benjaminguffee.com • oil paintings

314.315.1986

Oil paintings by Saint Louis artist Benjamin Guffee

What is art?

Last year I read a series of Leo Tolstoy's essays that were published as a group in 1898 under the title "What is Art?"  There are some quotes within that I think hit on lasting truths about art (truths that were often forgotten or pushed aside by critical voices of the past decades, but apply with equal force to the art produced during that time)... He focuses on art as a form of communication, not just of ideas but of feelings, experiences... of life itself.

"Every work of art results in the one who receives it entering into a certain kind of communion with the one who produced or is producing the art, and with all those who, simultaneously with him, before him, or after him, have received or will receive the same artistic impression.  

As the word which conveys men's thoughts and experiences serves to unite people, so art serves in exactly the same way.  The peculiarity of this means of communion, which distinguishes it from communion by means of the word, is that through the word a man conveys his thoughts to another, while through art people convey their feelings to each other.  

The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, as he receives through hearing or sight the expressions of another man's feelings, is capable of experiencing the same feelings as the man who expresses them.

The simplest example: a man laughs, and another man feels merry; he weeps, and the man who hears this weeping feels sad; a man is excited, annoyed, and another looking at him gets into the same state.

...On this capacity of people to be infected by the feelings of other people, the activity of art is based."

Later in the same essay: 

"And therefore the activity of art is a very important activity, as important as the activity of speech, and as widely spread.

As the word affects us not only in sermons, orations and books, but in all those speeches in which we convey our thoughts and experiences to each other, so, too, art in the broad sense of the word pervades our entire life, while, in the narrow sense of the word, we call art only certain of its manifestations."

And in a later essay:

"The business of art consists precisely in making understandable and accessible that which might be incomprehensible and inaccessible in the form of reasoning.  Usually, when a person receives a truly artistic impression, it seems to him that he knew it all along, only he was unable to express it."

I think that this idea of a quality artwork producing a special resonance with a viewer is important, and that resonance is so crucial for a work to be lastingly important, no matter what era or style is under discussion... and I do think that history will (eventually) look back on the fixation with ideas of "removing the artist's hand" or isolating the viewer as an understandable but frivolous detour that really overstayed its welcome.  

Art museums today usually only show the end product or the most extreme expression of the 20th century art movements.  It's like there's a need to surround the works with a mystique that elevates them and isolates people from really understanding the context and meaning of the works.  And I really think it does a disservice to the viewers... Many of the great artists from the 20th century went through journeys that were really about stripping down or distilling visual language and ideas.  Much like the Impressionists that paved the way for modernism, they were departing from strict representationalism and expressing themselves in simpler ways.  By simplifying things, the Impressionists (and many early modernists) were creating works that actually heightened the level of engagement for the viewer.  Earlier "classical" works were often very formal and light years from anything the typical viewer could relate to.  And a photorealistic, formal painting contains far more detail than the human eye and brain would process if you were standing right in front of the scene.  By moving to plein air techniques and focusing on the feel of a scene rather than being tied to every detail, the Impressionists made paintings that in a way recreated their view of a scene more 'accurately' than a photorealistic rendering would... the paintings passed on the actual experience of the artist in a very special way.  It seems that many of the early modernists were expanding on these ideas... a "less is more" approach and a high level of interest in how the viewer would relate to piece as certain elements were reduced or eliminated.  It's ironic, then, that what is often remembered from the 20th century is a group of works that are cold, mysterious and exclusionary.  How that came to be is a whole other topic and ties in with the extraordinary pressure exerted by the commercial and critical elements that were pushing these movements along.

One final quote from the Tolstoy essays... 

"Whatever follies may be committed in art, once they are accepted among the upper classes of our society, a theory is at once elaborated to explain and legitimize these follies, as if there had ever been epochs in history where certain exceptional circles of people had not accepted and approved of false, ugly, meaningless art, which left no traces and was completely forgotten afterwards."