I read, sometime ago, that art is inherently revolutionary because it challenges the viewer to rethink assumptions about reality. It was explained that the artist, in effort to find personal expression, presents a new vision or language. This new perception confronts the viewer with a new understanding of him/herself and reality. In the process, underlying assumptions are rattled.
On an aesthetic level, this is fine. Yes, art may be confrontational but being confrontational does not necessarily mean it is good art. I am no critic but I find too much modern art to be irrelevant and half-baked. What I mean is that it isn’t fully thought out so it comes across, in an effort to be unique and confrontational, as self-indulgent and sophomoric. It has an impact but the effect has little lasting importance. It doesn’t penetrate the psyche. It lingers for a short time like a sudden gust of wind, then disappears from memory, and is easily forgotten.
On the other hand, art critics are constantly criticizing art that is overtly political. Politics are transitory phenomena not the lasting stuff of art. I see this myself when I look at art that refers to particular political/historical periods or events. Art based upon ideologically is boring because we know what to expect. There isn’t any doubt either in the process or the outcome. Personal expression is hostage to message purity. But then there is Guernica, the Expressionists and WWI, Guston’s Nixon Series, etc. These are examples of some of the finest art produced in the 20th century. And let’s not forget Goya, too.
On a personal note, the artists I admire most are those that struggle to find new ways to express themselves. They work hard, take no shortcuts, have no axe to grind, and put in the extra effort that shatters the mold. Their work has a gravitas.
Recently, while visiting the Met, I was startled anew by the solemnity of Cezanne’s work. We aren’t looking at an apple; we are looking at a universal phenomena in the guise of an apple. No matter how many times Cezanne drew an apple, it was never a stylization. Each apple is a unique event, another exploration into the structure of reality.
Artists can feel deeply about the world they live in without explicitly making it the subject of their art. I am reminded of a story about Mark Rothko who completed a series of paintings for the exclusive restaurant the Four Seasons. I recall reading that he said he hoped the rich patrons would notice his paintings and choke on their food. Sorry, Mark, not a likely outcome. If they noticed the paintings at all, they would probably be more likely to choke on the current auction prices. The same outcome but not what Rothko, the rebel, had in mind.
The elucidation of one’s vision of the world, whether aesthetic or political, gives art its value, and keeps us interested. It’s what pulls me back into the studio every morning. Artists spend their lives working to realize their vision. When the vision is unprecedented it may also be revolutionary. Artists do, sometimes “rattle the walls.”