We went to the VMFA again in English class. I didn't know there were SO MANY Sargent portraits there and I thought it was really interesting. Here's an excerpt from an English presentation I did about these two paintings.
"The two paintings, Mrs. Albert Vickers (Edith Foster Vickers) and Miss Kaji Waki, are both indicative of the status of art in the Victorian era, but through two different perspectives. The first painting is by John Singer Sargent, a well-known portrait painter, and it characteristic of his style and the general themes present in the Victorian era. Portraits of women were often commissioned to signify wealth and class; to emphasize one’s standing in society through art or fashion. The second, by the master portraitist Robert Henri, emphasizes the Victorian era’s theme of immigration and individual identity. The great surge in industrialization lead to many immigrants working in large cities and art was often used to capture their experiences. The differences in the two paintings can clearly be seen in the subject matter and the style of painting itself. Sargent’s piece is indicative of important class structures, and the traditional clothing and gaze of the woman shows the Victorian era’s focus on portraying the elite. Conversely, Henri turns traditionalist portraiture on its head by depicting an immigrant on the street as a high-class individual, brazenly staring at the viewer. His point is further driven by the looser and cruder brush strokes and livelier colors that greatly contrast with Sargent’s more traditional style. The difference between the two speaks to how the Victorian era was a time of change in society in big cities, and how art changes to reflect the culture of the time. "
I think it’s important to think about what the government should do in regards to publically funded arts projects. Public art is incredibly important, and any strong civilization and culture has a lot of respect and funding for the arts. That’s why it makes me a bit upset to hear about the defunding of museums, art schools, and other institutions that deal with visual arts.
Conversely however, there’s a discussion to be had on how much the government can control art projects that were funded publically. Art that’s considered controversial or “not in good taste” is often censored because the majority of the people or the government doesn’t believe in the ideas it promotes. Does this create a sort of echo chamber, only selecting conventional art people agree with? What kind of responsibility does an artist have to tailor their works to a public space, is this compromising their artistic value?
Government patronage of the arts is a complicated yet important discussion to have. With the current decline in funding for the arts all over the world, it’s something leaders have to get together and focus on. A culture needs to support its arts, and since it’s on the decline, the government has to do something about it.
In AP Lit we went to the VMFA to look at some art and we had to compose an Ekphrastic poem, a poem based on a work of art, about any art in the museum we felt connected to. I immediately gravitated to the impressionists like Monet and wrote about a landscape about a field of poppies. Composing a poem is a lot like making a work of art actually. You just have an open platform that you can do anything on, and you can give things so much symbolism and meaning and convey so much if you want to. Poetry is cool. Art is cool. It's all cool.
Public art that the public doesn’t like shouldn’t be banned or taken down. Personally, I think there’s a good place in society for art that challenges preconceived notions or causes dialogue. Yes, pretty statues and fountains and buildings are nice and they have their space in the public sphere. However, just because art is hard to understand or controversial, doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve a purpose or deserve to have a place in public settings.
Obviously there are exceptions to this line of logic. A public place for children should definitely not have graphic or provocative content in it, and public art shouldn’t pose a danger to anybody’s well-being. On the subject of controversy, which in itself is a subjective matter, I like to reference the ideas of “punching up” and “punching down.” If a piece is making fun of or antagonizing a marginalized group or putting down people in society who already are continually put down, “punching down,” that type of controversy isn’t okay in a public space. However, art that subverts cultural norms and challenges the people who hold positions of power, “punching up,” is not only good, but serves a really important function in society. Banning any and all controversial art is authoritarian, but artists, in my opinion, do have a responsibility to be cognizant of who they are fighting against through their controversy.
On a related note, public art serves as a means of education for the public. People who don’t go to many art galleries or museums can easily and naturally interact with art in a public setting. And it’s even better if the art in question challenges their beliefs. If the art questions their position on a controversial topic, or even if it just looks random and “not like real art,” that person who usually wouldn’t experience the art has a new perspective and interaction with this work of art. They’ve learned something, they’ve been challenged on their life or understanding of what art is. People may argue that they don’t go out into public to be challenged or see art that makes them uncomfortable. There is plenty of art that makes people feel comfortable and easy, art that doesn’t take any huge leaps or poke at the consciousness. And that art has a place, I don’t want to diminish its importance. However, challenging public art also serves its place and should be respected as an important means of interacting with the community.