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Old 01-08-2009, 01:15 AM
apalinaria apalinaria is offline
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Malevich's Black Square

Please comment on this artwork. I need the public's view on this original piece rather than the opinion of art critics.
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Old 01-08-2009, 04:46 AM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

Well. It's square. And it's quite black, by the looks of it. That's about as much as I can say about it, but I'm sure you'll find plenty people here who will find much deeper meaning in it. ;-)
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Old 01-08-2009, 05:11 AM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

I’m inclined to think it is testing the boundaries of what a painting can be. What is the minimum required for there to be anything of interest? Like work at the boundaries of any field it’s not necessarily of much interest to the public at large.
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Old 01-08-2009, 09:14 PM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

Ok, So, Here is what the Megg's History of Graphic Design says about it...
A new vision for visual art is as far removed as possible from the world of natural forms and appearances. ( painted 1913 ). It is part of the graphic style called 'suprematism'. It is totally non-objective. there is more but..

My personal opinion of it is that if you need that many words to describe a black square on a white background, then you are not getting your point across as an artist.
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Old 01-08-2009, 11:34 PM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

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. Yes, we can recognize the representation of people or objects in a "realistic" painting... shall we say a Renaissance painting for example... but the "meaning" or content is more complex than that. It deals with iconography, with how the subject matter was presented, with formal innovations, etc... The Great Pyramids of Egypt are marvelously evocative... and yet they are but simple abstract forms. The tessellations of Islamic design or the almost mathematical structures of the Music of Bach convey ideas... including the spiritual... that go far beyond being about mere pattern. 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). Historically, his paintings grew out of the innovations of Cubism, native Russian strivings for spirituality, Russian icons (in the scale and placement of the images) etc... How successful the works are at achieving these goals is debatable... as is the historical merit of the work. 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.
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Old 01-09-2009, 12:00 AM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

Quote:
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:

Quote:
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?

Quote:
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. ;-)
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Last edited by brianvds : 01-09-2009 at 12:14 AM.
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Old 01-09-2009, 08:42 AM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

Quote:
Originally Posted by brianvds
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.

I disagree. I listen to and enjoy much modern jazz which many of my friends often find incomprehensible (eg. Sun Ra, Jack Walrath, Either/Orchestra). To them it sounds like nothing more than musicians tuning their instruments and 20 years ago I would've agreed with them. Over time I developed an ear for what these musicians had to offer, but no amount of explaining would make it comprehensible to others even if I knew what to explain, which I don't. All I know is that it's beautiful for me to listen to even though it once wasn't.

Works like Malevich's black square are more statements about art than they are art themselves. At the time it was created, it invited people to think about art in ways they had never thought about it before. To make that thinking worthwhile, however, a person has to have already developed some fundamental understanding of how and why modern art was deviating from the traditional. No amount of explaining a painting can substitute for that foundation, nor can it explain why trying to recapture the statement of that work today requires more than somebody just painting the same black square again (although artists have done that for other reasons!).
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Old 01-10-2009, 12:09 AM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

...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).


Brian... you raise many interesting points. First allow me to state that I am in non way an apologist for Malevich or his brand of Minimalism. My own preferences in art tend toward something far more... generous... sensuous. Still, I am not prepared to dismiss him out of hand. I do agree that his art... and many other works of Modernism... appear far more hermetic... esoteric than earlier artistic vocabularies. For his work to succeed... to actually "work"... he is far more dependent upon the viewer being educated as to what he is trying to do than other artists. Accessibility itself is no measure of the merit of a work of art.

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.

I must agree with bob100 who suggests that perhaps you overstate the ease of grasping other "abstract" languages such as those of music and architecture. I am somewhat uncertain as to just how rapidly one might grasp and even appreciate an art work in a form that is quite foreign. I, for example, love jazz, Middle-Eastern classical music, Medieval European music, and opera. For many, these art forms are next to impossible to appreciate... nothing but noise. They were certainly much the same to me for quite some time. But with time and experience I came to appreciate them... and eventually to admire them and the be able to discern lesser from greater works within each genre.

I have had a similar experience with regard to abstract art. As an art student I had little or no use for abstraction. Nevertheless... I continued to look at the work if only to try to sort out what it was that others saw in it. Any number of cynics (certainly some right here at WC!) would suggest that I became brainwashed. The reality is that I grew more and more experienced and eventually found that my logical objections to abstraction did not hold. I began to recognize that it was completely absurd for me to be able to appreciate the abstraction of a Bach fugue, a work of architecture, a Celtic manuscript, a Persian carpet... but not the whole of abstract painting.

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.

I would say in order for a work of art to "make sense" it need not employ an "obvious" language. To truly grasp a Medieval chant or what an architect intended with the use of the abstract forms within a Romanesque church demands a great deal of prior knowledge. We may assume that it is not so demanding as much of these languages have become part of our larger cultural vocabulary. The fragmentation of Cubism... collage... and montage, when they first burst upon the scene, were more than disconcerting. They were incomprehensible... even threatening to many. Today we have no problem with such fragmentation. We see it in ads, in commercials, in film... to the point that we would probably find any film without such fragmentation (through editing)... to be strange... even disconcerting... threatening. Malevich is attempting to convey something through a language that he has stripped to its absolute essentials. Whether he is or is not successful is again debatable... but I would not dismiss it... nor the majority of abstraction... quite so easily.

