Saturday, August 28, 2010

Art science?

I am not an art historian, nor do I play one on TV, but I have enough hubris to offer the following note about a recent visit to the MOMA to see the exhibit, "Matisse: Radical Invention."

The focus of the show is on paintings that Matisse made between 1913 and 1917 and that were received poorly at the time. The exhibition offers an argument for how and why the paintings were "radical invention" in their time, marking new direction not only in Matisse's work, but also the work of other painters.

What especially interested StraightMan and me was that this re-interpretation of the paintings is based in part on the use of imaging technologies (like X-ray) to trace - or rather, reconstruct - Matisse's process. What did he do to make these paintings, and what likely was he thinking about when he made particular choices (including repainting portions of his canvases)?

As cultural anthropologists, we are partial to "process." It is also a radical invention itself, I think, to apply imaging technologies to "art." Yet, I also wonder whether or not this might be another sign of the "scientization" or "technologization" of yet another arena of thought and experience.

I am not for mystifying art as ahistorical "genius" - I find explanations of literature and art in terms of their structures to be robust: I am not alone in thinking that Pride and Prejudice is interesting not because of the players, but because of the rules of the game itself.

Yet, I also wonder at the significance with which imaging technologies are greeted as giving us the "truth" about Matisse.


Pet peeve: Museum goers, put down the phones and the devices transmitting your "audio tour," and just look at what is in front of you.

Because this is what I feel that you are missing, as described by short story writer Deborah Eisenberg (whose Collected Stories is reviewed in the August 16 / 23 issue of The Nation):

Looking at a painting takes a certain composure, a certain resolve, but when you really do look at one it can be like a door swinging open, a sensation, however brief, of vaulting freedom. It's as if, for a moment, you were a different person, with different eyes and different capacities and a different history - a sensation, really, that's a lot like hope.

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