Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Danger of Art Interpretation

The Edge Foundation's annual question for 2006 was "What is Your Dangerous Idea?" The book version came out recently.

The responses, from a diverse group of scientists and intellectuals, range from "We have no souls" to "Our planet is not in peril." But one caught my eye because it had to do with art.

April Gornik, a New York-based artist wrote the following, under the heading, The Effect of Art Can't Be Controlled or Anticipated:
Great art makes itself vulnerable to interpretation, which is one reason that it keeps being stimulating and fascinating for generations. The problem inherent in this is that art could inspire malevolent behavior, as per the notion popularly expressed by A Clockwork Orange. When I was young, aspiring to be a conceptual artist, it disturbed me greatly that I couldn't control the interpretation of my work. When I began painting, it was even worse; even I wasn't completely sure of what my art meant. That seemed dangerous for me, personally, at that time. I gradually came not only to respect the complexity and inscrutability of painting and art, but to see how it empowers the object. I believe that works of art are animated by their creators, and remain able to generate thoughts, feelings, responses. However, the fact is that the exact effect of art can't be controlled or fully anticipated.
The reverse of this, I think, is that beautiful-looking art, art that by all appearances looks quite benign, can be created by artists who have ideas that are repugnant to many of us. Ideas that aren't necessarily obvious in the art.

My favorite example of this is Edgar Degas, a great painter and anti-semite who renounced his Jewish friends after the Dreyfus Affair (in which a Jewish military officer was falsely accused of treason in France).

How much of Degas' racism seeped into his painting? What would his paintings and sculptures have looked like if he had not been an anti-Dreyfusard? Must we take his racism into account when we seek to admire his ballerinas and bathers?

My question, then, is how much of art comes from the creator and how much comes from the viewer? This is the essence of April Gornik's "dangerous idea."

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