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?

But can't we play the same game with any work of art? What if Mona Lisa had been dressed in red? What if Michelangelo had painted the Sistine in oil paints and employed Caravaggio's dramatic use of light and shadow? The abstract elements of light and color and form and line can change a work of art even more dramatically than a change in image. A painting of the Last Supper, for example, may have more in common with a portrait painting or a landscape than it does with another Last Supper... because of a common "content". "Content" and "subject matter" are not one and the same. "Content" is the result of the merger of the image and the abstract elements used to composed it or give it form.

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.

But then... these same limits apply to figurative art because it is just as dependent upon the same abstract elements: color, line, shape, value, etc...

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...

What is the "obvious meaning" of this painting?



Yes, I recognize that it is the representation of a woman... but that is merely the subject matter. What is the "meaning"? What makes this work resonate across 600 years of history when the subject and everyone who could possibly have known her is dead?

Of course I am playing the devil's advocate here because I somewhat question the very notion of "meaning" in art. What is the "meaning" of the Clarinet Quintet by Mozart, or one of Bach's fugues? If I cannot reduce the experience of the work of art to an obvious literal meaning does that make it "meaningless"? Does that then mean that life is also "meaningless"? Certainly I cannot reduce it to any obvious meaning.

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).

But this is not true. You suggest that we can decode a Bach fugue, for example, through its ties to previous musical traditions and other music of the time. The same applies to Malevich. His work can be read as part of a larger tradition and in relation to the art of others. I can name any number of predecessors, contemporaries, and followers. I would suggest, for starters, that you look at the painting in question in the context in which it was presented:



The painting was but one of a group or installation hung with the clear intention of suggesting relationships between the works. Just as Bach's Goldberg Variations limits the composer to fugal variations built upon a single theme, Malevich limits himself to variations upon just a few colors and shapes. Some of the resulting works are more complex... some simpler. The famous Black Square is among the most minimal... and it is placed in a manner that clearly alludes to the Russian tradition of the icon place in the corner of the home. His square is a new icon.

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

Again... the skill needed is irrelevant. Certainly I am one who enjoys virtuosity as much as the next... but what great skill was needed for William Blake to have composed The Tyger (Tyger, Tyger, Burning bright...)? Does he employ any words that are beyond the abilities of any average educated person... let alone an academic or poet? What of Eric Satie? His most famous composition could almost have been written by a child... certainly a child could perform it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al5U1WJ48rM

Personally I find that Malevich... and Mondrian (among others) are far too stripped down to the absolute minimum for my taste. They lack an interest as an image... and as an object... as a painting showing the touch of the artist (whether we are speaking of virtuosity... of the caress of the paint). I personally need more in terms of image... more to look at... more in terms of visual, formal relationships... more in terms of color, line, touch, etc...

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

I must say that bob100 answers this question perfectly well: "Works like Malevich's black square are more statements about art than they are art themselves. At the time it was created, it invited people to think about art in ways they had never thought about it before. To make that thinking worthwhile, however, a person has to have already developed some fundamental understanding of how and why modern art was deviating from the traditional. No amount of explaining a painting can substitute for that foundation, nor can it explain why trying to recapture the statement of that work today requires more than somebody just painting the same black square again."
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Old 01-11-2009, 02:58 AM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

Quote:
Originally Posted by bobc100
I disagree. I listen to and enjoy much modern jazz which many of my friends often find incomprehensible (eg. Sun Ra, Jack Walrath, Either/Orchestra). To them it sounds like nothing more than musicians tuning their instruments and 20 years ago I would've agreed with them. Over time I developed an ear for what these musicians had to offer, but no amount of explaining would make it comprehensible to others even if I knew what to explain, which I don't. All I know is that it's beautiful for me to listen to even though it once wasn't.

Ah, but I am not talking about enjoying a particular type of music. I am talking about being able to make sense of it, and perhaps respecting it. To me, Schoenberg sounds like utter noise, but I still respect it, because I know where he's coming from (although I disagree with his aesthetic, and indeed find it a bit absurd; I think he and his successors made the same mistake as the modernist visual artists: they took a rather small and unimportant question, and turned it into a massive one and then ran off on a tangent with it.)

Quote:
Works like Malevich's black square are more statements about art than they are art themselves. At the time it was created, it invited people to think about art in ways they had never thought about it before.

Oh? How can you tell? If you picked up a black square painted on a piece of cardboard in the street, would you feel it is an invitation to think about art in a new way? I think you would not, whereas if you picked up a painting of a lady with a mysterious little smile, you'd have no difficulty recognizing it as a word of art, and you might even like it enough to keep it.

So how can we tell the black square is an artistic commentary on art? We can't, but for the fact that it was put in a gallery. And then, when people got used to such abstraction, artists put ever more and more weird and outrageous things in galleries: urinals, bits of garbage, their own feces, representations of Jesus in urine, pickled sheep, starving dogs and so on.

