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The Context of Art

April 8, 2011

~By James McCullough and Wes Vander Lugt

In two previous posts, we articulated an understanding of art as a communicative creation involving three interwoven strands. First, we suggested that art involves craft, the skill and style distinguishing art from other kinds of human making. Second, we indicated that art involves content, the “story” a work expresses or participates in by means of paint, melody, structure, movement, language and other artistic mediums. In this post, we are we are focusing on the entire setting in which art is created and received, because art involves context.

Artists do not create contexts; they work within them. Context is the web of complex circumstances in which artists work in relation to their physical environment, historical trends and traditions, social movements, cultural values, intellectual perspectives, personal commitments, and more. Likewise, art is received within a context of corresponding dynamics that shape meaning and interpretation. As such, context is an inescapable dimension of art in both its production and its reception and interpretation.

To clarify the role context plays in art, it may be helpful to use biblical exegesis as an analogy. When reading Scripture, we need to be attentive to the there and then context of a passage and its original meaning, while seeking to discover the here and now significance of the passage. For example, Paul‘s letters communicated something to people in the first century before they communicated something to us. In a similar manner, an artist makes and expresses something relevant in a there and then context, however revolutionary and progressive the art may be. Likewise, the capacity of a work of art to communicate effectively in the here and now is an attestation of context-transcending qualities in a given work or performance. Identifying these qualities is the work of art criticism and education. The realization of context and context-transcending qualities gives rise to a whole history of art reception, and plays a part in explaining the phenomenon of the “classic” in a given genre of art.

Recognizing the context of art—both of its origin and reception—also requires us to realize the multivalent and open-ended character of art interpretation. For example, the “meaning” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will vary depending on whether we are referring to its première in 1824, when Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted it in Berlin in 1942, or when Leonard Bernstein conducted it before the newly opened Berlin Wall in 1989. Continuities and discontinuities of meaning abound. A sensitive and informed engagement with a work of art, however, will be cognizant of its originating context in all its complexity, while continuing to interact with meanings forged in ever-changing contexts of reception. Moreover, highlighting the context of art allows us to relate, when possible, aspects of authorial intent in dynamic interplay with other contextually relevant interpretations in our own communicative encounters with art.

The driving motivation in this series of posts on the craft, content, and context of art is our desire to make art accessible to a wider audience so that they might enjoy and discover how art plays a significant role in their lives. We find that analyses of art focusing solely on emotional expressiveness, moral appropriateness or even redemptive potentiality place undue limits on understanding and engaging with art. By contrast, we desire to be attentive to art on its own terms before evaluating or imposing meanings on it. We believe that focusing on the craft, content, and context of art enables us to follow an inductive approach and to understand and engage with art in a more satisfying and comprehensive way.

Taking this approach also presents rich opportunities for theological engagement with the arts, a topic we will explore in an upcoming post.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Bruce Herman permalink
    April 8, 2011 1:49 pm

    James and Wes — as an artist I am very grateful for the care and thought that you have put into the entire series of considerations about the “three C’s”. This last of the three, context, seems most mysterious and wonderful in that it has both a natural and potentially supernatural dimension to it. The Apostle Paul often admonished the recipients of his letters to “do everything you do as unto the Lord” — and if this is actually possible, then our work has even deeper implications. In a sense, the interpretive act (as exegesis, not eisegesis) both unpacks possible contexts and also builds new ones. Some wise person once said that a great work of art helps to generate its own community (hence the phenomenon of VanGogh’s inability to find an audience in his own lifetime, yet a century later his art has fostered the development of a global community of admirers from the unlettered to the most refined connoisseur, with a Japanese businessman paying over $50,000,000 for a modest canvas of irises). The idea that a work of art seems to come into being “through” the artist (not only “from” her) also allows us to see that even the “originating context” is fraught with imponderables. VanGogh’s paintings were lovingly crafted and carried much more content than the artist himself ever dreamed, and the context is still unfolding more than century later…and if Vincent could see us now, pecking away at our digital keyboards attempting to appreciate his work, I think he would both mystified and gratified. What more could artist ask for but that her work might nourish future generations, helping to call forth community across cultures and epochs?

    • April 8, 2011 10:38 pm

      Thanks for these comments, Bruce. “Mystified and gratified” is a fitting response to what you call the “imponderables” of context. I often wonder, however, if the contemporary commercial context of art (the Japanese businessman as a case in point) obscures other important contexts that enable us to create community and engage with art on its own terms.

  2. April 8, 2011 8:23 pm

    are you finding the internet making a difference for context re literature and art? are there forms coming out now that were not possible/likely before? I notice a contrast in journaling/creative essays over the past 20 years. Where once there would not have been the venue for off-the-wall substantive writing or think-pieces, now there’s an open field?

  3. Jim Watkins permalink*
    April 8, 2011 8:40 pm

    Hey guys, thanks for your thoughts on the relationship between art and context. I really appreciate that you emphasize the important role that context plays in our interpretation of works of art. I was curious if you would mind expanding on your idea of “context-transcending qualities.” What are “context-transcending qualities,” and do you have any examples of them?

    • April 8, 2011 10:41 pm

      James and I were discussing this the other day, and I think it makes sense to say that craft and content are the context-transcending qualities, the qualities that keep nourishing future generations, as Bruce mentioned in his comment.

      • Jim Watkins permalink*
        April 9, 2011 7:17 am

        I’m a little confused, how do craft and content transcend context? Is there some aspect of craft and content that is universal? Also, I was hoping for an answer to my question that was more particular. Surely all of what you mean by craft and all of what you mean by content do not transcend context? Doesn’t context transcending qualities refer to particular qualities of works of art?

