Pictures in a gallery:
An Artists conversation with some commentary on the de Young Museum’s exhibit of the Scottish national galleries treasures – Botticelli to Braque
We’ve been having fun this week conversing with our creative and artistic community. This is a conversation about an image, which seems to have gone around the world twice already, but we decided to weigh in to see what our local people had to say.
A friend of a friend (both visual artists) sent this image to us via e-mail, which started the old wheels turning. I think it worth mentioning from the beginning that this image came from the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam (To see where this image came from check out the Rijks Museum Multimedia Tour) and the furor it caused happened in April of this year on Facebook (original Facebook Comment Thread that started the whole conversation) but we didn’t know that to begin with. Let’s just say this image hits a nerve, and it’s a big one and it seems to be a pretty universal reaction. We tracked it back to its original posting and found some really interesting threads:
1. Everyone one gets uncomfortable and opinionated around this image.
2. Many of the comments from the original posting were almost verbatim what we got.
3. The Rijks Museum of Amsterdam audio/visual tour seems to have hit the motherlode.
Which raises some interesting questions, such as; is this what is required to engage kids? And what exactly does relevance/reverence mean when it comes to culturally significant images, who decides what is a culturally relevant image?
We decided to poll some opinions on Facebook and started a veritable firestorm. Here is the link to look at our Facebook Thread with 50 plus comments (and still going) if you would like to see the whole conversation. People were very passionate about what they saw and an example of person taking that feeling to the Meme Level can be seen below.
This conversation has caused the mathematicians amongst us to wax lyrical about mean averages and testing for normal, and the social philosophers amongst us to mutter darkly in corners about where we are going and recurrent resemblances to hand basketry and a large proportion of artists, some of whom use the language of visual imagery on a daily basis, to express surprisingly polar opinions. (Coming back to the statisticians, there’s a graph in there somewhere) Most interesting, because of their rationality and lucidity were the educators, from whom one would have expected more knee-jerk, but their measured response was the voice of sanity itself. Below are some comments from some of the people who joined the conversation.
Dax (Check out her brilliant graphic Novel at Failingsky.com) - This may be too curmudgeonly, but when was the last time this painting was actually functional in a real way? All our parents ever did was use it as a conversation piece to impress their dates with, which has been its de facto function for hundreds of years now. Even in its original context it was just high-priced self-congratulatory propaganda to be used as social currency among bros. Its only real function now is for academic study (history and art students), so i don't think it's reasonable to force kids to look at it just so we can feel like we properly exposed the next generation to important culture.
Rachael - Also Dax can you speak to how this work impacted your education in the fine arts? When you went on field trips to museums....what kind of work did you seek out? And do you think it improved your abilities or was a huge distraction from what you wanted/needed to be learning and pursuing to find your voice?
Dax - I have way too much to say about this...You're good to ask. I went to old-art museums to do studies and things, but overall it wasn't a good use of my time. The skills you can learn by copying masters are such an insignificant part of what you need to be a painter (unless you're trying to specifically recreate these period painting styles, which is plebian iMO, or studying history or mainstream curation). Even so, if you want to study Rembrandt originals, it's much better to study the sketches, which museums make it so hard to get your hands on because they don't make money.
On the other hand, I do learn a lot at curated shows that happen to pertain to my specific practice (I'd kill for solo Bill Watterson or Arthur Ganson exhibits) — but for the most part I have to seek out that kind of artwork on my own, because it's not valuable so it's not celebrated. (I remember in the 90's all any artist ever talked about was Egon Schiele, but no one would put a show together because he wasn't worth much, probably because Gardner wrote him out of the canon in order to increase the value of American painters )
So I suppose what I'm saying is that museum exhibits and gallery shows are important to artistic study, if you can sort through the mainstream shows to get at what you need. I just disagree with the assumption that commissioned Rembrandt masterpieces are what we should be pushing on our kids.
Also, i hope you take this with a grain of salt. i know Alex would have a much different opinion of old masters
Rachael - So then tell me....what needs to happen to make it possible for museums to show the work that you would go to see for pleasure/technique/interest? I heard the cartoon museum is closing in the city...but why is it not sustainable to the public?
How do we separate art from politics? Is that even possible....do we want to?
So how do we change to assumptions of what kids need to study artistically for the future?
How would you feel about a Rembrandt if you felt a connection to the artist in some way. For example....I've always felt really connected to Frida Kahlo. But I read her bio, understood her story, had a moment about her personal narrative and then fell helplessly in love with her work. Do we need a way of bringing context and personal narrative into the room?
Why are certain hubs more successful at curated shows than others? I wasn't a big fan of living in LA but I saw a few shit hot shows....and a few that I hated but learned so much from. I do not really get installation art most of the time but they were everywhere in 2005. I had to try to figure out the stories that people were set on telling even if I had no connection with them.
So does that mean that sometimes we go to these shows to follow a thread, a social conversation? And are we at a point where the men in pointy white hats and clogs have less of a story to tell....or possibly more depending on your demographic?
Please say everything you think....I know you have a thesis statement in there about these topics wink emoticon.