No doubt all of these also invited people to think about art in new ways. I.e. modernists have been making the exact same statement about art over and over and over again, for almost a century now.

Now, I'm not saying the statement is in itself completely unworthy of being made. One can indeed have an interesting philosophical discussion about what exactly art is. But I would think that the best way to do that is to write an essay about it (perhaps illustrated with things like black squares, or at least asking readers to imagine such things and ask themselves whether it is art).

I would also think that while the question is a worthy one, it isn't remotely as profound or important as it is made out to be, and how a whole century's worth of artists could spend all their time and energy on it is a mystery to me.

Lastly, why such things as the black square should be considered a masterpiece remains an unanswered question. Everyone seems to AGREE that there is nothing particularly masterful about it; the really important thing seems to be the question that Malevich was asking, not the actual painting itself. I.e. perhaps Malevich deserves a prize for art philosophy, but why make an issue about the little illustration he used, seeing as it could have been anything at all?
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Old 01-11-2009, 04:09 AM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

Quote:
Originally Posted by stlukesguild
Brian... you raise many interesting points. First allow me to state that I am in non way an apologist for Malevich or his brand of Minimalism. My own preferences in art tend toward something far more... generous... sensuous. Still, I am not prepared to dismiss him out of hand. I do agree that his art... and many other works of Modernism... appear far more hermetic... esoteric than earlier artistic vocabularies. For his work to succeed... to actually "work"... he is far more dependent upon the viewer being educated as to what he is trying to do than other artists. Accessibility itself is no measure of the merit of a work of art.

Perhaps, or perhaps not. Philosophers have been arguing for centuries about how to tell whether art is great or not, and apparently they have still not reached a conclusion. ;-)

Quote:
I must agree with bob100 who suggests that perhaps you overstate the ease of grasping other "abstract" languages such as those of music and architecture. I am somewhat uncertain as to just how rapidly one might grasp and even appreciate an art work in a form that is quite foreign. I, for example, love jazz, Middle-Eastern classical music, Medieval European music, and opera. For many, these art forms are next to impossible to appreciate... nothing but noise. They were certainly much the same to me for quite some time. But with time and experience I came to appreciate them... and eventually to admire them and the be able to discern lesser from greater works within each genre.

As I mentioned to Bob, I am not talking about enjoying them. Only understanding that they do have form, despite their surface sound of noise. Doing this isn't very difficult.

There is something that strikes me now though, and that is that the analogy between Bach or jazz on the one hand, and Malevich on the other, is a false analogy (quite apart from the fact that ANY analogy between visual art and music is a bit dubious). It follows because Bach and jazz are pretty complex (Bach is famously complex!), whereas the Malevich is about as simple as visual art can be. A better musical analogy would be a single note, endlessly repeated. Such a thing would no doubt invite listeners to wonder about the nature of music. There might even be a certain mezmerizing charm to it. But can anyone in his right mind place the 'composer' of such a piece on the same level as Bach?

Quote:
I began to recognize that it was completely absurd for me to be able to appreciate the abstraction of a Bach fugue, a work of architecture, a Celtic manuscript, a Persian carpet... but not the whole of abstract painting.

And me, I would be unsure of this, because music and visual art are two different things. But you must in any event not think that I do not appreciate abstract art. On the contrary, I have seen much of it that is extraordinarily beautiful. With the help of Photoshop, I have even produced some:



Very pretty, not? Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Malevich! ;-)

However, the fact that even I, a man of no talent and little artistic accomplishemnt, can churn out such things, tells you a bit about just how easy it is, and how little there is to it.

Of course, the philosophical questions behind it (such as "what is art?") might be more interesting, but the proper way to address philosophical questions is through writing essays on them, because art is simply not specific enough to carry any specific meaning (such as "art is..."). This is why works such as the black square strike me as utterly trite, and not worthy of being considered amongst the great art of the 20th century.

Quote:
But can't we play the same game with any work of art? What if Mona Lisa had been dressed in red? What if Michelangelo had painted the Sistine in oil paints and employed Caravaggio's dramatic use of light and shadow? The abstract elements of light and color and form and line can change a work of art even more dramatically than a change in image. A painting of the Last Supper, for example, may have more in common with a portrait painting or a landscape than it does with another Last Supper... because of a common "content". "Content" and "subject matter" are not one and the same. "Content" is the result of the merger of the image and the abstract elements used to composed it or give it form.

Indeed. To repeat what you say above: The merger of IMAGE and abstract elements.... Do the abstract elements have any meaning by themselves? If a red dress had some sort of symbolic meaning for Renaissance people, then perhaps if the Mona Lisa had been wearing one, it might indeed have changed the meaning of the painting. But that does not mean the colour red has any meaning in itself!

To the extent that it does, such meaning is culturally agreed upon, e.g. in many cultures, red might be taken as symbolizing danger, hence we paint traffic stop signs red. But that means that before an abstract work can have meaning, there has to be a cultural context in which people agree on the meaning. Otherwise an abstract painting will have no meaning any more than the letter 'A' has any intrincic meaning. It has meaning only because we all agree that it represents specific sounds. Without that agreement it is a meaningless squiggle.

