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Revealing Art by Matthew Kieran

Revealing Art

by Matthew Kieran

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My first contact with Matthew Kieran, philosopher of art and Curator at the Tate in London, was listening to a podcast interview on the subject of Art, Censorship and Morality. Kieran was asked if a work can be both pornographic and art. Kieran's answer was `yes' and elaborated on how the same artwork can have multiple purposes; for example, religious icons can be used both for prayer and for art. And the same can be true, he continued, for some works of pornography, since artistic intention is tied up with the presentation of a work as pornography, that is, the art can't be separated from the explicit erotic, sexual content. Likewise, this same line of thinking holds true in the case of propaganda, since propaganda can have artistic merits. One could almost hear the interviewer gasp. Kieran went on to explain how the morally problematic can be precisely why art has such power and is provocative.

The interviewer countered with several objections on moral grounds but Kieran would have none of it. Art, he explained, should be taken seriously since we expand our vision via our exposure to problematic areas of life. Good and great art forces us to engage with the world and find out about ourselves. If we removed all the art in the Tate that was morally objectionable, we would be left with 75% bare walls. Oh, my goodness, I thought, now here is a philosopher and art expert worth exploring! I purchased a copy of his book, “Revealing Art,” and started underlining like crazy.

This book ranges from subjects like originality, beauty and artistic insight to morality and modern humanism. To do all these stimulating topics justice, I would have to write not a review but a lengthy essay. So, in the interest of space and to provide a brief sampling, I will cite several quotes from the first chapter, “Originality and Artistic Expression” and offer a brief commentary:

"If an artist creates a work which consists in the development of a unique style or which manifests individual artistic vision, then it constitutes an artistic achievement, and the work is of value, irrespective of whether anyone gets to see it or not." --------- With this statement Kieran puts forward the dignity of the creative process and artistic creation - artistic achievement needs no viewer to have value. Let me give a personal example: Last summer I created a piece of conceptual art that occupies the midpoint between a Zen garden and an abstract painting of Mondrian. Applying the idea contained in this Matthew Kieran quote, if my art were to be viewed by thousands in a world-class museum or simply shared with friends does not alter one whit the originality of my vision or the degree of my artistic achievement.

"Any view which reduces the value of all art to the disposition to afford us rewarding experiences still can't capture how and why we value certain kinds of works." ---------- Kieran eschews any aesthetic theory or view of art restricting the full range of art’s meaning and power. This quote is a case in point: the value of an artwork cannot be reduced to providing an occasion for rewarding experiences. Can you imagine someone thinking they have exhausted the artistic dimensions of the Parthenon by the various rewarding experiences they had during a trip to Athens? Or, thinking the sum of all human rewarding experiences throughout history will exhaust the artistic dimensions?

Reflecting on the early cubist works of Picasso and Braque, Kiernan writes: "Yet though the visual experience of some such works may be relatively anemic, these works are to be highly valued, for their interest lies more in the intellectual, artistic feat achieved." ---------- The author understands the work is much more than what is contained on the canvas (or other medium); rather, we have to appreciate the entire intellectual, cultural, historical, social context in which the art is created.

"The critical point here is that, unless one is concerned with what Mondrian was striving to capture and express in his artistic development, one will fail to understand and properly appreciate his art. A mere concern just with the experiences Mondrian's work may happen to give rise to would occlude the very nature of his abstract work." ---------- Likewise, the author knows the artist's development and life and vision must be incorporated into our viewing a great work of art lest our viewing be incomplete.

The greatness of Michelangelo's Pieta also lies in its expression of a particularly profound understanding of Mary's own sacrifice, which naturally gives rise to similar sentiments in us toward her. Thus it cannot just be the value of the experience afforded that we value, it must also be the understanding Michelangelo distinctively expresses through the work." ---------- And yet again, the author wants us to consider how the artwork can very well be a representation of something greater than the work itself, and how the work can also express a power that is both emotional and even spiritual.

Kieran's “Revealing Art” is most impressive. With great facility the author presents the philosophies of art from Plato, Hume and Kant as well as articulating the thinking of modern aestheticians Arthur Danto, George Dickie, Monroe Beardsley, Roger Scruton and others. Even art critics such as Robert Hughes are included. Of course, there are specific references to dozens of artists as well as comments on full-color plates of works by, among others, Poussin, Michelangelo, Munch, Klimt, Bacon, Matisse.

Link to the Podcast with Matthiew Kieran: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/culture/philosophy/art-censorship...

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  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0415278546, Paperback)

Why does art matter to us, and what makes it good? Why is the role of imagination so important in art? Illustrated with carefully chosen colour and black-and-white plates of examples from Michaelangelo to Matisse and Poussin to Pollock, Revealing Art takes us on a compelling and provocative journey.

Kieran explores some of the most important questions we can ask ourselves about art: how can art inspire us or disgust us? Is artistic judgement simply a matter of taste? Can art be immoral or obscene, and should it be censored? He brings such abstract issues to life with fascinating discussions of individual paintings, photographs and sculptures, such as Michelangelo's Pieta, Andres Serrano's Piss Christ and Francis Bacon's powerful paintings of the Pope.

He also suggests some answers to problems that any one in an art gallery or museum is likely to ask themselves: what is a beautiful work of art? and can art really reveal something true about our own nature?

Revealing Art is ideal for anyone interested in debates about art today, or who has simply stood in front of a painting and felt baffled.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:10 -0400)

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