits to what you can convey with such simple abstract forms.

And this does not even address the issue of why anyone would want to pay a small fortune for a painting which he could just as easily make for himself.

I.e. in the case of the black square, there is no obvious meaning to it (as is the case with representational art), that follows from such things as facial expressions or weather conditions or whatever.

There is no clear way in which to establish deeper meaning either, because the black square does not refer to anything outside of itself, that can carry such meaning (such as an old legend or whatever), and neither does it very clearly have any ties with any established art tradition which enables us to decode the meaning of such abstract forms (as is the case with a Bach fugue, which after all has close ties with other music of the time, and follows the same conventions of how music carries emotions as any other music of the time).

And thirdly, the square takes no skills to create, so there cannot be any surface enjoyment such as there can be in skilled art.

So what exactly is so great about it then, and why do we waste so much time discussing it?

The general public's view, however, is completely irrelevant. The general public... if we simply follow popularity... far prefer Thomas Kinkade to Vermeer or Botticelli.

Very true, but then, how can we tell whether Vermeer is 'better' than Kinkade? Which criteria do we use? (I can think of some, but when I apply them to Malevich, they lead me to conclude that Malevich's paintings are indeed what they seem to be, namely child art).

I guess such a debate can go on endlessly. ;-)

It is of course true that these days everyone is ignorant of something, and cannot hold very informed opinions about such things. But then, in many fields, it is not difficult to explain all the mysteries. In the case of some fields, however, such as modern art or quantum physics, no one seems to be able to explain any of it in such a way that will make sense, even to otherwise perfectly intelligent and educated people. ;-)

Last edited by brianvds : 01-09-2009 at 12:14 AM.