If a writer published a whole book full of such meaningless squiggles, it would not exactly make great literature, would it? It might of course be taken as inviting people to wonder about the interesting philosophical question "what is literature?" But could we possibly put such a book on the same level as Dickens or Shakespeare or even Barbara Cartland?

Quote:
ME, PREVIOUSLY:
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.
Quote:
StLukesGuild:
But then... these same limits apply to figurative art because it is just as dependent upon the same abstract elements: color, line, shape, value, etc...

Indeed, but there are two things to keep in mind here. One is that when combined with recognizable imagery, abstract elements have far greater expressive power than when put on their own. What's more, within any culture, ther will be conventions about how we portray particular meanings visually. This is why Michelangelo's "Last Judgement" is suffused with far more obvious meaning than abstract art, even if one does not know much about the theology behind it.

The second thing to consider here is that visual art simply does not carry all that much meaning to begin with, and isn't even in principle capable of doing so. As you yourself point out above, because much of it consists of essentially meaningless elements like line and shape, it simply isn't specific enough to convey very specific meanings or thoughts.

And this, like or not, means that visual art cannot actually be very profound. It is a craft, not a deeply intellectual pursuit like mathematics or philosophy. This is not to say that it has no intellectual component whatsoever; just about ANY human pursuit after all takes place in the brain before the hands get around to it. But that still does not make it very profound.

My plumber could fix my toilet by replacing all the piping with solid lead bars. I guess he could then claim he was asking the important and profound question "what is plumbing?" But I don't think I would be very impressed, and I would surely not nominate him for the position of greatest plumber of the century.

A silly stunt, even if it is a somewhat clever one (and delightfully subversive) that makes us smile a bit, still does not strike me as worthy of endless study by philosophers and art historians.

Quote:
What is the "obvious meaning" of this painting?



Yes, I recognize that it is the representation of a woman... but that is merely the subject matter. What is the "meaning"?

There actually is no very obvious meaning apart from the surface meaning ("woman"), which you refer to as the subject. (Yes, "subject" is probably a better word to use than "surface meaning")

Of course, because we are dealing with recognizable imagery, we can delve a bit deeper, trying to read her facial expression, analyze her clothing and so on. And we can marvel at the skill of the artist (I happen to be a great Van der Weyden fan).

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What makes this work resonate across 600 years of history when the subject and everyone who could possibly have known her is dead?

In all probability, the fact that we know how old the painting is. If someone painted something like that today, it is extremely unlikely that it would resonate as deeply. It is of course a bit difficult to test this proposition.

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Of course I am playing the devil's advocate here because I somewhat question the very notion of "meaning" in art. What is the "meaning" of the Clarinet Quintet by Mozart, or one of Bach's fugues? If I cannot reduce the experience of the work of art to an obvious literal meaning does that make it "meaningless"? Does that then mean that life is also "meaningless"? Certainly I cannot reduce it to any obvious meaning.

Indeed not, but we can of course enjoy life, and Mozart's marvelous quintet. I listen to it, and it seems to speak very deeply to me. Similarly, perhaps you can stare into Malevcih's black square, and feel that it is suffused with meaning that speaks to you. I have no problem with that; it is simply not my job to tell other people what their personal aesthetics should be.

But if it all comes down to personal taste, then 'great artist' is a meaningless statement, and we can no longer talk about 'masterpieces,' at least not as objective phenomena.

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But this is not true. You suggest that we can decode a Bach fugue, for example, through its ties to previous musical traditions and other music of the time. The same applies to Malevich. His work can be read as part of a larger tradition and in relation to the art of others. I can name any number of predecessors, contemporaries, and followers.

Perhaps, but the whole tradition became one of deliberate meaninglessness, in which breaking the rules became an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Within a decade or two, there were actually no rules or conventions left to be broken, so it devolved into mere deliberate outrageousness, because being outrageous became the only way for an artist to be noticed.

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I would suggest, for starters, that you look at the painting in question in the context in which it was presented:



The painting was but one of a group or installation hung with the clear intention of suggesting relationships between the works. Just as Bach's Goldberg Variations limits the composer to fugal variations built upon a single theme, Malevich limits himself to variations upon just a few colors and shapes. Some of the resulting works are more complex... some simpler. The famous Black Square is among the most minimal... and it is placed in a manner that clearly alludes to the Russian tradition of the icon place in the corner of the home. His square is a new icon.

This might all be. And I utterly fail to see what is so 'deep' or profound about it, that we should consider it a more important artistic developmet than the advent of comic books.

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Again... the skill needed is irrelevant. Certainly I am one who enjoys virtuosity as much as the next... but what great skill was needed for William Blake to have composed The Tyger (Tyger, Tyger, Burning bright...)? Does he employ any words that are beyond the abilities of any average educated person... let alone an academic or poet? What of Eric Satie? His most famous composition could almost have been written by a child...

No literature or music of any kind employs words or notes beyond the abilities of any average educated person... ;-)

But I think you missed my point. I wasn't implying that great virtuosity is absolutely essential (although I wouold claim that mastering at least the basic skills is). What I was saying is that there are several different things that we might appreciate in a work. Some that come to mind are subject, composition, meaningful expression, and skill of execution. There might well be others as well.

