When Art Just Ain’t Art

When Art Just Ain’t Art August 28, 2008

The crucified frog is considered to be art by some. Pope Benedict XVI disagrees.

Aesthetics is an interesting field, full of complexities and labyrinths. Many of us claim to know what art is…that is, until we are asked. Art and aesthetic theory is not often discussed at Vox Nova. Consider this a clarion for change.

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  • David Nickol

    A work of art can be offensive and still be art. These kinds of religious campaigns against “blasphemous” art are frequently engaged in by people who don’t understand art or don’t understand what the artist in question is getting at.

  • Being offensive doesn’t make it non-art. Thankfully, the days of government and church censorship are over. Kippenberger was a member of an Austrian artists’ group called the Lord Jim Lodge. A polemicist, he frequently offended people’s sensitivities. This frog was actually meant as a self portrait, at a moment of crisis.

    San Francisco’s MOMA has a lot of his works online: http://collections.sfmoma.org/THA376*1
    Saatchi has more here http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/artists/artpages/kippenberger_Paris_Bar_Berlin.htm
    New York’s MOMA http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O:AD:E:3111&page_number=1&template_id=6&sort_order=1

    Frogs are a recurring theme in his work. There are several different versions of the crucified frog. Another one can be seen here, that one wearing Lederhosen http://www.scienceblogs.de/kunst-en-blog/2008/05/viel-frosch-um-nichts-martin-kippenbergers-zuerst-die-fusse.php

  • Katerina

    Ok, first: UGH!

    Second: Policraticus and I went to the Museum of Fine arts in Houston for a total of two days and went from ancient art to all the way to art “produced” in 2007. It was very interesting to see the purpose that art served in ancient times and even many centuries after that. On the contemporary exhibition of the Museum, it was very obvious that the “art” there was merely trying to create a reaction: p**s people off (really! there’s no other way of saying that) or make them want to to throw up (which almost happened to me).

    I truly believe that photography, film and mass production has created an identity crisis for the artist and now he/she just tries to create reactions through their art so as to overstate their “talents.”

  • Greg

    It is a sad day when the term “art” is used to describe trash like this. It seems as though the same thing has happend in music as well. Nowadays anybody with an acoustic guitar is called a “musician” now matter how poorly the music.

  • Greg

    I believe the great Dietrich Von Hildebrand wrote a bit about this in his book “Trojan Horse in the City of God”. He had keen insight into true and false art.

    It is interesting how old fashioned Pope Benedict. Many faithful Catholics would call the Beatles “good music” whereas Pope Benedict would certainly not.

  • ragekj

    I’ll agree that art can offend yet still be art-one of my favorite writers is Flannery O’Connor, and here favorite literary mechanism was shock. I’ll also agree that art must be free-I’ve been reading Josef Pieper lately and he argues that poetry cannot be done with a utilitarian end as an objective, and we can apply that to art in general. However, I would be hesitant to argue that Pope Benedict doesn’t understand art. This case strikes me as something similar to the exhibit Katerina alluded to. It’s calculated to offend, not as a possible side effect or as a way of waking us up to the truth of something, as O’Connor did, but simply with the intention of offending.

  • The meaning of art is like the meaning of philosophy; it depends on whom and what you’re talking about. I would say that art has a plurality of meanings.

    Each one corresponding to what I appreciate, of course.

  • digbydolben

    Excuse me, but didn’t Christ repeat from the cross the passage of Isiah about being like a “worm”?

    Wasn’t crucifixion the most shameful death of the ancient world–involving not just exposed nudity (crucifixes in Catholic churches shield us from that), but also numinous torture–in that, per the thought of most ancient classical cutures regarding the afterlife (e.g. the non-burial of Polyneices in Antigone), the souls of those unburied and eaten by dogs–as Christ undoubtedly was meant to be–would never know eternal rest?

    Perhaps not to the proper bourgeois–and prudish–mentality of Benedict XVI Ratzinger, but I think that, no matter what was the blasphemous intent of its creator, this crucifix makes a good religious point.

  • David Nickol

    digby is certainly right about the grotesque nature of crucifixion, almost always prettied up in religious depictions. I have read that not only were the crucified naked, but the spectators roared with laughter when the crucified urinated or defecated.

