What makes art last?

Posted: March 27, 2013 in Art
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

It’s kind of a loaded question, isn’t it? There are a lot of factors. How well known the artist was. If he had backers that chose to endorse him (or her!). If he got a lot of commissions. If his work was preserved well enough. If he had a lot of friends or a lot of money. Even trivial things like what city he worked out of, whether or not he was a menace to society, or if he had powerful enemies.

But, then again, all of that could be thrown out the window. Van Gogh was never quite in line with the other painters of his time. Michelangelo and da Vinci hated each other. Marcel Duchamp is quite widely hated by those that don’t appreciate modern art, and yet he is one of the most recognizable names of that period.

La Guernica Pablo Picasso

La Guernica by Pablo PIcasso

I guess my question is more based on opinion and less based on fact. Why do certain artists and works speak to us after all this time? Some of them are no longer immediately relevant, like Picasso’s La Guernica. And it takes someone who has studied art to understand what is being depicted in this particular painting. It isn’t exactly for the layman.

And yet people flock to museums every day. They enjoy looking at these works, even if they don’t necessarily understand them. I have a B.A. in Art History, but I wouldn’t even begin to know the meanings of half the paintings I’ve seen. But they still speak to me. I still appreciate them. I still find them beautiful.

But why?

Is it because we’re meant to? Is it because we know that Michelangelo was an incredible artist? Or that da Vinci was a brilliant inventor? Or that Gauguin was truly ahead of his time? Is it based on fact, or is it based on opinion?

The Birth of Venus Sandro Botticelli

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

If you were to look at a painting by Botticelli, without any preconceived biases or notions, would you still enjoy it? Would you still appreciate its beauty? Or, compared to what we can do with computers these days, would you find it primitive? Say it was The Birth of Venus. Could you still relate to its story? Could you understand the meaning?

I guess the notion is a morbid one. Do we appreciate art because we were told to? Because certain people in history, due to influence or money, preserved the works they liked the best? They say that history is told by the winning side. Can the same principle be applied here?

What do you think? Do we appreciate the Greats because we were told they are great, or do we appreciate them because we still connect to their artwork? If it’s the latter, what makes them still relevant to our modern world?

  1. alohaleya says:

    this is a great question. i also majored in art history and, in retrospect, it seems i spent a lot of time memorizing facts for slide exams, rather than focusing on my initial (emotional) responses to the work. if i could go back, i would first interpret the works through my heart, then my head!
    funnily enough i wrote something similar on my blog a couple of days ago – how a painting can speak to you years after it was initially created, transcending concepts of time, geography, and culture.

    • Karen Rought says:

      I think a lot of students of art history get hung up on the facts instead of the emotional response, which really is too bad since that was the whole point of the piece to begin with! If I could go back, I would definitely do the same.

  2. alohaleya says:

    it would be great if they – lecturers – could emphasize that more. i’m sure some do. who knows, maybe mine did but i didn’t ‘get it’ at the time!

  3. I think some art appeals to us emotionally, without context, because of something it triggers in us individually. A different meaning for each viewer – very personalised. To understand the artist’s specific meaning, though, often needs more context. Certainly more than we are often given by simply being told ‘such-and-such’ is a great artist or painting.

    I remember sitting and staring for an inordinate length of time at some Monets – a whole wall of them, arranged in a semicircle with viewing seats placed. They had huge appeal, and after a while I figured out why – for me, at least, they reflected the light quality I remembered in the district where I was brought up. A personal meaning, very different from the one Monet had intended. And yet, he DID intend to elicit an emotional response from the light quality he had captured. An interesting paradox, and probably one integral to the nature of art – the dissonance between the specific meaning intended by the artist, and the meaning drawn by the viewer.

    It’s probably true of writing, too, I suppose!

    • Karen Rought says:

      That’s a great explanation, and I think you are absolutely right. It all boils down to beauty and our interpretation of it. Then what sort of response it produces in us. I think that was the point of many works on a very basic level. Religious paintings in particular were like the poor man’s Bible. They were for people who couldn’t read but still needed to feel the same emotion the words produced in those that would. And even non-religious pieces work in a very similar way.

  4. Julie Glover says:

    I don’t know the answers to any of that. I do know that some artists seem to speak to a majority of us, while others are more of an acquire taste perhaps. For instance, I love this Dubuffet sculpture in downtown Houston and my mother, well, doesn’t: http://s4.hubimg.com/u/3249935_f520.jpg

    • Karen Rought says:

      Oh, that’s interesting! I can definitely see why that wouldn’t appeal to some people though.

      It reminds me of all those stories about the Eiffel Tower and how everyone thought it was an eyesore when it went up. But now? It’s practically synonymous with France. The same thing is happening with the pyramid entrance to the Louvre. Some people hate it, and some people love it. Definitely an interesting phenomenon.

  5. Prometheus says:

    Frankly, I don’t enjoy all the famous artists’ works but some. Having some knowledge of art is advantageous but this is still a very subjective question. So I’d just learn about a painting’s story (most of them do have stories), when it was created, etc and the impression it leaves on me. That is how I came to love Gauguin.

    I asked one of my friends how he’d know a good piece of art would be a valuable investment for the future and he replied “I’d first look at the artist and see if he is in good health. If not, then his work might be a promising investment for the future.”


    • Karen Rought says:

      Oftentimes a mediocre work is bumped up in status and appeal because of the story behind it. I don’t have a problem with this because, like you said, it’s subjective. And I think art should be. If it was objective, it’d be closer to science than art.

      I also love Gauguin! Hahaha, your friend sounds very wise indeed.

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