E.g. we might rate Bouguereau as very high in skill, and even his greatest detractors often still report to nevertheless be awestruck by his sheer virtuosity with a brush. His subject matter and overall aesthetics might well be trite, but most people would feel that he deserves his place amongst the greats. On the other hand might be an artist like Van Gogh, who had little technical skill but perhaps had some other merits. At least, lots of people certainly feel that he created images of great beauty and visual and psychological insight. And then other artists might display a mixture of the individual skills, being technically highly competent, and also interesting in choice of subject matter and general insight.

All of these elements put together could perhaps be said to represent artistic skill. If an artist is somewhat deficient in one element, he can make up for it by being exceptional in another.

However, the word 'great' in the phrase 'great artist' surely must imply SOME sort of special skill or insight that the average person does not have, or would be very unlikely to think of, and that makes some sort of significant contribution to art? That is after all what 'great' means, is it not?

Much of modern art does not display any special skills or insights of any kind whatever. It is quite literally stuff that any child could produce, and the only difference is that these people have the chutzpah to display it as high art.

Well, they might be fooling many people, but they ain't fooling me.

Now, I have one of my fearsome work weeks coming up again (for those not in the know, I work 12 hour night shifts in a busy lab every second week), so I will be out of the loop for a while, and so I'll leave it to others here to have the last word on modern art. I feel I have already wasted way too much of my valuable time on it. I think I should rather concentrate on the kind of art I do enjoy; it is more fun. ;-)
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Old 01-11-2009, 06:53 PM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

Brian... again you raise interesting question. Perhaps central to all your objections is the question of "meaning". As with my previous analogy questioning the "meaning" of a work by Mozart or Bach, meaning in art cannot be reduced to a simple definition. This is as true of literature as it is of music or visual art. Why waste time writing a poem or a novel or painting a picture or composing a symphony if all one wished to do was convey a simple idea. Why not simply write this down in terms that we all might reasonably be thought to understand? The "content" (as opposed to the "meaning") of a work of art may include literal as well as symbolic meanings... analogy... but also includes the emotional, sensual, sensory, kinetic (we "feel" the rhythm or respond to the scale of a work as it relates to our body), etc... At its most basic it would seem that the purpose of a work of art is not to convey "meaning" (I am the last one who buys into the Romantic notion that art is solely about self-expression), but rather to convey pleasure. Even those works that speak of ugliness (Shakespeare's MacBeth, perhaps, or Goya's Disasters of War), albeit it a sort of aesthetic pleasure in the vicarious thrill of observing a tragedy or horror unfold before our eyes... or the contrast between the horror or ugliness of the subject and the absolute beauty of the form. Edmunde Burke speaks well on this in his classic essay On the Sublime and the Beautiful.

SLG (quoted)Accessibility itself is no measure of the merit of a work of art.

Brian- Perhaps, or perhaps not. Philosophers have been arguing for centuries about how to tell whether art is great or not, and apparently they have still not reached a conclusion. ;-)

Of course the same arguments may apply to the merits of a given work of literature or music or historical figure or event. I might argue that the opinions of philosophers are perhaps not to be considered as the final word on art when one considers that their trade deals in ideas and words, and not in images and all that they convey.

I must agree... that perhaps you overstate the ease of grasping other "abstract" languages such as those of music and architecture. I am somewhat uncertain as to just how rapidly one might grasp and even appreciate an art work in a form that is quite foreign... jazz, Middle-Eastern classical music, Medieval European music... opera. For many, these art forms are next to impossible to appreciate... nothing but noise.

I am not talking about enjoying them. Only understanding that they do have form, despite their surface sound of noise. Doing this isn't very difficult.

Again: "meaning". Surely you can recognize that Malevich' Black Square has a form... it is even more basic than the Egyptian pyramids of which I spoke earlier. But that form, on its own is "meaningless" to you. You can gather no "meaning" from it. That, on its own, is fine. It does not speak to you. It does speak to others. Again there is that question of accessibility.

It follows because Bach and jazz are pretty complex (Bach is famously complex!), whereas the Malevich is about as simple as visual art can be. A better musical analogy would be a single note, endlessly repeated. Such a thing would no doubt invite listeners to wonder about the nature of music. There might even be a certain mezmerizing charm to it. But can anyone in his right mind place the 'composer' of such a piece on the same level as Bach?

I have no dispute with this. Perhaps a better analogy for Malevich might be Satie, or Philip Glass, or even John Cage. In no way would I think to rank any of these composers with Bach than I would to rank Malevich with Michelangelo. I doubt any art critic would think to place him on such a scale. His place is but a small footnote of Modernism from most critical commentaries.

you must in any event not think that I do not appreciate abstract art. On the contrary, I have seen much of it that is extraordinarily beautiful... I have even produced some... However, the fact that even I, a man of no talent and little artistic accomplishemnt, can churn out such things, tells you a bit about just how easy it is, and how little there is to it.