    In any case, the linked article and several others I have found surfing the web point out that the artist meant this to be a self-portrait of the artist in a state of profound crisis, not a mocking image of the crucified Christ.

    Here’s a helpful commentary:

    One stand-in image for Kippenberger is Fred the Frog. A character shown here crucified, as a sculpture. Fred’s cross is made of stretcher bar wood and he clutches a beer mug, a not so subtle statement about the artist as victim and slave. The beer mug, cans of beer, cocktail glasses and many other references to alcohol are throughout the show. Kippenberger was the proverbial pathetic but lovable alcoholic and using the domesticated vernacular of drunk jokes openly admits it and makes fun of it at the same time. He’s playing the fool (in the Shakespearean sense) and the unrepentant punk.

  • JohnH

    Ugh. This gives me flashbacks to when I was a little boy. I had found a toad and was playing with it when the local bully (a bit disturbed psychologically, I think) took it from me and ran off. A few moments later he came back and told me to go look behind his garage. When I got there, I saw that he had nailed the still-living toad to a tree in a mock crucifixion-pose.

    The problem with much of modern art (speaking as an amateur artist) is that, as Katerina points out, the major thrust is to shock people with the unexpected. And many of the artists have no real background in art theory or training, since traditional techniques in art have been abandoned in many major schools. It’s akin to tossing out classes in literature, English, grammar, and spelling and expecting students to create their own language and literature from scratch. Many of the moderns I’ve seen seem to lack the tools to make effective art. They take a look at a Picasso or a Kandinsky painting and due to the deceptive simplicity of the truly great Modern and Non-representational artists think that it’s all scribbles with no training needed. Just expressing feelings, that’s all. And it all becomes very, very shallow–not to mention just plain bad.

    As for digby’s jibe about “bourgeois–and prudish–mentality of Benedict XVI Ratzinger”… has he read any of the Pope’s commentary on art? He is very passionate about art and music–hardly narrow or prudish. I don’t agree with all of his assessments of art, but he’s no bourgeois critic.

  • jonathanjones02

    Art should involve, at the very least, the following: skill utilized for a purpose beyond pure self-expression, and an attempt to grasp knowledge / contemplation of the human condition.

    By that minimum standard, it could legitimately be argued this piece is art, but I would suggest not…..because it is reasonable to assume (and we must always assume unless we are the artist, a reason the term is so hard to define) that the intent was to seek attention and / or shock.

    Skill must have a high purpose – this is what elevates to the level of art.

  • digbydolben

    And an understanding of the degredation of Christ on the cross is NOT an attempt to “grasp knowledge of the human condition”?

    And we must ALWAYS assume that the “the intent [is] to…shock”?

    What kind of philistine cynicism is that? ANY piece of “art” (even an inferior piece) takes WORK, and I would posit that commentators at Vox Nova are more likely to seek to “shock” than a hard-working artist.

    (And, yes, that IS a self-criticism 🙂 )

  • David Nickol

    Art should involve, at the very least, the following: skill utilized for a purpose beyond pure self-expression, and an attempt to grasp knowledge / contemplation of the human condition.

    How do the abstract works of Rothko or Jackson Pollack’s action paintings fit in this theory. Where’s the knowledge?

  • David Nickol

    There is a difference, by the way, between art that you don’t like and non-art.

  • If you think that’s bad, you should visit Austrian Hermann Nitsch’s “Orgy and Mysterium” plays. Full with Catholic, liturgical elements, he pours out fake and real blood (pig blood) by the buckets, with many a naked participant. Protests come from animal rights people 😛 He is a highly celebrated artist, complete with state funding. You’d yearn for Frogman here.

    Sartre said that the goal should be to shock the bourgeoisie. That can of course get pretty childish, Additionally, those ‘rebels’ are totally establishment now.. Not to mention, what’s there left to shock people with ?

    Stravinsky’s epochal, atavistic Le sacre du printemps resulted in fistfights a hundred years ago. Then, within a few decades, serious music went to pot, culminating in John Cage’s infamous recording of street noise.

    There is one group left that can be shocked very easily, of course they’ll try and kill you for it.

