Thursday, July 29, 2010

Difficult Art that is Good For You

Long time blog reader and frequent commentor AutumnLeaves raised a great question when she wrote the following in the comments section in response to yesterday's post Should Art be Good for You? A Response.

"Obviously, the relevant word is "moral." I am reminded of the Ashcan movement, diametrically opposed to the concept of being uplifted. Still and yet, there is such a beauty in painting the human spirit in all its forms, and uplifting it is. I'm not saying what I'm thinking very well because it is all atumble in my head this a.m. I find all art uplifting. As to morally...morality...hmmm...?"

Since I am a BIG fan of the Ash Can School (have been since my 7th grade art teacher, Mr. Jackson, introduced me to them) I couldn't pass up the opportunity to discuss this subject a little further.

Here's my concern, people equate "morality" ,a word which has taken quite a beating in recent years, with the concepts of prim and proper and hypocritical self-righteousness or sentimentality and sugary sweet romanticism.

It is neither. While art that confronts us with the stark and harsh realities of life: poverty, war, injustice, cruelity, greed, is often not a "pretty" picture it is actually more likely to have a "morally uplifiting" effect on us.

For me a painting that portrays poverty is guaranteed to sting my conscience and stir up compassion and forge a deeper understanding of what other's suffer, it will also cause me to have an expanded sense of thansgiving and gratitude for what I have been blessed with. So if a painting with harsh subject matter causes me to have a greater compassion for my fellow humans, to be more mindful that others suffer, and creates a more profound sense of gratitude in my heart I'd say that I was very much "morally uplifted". In fact the experience of confronting these difficult realities in a painting may even inspire me to take action. How many of us have recently been compelled to donate money to wildlife rescue efforts after seeing distrubing images of water birds from the gulf cover in deadly oil?

Art that is "good for us" can often be a bitter medicine, (though visually powerful and compelling as an art work) but one that does our inner person a great deal of good with "moral uplift".

Here's a little background on the Ash Can School from a site called Michigan Bungelow

A group of artists who gathered around influential artist and teacher Robert Henri (pronounced Hen-rye) during the early 20th century, including: George Luks, William Glackens, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, George Wesley Bellows, Arthur B. Dawes, Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, Guy Pen du Bois. They launched American Realism, and as is often the case with new art movements, the artists were unappreciated and misunderstood by many, even called "apostles of ugliness"1 by some critics, who were more comfortable with the prevailing American Impressionism.
They were known for portraying the grittier side of New York life, and yet, as shown in the DIA exhibition, they depicted many aspects of life, including people at play from all walks of life.
The Ashcan term was first used in 1916, by a critic who was referring to an illustration by George Bellows in the Philadelphia Record on April 25, 1915, entitled Disappointments of the Ash Can, where down-on-their-luck men are looking for tidbits in a trash can.

George Wesley Bellows, Cliff Dwellers, 1913, oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 42 inches (101.9 x 106.7 cm), Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Read more about the Ash Can School and some more here and here


Dusty Pines said...

this is such an interesting discussion that i'm encouraged to write a blog response to your responses! i'm reading robert henri's 'the art spirit' - he has a philosophy of the arts that i find uplifing & also sensible & sensitive. & i was reminded, when reading your discussion of the ash can school, of dorothea lange's photos - harsh, strong, moving. and maybe 'moving' is the key . . .

thank you!

Jan Blencowe said...

Dusty Pines you have read my mind! Dorothea Lange's dust bowl, depression era photos also came to my mind. I almost included her most famous iconic photo of the young mother and her children but I thought it would be better left for tomorrows post.

At its most basic level art should connect us to our shared humanity and whenever a work of art stirs in us a chord that links us with our fellow human beings and the creator who we are fashioned after and is the source of our humanity it is morally uplifting in a deep, porfound way rather than a "goody two shoes" cliche way. So in the end I do agree with the Hudson River School painters that art is an agent for spiritual and moral transformation.

AutumnLeaves said...

'Course you know I have something to say, right? LOL When I think of morality, I think of it as a personal code of ethics, a personal sense of right and wrong, often times outlined by societal mores. I rarely even associate morality with art as in my mind they really don't go hand in hand. That doesn't mean that they can't speak to one's moral code or fabric as you mentioned they do for you. I think that art arouses a highly individualized response and quite basically speaks to our emotions, whether tickling the edges of what we think of as a moral right or wrong or something else that has nothing to do with morality. I can't comment on the overuse of the concepts of morality in today's times quite honestly.

I do see what you mean about the Ashcan school of art touching sometimes on what may seem moral outrage...Intrinsically, that is a strong emotion. That art can raise a strong emotion of any kind is what truly makes it a successful piece. Calm and placid and miles away from reality (and morality) has its own place too. Escapism for me.

Jan Blencowe said...

Thank you Dusty Pines and Autumn Leaves, I think this is such an enriching exchange of ideas! I so appreciate both of you taking the time to think though these questions and for responding so thoughtfully. Art is many things to many people and is always open to interpretation, taking the time to ponder and discuss the value of art is itself a valuable experience.