Yes, you can make a pretty image... but is it immediately ART? Certainly there are any number of "artists" who do assume that just throwing around some pretty colors is the same as making art. Give me an attractive model... a pretty girl or a lovely landscape and a camera, and knowing next-to-nothing I can get an attractive image. We can find such images everywhere in nature. Art is at once image and object as well as symbol or language. There is an intent to "speak"... to convey something... be it meaning, feeling, sensory experience, etc... The artist is aware that he or she is working within a tradition... whether expanding upon it, stretching it, or rebelling against it. As such, as I noted earlier, Malevich' painting is undeniably hermetic and dependent upon the context in which it was produced. As such, I agree that it is inherently limited in that it makes little effort at speaking to larger common human experiences. But again... I don't place this work at the pinnacle of art... of abstract art... of Modernism.

But can't we play the same game with any work of art? What if Mona Lisa had been dressed in red? What if Michelangelo had painted the Sistine in oil paints and employed Caravaggio's dramatic use of light and shadow? The abstract elements of light and color and form and line can change a work of art even more dramatically than a change in image. A painting of the Last Supper, for example, may have more in common with a portrait painting or a landscape than it does with another Last Supper... because of a common "content". "Content" and "subject matter" are not one and the same. "Content" is the result of the merger of the image and the abstract elements used to composed it or give it form.

Indeed. To repeat what you say above: The merger of IMAGE and abstract elements.... Do the abstract elements have any meaning by themselves? If a red dress had some sort of symbolic meaning for Renaissance people, then perhaps if the Mona Lisa had been wearing one, it might indeed have changed the meaning of the painting. But that does not mean the colour red has any meaning in itself!

To the extent that it does, such meaning is culturally agreed upon, e.g. in many cultures, red might be taken as symbolizing danger, hence we paint traffic stop signs red. But that means that before an abstract work can have meaning, there has to be a cultural context in which people agree on the meaning. Otherwise an abstract painting will have no meaning any more than the letter 'A' has any intrincic meaning. It has meaning only because we all agree that it represents specific sounds. Without that agreement it is a meaningless squiggle.


Again you are looking for a literal or symbolic "meaning" that is as universally accepted as a definition. This might apply to certain symbolic elements of art. Iconography, for example, deals with specific images... even colors... having a specific meaning: ie Mary Magdalene commonly dressed in red (the scarlet woman) or green (for fertility and sexual promiscuousness) while the Virgin Mary is commonly robed in blue (the royal robe of the queen of heaven being of the most expensive color: the blue made from crushed gems: lapis lazuli). However, abstract forms do have other levels of "content": you feel the heat of a blazing red... you make connections with what it means within the culture in which it was used. We "feel" how the artist applied the paint: with a vaporous delicate touch... forcefully... obsessively... caressingly, etc... We feel how a line moves and how forms interrelate. Even the most realistic painting is composed of endless abstract decisions... as the artist becomes involved in the harmony of colors, the surface touch of the brush, the twist and turn of a line, the massing of forms and values. These can be used to direct or guide the eye through a piece... as well as to convey content.

If a writer published a whole book full of such meaningless squiggles, it would not exactly make great literature, would it? It might of course be taken as inviting people to wonder about the interesting philosophical question "what is literature?" But could we possibly put such a book on the same level as Dickens or Shakespeare or even Barbara Cartland?

But then again... the vocabulary of literature involves the written word. certainly there are examples of "nonsense" literature: Lewiss Carroll's Jabberwocky, the Surrealism poems of Andre Breton, Henri Michaux... arguably James Joyce' Finnegan's Wake. Nonsense scribble, however, might make for some marvelous works of visual art:















Of course not all of these works are mere nonsense "scribbles"... but without a working knowledge of Latin, Arabic, Japanese, etc... they might as well be. And yet they continue to speak as works of visual art.

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.

No. Rather say without a clearly established set of symbolic meanings there are limits as to how literal the content of a work of visual art can be... but again we have already touched upon this. Art works on levels beyond mere literal "meaning".

...there are two things to keep in mind here. One is that when combined with recognizable imagery, abstract elements have far greater expressive power than when put on their own. What's more, within any culture, ther will be conventions about how we portray particular meanings visually. This is why Michelangelo's "Last Judgement" is suffused with far more obvious meaning than abstract art, even if one does not know much about the theology behind it.

Again... combined with recognizable imagery, abstract elements have the ability to convey more literal concepts... but they are not necessarily more expressive. Music, architecture, they Arabic and Japanese calligraphy above are not devoid of content (in spite of my inability to read the text) simply because they lack recognizable images.

The second thing to consider here is that visual art simply does not carry all that much meaning to begin with, and isn't even in principle capable of doing so. As you yourself point out above, because much of it consists of essentially meaningless elements like line and shape, it simply isn't specific enough to convey very specific meanings or thoughts.

And this, like or not, means that visual art cannot actually be very profound. It is a craft, not a deeply intellectual pursuit like mathematics or philosophy. This is not to say that it has no intellectual component whatsoever; just about ANY human pursuit after all takes place in the brain before the hands get around to it. But that still does not make it very profound.


