Saturday, July 10, 2010

discuss: "all art is either spiritual or decorative"

i recently renewed my membership with CIVA (i generally do so every 2 years so that I can be in their bi-annual artists' directory - hopefully that will one day lead to more connections to other artists of faith). as part of that purchase, i ordered the last few issues of their magazine, CIVA SEEN. in the introductory essay of issue vol IX.2, there is the following statement:
"all art is either spiritual or decorative"
personally, i love these kinds of absolute, polarizing statements. i love it when people actually take a position. that creates opportunity for discussion. then again, i think that the more one argues (and by argue, i mean "to make clear"; implying a process of reasoning), the more truth emerges. those kinds of statements position and place us, and force us to examine [exactly] where we stand on an issue, or what we think or believe about certain ideas. and what we don't.

naturally, i am interested in many of the concepts and tensions raised by this statement: ideas around art, faith and spirituality; the sublime; notions of Truth and Beauty; the fear of kitsch and use of the colloquial and commonplace; audiences and community; art's use and function; the connecting between creativity and spirituality. i think this statement circles around many of these ideas, and hints at the tension between communicating something and the way in which we do that, without saying one is more important than the other (though we might disagree). the more i think through this statement, the more i think it is touching on something quite substantially important regarding the content and purpose of art. do you agree with the above statement? why or why not?


wenda said...

I think it's mostly true, but not definitively. Can I paraphrase that as "all art is either truth or beauty"? I think that's how I paraphrase the original in my mind...or maybe not entirely, but that's one version that comes to mind...I'm thinking while writing which is maybe not a good idea...

I used to believe that art was either about the beauty or about the idea but not about both. Beautiful art held nothing beyond what one could initially observe, and that was enough for some people. I was okay with that.

But I don't believe in many absolutes anymore...or it seems that the ones I still carry around, are slowly getting blurry...or maybe I'm just losing my courage to speak/think in absolutes...

The spiritual vs. decorative is an interesting argument, but as I firmly believe my work contains elements of both, I cannot say art is one or the other. Truly, my work is so deeply rooted in my own spirituality, it cannot be devoid of it, and at the same time, is fully about all I imagine to be decorative: pattern, texture, form, composition and what you see is what you get.

Knowing where the quote comes from adds another interesting point from which to interpret. I find it affirming that there seems to be no judgement applied to one or other end. Both spiritual and decorative seem to be acceptable ends...or maybe that's just how my non-absolute mind wants to read it ; )

Josh said...

Wenda - truth is the opposite of beauty? Ouch. I think I might think of the phrase in terms of 'conceptual or decorative'.

'Spiritual' and 'decorative' are just things we do with art right? All the early church art was both wasn't it? Spiritual in illustrating ideas about God, decorative in that it was all over the walls.. But some of it was educational at some point. I don't know if that fits in either category?

I suppose I'd think of something like 'oak tree' by Michael Craig Martin as almost purely 'spiritual' and not decorative. I can't think of anything being purely decorative though because everything has some sort of reason behind it's creation. Even wallpaper. It's usually made to create profit. And this indicates spiritual attributes of it or it's designer/manufacturer. is so flipping hard to discuss..

techne said...

okay - to provide some context, this statement is found in "sacred dimensions", an essay by barry krammes. it discusses sculpture and new ways of approaching sculpture, which includes material and conceptual aspects:

[quote]There is currently, among artists, a fascination with unorthodox materials and mundane found objects that are assembled, hybridized and fused together in quirky, often makeshift and temporary ways, resulting in conceptually charged sculptures, installations and performances that invite philosophical and spiritual readings.[/unquote]

he further discusses art as a natural bridge connecting the natural and spiritual worlds, metaphor, sacramental approaches to materials citing artists and critics such as lynn aldrich, adam wolpa and tyrus clutter (other artists in this issue include gedi sibony, conrad bakker, craig goodworth, theodore prescott and roger feldman). the context of the statement above is as follows:

[quote]Several years ago I remember an artist matter-of-factly stating, "All art is either spiritual or decorative." I'd like to think that he was right. I happen to believe that all great art or at least all good art is spiritual or sacramental in nature. Everything else is not much more than decorative chaff. Sometimes it's difficult to tell immediately but as the years pass, it gets easier to discern.[/unquote]

in looking at it again, there is a hierarchy established here. but isn't that okay? and i don't think it's simply a rephrasing of the secular/ sacred or art/craft argument. but i do think it's an interesting statement to unpack. perhaps what we need to do is to define terms. or at least define how we understand those terms. still, in engaging with the tension stated above, i think there is a difference between art that is more nuanced or layered or engaged with experience (a whole-beinged one) and art that is about surfaces or aesthetics or [purely] formal concerns (and yes, i realize that's opening up a can of worms. i'll just wait here for the rothko acolytes). they're still both art. i mean, do we see "decorative" and think "facile" or "slight"? or "superficial"? or do we think of "Beauty" (and yes, it's capitalized to refer the the idea of Beauty)? do we see "spiritual" and think "religious"? do we think "abstract" or "vague"? do we think "redolent with meaning and import"? that would make a difference in how we interpret and engage with that statement. and i do think that the decorative as "chaff" is overstating things - was matisse's statement that

[quote]What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue[/unquote]

a statement about the spiritual aspects/ effects of his work or its decorative elements? i'm okay with privileging one term over another, as long as it's clear what one means...

in any case, thanks for helping me refine what it is i'm actually interested in exploring and discussing...

Josh said...

Wow that's like a whole extra post. Ah..thought spiritual and decorative were being presented as opposite qualities. But he seems to be using them more as qualitative terms. I can see the spiritual vs. decorative divide between assemblage style sculpture vs. giacometti/henry moore reproductions more easily than I can apply it to painting or performance art.

The other thing could a 'spiritual' being create something without it becoming in some way spiritual?

What's wrong with decorative chaff anyway?

In response to the Matisse quote, that's obviously something I've thought too but at the end of the day it's an artist who wishes that.
The majority of non artists would prefer an actual armchair. They aren't that interested in art or they'd be artists too.

This may not be relevant at all but I keep thinking about trees. Lots of people love trees. They look nice. Decorative. And they have other functions too. What's the actual difference between someone who plants a tree and someone who paints it?