Rediscovering my love of art through Vincent van Gogh

It’s been over four months since I have posted anything to this blog. Actually, it’s closer to five. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to write; indeed, I’ve started about 10 posts, half of which are still saved in my Drafts folder, but I (obviously) never finished any of them. There are a few factors that have contributed to my absence from the blogosphere: over the summer, I took on a second temporary job (in addition to my regular 32-hour-a-week job) for the CU Museum of Natural History in which I created a prototype mini-exhibition program called Exhibits in the Dorms; I got engaged in June and have been doing some moderate wedding planning ever since; and August saw the beginning of the Fall semester (though I am thankfully only taking one graduate class). Furthermore, my 94-page thesis sucked the will to write for educational recreation right out of me.

Aside from being busy, I have a confession I must make: there are many days where I’m not sure if I even like art anymore. Perhaps even hate it. I still see a lot of art (mainly contemporary), most of which I am thoroughly unimpressed by because of poor craftspersonship and the current market. When I look at a lot of art these days, I see capitalism at work (as art can be a good, unregulated place to invest money and the wealthy can determine who everyone should think is “good”). I see intellectual pissing matches in my graduate classes, where everyone is trying to prove that they are the smartest or that they have the most shocking and important things to say. I see the notes in the margins of my thesis from my advisor, tearing my words and ideas apart.

There’s no point in beating around the bush: I’m bitter. Plain and simple.

I have occasional moments where I am impressed by art, especially if it’s Modern or older. I suppose I can be considered something of a traditionalist when I say that I love meticulousness, a skilled hand, and a strong attention to detail, which, in terms of contemporary art, can be seen in the works of Ben JackelFred Tomaselli or Barbara Takenaga. I also like artists who acknowledge art historical predecessors in their work (albeit in an often humorous or derogatory sense), like Ged Quinn or Kent Monkman. And I love art that pokes fun at the market surrounding it, such as Banksy’s recent stunt in Central Park in which he was selling his own canvases for $60, but since they were so cheap, few people believed it was him or that the works were “valuable.” However, it is Modern master Vincent van Gogh who has managed to move me to tears in recent months and remind me that, yes, I really do love art.

Vincent van Gogh, “First Steps, after Millet,” 1890, oil on canvas. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Source)

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… And I’m still ambivalent to contemporary art

Before the artsy masses jump down my throat, let me clarify the title of my post: I do like SOME contemporary art, but not much of it, even though I tend to see a lot of contemporary art these days. There seems to be an attitude about art that if you don’t like it (which tends to preemptively assume “don’t get it”), you clearly are not an art person. Sure, people can have artists that they like and dislike, but if one targets a general period like contemporary, a certain amount of ignorance is presumed to be a factor. I admit that I am at least partially biased because I majored in modern art for my Master’s degree (perhaps for obvious reasons); furthermore, much of my professional experience weighs heavily in my mind when looking at art in general. My issues with contemporary art can be largely attributed to three major factors: construction, the art market, and classism. Continue reading

The Myths– and Realities– Behind the Stereotype of the Elitism of Art History

Raphael, “School of Athens” (c. 1509)

I recently started using the app Zite on my iPad, a sort of news-related RSS feed which is programmed to cater to your reading tastes the more you use it. I naturally chose Arts and Culture as one of my top categories, and the following article, originally in The Guardian, caught my attention: “History of art: a degree for the elite?” This article was written by Joy Starkey, a third-year Art History undergraduate at Cambridge University. It seems to be more relevant to the British academic and artistic scenes, and consequently, I had a little more trouble relating to it. However, it’s main point was quite clear: art– and therefore Art History– is quite literally put on such a pedestal that it is typically seen as inaccessible for most people, thus its study is believed to be limited to the elite few. And I mean “elite” in the literal sense of the word. According to Starkey, this stereotype is particularly prevalent in England, as Art History is a popular major amongst royals and the wealthy. She additionally points to other key factors in this perceived inaccessibility: the collecting of art tends to be pastime for the rich, art is often seen as cryptic (therefore those who can decipher it clearly are privileged), and art museums– which I should note regularly brush shoulders with the wealthy in order to acquire their art for exhibition loans– are inherently “treasure-oriented” with their presentation of objects on pedestals and white walls. I certainly agree with Starkey that the appreciation and study of art does not have to be limited to the pompous and privileged (I myself come from a thoroughly middle class background). Furthermore, I do not believe that Art History has to be a niche subject, and I wholly agree with her statement that art is “anything but elitist… Art is one of the most vivid ways of viewing history — it is an intimate glimpse into someone’s world.” However, I have to counter-argue that there still are degrees of elitism in the arts sector beyond its financial prevalence as a hobby for the wealthy, and they still pervade academia.  Continue reading