And again you would suggest that only that with clearly defined, literal "meaning" has any great worth? Of course, then we might apply the same criticism to Bach's music (what is the "meaning" of the Well-Tempered Clavier?), to most literature (unless you imagine that Proust's In Search of Lost Time or Shakespeare's Sonnets can be reduced to a profound meaning (perhaps "When I think of you, I feel blue" would be the ultimate profound "meaning" of the bard's poems). And ultimately love... birth... death... life itself is less than profound because we cannot give them a "meaning". Or else "meaning" is not the end-all, be-all of life and art. Perhaps experience, sensation, feeling, emotions, etc... are just as "profound".

A silly stunt, even if it is a somewhat clever one (and delightfully subversive) that makes us smile a bit, still does not strike me as worthy of endless study by philosophers and art historians.

Again... I do not disagree. I don't think Malevich' effort was a silly stunt. I think he was pushing his experiments to a logical conclusion. Perhaps I might even agree that his efforts were ultimately flawed... a failure on a certain level. This still does not completely undermine the effort. There are many brilliant failures in art.

...we can of course enjoy life, and Mozart's marvelous quintet. I listen to it, and it seems to speak very deeply to me. Similarly, perhaps you can stare into Malevcih's black square, and feel that it is suffused with meaning that speaks to you. I have no problem with that; it is simply not my job to tell other people what their personal aesthetics should be.

Actually, I get little pleasure from Malevich' square... and that is ultimately its failure to me. I do think it pushed the possibilities and it offered suggestions and potentials to others whose work resonates with me far more... ie, Mark Rothko, Sean Scully, etc...

But if it all comes down to personal taste, then 'great artist' is a meaningless statement, and we can no longer talk about 'masterpieces,' at least not as objective phenomena.

Of course, we've discussed this before. I admit that opinions on art are subjective... but I still take the opinion that certain opinions are worth far more than others. Those who invest the most into the study of a given field... those who attain a status that we might call "expert"... would seem to be more important in measuring what is or is not great art in the larger historical sense. Of course all that matters to us as individuals is what works for us. Any number of experts may champion a given art work... and I may consider their opinions and explore what they have to say and what was intended... but ultimately if it does not speak to me, then so be it.

...the whole tradition became one of deliberate meaninglessness, in which breaking the rules became an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Within a decade or two, there were actually no rules or conventions left to be broken, so it devolved into mere deliberate outrageousness, because being outrageous became the only way for an artist to be noticed.

And I won't dispute this. Ezra Pound's great dictum, "Make it new" was completely misconstrued by many Modernists. Pound's intention... and the initial intentions of Modernism... were to insist that a work of art must be of its time... that painting classical nudes and cherubs lounging in bucolic landscapes (such as did Bouguereau) while living in an urban environment of 20th century Paris was somehow false art. The new forms were initially employed in an effort to give expression to new experiences. No Renaissance painter had ever had to deal with the automobile, airplane, or modern mechanized warfare. To give such things the same forms as the Renaissance artist was recognized as absurd, to say the least. As Robert Hughes pointed out in The Shock of the New, one of the most unintentionally comic works of art of the 20th century must certainly have been Camille Lefebvre's Monument to Levassor. Here a car race: lurching steel, fumes, are given the form of immobile marble:



Decades earlier JMW Turner already saw the need for a new approach to painting in attempting to deal with the speed inherent in the new mechanized society:



Cubism, obviously, was another attempt to deal with such experiences... as well as with the fragmentation of modern culture.

Lesser artists, however, became obsessed with the notion of novelty... the idea of presenting something new merely for the sake of being new. The least innovation was imagined as some grandiose innovation... with the inevitable reality of a continuing lessening of returns. Soon it became thought that a new way of dripping paint was enough to assure immortality as an artist.

I utterly fail to see what is so 'deep' or profound about it (Malevich' installation), that we should consider it a more important artistic developmet than the advent of comic books.

Again... I don't question this. I don't see the work in itself as being all that profound (although again I recognize its influence upon later developments in painting). Still... I'm not about to compare the relevance of Malevich vs comic books. There are undoubtedly comic books that will survive the march of art history just as Beardsley and Dore and Daumier survive. Indeed, I would have no problem with looking at comic books within the tradition of illuminated manuscripts, Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, William Blake, 19th century book illustrations, etc... It's not an "either-or" position: one may appreciate Malevich and still appreciate R. Crumb.

I think you missed my point. I wasn't implying that great virtuosity is absolutely essential (although I wouold claim that mastering at least the basic skills is). What I was saying is that there are several different things that we might appreciate in a work. Some that come to mind are subject, composition, meaningful expression, and skill of execution. There might well be others as well.

E.g. we might rate Bouguereau as very high in skill, and even his greatest detractors often still report to nevertheless be awestruck by his sheer virtuosity with a brush. His subject matter and overall aesthetics might well be trite, but most people would feel that he deserves his place amongst the greats. On the other hand might be an artist like Van Gogh, who had little technical skill but perhaps had some other merits. At least, lots of people certainly feel that he created images of great beauty and visual and psychological insight. And then other artists might display a mixture of the individual skills, being technically highly competent, and also interesting in choice of subject matter and general insight.

All of these elements put together could perhaps be said to represent artistic skill. If an artist is somewhat deficient in one element, he can make up for it by being exceptional in another.

However, the word 'great' in the phrase 'great artist' surely must imply SOME sort of special skill or insight that the average person does not have, or would be very unlikely to think of, and that makes some sort of significant contribution to art? That is after all what 'great' means, is it not?