  • JohnH

    My personal opinion of Pollack is that his works only really function as historical curiosities nowadays, since their purpose was mainly a rebellion against representational art. Since we no longer live in an era where artistic boundaries are held up at all, the rebellion has no meaning for us. Sort of the visual equivalent of John Cage, another historical curiosity. That’s just my opinion.

    But, then again, I also dislike Baroque.

  • skill utilized for a purpose beyond pure self-expression, and an attempt to grasp knowledge / contemplation of the human condition.
    Granted, much of modern art is nothing but the emperor’s new clothes. The crumpled piece of paper in Tate, for example. Or the, uh, installation in Tate that consists of a light going on and off in an empty room. Woohoo. Kudos for milking the phonies though.

    There is no definition for art. Much like obscenity. I know it when I see it.

    Benedict’s take on rock music is about Apollo vs. Dionysos. As you can imagine, he is no friend of the latter.

  • I for one would neither put Pollock nor that ghastly kitsch by Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light up on the wall. But sooner the former than the latter. Luckily, I have my own work up 🙂

  • Policraticus

    These kinds of religious campaigns against “blasphemous” art are frequently engaged in by people who don’t understand art or don’t understand what the artist in question is getting at.

    Yes, I agree, and I hope I didn’t convey that I think offensive or blasphemous art is not art. I think the definition of art is difficult, if not impossible, to pin down, but I think it’s worth the effort. Pursuit, sometimes, is the good achieved.

  • Policraticus

    I believe the great Dietrich Von Hildebrand wrote a bit about this in his book “Trojan Horse in the City of God”. He had keen insight into true and false art.

    Greg, I’m glad you bring von Hildebrand up. My understanding is that the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project is in the process of translating his volumes on aesthetics into English. Finally those of us who do not read German will have his phenomenological account of art accessible to us.

  • But, then again, I also dislike Baroque.

    How dare you??? I’m assuming you don’t refer to Baroque music 🙂

    My personal opinion of Pollack is that his works only really function as historical curiosities nowadays, since their purpose was mainly a rebellion against representational art.

    After an hour-long conversation with Policraticus, we both agreed that Jackson Pollock’s works are art, because as David said above, he paints the action of painting. I guess one can appreciate that.

  • “I also dislike Baroque”

    When I was shooting in Rome last year, I was ready to behead the next freakin’ puffy cheeked angel. Especially, when an old church was ‘baroqued’. Created as a baroque whole, it was different, with the best of the work at least. But it’s still nothing to what they’ve done to old churches in Austria and Germany since the 1960s.

    Here are some of my photos of some of those atrocities, including the infamous Lego truck crucifix in a Jesuit church in Vienna. http://www.geraldnaus.com/?p=1388

  • Policraticus

    My personal opinion of Pollack is that his works only really function as historical curiosities nowadays, since their purpose was mainly a rebellion against representational art.

    And yet, I would argue that Pollack is, in fact, a representationist. The trajectory of art from the Renaissance to the contemporary period (at least in painting) has been the progression from painting objects to the space between objects, the space between objects to the act of perception, perception to subjectivity, and subjectivity to atomist ideas and emotions. Representation in its philosophical and artistic modes is not simply imitation (Aristotle) or realism (Romanticism).

  • Greg

    Policratus,

    In what direction do you find the trajectory moving?

  • After an hour-long conversation with Policraticus, we both agreed that Jackson Pollock’s works are art
    Now there’s an hour of your life you’ll never get back =D

    Video killed the radio star, and photography killed painting. My Canon 1Ds Mark III puts the eye to shame.

  • jonathanjones02

    The best arts blog I know of is
    http://www.2blowhards.com

    (And what do you know, we share the same generalizations of art)

    And an understanding of the degredation of Christ on the cross is NOT an attempt to “grasp knowledge of the human condition”?

    Perhaps if the piece were at attempt to do so. What are the indications this is such, as opposed to attention-seeking?

    And we must ALWAYS assume that the “the intent [is] to…shock”?

    Did I say “always?” No, case by case.

  • When I was shooting in Rome last year, I was ready to behead the next freakin’ puffy cheeked angel.