Dax - I don't know if I can answer many of those questions wink emoticon
I do appreciate that curators often want to show the us something special that we wouldn't have seen otherwise, but I first have to have a lot of trust in that curator or venue, or else I'd totally be like these kids on their phones being all "this Rembrandt has no relevance to my life, and any relevance this arrogant curator is trying to shove down my throat is contrived."
Separate from that, I do recall being enamored with the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in SJ, even though weird cement recreations even less relevant, just because no adults were pushing it on me. I'm positive that if I had an opportunity to fall in love with dutch oil paintings before being told that I should, I would have been all about them. Maybe.
Honestly, though, I think the best art being exhibited today is happening on the internet, and it doesn't look at all like oil paintings of dudes, and the kids in this picture subconsciously know that. We can also trust that if Rembrandt is still relevant to the next generation's lives, they will seek him out on their own because you can't keep good art buried.
Rachael - So is the future of curated shows the online gallery's of images on Flickr, deviant art, instagram, personal websites, fb and so on?!
To be honest it stresses me out a bit...it's to insular....experience Is internal and personal yes, but it's so much richer when it's shared, especially in space. I'm not sure how but I feel that we are responsible for finding the next wave of museum and gallery viewing. I perceive that there will need to be a bridge between how we view art now and how we will view art in the future.
I'm not sure I agree that good/important art can always survive. Witness the Taliban and the destroyed Bamiyan Buddha's.
So is there a chance that we are not able to preserve the past in order to understand the future? Remember that old phrase about those who do not understand the past are doomed to repeat it....is that a point that we need to address?
Do we understand the value of what we are losing before we lose it?
We are hell bent on conserving water ie only flushing every few times per day. We are all on board with saving penguins and polar bears but are they anymore important than the Rembrandt?
We could wrap up the whole conversation about this picture with a quote from our friend Tim:
"My first reaction is you simply have two powerful frames of reference in the same image."
What seeded this entire conversation was a shared experience between a diverse group of people who went off to the Botticelli to Braque exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
It was a little bit of everything, like a sample taster of the history of western European and Euro-centric art since the renaissance. Possible a stretch for the uninitiated as to why we would be looking at these works aside from the fact that there were some heavy hitters amongst the names of those shown. The reactions were as diverse as the people and everyone had something to add to the conversation.
But it made us think about what we are doing when we ascribe significance to imagery. How subjective/objective is that? What about cultural memory and identity? The argument about post-modernism is already over, so let’s not drag that tired old skeleton out of the closet, but where are we going with imagery as a visual language in a technologically driven world and what will that look like to future generations? Anne Hathaway anyone?
Or how about the 21st century Hero of the Sky, Sir Richard Branson?
It is worth considering that to an Ancient Egyptian the act of reading and writing, making pictograms and interpreting them, was a sacred act. There were not many who could do it, and those who did trained all of their lives and were considered an elite. Now we expect our children to get there before six.
Consider also before the advent of mass media, photographic printing etc. the world of imagery was the exclusive domain of those who could afford to pay for its painstaking process. If the average person in the street was exposed to two or three images per year that was a lot, and it usually came in the form of religious propaganda. Secular art was exclusive to the stratospherically wealthy. As such, your average walking around citizen was a visual innocent.
Compare that to the constant barrage of imagery that we live with on a daily basis. Consider also that we daily touch objects created by brilliant technologists and designers, your phone is one of those. The technological democratization of available imagery has not only flattened that particular playing field, it has invented a whole new one. Now anyone and everyone can get creative with visual imagery, and they do. Check out re-imagined masterworks by Liz Nelson below.
Which is why we ended up putting a slightly different spin on one of the masterworks featured in the show. At some point during the rounds of "ah yes what a lovely painting yes" there was a niggling need to send a Snapchat to a friend who was missing the exhibit. In that moment of inspiration, googly eyes and a sense of needle point gossip and outrage about life came to mind.
The googly eyed French Ladies of a certain age elicited the following conversation on Facebook:
Taurin - You know maybe these paintings are just too antiquated. I mean this painting doesn't do it for me and I love art. The googly eyes are a nice touch though
Rachael - I'm glad you liked the googly eyes...why do you think it leaves you cold as a painting?
Taurin - The colors are dull the hair looks like a croissant someone left in a spider web and what are they knitting? What millennial is doing anything close to what's portrayed here. There's no emotional content no conflict it's just three women sitting together. They're not even looking at each other. Ironically this is sort of a perfect painting to symbolize this issue of isolation.
On that note it's not like people in this time were any better off. I think there's an over-romantization of this period in history. There is no diversity of subject. We're looking at rich white woman engaging in leisure that a working class person would never have the opportunity of. If anything I'm happy the youth aren't connecting to this. There is something truly interesting happening all around them and the present moment has grabbed them.
Rachael - So you mentioned rich white woman that most people cannot relate to. But I ask you this...If I put this image next to the googly eyed french ladies....what happens then? Is there a bit more context? I know a lot of people follow the Kardashian sisters. Are they culturally relevant?
Which brings us to another conversation about defacement and vandalism and street art..and the likes of Bansky and Basquiat and and and...But that is a conversation for another blog. All you artists should weigh in on that one.