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The Necessity of Art

February 3, 2012

“What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard.” – Mark Pagel, fellow of the Royal Society and professor of evolutionary biology, in conversation with Edge.org (courtesy of AllThingsD)

Yesterday, I visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From time to time, a visit to a museum is exactly what I need. It is a chance to recharge my creative batteries and find some fresh inspiration.

After this last visit, I am more than ever convinced of the importance and vitality of art (all art) in today’s world. The artist gives us the gift of her unique vision. We can accept or reject that vision, but it is nevertheless an offering. The artist bares her soul and, in the greatest art, asks of us the same.

Rothko's "No. 14"

A beautiful example of this is Mark Rothko’s No. 14 (see, left). This celebrated work is among the museum’s most treasured holdings. In it, Rothko presents to us two complementary colors, orange and blue.  At first glance, the orange appears to dominate the image. However, the blue subtly strikes us deep in our core; it lends the entire work an eerie disquiet. Many people, moved by the painting’s violent contrasts, wonder about what Rothko’s internal state may have been like as he painted it. But the painting goes beyond simple expressionism. Rather, it forces us to bring to it our own mental map, our own soul. What we focus on as viewers says far more about us than it does about Rothko. (Special thanks to Karen, our wonderful guide, for making this observation).

This internal reflection, or contentedness, is as necessary now as it was in Rothko’s time (1960). Faced with a world that has turned us into automatons and which asks us to be hungry consumers, we must ourselves turn deeply inward to understand our place in this swiftly changing, frightening new world. Only true reflection will help us cope with the changes that surround us.

Klee's "L'Homme Approximatif"

We move to another artist and work that I admired. Paul Klee (1879-1930) was a German-Swiss artist whose credo was: “I cannot be grasped in the here and now, For my dwelling place is as much among the dead, As the yet unborn, Slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual, But still not close enough.” His are the works of an artist who challenged the conventions of his day and who adamantly refused to surrender to mass opinion. One of his paintings, a portrait called L’Homme Approximatif (“The Approximate Man”), depicts a man who, as I see it, resembles a violin, or perhaps some kind of strange machinery. Those are two very different approximations of a man. In the first, man is at one with the musical, or artistic, world. It is a harmonious depiction of man’s relation to art. In the other, man is himself the mechanism, the machine. He fuses with the tools of his labor in a most frightening way.

Franceschini's "Victory Gardens Pogostick Shovel"

This brings us to the last and most wonderful item I saw yesterday, a contemporary work by the American artist Amy Franceschini (1970-present). Her Victory Gardens Pogostick Shovel (pictured below) delighted me. It is ingenious, yes, fusing as it does two unlike things. However, it is also a wonderful comment on work, even on hard labor. It asks us: Why can’t our work also be our play? Why can’t a shovel also be a pogo stick?

If that doesn’t resonate or inspire in 2012, than what will?

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