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Chicago Art Institute Trip

February 4, 2013

“I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.”–St. Anselm of Canterbury.

Alas, this will not be a post about how the ontological argument is not sound.

Anselm’s concept of believing in order to understand is crucial, not only for engagement with religion but engagement with art. The person who wishes to learn about great art, or great literature or great music must first humble himself. He must be content to not pass instant judgment on a work (“I don’t like it–it must not be great”), but instead to try to understand why it is considered a great work. This does not mean that you should make no judgments, only that you should make them carefully. You should be firm in your opinions, but willing to change them if need be.

The story of art history can be thought of as the story of a conflict between two competing images–the idol and the icon, the false image and the true image. The idol is an image created solely by autonomous man. It does not tell the truth, but tells us what we want to hear. It may be beautiful, but it is a false guide, an untrue sign. The idol does not engage us, does not change us, gives us no truth. An extreme example of an idolatrous image would be pornography. It does not show truth, it is an image manipulated to fulfill human desires (and in being manipulated does violence to truth) and the viewer merely looks at it without the image looking back. The icon, on the other hand, is a symbol of truth, an incarnation of truth. Since it bears the truth, it has a message to tell us, a message that will most likely be uncomfortable. It may not be lovely to look at, but it will be a good guide. Jesus Christ would be an extreme example of an icon–a signifier of the Father, a representation that allows us to see what we could not see otherwise, an image that looks at us and demands our engagement rather than an image that we look at and conform to the patterns of our mind.

The problem that we face in art criticism is that oftentimes there is no sharp distinction between the icon and the idol. Oftentimes, idols disguise themselves as icons. Works that we think are making a bold statement are actually telling us what we want to hear, reinforcing our denial of truth. This is analogous to the pharisees, who had the veneer of holiness, but whose lives did not match their teachings. At other times, a work may be partially iconographic and partially idolatrous–think of our conceptions of Jesus. Christians look to the same person for their salvation, but oftentimes their imaginary concepts of him–Republican Jesus, Jim Wallis-style Democrat Jesus, hipster Jesus who is above politics–obscure his true nature. Thus, they end up worshiping a combination of the truth and their own idolatry.

With this dichotomy in mind, I will share a few musings on the works that I looked at on my last trip to the Chicago art institute.

The first room that I went into was the paperweight collection. Moral of the story: you’ve seen one paperweight, you’ve seen ’em all. I am sure there is some diligent scholar out there who is going to write a brilliant paper on paperweights (with paperweights on his paper), but it is not me.

After that, I checked out the exhibition “When Collecting Was New: Photographs from the Robert A. Taub Collection.” Before looking at this collection,  I was not aware of the subculture surrounding collecting artist’s photographs. Photography, in fact, is still somewhat a foreign art for me. However, there were some interesting photos at the collection.

"Moonrise, Hernandez New Mexico" by Ansel Adams

“Moonrise, Hernandez New Mexico” by Ansel Adams

This is a bad version of the picture up above. Look at a good quality one if you can. The photographer draws a striking contrast between the church and cemetery below and the dark sky up above. The mountains and clouds form a barrier between the void of space and the quiet home of the dead.

“Migrant Mother”

It was exciting to see this famous picture “live.” This was taken during the Great Depression by Dorothea Lange, working for the government by taking pictures of the wandering workers. This is a masterful photo. The look of concern on the mother’s face is emphasized by the children turning away, and by the barely seen baby. The way that the photographer keeps the mother at the center, and surrounds her by her worries, none of which face the camera, is genius.

There were also some of Cindy Sherman’s fake “film stills,” which were pictures of stereotypical early 1960s women in stereotypical early 1960s movie settings. I believe that these have some sort of satiric feminist undercurrent. However, I think the ironic approach may do more harm than good. I’ll come back to this theme in part 2 of this article.

A final memorable part of the exhibition was a wall dedicated to a portfolio by one artist titled “Women are Beautiful.” It contained lots of pictures of women in different settings–not all of the women conventionally beautiful, and not all of them adequately clothed either. It was not alluring. It was not even sexy. It made me think of the relationship between the person and the camera. The artist’s goal was most likely to “empower” or affirm women–a noble goal. But I think that he may have ended up still objectifying them. A camera de-personalizes everything. A picture creates a space between the viewer and the object, a space not created by painting. It also is anti-metaphysical in a way that painting is not–a picture does not give us a comment on the way that the world is, or should be, but merely presents brute fact. (This may not apply to all photographs, but it seems to be a tendency of the medium.) The artist wanted to celebrate human sexuality. But what he showed was human sexuality devoid of human relationship, stripped of its most basic meaning. Even though he tried to show a positive message, by separating the metaphysical from the physical, I think that he ended up objectifying his subjects again, perhaps even in a worse way that porn or conventional advertising does. It is another sad reminder that modern art is not necessarily a friend to women.

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