5 Thoughts on 'What Is Art Good For?'

Posted by Benjamin Gardner on
"Law of the Journey" 2017, by Ai Weiwei.
Photo by Nutopia Ltd
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author. 

Five selected thoughts on the use of art in episode 9 of Civilizations.

1. This episode gets at one of a few important questions that artists ask themselves and that viewers contemplate when looking at art: why has this been made? What do I think about when I’m looking at it, and what do those thoughts relate to? While the episode is focused on different uses of art to specific time periods and its art in particular uses, the questions and ideas about use and usefulness in this episode occur on all levels of conception, creation, exhibition, and criticism with equal importance.

2. Soichiro Fukatake, founder of the Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima states that the museum is “not a religion, but religion-like.” I believe that this is not only a description of the museum, but rather a description, or at least an analogy, of what the use of art is. They are both institutions with use on a personal and societal level. Both can be evaluated on a personal and societal level.  Fukatake follows up his statement by saying that “There is no dogma here.” There is, on a number of levels, dogma involved in art, for better or worse.   

3. Michal Rovner also gets at something important about the use of art – if we look at the history of art, it is also a history of people believing their image or object was necessary and useful, as Rovner states, “to make a permanent mark and really to send a communication to an unknown future.” While use or what usefulness looks like may change over time, the reason something was made has in large part has stayed the same as a communication to that unknown future. It will also require literacy, discussion, and cultural context to communicate effectively read and interpret what was made. 

4. What is perceived as less useful is something that exists without context in an individual’s life. Even for someone invested in the value of art and its use, I find different historical movements useful at different times. One consistent part of my studio practice is that things that I dismiss as less important they rise later to be vital. Mondrian is a good example of this; when I first encountered his paintings I appreciated their formal qualities but was unaware of their importance to the history of abstract thinking in visual art.  I often use his tree paintings as evidence of his progression of the economy of form and how little is needed to communicate the idea of the tree in my classes.  

5. I find solace in Simon Schama’s statement at the end of this episode and the series.  It reminds me of a conversation that I had with a good friend about our ideas of nature.  I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I made some reference to seeking out the experience of nature on a grand scale and he thoughtful reminded me that I didn’t need to go to the Grand Tetons to see nature as it is present in each house’s windowsill when a spider spins a web and eats an insect.  Schama is saying the same thing, I believe— that we need not solely rely on experiences at Chelsea galleries or at world renowned museums to appreciate and consider the usefulness of art when examples of creative acts are all around us, wherever we live. And these creative acts will persist regardless of who is in power, who has wealth, and who determines the aesthetics of a culture. The idea that these localized and basic contributions are as much a part of civilization as are revered and iconic works of art and architecture is truly beautiful.

Benjamin GardnerBenjamin Gardner is an artist living and working in Des Moines, Iowa.  He has exhibited his work throughout the U.S. and abroad. He is an Associate Professor of Art and Design and the Center For Humanities Research Scholar at Drake University.

Website: benjaminagardner.com | Instagram: @the_stone_tape

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