Some art is more interesting to think about than to experience. Ideally art presents a unique object to experience and evokes a realm of ideas and thoughts – about some topic and/or about the relationship between art and the world. When art simply presents something to be experienced which is not evocative, the result is decoration, something that might be beautiful (or at least pretty) but which is generally less satisfying than truly great art. On the other hand, when art is too concerned to be about something, the result is often something interesting to think about (provided that the something the art is about is something interesting), but something that leaves one cold, without much to experience.
Much of Andy Warhol’s art strikes me this way. His Brillo boxes are interesting in their attempt to mimic in art form everyday mundane objects. Arthur C. Danto discusses the Brillo boxes as the end of the history of art in that they bring about a zero degree of differentiation between art world and real world. While I disagree, mainly because I don’t think there’s actually zero degree of differentiation between Warhol’s boxes and manufactured Brillo boxes, I find the idea interesting to think about. I don’t find Warhol’s boxes at all interesting to look at, though. To the extent that they succeed as art, they look like Brillo boxes, and to the extent they don’t, they fail – but either way, I really just don’t care.
Warhol’s screen prints are similarly interesting to think about, calling into question the uniqueness and authenticity of the work of art by their mass produced nature. (Not the first works to do so; for example, Rodin’s sculptures do something similar, even if the intent was not to explicitly call attention to issues of uniqueness and authenticity.) For me, though, once I’ve seen a few, I’m done. I find the screen prints more interesting to experience than the Brillo boxes, but not by a lot. The one exception I have experienced (at the Pensacola Museum of Art – not the place people might expect to encounter quality art exhibits, but actually a fine, small museum) is one that violates Warhol’s sentiment about the lack of uniqueness or artistic quality of the screen prints. I was struck when viewing several of his “camouflage” prints (which replicate the same camouflage shape, but using a variety of different colors in each printing) that the different prints of the “same” image side by side provided an interesting experience of the relationship between color and form, for even though the shapes were the same for each print, the different colorations created completely different visual experiences.
I wrote in a previous post (“The End of the History of Music”) about composer Gyorgy Ligeti’s work Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. While I find most of Ligeti’s work both fascinating to think about and to listen to, I have a different reaction to this piece. I do find that this is a piece that’s interesting to think about. It’s a study in the extremes of polyrhythm, and a musical application of information theory – as Ligeti described it, the piece moves from maximum entropy to lessened entropy back to greater entropy. It’s an attempt to question the limits of what can be considered music. It’s a slap in the face of the propriety of high culture (perhaps more an issue in the early 1960s when the piece was composed than now – the liner notes to The Ligeti Edition, V. 5 in which Ligeti describes the premier of the piece are quite amusing and alone worth the price of the CD). It’s even worth a listen – there are moments when the clicking of 100 metronomes set at different speeds creates interesting patterns of sound. But beyond a listen or two, it’s 20 minutes or so of clacking and noise – not so interesting to actually listen to, much less repeatedly.
Jean-Luc Godard has made some great films. I’m quite fond of films like Contempt and Le Weekend, but many of Godard’s films simply annoy me. (This is actually praise of Godard. I’m highly idiosyncratic in that I love to watch movies, and I enjoy few things more than watching a good movie, but I find most actual movies disappointing. I’m annoyed by all of the films of most “art film” directors.) Band of Outsiders is a case in point. There’s not much compelling about the story. There are a number of cinematic tricks employed in the movie, mainly having to do with sound editing. For example, while characters are running along, an upbeat jazz track might be playing in the background and then suddenly stop while the characters continue moving as before, but in silence. This has the effect of making the viewer aware of how things like music affect the overall experience of watching film. That’s mildly interesting, but after a time or two, it’s simply bothersome, especially when there’s nothing all that compelling about anything else happening in the film.
A recent article in Américas magazine (April 2007, pp. 44 – 51) by K. Mitchell Snow introduces the work of Peruvian photographer Ana De Orbegoso. Many of the photos are evocative, beautiful, and thought-provoking, such as those in the series The Invisible Wall and Urban Virgins. At the same time, photos from another series, My Childhood Album, struck me as another example of art that is interesting to think about but not so interesting to experience. The photos involve pasting self portrait head shots of Orbegoso onto photos of children from other families. In the head shots, the adult Orbegoso mimics the sort of facial expressions typical of children in such photos, and the series acts in part as a photo commentary on the stylized modularity of families’ photographs, where virtually every family has the same photographs, that is, photos of family members in virtually the same “spontaneous” situations as every other family, which is to say that family photos and other family remembrances comprise a sort of patterned genre in their own right. I find that intriguing to think about, but the photos themselves – I’m a bit amused, and then I’m done, more interested in trying to track down more photos from her other series.