Popular and Fine Art - UCLA Lecture 1965
ART 1C | UCLA | LECTURE 14 | 1965
It is interesting to examine words or terms that are incorporated into popular speech, such as, "he has his two feet on the ground." This means that that person is a solid citizen, an upright man.
These common phrases do contain truths. They can be so self‑evident that we may come to regard the phrase as a truism. By investigating these truisms, we see that they sustain levels of interpretation that provide a basis for our understanding of other specific events to which we ascribe greater individual significance. Truisms are a basis of a culture or our society. They can also help us understand something about the arts, even the "fine" arts. Hence, there is an explicit relationship between the fine and popular arts.
The popular arts are unpretentious. If we deal with the lyrics in a blues tune, for example a tune written by Chuck Berry, we are actually dealing with poetry in the vain of the popular arts. What does poetry mean to Chuck Berry? These lyrics are actually a commentary on our anthropological culture, not "culture." A song sung by Frank Sinatra does not have this implication. Berry is an artist in that he is writing poetry in the lyrics, popular poetry to be sure. His essence as an artist should not be confused with the fact that he is a popular artist and not a "fine" artist. Can an artist be great as a popular artist as opposed to one in the fine arts. It is necessary to challenge the student's concepts in regard to this question, for it goes against everything he has learned. Must we draw a distinction between the two?
The arts today- in revolution
Suppose we are dealing with serious issues such as politics and revolutions. These issues in relation to our society are examples of things that are discussed on Wednesday afternoons in the Student Union in an informal meeting between the faculty and the students. The problem of rebellion and revolution is raised by Albert Camus in The Rebel. In it, he provides a functional definition of the two words. A revolutionary has something to put in the place of that which he wishes to abandon. A rebel is one who acts out of a natural response.
In this sense, we can possibly say that we are experiencing a revolution, because new values are replacing the old. What these new values are brings the discussion into the classroom, because this is part of our limitation of our historical perspective and our own awareness of our process of historical examination. What is the most important element today in our culture, and how is it expressed? We are concerned explicitly with this expression in terms of a work of art, fine or otherwise.
This revolution has been going on since the mid 50's, and we are now first beginning to perceive the effects of it, specifically the revolution of the popular arts vs. the established fine arts. This is why we can no longer accept the distinctions unquestionably without missing a great deal of the meaning of what is going on all around us.
The role of the artist
Ezra Pound wrote the ABC of Reading, a very difficult book, but very important. Oscar Wilde once said that unless a book is dangerous, it is not worth reading. We must feel challenged by it in some way to gain something from it. In this sense, we can apply Oscar Wilde to Ezra Pound. Pound feels that it is the artist who anticipates these changes, such as those taking place now. He acts as a sort of seer. Pound's statement is, "Artists are the antennae of the race."(p. 81). Artists saw this change 50 years ago, and they embody this perception in the works of art. The works are available to us as evidence through which we can study the meaning of what is going on around us.
Art historians and the students of art history have an advantage in understanding these events, for they are dealing with the objective evidence. Who are the artists or movements concerned with this revolution? It is important to mention Picasso and Braque, both part of the Cubist movement. Cubism itself was not a revolutionary movement vis-a-vis the art that existed before. We must look at specific works of art in the movement to determine what it meant as a movement. Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media mentions Cubism in relation to a discussion of structure and order. We have discussed the concepts of structure and order in previous lectures, relating it specifically to the formal elements in works of art. So, what is it about Cubism that is new or prophetic? The "fact" is that it was a new method of perception; hence, a new way to understand all that is around us.
Before Cubism, there had always been one point of view. This is specifically manifested by the theory of one point perspective formulated in the Italian Renaissance. This perception from one point of view was prevalent all the way through the 19th .century. In some ways, Impressionism can be seen as the culmination of this development, for it slightly challenged this attitude. Monet did a series of paintings of haystacks, the same haystacks at different times of day. He used the same physical point of view with the added variable of time, hence of different light, different color, different emotional or aesthetic qualities--different paintings. However, they are all from a fixed point of view.
In 1906 and 7, Picasso painted the first cubist painting, "Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon." This was the beginning of Cubism. In 1910 and 1911, Picasso and Braque produced a series of similar paintings. They showed different points of view of the same object. An object is seen from the top the front, the back, form the sides. The Cubists had rejected painting things from one point of view.
About this Same time, Kandinsky was challenging the world as we see it superficially. He was getting to the essence of the thing, to the essence of pure painting. Painting was no longer picture making. The world of the canvas is not a replica of that world which we perceive through our eyes. In terms of ideas this was foreseen by Immanuel Kant in The Critique of Judgement. The worlds that are created by works of art have their own laws which do not necessarily obey the laws of the world. Art cannot be circumscribed by our rules, it has its own laws and its own rules. Hence, Kant opens the door to abstract painting. It was not until a hundred years after Kant that the first abstract Work was produced by Kandinsky. He was no longer looking at the world from one point of view. As with Kandinsky, the cubists were also dealing with essences, the essence of the object. We see the one thing from many different points of view, a true revolution in attitude.
Kurt von Meier