“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” – Aristotle
I often engage in fruitful philosophical discussions about art with my sister, poet Julie Funderburk. During the course of one recent conversation, she wrote:
“Art’s most important purpose isn’t about permanence, is it?”
Depending on environmental conditions and the techniques or materials used, the ravages of time can take its toll on even the greatest of the Old Masters. Examples like Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper illustrate this all too well. Painted in the late 15th century, unfortunately the mural has suffered extensive deterioration – yet it remains one of the world’s most iconic works of art.
“A beautiful body perishes, but a work of art dies not.” – Leonardo da Vinci
Perhaps in unfortunate cases like The Last Supper, we can consider the ephemeral “beautiful body” that da Vinci speaks of to be fragile substrate and pigment, while the true work of art is the artist’s surviving conceptual idea.
I could list several other cautionary tales of artists whose works typically suffer from deterioration. Mark Rothko used unbound pigments to create luminosity in his oils. Albert Pinkham Ryder’s paintings, due to the artist’s careless use of his materials, are notoriously unstable.
“It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism.” – Mark Rothko
Rembrandt, on the other hand, is considered a conservator’s hero. It was long assumed that he must have used a complex painting medium to achieve his effects. As it turns out, his secrets were simply linseed oil and great technique.1
How does one balance an artist’s drive for creativity and innovation with doing one’s best to foster longevity via the materials and methods employed?
I think the first answer to this question may lie in the intention for the work.
Artist Andy Goldsworthy masterfully uses natural materials such as stone, leaves, and ice, but the way time and elemental forces evolve or disintegrate his elegant works is just as important an element in his creations as the physical components.2
Tibetan Buddhist monks fashion intricate sculptures out of butter as offerings. Their colorful sand mandalas are created and then ritually destroyed.
The purpose of creating the sand mandala is to engender healing and enlightenment. Through its ritualized destruction, the monks then illustrate the Buddhist concept of impermanence.
As an artist who cherishes the ideal of greatest longevity for my work, I purposefully explored the liberating idea of impermanence during the creation of The Wishing Tree installation. Though my team and I coated the pieces of bark with wood preserver, I know the materials will eventually biodegrade. From the inception of the project, I planned to burn the wishes that visitors tie to the removable branches. The ultimate purpose of the installation is community interaction.
Yet despite my initial impulse to explore impermanence, once I had the idea to use the resulting charcoal and ash as a drawing medium to illustrate the participants’ wish categories, I tested the materials for durability prior to making a mark on the first drawing.
I was delighted to find that, once sprayed with a workable fixative, the homemade charcoal and ash seem much more permanent than traditional vine or compressed charcoal.
While artists cannot control future environmental conditions or how a buyer may handle one of our works, if we do due diligence by researching, networking, and experimenting before using new materials, we are doing the best we can to insure longevity.3
If you agree with my sister’s point that art’s most important purpose is not about permanence, however, what do you feel is the primary raison d’etre of my field?
When I asked Julie, she replied:
“Art affects and reflects what is human.”
When she said this, I immediately thought of the title of an old art book: Man Creates Art Creates Man. Despite the gender-specific title, the concept expressed is the same as my sister’s statement.
“Art, like life itself, does not have to be defined or understood to be enjoyed. It must simply be received,” author Duane Preble states.4 “Above all, works of art reflect us.”5
I agree with Julie’s definition. Artists reflect what we – or sometimes our patrons – consider important. We chronicle our environment and what is happening around us in society, politics, or religion.
As Pablo Picasso said,
“Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.”
“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”
How would you answer the question, “What is art’s most important purpose?”
Julie Funderburk is the recipient of a 2015 North Carolina Arts Council fellowship. LSU Press will publish her first book, The Door That Always Opens, in December of this year. Her poems appear in 32 Poems, The Cincinnati Review, and Ploughshares. Her chapbook Thoughts to Fold into Birds is available from Unicorn Press. She teaches at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina.
1. Virgil Elliott, Traditional Oil Painting: Advanced Techniques and Concepts from the Renaissance to the Present. (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2007), 98.
In this book, Elliott includes a thorough and enlightening section on Rembrandt’s painting techniques.
2. Andy Goldsworthy, Time. (New York: Abrams, 2000)
3. There are a lot of resources available to artists if you have questions about your art materials, though you may find conflicting information. Art making is sometimes subjective like art itself.
Start by contacting the manufacturer of your materials for one of the very best sources of information. Leading manufacturers conduct rigorous testing of their products. The various technical support representatives with whom I have spoken have all been very thorough and helpful. Networking with other artists who use the same materials is also invaluable.
New technology and conservation discoveries are expanding our field rapidly, so even certain information published a few years ago could now stand to be updated. As a good starting point, however, I highly recommend the following book:
Mark David Gottsegen, The Painter’s Handbook. (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2006)
Additionally, an invaluable resource is a forum hosted by the University of Delaware: Materials, Information, and Technical Resources for Artists (MITRA). Look through their copious extant information, or post a question of your own. I highly recommend this website.
4. Duane Preble, Man Creates Art Creates Man. (McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1973) 5.
5. Preble, Man Creates Art Creates Man, 7.