Hurricane Sandy and the future plight of US museum collections

As we all know, Hurricane Sandy has left an extraordinary amount of damage and suffering in its wake. After a little more than a week, 110 people in the US are dead (with another 67 dead in the Caribbean and 2 in Canada), 350,000 in New York are still without power, and there is thought to be between $15-20 billion in damage. In the midst of all of this human (and animal) suffering at hand, everyone is understandably more concerned with working towards the safety and preservation of life. However, when power is restored, homes repaired, and lives made somewhat whole again, attention will likely turn towards more “abstract” concerns.

Flood damage in the (unfinished) 9/11 Memorial Museum

I saw a couple stories over the weekend about how flooding in New York City affected cultural institutions. In the first story, Anderson Cooper interviewed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as they toured the 9/11 Memorial Museum site. The museum, which is mostly underground (and thankfully still empty) flooded with around 200 million gallons of water. It was roughly 5 feet deep. Another story on Bloomberg Businessweek drew attention to the millions of dollars of damage and loss of art after the basements of artists’ studios and galleries flooded (I should note that the first story I read was on CNN, but the link appears to be broken). A massive conservation triage-type effort is underway to halt further damage to works that can still be saved– indeed, conservators in the area are absolutely inundated with work– though some were simply damaged beyond repair (or the money it would take to repair and restore it would be more than the piece is worth).

There is a lot of buzz about how this storm has really brought attention to the fact that climate change is starting to manifest in more noticeable (i.e. highly destructive) ways. Sandy was literally a perfect storm of events: a hurricane + a cold front + high tides. In another article on ArtInfo on the 9/11 Memorial Museum, it talked about how museum planners knew that the museum was built in an area that was susceptible to “100-year floods.” While there was theoretically a 1% chance that the museum could flood every 100 years, the area has seen substantial flooding twice in the last 14 months. Talk of future storms is taking into account increased frequency of so-called 100-year storms and higher sea levels. In other words, the destruction that we saw from Sandy– particularly the flooding– could very likely be the tip of the iceberg of future issues along coastal lines and areas of low elevation, which also happen to be the locations of some of the biggest and most prominent museums in the US.  Continue reading

The complications in using art to solve medical mysteries

It is simultaneously fascinating, amusing, and occasionally annoying that people are constantly trying to find answers to old mysteries: Where are the remnants of Noah’s Ark? Who was the Mona Lisa (was it Lisa del Giocondo? Or a feminized self-portrait of a young Leonardo da Vinci?)? Did the Devil plant dinosaur skeletons to make us question our faith in God? (I would like to take this opportunity to state the obvious: this last “mystery” does not reflect my personal beliefs in the slightest, as I am a firm believer in science and evolution).

However, my “firm belief” in science can sometimes only take me so far. A recent theory about what caused King Tut’s death was posed by Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon at Imperial College London who happens to have an interest in medical history. He claims that Tut died from a form of temporal lobe epilepsy, providing evidence for this theory using the following factors: paintings and sculptures of Tut and his immediate predecessors, which show feminized features such as large breasts and wide hips, and historical accounts of hallucinations (the Egyptians called these religious visions) that occurred during or after exposure to sunlight. According to The Washington Post, “The temporal lobe is connected to parts of the brain involved in the release of hormones, and epileptic seizures are known to alter the levels of hormones involved in sexual development. This might explain the development of the pharaohs’ large breasts.” Ashrafian claims that Tut’s broken thigh bone could have been a result of fall during an epileptic seizure, and that he very well could have died young from the disorder. Furthermore, three of his predecessors all died young and all exhibited feminine features in art, “proving” the hereditary nature of temporal lobe epilepsy. He even goes so far as to say that the associated hallucinations brought about ancient Egypt’s brief period of monotheism, since Akhenaten (Tut’s father) had a vision/sun-induced hallucination to turn the minor deity Aten, or “sun-disk,” into the supreme god.