I agree with this general position... that we judge a work of art or an artist based upon a number of criteria. I might question your assumption that Bouguereau, for example, is more skillful than Van Gogh. I would suggest rather that they are each masterful... yet of a differing set of skills. To return to the musical analogies one might immediately assume that the great classical singer such as Pavarotti is more skillful than a "popular" singer like Frank Sinatra, Elvis, etc... But is this so? Most of Pavarotti's efforts at popular music are painfully overwrought. The reality is that the skills needed are different. One can certainly make comparisons... but such comparisons are useless if they are made based upon the standards of one and ignoring the other. Compared to van Gogh, Bouguereau... even Rembrandt are timid with regard to color. The Dutchman is certainly far more bold with the use of paint... his handling almost suggesting a Japanese calligraphic mark.

But lets return to the point... art is indeed the product of an accumulation of elements and criteria. Malevich falls short in pictorial inventiveness, sensuality, use of color, craftsmanship... but he must be given high maks for audacity, originality, and historical impact. Again... in my book he is a small player within the whole of Modernism and even smaller within the whole of art... but he is not without some merit. But certainly... I agree with you... it is far more productive to concentrate upon the sort of art that you love rather than upon that which you dislike. I think it was Paul Klee who insisted that you cannot construct a positive philosophy of art based solely upon that which you are against. You must be clear about what you are for.
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Old 01-13-2009, 11:40 PM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

Thank You Everyone For Your Comments!!! You Were All A Great Help!! Looking Forward To More!
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Old 02-17-2009, 07:19 PM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

i think it was robert motherwell or some member of the new york school who said something along the lines that painters can't write so they paint, much the same way a musician plays music instead of paints. i think the essence of painting gets lost in translation to words. just as it would in reverse. each medium is different in the ways it communicates. Picasso asked someone if they found meaning in the singing of a song bird. in my own work i hope to attract and hold the attention of any one regardless of their previous knowledge. rothko was very concerned of the interaction of the painting and the viewer. no matter what the painting offers, the viewers brings some too. in the case of malevich i would have to say he succeeded in stirring thought, as here we are almost a 100 years later bringing up his name just because of a little black square.
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Old 02-22-2009, 07:28 AM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

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Originally Posted by brianvds



No doubt all of these also invited people to think about art in new ways. I.e. modernists have been making the exact same statement about art over and over and over again, for almost a century now.

Now, I'm not saying the statement is in itself completely unworthy of being made. One can indeed have an interesting philosophical discussion about what exactly art is. But I would think that the best way to do that is to write an essay about it (perhaps illustrated with things like black squares, or at least asking readers to imagine such things and ask themselves whether it is art).

I would also think that while the question is a worthy one, it isn't remotely as profound or important as it is made out to be, and how a whole century's worth of artists could spend all their time and energy on it is a mystery to me.


I have wondered this myself. In many ways art is a celebration of innovation. Innovations which lead to changed perspectives or paradigm shifts. However I disagree with the notion that all experiments with "change" in mind are worthy of elevation and praise. At some point, as seen with other disciplines like science, the benefits and impact of the change should be the decider.

I am also conflicted about objects that can only be understood or appreciated by those with significant understanding of preceding movements or history context. There seems to be a trend of creating or elevating "artifact" rather then that which is more universal, such as works that help us to understand the human condition.

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Last edited by MikeN : 02-22-2009 at 07:37 AM.
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Old 02-22-2009, 08:31 AM
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Re: Malevich's Black Square

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Indeed, but there are two things to keep in mind here. One is that when combined with recognizable imagery, abstract elements have far greater expressive power than when put on their own. What's more, within any culture, ther will be conventions about how we portray particular meanings visually. This is why Michelangelo's "Last Judgement" is suffused with far more obvious meaning than abstract art, even if one does not know much about the theology behind it.

The second thing to consider here is that visual art simply does not carry all that much meaning to begin with, and isn't even in principle capable of doing so. As you yourself point out above, because much of it consists of essentially meaningless elements like line and shape, it simply isn't specific enough to convey very specific meanings or thoughts.

And this, like or not, means that visual art cannot actually be very profound. It is a craft, not a deeply intellectual pursuit like mathematics or philosophy. This is not to say that it has no intellectual component whatsoever; just about ANY human pursuit after all takes place in the brain before the hands get around to it. But that still does not make it very profound.


It could be that I missed your point here but I thought I would respond. Please feel free to clarify if you wish. I am curious how a work below fits into your statement above. Specifically, the comment "visual art cannot actually be very profound". Images such as this are sophisticated technically speaking but also creativly.


"Simple lines and shapes"... maybe. "....because much of it consists of essentially meaningless elements like line and shape, it simply isn't specific enough to convey very specific meanings or thoughts." Of course you can't remove something from it's context. "Meaning" does not from a single visual element, rather its ability to form relationships. The image below is a perfect example of this.

Rudolf Arnheim refers to these relationships as "the connecting tissue of the -in-between areas". That is where the meaning resides.
Attached Images
 

Last edited by MikeN : 02-22-2009 at 08:57 AM.

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