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Random Thoughts On Art & Its Purposes January 4, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Art.
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Two museum trips I took during my vacation got me thinking about this, since what was on display at them seemed to come from opposite ends of the spectrum as far as the function of art is concerned.

The first trip was my self-guided tour of the reopened Getty Malibu museum, which features all the Greek and Roman art in the rather impressive Getty collection. A lot of my fascination with ancient art and artifact comes from my amazement that any of this stuff survived time, regardless of the degree of how intact it is. This is why I can marvel at any display of ancient glassware, since its survival must have been due to some totally random series of fortunate events. Glasses in my kitchen cupboard don’t have the lasting power of some of this stuff. Much of what has earned the art label in the Getty are no more than ordinary everyday items from a lost era – children’s toys, perfume bottles, various wine jugs, and so forth. The people who crafted these items long ago made them for everyday use, not for admiration alone, though one must admire the happy depictions of orgies and debauchery that cover so many of the Greek wine kraters. Though remember, those pictures are not so much for visual admiration as they are for visual instruction: Drink out of this vessel if you want to join in! remains the clear message of all things Dionysean.

Remind me again, why did my Maccabean ancestors have a problem with these people?

So if everyday items stand the test of the ages, they become art as we know it, despite the intent of their creators. While this might produce a vision of all the crap in my house being unearthed and put on museum display by some future archeologist, much of the purposes of the material filling the Getty villa reminds us of the public function of art in the Greco-Roman world. The Greek sculpture depicts their Gods, Godesses and mythic heroes, in ways designed to inspire public ceremony. The Roman sculpure depicted realistic images of actual people (for some reason the Caligula bust looked way too much like Robert Walker to me… perhaps I was merely casting some unmakeable movie…) Especially haunting are the Roman-era mummy portraits from Egypt – are they all so young because people died young, or because that’s how people wanted their portraits painted? In an era of art devoted so to realism, it makes me wonder. A mummy on display at the Getty was of one poor slob who died of a bashed in skull at age 18 or so after enduring numerous other broken bones, which means he was either involved in dangerous construction work, or merely had a short and suckariffic life. But again, back to purpose – the purpose of putting those faces on the casket was to show the world what one looked like alive, and for us in modern times, it’s a treasure trove of information about hair styles, clothing, jewelry and make-up.

Moving from the public purposes of art to the more selfish, we switch museums and go to the Salvadore Dali exhibit at the LA County museum. Now I enjoy viewing Dali’s art and his oddball dreamscapes filled with his signature mix of Freudian imagery and random silliness, but a walk through this particular exhibit reminds us very clearly of Dali’s commercial calculations and the role of personal fame and celebrity in the modern art world. After a while, it struck me that Dali had a go-to list of bizarre images he would pluck from to compose his paintings, sort of like putting together material from a large database of clip-art – add some burning giraffes here, a melting clock there, some ants, and put it all on some tables that vanish into the horizon and Voila! Mix, repeat, and come up with yet another painting. And so on.

Much of the exhibit dealt with Dali’s forays into film, first with Bunuel and later in Hollywood. The storyboards for the dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound are on display, as well as numerous illustrations for Destino, a Disney film that did not get made until the studio completed it from Dali’s sketches in 2003. There are also numerous sketches for films that never got made, like one for the Marx Brothers which featured (again) those burning giraffes and a wonderful sketch of Groucho as Shiva answering numerous telephones. The whole artist-in-commercial-Hollywood angle is interesting, especially when the artist in question has many of the same business instincts that the American film industry survives on. The joining of art and commerce has often been described as a shotgun marriage with the shotgun pointed at art, but in the case of the majority of Hollywood’s product and I believe with Dali as well, art is willingly spreading its legs and counting its money.

Towards the end of the exhibit we have Dali’s close-up screen test for Warhol that was shot in 1966, and it’s here that Dali’s legacy to the art world, as I see it, displays itself. Warhol was himself more of a celebrity than an artist, and more fascinated with the nature of celebrity than that of art – and we see those roots in Dali, who early in his career trumpets surrealism but then reproduces it and commodifies it to the point that Dali becomes a respectably reliable brand name in the surrealist world. Much of modern art relies on hype, trendiness and the ability to sucker the self-anointed tastemaker as opposed to the ability to move and inspire. Clearly the dark side of what we see in Dali’s career trajectory has only mestastisized as we begin the 21st century, aided by heavy doses of postmodernist and deconstructionist crapola.

Don’t get me wrong – I am greatly entertained by Dali’s paintings and many of the ones on display at LACMA I absolutely love studying (such as his portrait of Lawrence Olivier as Richard III) – but I can’t help be reminded how far away we are from the Greco-Roman art of the ancient world and how so much of it was dedicated to the purpose of community celebration, cultural identity, and the savoring of everyday life.


1. Sherri - January 4, 2008

Earlier this month I had the wonderful experience of viewing Dali’s work at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL and I highly recommend it to you to counter some of the reasons you cited here. Much of his best work is in this site, including what areconsidered his ‘masterpieces’ and the imagery they invoke are far more personal than commercial. In them he explores his Spanish and catholic heritage, as well as his deeply personal familial relationships with his wife and immediate family, including the haunting relationship with his dead brother. I think you would enjoy exploring them very much.

2. Jim Berkin - January 4, 2008

You make a good point, Sherri – I think that since the LA exhibit concentrated on his work for Hollywood & for experimental film, it tended towards the commercial and away from his more personal work. There were a few paintings in the LA exhibit that featured his mother (usually depicted as a head-shaped vase) and his wife, but nothing about the rest of his family. I think my Dali viewing triggered more generalized feelings I have when it comes to the “showmanship” angle of modern art more than my feelings towards Dali himself.

I’ve never been to St. Petersburg, but if I ever get there, the Dali museum is very high on my to-do list!

3. Doug - January 11, 2008

Thanks for sharing these great ideas. I’m bookmarking this for future reference. Some of these I already do, so the point resonated most strongly with me. Keep feeding the creativity.
I am currently on holiday so, for this reason, I’ve nothing better to do than surf the web for art, lie around and update my blog. Well, more or less anyway.
Doug C

4. Jim Berkin - January 11, 2008

I wish I was still on vacation…. 😦

5. Trumanln - March 23, 2008

thats for sure, dude

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