Epilepsy is an interesting theory, to be sure, and it is now added to an ever-growing list of what killed Tut: malaria, a fall from a chariot, sickle-cell anemia, murder, a hippopotamus attack… However, I resent that this new theory completely ignores two important factors: spiritual agency in creating a new religion and creative agency in the manufacture of ancient art. Continue reading

Van Gogh’s “colorblindness” and the subjectivity of perception

Color simulation
Vincent Van Gogh, “Wheat Field behind St. Paul Hospital with a Reaper” (1889)

I recently read an article on ArtInfo about a medical student in Japan, Kazunori Asada, who wrote an essay claiming to have proven that the artist Van Gogh was colorblind. The article– entitled “Japanese Scientist says Vincent van Gogh Was Colorblind– But Does it Matter?”– discusses how Asada was inspired by an experience at the Color Vision Experience Room at Hokkaido, which is “an immersive simulator that makes it possible to perceive color the way people with different types of colorblindness might experience it.” Asada ran several images of Van Gogh paintings through a color simulator, and you can see one of the results on the right. The gorgeous reds are eliminated and the painting overall looks to be more of a cool yellow.

The author of the article, Kyle Chayka, brings up several really excellent issues/points: 1) The images Asada used were digital images, therefore subject to the color variance of the individual computer screen (i.e. his computer could have been picking up more red than another computer would), or that of the scanner which scanned these reproductions picked up more red, or that of the images themselves, which may have been printed with a higher content of magenta in the ink; 2) Asada’s judgment that the “corrected” color simulations demonstrate more “‘brilliance with very delicate shades and lines'” (as opposed to an “‘incongruity of color and roughness of line'”) is extraordinarily subjective; and 3) the question of how one judges creativity. I found the following passage to be particularly moving:

How can we argue that van Gogh’s paintings look better through a filter? To assume that the painter’s provocative artistic choices were simply the result of a medical condition is to completely disregard his own creativity. Van Gogh’s colors are meant to clash; the unorthodox pairings were part of the Post-Impressionist and Fauvist aesthetic. Or were Paul Gauguin and André Derain also colorblind?

The article concludes with the question of whether genius-artists are innovative because of their biology or because they are creative pioneers, and he ultimately leans towards the latter. While I too prefer this sentiment– I personally think that the claim that Van Gogh was colorblind is absolutely ridiculous and unsubstantiated (if he was colorblind, he would have exhibited a similar color palette in his entire oeuvre, but his earlier works utilized more subdued earth tones)– a part of me wants to play devil’s advocate. What if he was colorblind? Beyond saying that “it doesn’t matter,” what can deficiencies in vision show us about our own perceptions of the world?  Continue reading

In “defense” of a hack-job restoration

Elías García Martínez, “Ecce Homo” (c. 1890)
Santuario de N.S. de la Misericordia, Borja, Spain
(Before, during, and after “restoration”)

It is unlikely that there is someone in the art world who has not yet heard this story (indeed, anyone who pays attention to the news has probably heard it, now that this has gone international), but I will still recap: an elderly woman in the town of Borja, Spain, with the permission of her parish, was working around the church to fix things up a bit and took it upon herself to “restore” a 120-year old fresco by local artist Elías García Martínez. “Ecce Homo,” which means “behold the man,” depicts the moment before Jesus was crucified. The fresco was flaking and in desperate need of restoration, so over the course of two years (in full view of others), she scraped off the loose paint and repainted the missing areas. The result is illustrated above, and clearly, things did not turn out so well.

Mr. Bean’s restoration of “Whistler’s Mother” (from the movie “Bean”)

I first read this story from a fellow WordPress blogger, Blog of the Courtier (if you click on the Source link under the picture above, you can check out the original post). It was a beautifully sympathetic perspective on how this woman did not know that she was doing something “wrong” in taking on this “restoration” by herself without any formal training, and that everyone makes mistakes. Other stories I have read since then, such as this one on CNN, are more comical and rather harsh: CNN journalists Brad Lendon and Mariano Castillo likened her work to that of the titular character in the movie Bean when he tried to repair “Whistler’s Mother” after using turpentine to clean up the remnants of a sneeze. I have since read– in another post that was also on Blog of the Courtier– that the poor woman has since suffered numerous anxiety attacks due to all of the media coverage, which has mostly been just like CNN’s. Because of my past experience in art conservation, current work in collections management/registration, and scholarly work in art history, I believe that there there are multiple ways that this story can be objectively analyzed that go beyond laughing at what she did to this fresco. Continue reading