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A Dutiful Feeling

Art for Arts' Sake, From Magazine to Julia

From Romantic-influenced swamp-scapes to John Waters' giant roach trap, NoDef Art Writer Kathy Rodriguez seeks the superlative expression on a 5-mile tour of current gallery exhibitions.


In his Judgment of Taste, the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant states, “If we could assume that the mere universal communicability of a feeling must carry in itself an interest for us with it…we should be able to explain why the feeling in the judgment of taste comes to be imputed to everyone, so to speak, as a duty.”


Essentially, Kant says that a judgment of taste involves feeling, and that we are all subject to it. In fact, we are bound to make these judgments.


In Kantian thought, taste judgments are linked with nature and with art. So, art itself must be linked with feeling. Though he is unable to explain how, Kant says that there should be a way to explain, judge, or define where that feeling, or “a priori” experience, originates.


The feeling could be said to originate in the art, or at least intertwined with it on a basic level. Kant says everyone is subject to this kind of expression – everyone is capable of experiencing it.  Often, art is evaluated especially by its ability to instigate feeling, and the artist’s role is to cause it. 


For centuries, patronage limited the content that art communicates, and expressiveness of feeling is at least in part determined by the ideas that art envisions. The autonomous artist, free to explore the origins of feeling, arose from Romanticism’s roots in worldwide chaos, founded in the late 18th century. Capable of singular expression, this unbound modern artistic genius fell in love with form itself. The artist freely created, analyzed, and broke down compositions to their essential compositional elements. These pure forms would yield pure visual expression, and therefore, pure feeling. The artist, the purveyor of feeling, became dangerously free to create. The viewer, subject to the art, was subject to the a priori experience: the feeling that art provokes. It could be argued that art for the sake of art, for the sake of the artist’s expression, is then art for the sake of feeling.


The subjectivity of taste limited modernist critics’ perceptions of beauty in a way that was far less egalitarian than Kant implied. The art world has managed to extricate itself from these constraints somewhat, moving past them into far more pluralistic realms. Anything can go, but art itself is still subject to categorization, and to taste. But, at its basic level, we often believe it should make us feel.


That was evident in this year's Art for Art’s Sake, the annual October art walk in New Orleans.  The route follows the curve of the river, gently bending from one extreme – academia – to the other – commercialism. But where, within this context, does art find its truest expression – art for the sake of art?


I sought the answer to this question during a five-mile journey on the night of Oct. 1, from the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts at Magazine and Jefferson to Arthur Roger Gallery on Julia. There had to be a point of critical mass - the best examples of art for its own sake - somewhere on this route. Otherwise we’d need to rename the event. Of course, though I would inform myself, I would make this evaluation from my own subjective viewpoint. According to Kant, I not only can; I am driven to do so – I must.


Classical influences define the work on the walls and in the classroom at New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts. The school devoted each main gallery to one of the great academic traditions: painting and sculpture. Swamp-scapes by Katalin Gergo referenced the scale and subject matter of the Romantic. Towering cypresses dwarfed indeterminate figures trudging through the landscape below.  Across the hall, elongated figures in haute-relief sculptures by Brent Barnidge suggested the influence of Mannerism. This movement held to some classical subject matter, tempered with esoteric tastes.  Social disarray characterizes both the maniera and the Romantic periods in art history.  There is complex contrast between the control of the academic exercise and the emotional character of the periods the artists seem to reference.  Perhaps this is what made the exhibit, for some, the most important of the past five years. With art, in this academic sense, comes at least the content of feeling. It is at least new art for the sake of history.


The eclectic character of the city evinced itself along the path down Magazine Street. Thickly painted, hot-colored figures by Jere Allen at the Carol Robinson gallery paired with calm landscapes by Robert Malone.  Wide eyed, handmade dolls and imagist collage straight out of Juxtapoz packed the walls at Poet’s Gallery, illustrating the distance that might be spanned in just a few blocks with the city.


The entire experience changed dramatically just past this polar divide.  Coup d’oeil Gallery is at the end of the two-way strip of Magazine Street.  Figurative sculpture by Michele Basta populated its complex maze of multiple rooms.  Basta’s installation recalls Kiki Smith’s fantasy and figuration. She paired static sculpture with video, in an unsettling combination of movement and her sculptural parts.  The motion of static entities in recognizable space disturbed far more than the human scale of her confrontational work.


Just outside, throngs of people fueled by music and booze danced on boxes outside of storefronts and in the street. I doubt this is what Kant envisioned, but the feeling was obvious.  Beer and wine surely lubricated the knees, shoulders, and arms of many who filled this short stretch of storefronts, restaurants, and one gallery.  But, this was only one part of a rich visual spectacle that addressed all the senses, that filled and pulsed the crowd with a certain je ne sais quoi.


Thin crowds paced the comparatively dark and quiet row of Julia Street. Eva Hild’s modernist ceramic sculpture drew attention at Gallery Bienvenu.  Clement Greenberg and other heroic modernist critics might have adored her clean forms.  Positive and negative spaces reverse within their sensual curves that sharpen on their boundaries, where line meets the space of the gallery. Her meticulous technique and the physical presence of the pieces undoubtedly impress. Classical beauty imbues the perfect surfaces. But, the fragility of the work sterilizes it; whatever feeling is almost lost in coldness and distance.


John Waters, in stark contrast, wants an uncomfortable closeness. Greenberg, the antagonist of kitsch, would have bemoaned the sculpture and photography in Catholic Sin.  Waters, perhaps in homage to the city, positioned a giant roach trap in the middle of the main gallery at Arthur Roger. Imagine the behemoth that the trap will lure, and the path of destruction it will leave on its way to a tantalizing demise. The attraction is unavoidable.


That’s probably the way to characterize all of Waters’ photographs and sculpture.  Larger than life can allow, brutally honest, and painfully hilarious, there is no aversion from their bright surfaces and killer humor.  They’re disgusting, but they look great, just like The Hollywood Smile Train. In this series of c-prints, eight harelips curl over eight sets of celebrity summer teeth with a slight twist of a mouse. The elegance of the gesture is matched only by the horror of the images.


At the end of the walk, Waters’ exhibit probably best exemplifies the idea that good art makes us feel.  Waters is the dandy; at least one of the characterizations of the great modern artist. His photographs and sculpture question the ideal, but it is impossible to ignore that they are well made and intellectually sharp. These are what generate that unidentifiable feeling, at least for me. And mine is but one evaluation, in one context. But I know we have more. The end of Magazine Street beat with the a priori response.  Just like the human rhythm at this intersection demonstrated the richness of the visual feast this city has to offer, its variety of opinions will enrich the definition of art for the sake of it.


Many of the gallery exhbitions mentioned in this article remain open for public view. Contact the individual galleries for more information.





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