… 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

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Revisited: On studying Art History (seriously– is it a useless degree??)

It appears that the most popular post on this blog is On studying Art History (a useless degree?). In fact, one of the most common search terms I get is some derivative of “Is an art history degree useless?” Unsurprisingly, I saw a pronounced spike in this type of search around college application time. My previous post discussed what one can do with an Art History degree at a rather broad level, as I am sure that there are other things one can do with such a degree that I haven’t thought of. However, I did get one search phrase once– “is studying art history hard”– that I would like to delve into a bit more, as well as more real world analysis of what it is like to study and work in the arts.

Brilliant man, Einstein.

Let’s start with the inspiring question of “Is studying Art History hard?” Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but so are most areas of study. Everything requires work whether you are good at it or not, and what it really comes down to is if you care about it. Things can seem especially difficult if your mind does not operate along the lines dictated by your chosen discipline. Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

For Art History, there are different skills that one needs to acquire and cultivate, including (but not limited to): memorization, which is necessary pretty much anywhere but in terms of Art History means remembering scholars’ arguments, specific artworks, events, dates, etc; analysis, or being able to look at an artwork and scrutinize how it is made, what it means, and so on; critical thinking, which is tied to analysis and basically means reading between the lines and questioning an argument or artwork; efficient communication, both in terms of writing and speaking so that one can make an effective argument. When I started grad school, I had spent most of my academic and professional careers thinking in more practical terms (and I mean practical in the “practice” sense of the word): in art conservation and collections management, there are set ways in which one handles or takes care of an object, like not touching an antique silver teapot with your bare hands. Granted, many rules in the various academic disciplines are made to be questioned, as questioning and reformulating ideas are what drives knowledge forward (and since conservation is a very scientific field, it is as open to evolving ideas as chemistry is). However, unless someone develops a better glove than nitrile, I doubt that anyone will be changing how they handle silver any time soon. 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

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”)
Source

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”)
(Source)

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