It all started so innocently! I decided to read through some art criticism books so I could get a better sense of the art world and what other artists have done, especially in fiber arts. So I started Arthur C. Danto’s What Art Is and Elissa Auther’s String, Felt, Thread. A few pages in, though, I realized that I was in serious trouble. I have no knowledge of art history, so when Danto casually cites “the philosophy of the Fauvists,” I hadn’t the slightest idea what that meant. So I looked up the Fauvists, only to discover that “they were the first to break with Impressionism,” another movement of which I knew nothing. As I continued tugging on the string, I discovered that the Impressionists were a reaction to another movement, which in turn grew out of another movement….and it seems more or less impossible to understand the later movements without understanding the ones before.
So I went to Amazon and bought an e-textbook, History of Modern Art by H.H. Amason and Elizabeth Mansfield. It’s huge (834 pages), but it gets good reviews, and since it’s an e-textbook, I don’t actually have to lug several pounds of book everywhere. Thank goodness for e-readers!
Anyway, I’ve read through the first twenty pages now, a bit into the second chapter. It’s clear that there’s a ton to learn, and that I can’t simply read the book straight through. Instead, I’m going to set a goal of reading one chapter every two or three days, and spend some of the intervening time digging deeper into the movements covered in the chapter. I’m pretty sure that Romanticism and Neo-classicism, for example, each warrant more than the three pages they’re allocated in the book. I don’t think I’ll get a deep understanding of either movement in another day or two of study, but at least I can get a slightly better idea than just the definition of the movement and an example or two. And if I go through two or three chapters per week, I can get myself a basic grounding in the history of modern art in three or four months. That seems like a daunting amount of effort, but insofar as people spend years of their lives studying these things in college, it seems like a pretty short time to me. I’m hoping to get through most of it before going back to work.
In terms of my own work, I’ve really been struggling to come up with a design that is meaningful, complex, and beautiful. Art, of course, does not have to be beautiful…but I recently spent some time thinking about my personal tastes and values, and beauty is one of them.
If you are curious, here are some of the items I came up with, that I aspire to in my work:
- breathtakingly beautiful
- requires significant skill and knowledge of the medium
- original design
- good visual design, including use of color
- offers something to the viewer at all distances
- has enough layers of complexity/meaning to give the viewer something to think about, and is not totally obvious
It’s the last item that I’m really struggling with. I now have enough knowledge to compose a design that works, and I have good technical facility with my medium (though there is always more to explore). I can also make something that is meaningful. But my compositions tend to be rather blunt; subtlety and symbolism seem to be beyond me. I’m hoping that, by studying art history, I’ll learn more about what other artists are saying and how they are saying it. Seeing what others have done to solve similar problems, then trying to take some of that knowledge into your own work, is one of the best ways I can think of to learn a complicated new skill.
All this studying, of course, requires considerable effort, not to mention stacks of books. Here’s Fritz, doing his part to help.