rebecca vipond brink


The Aura of Artworks

Art, RhetoricRebecca Brink

I visited the massive Magritte exhibit at AIC today and am still trying to process it. I spent two and a half hours in it and had to take a break about 2/3 of the way through to go on Twitter and give my brain a break.

I try to bring a notebook and pen with me wherever I go so that if I have a brilliant thought I can write it down, but I particularly make a practice of it when I'm going to a museum, not so that I can write, but so that I can take notes:

I don't know that much about Magritte. I could tell you a lot about Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Lynda Benglis, Gustave Caillebotte; a fair amount about Robert Morris and Donald Judd, and a smattering about Manet. So if I have the opportunity to learn - and the artworks themselves are the best teachers, although great wall text is certainly helpful - I will take it.

The note at the very top of the second page reads "I am lucky to be here." I wrote that in front of Magritte's The Human Conditiona spectacularly famous painting of his. I felt the same thing in front of Starry Night at the MoMA, not to mention in the presence of Kara Walker's sugar sphinx, or MoMA's Lygia Clark retrospective, or Tony Smith's Die at the National Gallery of Art, or Rodin's The Burghers of Calais at the Met or the Rodin Museum in Philly, or for that matter every time I get to stand in front of Caillebotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day, which I have the opportunity to do fairly frequently.

I recall Christopher Hitchens (I believe) saying that as a matter of principle he didn't believe that luck exists because events don't arrange themselves around our lives. I think he was describing fate, not luck. Luck is the good or bad things that happen to us as a matter of chance. It's a matter of chance that I am white and decently prosperous, was encouraged to pursue the arts as a child, live in Chicago and have the means to buy a yearly membership to the Art Institute and the physical ability to get there, plus the schedule to be there at my leisure and dedicate two and a half hours of my day to it. Those are things that are not entirely in my control.

I feel lucky to be in the presence of great works of art because they carry what Benjamin called an aura. I don't entirely agree with his thesis - Rodin's works were reproduced and because it was programmed into the medium I don't think they lost their aura - but it stands that original works of art carry the marks of the artist's hand or mind in a way that commercial prints of artwork do not.

I'm getting around to my point here, which is about how we value artworks. Not monetarily, although that follows in a capitalist economy, but in terms of what we consider "great." A work of art is an idea, and the way it's manifested physically. So the quality of a work of art depends both on the quality of the idea and on the quality of its execution. Great works of art are novel, intelligent, probing ideas that are put into physical forms that are skillfully created or conceived. They are the physical products of the most rigorous imaginations humanity has to offer.

And emphasis on rigorous. The majority of an artist's job is to think and think hard. To create not just a great idea, but a great way of expressing that idea to the public. It holds true over visual art, writing, poetry, dance, theater, and music.

So artworks are sort of like talismans. Their aura comes from the quality of the mind and the skill of the hand that produced them. You really cannot understand an artwork until you've seen it in person. I've seen art critics absolutely fail to understand a painting because - and it's obvious when it happens - they never saw the paint on the canvas with their own two eyes. Even with an artwork like Portrait of Ross, by nature, you can't understand until you've encountered the object and decided to take or not take a piece.

And when you see them, you are lucky to be there. You are lucky to have the opportunity, because a lot of artwork is produced in the world, but very little of it is truly great. Mastering your understanding of a great artwork brings you closer to the heart of humanity. Unfortunately I haven't done that with Magritte yet - I will have more to say about his way of tackling representation and language once I have some time to really think on it.