Rauschenberg and the purpose of ART

Trying a little thinking out loud…

In all of the living quarters and gathering places here there are stacks of books on Robert Rauschenberg. Who knew there were so many publications! In this room there are roughly 30 volumes, many slim exhibition catalogues, most of which I’ve not seen before.

One of these is the National Gallery of Art catalogue for the 1991 exhibition of works from the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange project, a series of exhibitions in eleven countries from 1985-1990 ( good overview, mid-project, NY Times 1987:  http://www.nytimes.com/1987/05/03/arts/art-rauschenberg-s-tour-de-force.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm).

In the back pages is a conversation between Bob and Donald Saff. At one point Bob says, “If I am a successful artist, then I think you don’t need art. Art is then an appreciation of your own life.”

The cynic might scoff at that thinking that evidently Bob wasn’t successful since we still need art (well, another cynic might say we don’t need art at all, that it is frivolous, elitist, whatever). But I am reminded of what another great philosopher, Vince Lombardi said:  “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

So if Bob worked with the idea that his work was based on what he found interesting, as document and visually compelling, which was pretty much the whole world, then he was setting up the possibility that others might be able to do that as well—to get the idea. He could strive to help folks “see”, but it might not work for everybody. All we got is excellent art.

Further along in the discussion is this recollection from Bob:

Jasper Johns had a schoolteacher in South Carolina, I think, and she had a gentleman visitor who came often and always sat opposite a Moholy-Nagy [painter/photographer, taught at the Bauhaus] and stared at it all through the evening. After months the guest said, “What is that?” and she said, “That’s a space modulator” and he said, “Oh,” and he never looked back at it.

Understanding is a form of blindness. Good art, I think, can never be understood.

For some reason we tend to privilege the verbal, to give weight to words as “meaningful” and if there is meaning that cannot be put into words then there is a tendency to dismiss it, to act as if it is silly, it can’t exist if it can’t be verbalized. And when we are new at this art stuff, or not really connected with it at all, we tend to hear an “explanation” and be satisfied that that is the final answer, that it is in the the words attached to the art—not the art itself—that is where the “answer” lies.

Here’s a recollection from the photographer Robert Adams:

Part of the reason that these attempts at explanation fail, I think, is that photographers, like all artists, choose their medium because it allows them the most fully truthful expression of their vision… as Robert Frost told a person who asked him what one of his poems meant, “You want me to say it worse?”

And in “How We Listen to Music” Aaron Copland says:

This whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, “Is there a meaning to music?” My answer to that would be, “Yes.” And “Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?” My answer to that would be, “No.” Therein lies the difficulty. 

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