    Hahahaha… I strongly dislike those angels too!!! Poli and I saw those angels depicted in sculptures in ancient Greece when we went to the museum. So they’re not “Christian” angels 🙂

  • The angels are called putti (sing. putto), meaning little boy(s). Even when it comes to angels, sexism can be found 😀

  • Gerald – has any explanation ever been offered for why a Lego truck was depicted as being crucified, and what was being communicated?

  • Policraticus

    The angels are called putti (sing. putto), meaning little boy(s). Even when it comes to angels, sexism can be found 😀

    Those little chubby baby angels that the Renaissance painters portrayed are actually the image of the Greek/Roman figure of Eros/Cupid. So what was once the image of a divine emissary for the Graeco-Roman and Christian worlds has become a silly picture that hangs in American’s bathrooms.

  • Dan

    Art like this is just plain stupid. Hooray! It’s somewhat offensive – so I guess it has now become some type of commentary on modern man. This will obviously be an art piece that will ‘last the ages’ like Michaelangelo’s David. Yeah right! But I’m sure some idiot will pay a lot for it to have in their collection.

  • Is art qualified on its own? Can we say good and bad art? Does it give way to degrees?

  • The Jesuit in charge – a patron of the arts – had a little competition and he picked that stuff. It wasn’t cheap. As far as the meaning – no idea.

  • David Nickol

    Of course one wouldn’t expect Catholics to remember the “scandal of the cross.” Actually, occasionally someone who thinks they are being irreverent kind of gets it. They say something like, “Well, if Jesus had been executed in an electric chair, we’d have churches all over the place with images of a man with long hair being electrocuted! Hahaha!” They actually see something of the “ridiculousness” of it–the scandal.

    We are so used to the depiction of Jesus dying on the cross as a beautiful iscene, which we must treat with great reverence, that the fact is far from our minds that crucifixion was an extremely grisly and humiliating method of torture and execution, used on only the lowest of the low. We have elegant photos of a sorrowful Mary standing at the cross, when any follower of Jesus, let alone his mother, would be puking their guts out if they watched. (I didn’t see The Passion of the Christ, and I disapproved, but the idea was not without some merit.)

    How dare some jerk who calls himself an artist take our beautiful, sacred image and try to make a point with it! Except that the beautiful, sacred image is also grotesque and horrible. That kind of torture shouldn’t be inflicted on anyone, let alone someone like Jesus. But of course it was all part of God’s master plan, so we shouldn’t find it in any way offensive.

    There are countless web sites out there that have hints to what is going on with Freddie the Frog. It’s a self-portrait of the artist, for one thing. The cross is made of stretcher boards. Hmmm. . . an artist picturing himself crucified on his own working materials. Maybe there is meaning to be found in it. Maybe there should be some organization to rate art the way the USCCB rates movies.

  • Greg

    Sam,

    I am surprised that you asked whether there are degrees of beauty in art (or maybe you are asking it rhetorically). As an accomplished musician, I am sure at some point in your life you have played with other musicians who were superior to yourself in terms of technical ability. I know in my 20 yrs of playing guitar I have played with many guitarists who could play circles around me in terms of soloing. They could play much more beautifully than I could and no amount of practice could ever bring me to their level. The same is true of singing. I have a lousy singing voice. No amount of practice could bring me to the level of many of the singers I have heard. They have a gift of God that is much greater than mine. One does not even have to be a musician to recognize this, the sense of hearing alone is needed. Now, interestingly, the technical ability of a musician does not necessarily translate into excellent songwriting. The rock world is full of example of songwriters (John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, etc) who are considered excellent songwriters but are not technically accomplished musicians. Clearly some have a greater gift of melody than others. All of this taken into consideration would seem to show that indeed there are gradations of beauty and this, in large part, is due to the fact that God bestows his gifts in various degrees. I think the same argument could be made in athletics.

  • I don’t know anything about art other than I’m not an artist. I can tell you had it not been for the Pope’s statement and early protests, I would have never even seen this. Now it is all over the internet and of course I’m curious.

    Like a child throwing a tantrum, it is far better to ignore such things. If the artist wants attention it won’t matter if it is positive or negative.

  • david

    Art is beauty. The beauty of creation is God’s art. Ugliness is a perversion of art, just as the grotesque is a perversion of beauty.