Posted by: kerryl29 | January 17, 2022

Art for Art’s Sake

Last Friday, I viewed Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, better known by the slightly less formal title “Immersive Van Gogh,” at an art space on Chicago’s Near Northside. Did I find it worthwhile? Let me put it this way: it made me think, so, yes, I found it worthwhile. I’m not going to review the exhibition; the irony that would result were I to do so will become clear presently. (All I’ll say about the exhibit here is that it was a work of art in and of itself that featured…works of art.) Instead, I’m going to share some of the thoughts the exhibit provoked; hopefully this will come across with a degree of coherence, but in case it doesn’t, you’ve been forewarned.

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Here’s an image:

Polo Beach at Sunset, Maui, Hawaii

Do you like it? Dislike it? Is it good? Is it bad? And does the answer to the first pair of questions predetermine your answer to the second set?

My opinion–and, tellingly, that’s all it is: my opinion–is that these are two very different sets of questions and that the second set, in fact, is essentially misplaced. I’ve touched on this, if somewhat elliptically, before on this blog: the inherent subjectivity of art. Conflating one’s opinion (i.e. like/dislike) with innate quality (good/bad), this line of thinking goes, is a mistake. It implies the objectivity of opinion, which is taking a trip through the looking glass. And to be clear, I don’t think this is merely a matter of semantics.

Where a clear consensus exists that an objective standard of quality is extant, a declaration of good or bad (or some other spot on the continuum) has transitory meaning, if indeed it has any meaning at all. Outside of that setting, such a declaration is an issuance of opinion–nothing more. It may be an informed opinion; it may be an opinion supported by foundational reasoning. But it is an opinion nonetheless, and in the end, the only thing objective about an opinion is the definition of the word itself.

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There’s a widely held belief that Van Gogh never sold a painting during his lifetime. This is a myth, but that doesn’t mean that he was a commercial success. Hardly. Were it not for the ongoing financial assistance of his brother Theo, it’s unlikely that Vincent Van Gogh would have been able to pursue his art full-time for the 11 years that he did so. By any reasonable financial measure, during his artistic lifetime, Van Gogh was a failure.

And yet, this undeniably financially unsuccessful painter is now widely regarded as one of the most consequential artists in the history of Western civilization. In fact, he has been so regarded beginning a decade or two after his death in 1890 at the age of 38. Much of Van Gogh’s work, today, is ostensibly priceless.

Now, there are many reasons why this grandiose change of fortune may have taken place. Perhaps, had Van Gogh not committed suicide, he would have ultimately achieved financial success during his lifetime and still be regarded as one of the art world’s giants today. There were, after all, contemporaries of Van Gogh who were financially successful during their lives and are still regarded as among the greats today–Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas. Van Gogh might have been another name on this list. Perhaps.

But there were also, undoubtedly, artists who were commercially successful contemporaries of Van Gogh whose names have been lost to history. (I’d cite a few but…their names have been lost to history, so…)

The reasons why someone might end up on the No Longer Consequential List while others–like Van Gogh and Monet and the others–are regarded as titans to this very day are myriad, and someone much more learned in the pastime of artistic critique than I could–and probably would–be able to cite a number of purportedly undeniable reasons why this is so. But it’s my contention that, in the end, what it boils down to is a matter of opinion. That Artist A produced work that some group of influential people better liked or were more moved by or better fascinated or [fill in your preferred term connoting something subjective here] than Artist B…whatever that means, I’m persuaded that what it doesn’t necessarily mean is that Artist A produced objectively better art than Artist B.

If you think that the above constitutes a sneaky means for me to express my opinion of the work of Van Gogh (or Monet or anyone else, for that matter), you would be incorrect. That is not what I am doing, please believe me. I’m simply saying that opinions are opinions; they are, by definition, subjective. And in the end, we conflate opinion with truism at our peril.

P.S. I found the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit extremely interesting, well beyond the manner in which it made me think about the subjects ruminated upon above. That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.


Responses

  1. Beautiful

  2. I am going to add something to the “what it boils down to is a matter of opinion.” I totally agree with that, but opinion can be influenced either gently or with a hammer-like approach. There is a reason that advertising and public relations are such strong players in our world. Artists throughout history have had patrons and promoters who get their work seen by others, leading to sales, a widely recognized name, and a place among the titans (sometimes). Thanks for a thought provoking piece.

    • Agreed, the access to resources, the ability to market one’s work (and one’s self) well and a host of other factors certainly can and do impact opinion and, by extension financial success or lack thereof. (If only Van Gogh been backed by a wealthy benefactor and/or been buddy-buddy with a key Parisian art critic or two…)

      But it in the end, I think assessment of art remains a matter of opinion, regardless of how manipulated it may be.

  3. Hmmm, so much to consider here, Kerry. I have some of these same thoughts when it comes to composers but so often being considered successful depends on whether the works of the creative person resonate with the times and culture in which they are made. But for some artists/composers/writers, etc., it is only the distance of time that allows the value of the work(s) to be appreciated. Even J.S. Bach, who actually was successful in his time, was mocked by his sons as out-dated but who was truly appreciated post-mortem for his genius because Mozart became enamored of his works. So, from the artist’s perspective, one can only create without considering anyone else’s opinion.

    • Very interesting thoughts, Lynn. In addition to the cases you cite, there are those artists, regardless of medium, who are successful during their lifetimes and, for a myriad of reasons, are also considered part of the canon long after their lives end.

      Regardless: “So, from the artist’s perspective, one can only create without considering anyone else’s opinion.”

      Very well said indeed.

  4. As a retired teacher and artist, I have long wondered what the “art world” recognizes as “good.” I have seen artwork receive awards that, in my opinion, has no redeeming value, and others I think are outstanding, get ignored. The world has millions of good artists but only a few are “recognized.” Art is definitely a matter of opinion. And if someone influential likes an artwork……

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