Posts Tagged ‘Art’


An “us vs. them” world tends to produce belief in cultural superiority. But human beings share more in common than perceived—and, admittedly, sometimes real—differences that may separate us. Exhibit A: Teotihuacan.

Teotihuacan is a sprawling pre-Columbian archaeological site northeast of Mexico City. Famed for its huge pyramids, Teotihuacan once contained 125,000 residents. Carolyn and I went there over 40 years ago. So naturally, we attended the recent exhibit of Teotihuacan artifacts at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.

One piece particularly fascinated me: an incense burner dated 350–550 CE. No photo—at least taken by me—can do it justice. Fifteen to 18 inches high, it depicts a king or priest with a huge headdress. Its multi-planar construction could suggest a 21st-century artist. I didn’t over-think the piece. I just stared in awe.

Some Americans might think this piece primitive since it’s highly stylized rather than realistic. But such art, found worldwide, speaks to me far more than European art of the medieval and Renaissance periods, at first stylized then trending towards realism.

The Teotihuacan piece led me to wonder: How do Americans who don’t visit museums view art from outside the U.S. and Europe? Do they consider valid only European art of the 12th through 19th centuries? Do they think that legitimate art comes only from white Christian civilization, and its Greek and Roman antecedents?

No knock on European art, but my preferences run to Native-American, Latin-American, African, Middle-Eastern and Asian art—along with anything from antiquity. Also, the European Impressionists and many modernists. Why?

Stylized or representative art involves me precisely because it isn’t photo-realistic. Here I turn to Plato, who wrote of numina and phenomena. Simply put, all physical objects in the world represent—but cannot duplicate—their conceptual ideals, known as numina. For example, all physical chairs—phenomena—cannot replicate the ideal no matter how beautiful or utilitarian.

Likewise, no painting or sculpture of a horse can depict the ideal horse. By definition, any physical image is too specific and thus limited in scope. But artists still grapple with numina. Picasso drew a horse utilizing a single line—what appears to be a simple outline. The viewer’s imagination fills in the details and comes to some understanding of the concept of horse. That’s what makes representative art so engaging.

Regardless of style, representative art—like realistic art—expresses the universal human desire to understand the world in which we live and in doing so, ourselves. With clay, wood, metal and plastic; on board or canvas or rock; in leather and fabric; on slabs of stone or cave walls, artists from all places and times have sought to come to grips and move us with a greater reality.

The need for art is so basic, all cultures pursue it. Placing geographical constraints on art’s value dehumanizes artists—and ourselves. Moreover, variance in form and style does not make one culture’s art superior to others. There’s art well-done and art not particularly accomplished. Art presents is with a win-win proposition.

We can learn much from the art of other cultures, past and present. Their history and religions can inform us, too. As the old saying goes, we’re all different just the same.

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I hear lots of talk about art and artists, but I’m clueless as to what art is. So I asked people associated with the arts to enlighten me.

What can be called art? Dan Weiss, a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, and art and jazz patron sees a level of art in every human activity. “Someone causes an aspect of our lives to be discovered anew and possible transforms the mundane into the heavenly.” Painter Jim Shay states, “Art exists to focus our spiritual nature.” He cites medieval cathedrals. “By viewing the stories carved in stone figures, the participant can combine the spatial shock received from the soaring spaces with the allegories and stories to a finer understanding of God.” Sculptor Karen Shay confesses, “I don’t know what Art is.” Hers “is about making the emotional and psychological into physical form.” Art with a capital “A” concerns “that which is universal, timeless and often spiritual.”

Ron Eaton, a former classics major, and art and music lover, comments, “At a minimum art must be a physical product or an act that exhibits conscious mastery of form, and that mastery must elicit an emotional response.” As such, “A well-made but frenzied Tibetan tanka and an elegantly simple Cycladic idol can both be art; badly made, neither is.”

Fiction writer/teacher Tom Parker proposes that even if it’s not always pretty or “artful,” art “provides the reader with a unique take on the human condition, an uncommon angle on the commonplace, a fresh way to view the world.” Actor Carolyn Power (Mrs. Perlstein) adds: “Art originates in the soul of the artist; manifests through expression of this vision and is made real through commitment and sheer hard work.” Carolyn focuses on the craft of “creating the bones of the character and interpreting the language of the play.” She is not aware of the art side to the equation, “but the audience is.” Dancer Aaron Perlstein (my son) sees art as about interpretation.

Can anyone claim to be an artist? According to Jim, few people can. “Wayne Thiebaud once said that he’s a painter, not an artist. He said ‘artist’ is a rare thing and somewhat unknown. I agree.” Karen believes there’s “a whiff of elitism or snobbery when the term gets thrown around too loosely.” Aaron asks, “What’s the point in defining who is or is not an artist?” He adds, “Viewers and critics of art are just as important to the process.”

Is there a difference between art and craft? Jim believes that much “art” is more craft.  “For example, well-painted but empty realist work.” Yet a crafted object like a Japanese teapot may rise to the level of art. According to Aaron, craft creates functional items, like a sweater or a house. However, “Adding intention from the craft maker to interpret or express does blur the lines.” Ron asks whether a Japanese netsuke or a kimono is art or craft. “Both can be things of great beauty and control of form but also serve practical purposes.” For Karen, craft lacks an emotional component.

Does society have an obligation to artists? Aaron says that nobody has an obligation to anybody. Yet “Funding the arts is good for society, and funding the arts with public money will help our economy.” Jim acknowledges that society has definite obligations to artists. “I don’t know what they are, though.”

Given these comments, I just may be able to jump in on the next conversation about art. How about you?

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