        I had thought that content, for example, is inseparable from context. If content is the meaning of a work of art, does saying that it transcends context suggest that we can know the meaning (or some aspect of the meaning) of a work of art without reference to the work’s context? I agree that certain qualities of a work of art nourish future generations, but I suppose that I am not convinced that this entails that there are particular qualities that transcend context.

  4. James permalink
    April 8, 2011 10:16 pm

    I like the “bottom-up” inductive approach.

    Would you say that these three interwoven strands are necessary conditions in order for a thing to be called art?

    I’m finding difficulty placing architecture into the realm of art if all of these strands are necessary. Does architecture have “a story at work.” Maybe some do. But must all architecture have meaning/content?

    • April 8, 2011 10:44 pm

      Yes, I would say that craft, content and context are necessary conditions for art. Can you think of any counter examples?

      I think architecture most definitely tells a story. Even the most functional rambler in suburban American tells a story: the story of efficiency, conformity, and much more. Of course, much of the craft and content of architecture can only be understood in relation to its context, but that’s the point of our post today.

      • Bruce Herman permalink
        April 8, 2011 11:23 pm

        My understanding of context is that it is for the most part ungovernable and even largely unconscious. The facist architecture of the last century aimed to force a certain kind of context into being-a sort of utopian lock-step. Thank God it failed in it’s attempts to re-write human nature with it’s dreams of a “master race”. But as Wes alludes to above, there is always a story (explicit or implicit). In the case of Stalinist or Nazi art and architecture, the story is a hamfisted manifesto–not a graceful story of hope or redemption bur one of domination and oppression.

  5. James McCullough permalink
    April 10, 2011 10:00 pm

    Let me kick in a few thoughts. I have really appreciated the emerging conversation and am learning from it.

    I’m most concerned to try to address Jim’s question about our talk of “context-transcending qualities” in a satisfactory way. When I think about this, I think of the phenomenon of the “classic,” that is, works or performances that presumably were relevant in some impressive manner at the time of its making and yet remains relevant and impressive still today, or has somehow been revived and found to still “work.” Put another way, what were getting at are those often hard to quantify, elusive of pinning-down qualities that mark a piece off from “good” to “great.” Examples abound. Why is it that two hundred years later the music of Mozart moves people in a way that Salieri’s doesn’t quite do? Salieri was popular in his day, and I believe made a better living than Mozart. Stylistically their music is very similar. They aimed to please the same audience. Salieri’s music is good, and stands above the work of any number of lesser composers who were cranking out performable symphonies and operas at that time. Mozart’s music is superior in terms of its craft (his melodic gift, his manipulation of harmony even within the strictures of acceptable practice in his day, his orchestration, etc.). In terms of content, what I would say is that Mozart spoke to the Enlightenment preoccupations of his day, and yet in ways that still “speak” to us in our now postmodern cultural context. “The Marriage of Figaro” involves matters of social unrest taking place particularly in France at the time. Yet somehow both the libretto (by Lorenzo Da Ponte) and the music communicate insights into the human condition that still effectively entertain and speak to us today.

    So many Impressionist painters, yet we spend most of our time with the work of a small handful, and even though we’ve looked at their works and studied them for years, their pieces somehow still yield fresh insights and delights. They rattled the salon cages in their day, but within most of their lifetimes their work received acclaim. They were ahead of their times (many great artists are) and yet not so much that their work was completely indecipherable to their more sensitive contemporaries.

    And I always remind myself, most artists really are trying to make a living. Shakespeare sure was. For him, “Hamlet” was just another revenge tragedy. And it worked. Folks in his day loved it. And so do we, four hundred years later. And there were many other plays constructed along very similar lines, and they are mostly the object of scholarly research. Some of these are a bit more familiar and sometimes even revived, but often for reasons of historical interest. How many of Ben Johnson’s plays have we seen lately? For me, the explanation for this lies in matters related both to craft and content. Shakespeare gives us beautiful language which is nonetheless direct and simple, poetically effective, whose content presents stories that reflect various aspects of the Story of Renaissance humanism. That Story might not entirely jive with our Story, but there remain enough points of persuasive contact that communication still occurs, and when it’s done right a Shakespeare play can still bow us away.

    What makes a piece stand this test of time? That is what I believe we were trying to address in the short-hand phrase “context transcending qualities,” which, I have tried to suggest, involve both craft and content.

    Now a case can be made that in the case of many of such “classics” they live on well-worn practice that amounts to laziness on the part of performers, exhibitors, and audiences. So let worthy works be revived and represented. But such works are going to have to “make their case” on basis of excellence of craft and power of content. Otherwise they will remain museum pieces, brought out now and then to establish comparison and contrast with the classics.

    I fear I have violated the general rule of brevity for a blog response, but Jim made me do it.

  6. Jim Watkins permalink*
    April 11, 2011 9:04 am

    Wes and James, thanks for your comments in response to my question. James, especially, thank you for your very long and thoughtful comment. I think I now see much better what you mean by “context transcending qualities.” I think I was mistaken about what you assumed to be included in the meaning of the word “context.” The way I read James’ comment suggests that by “context” you mean a particular context, and not simply all contexts. So, Shakespeare wrote in his particular context during the time that he lived, but his work still speaks to us today in a context that is obviously different from the English Renaissance. Therefore, there is something about Shakespeare’s work that transcends some of the differences between those two particular contexts. But I would still want to suggest that what makes Shakespeare meaningful to us is a shared context that embraces both the particular context of the English Renaissance and our contemporary context (and also our ability to recover the context of the English Renaissance through research).

    When you wrote “context transcending qualities” I thought you meant something about works of art that are universal (i.e. meaningful in all contexts). Strangely enough, I think I probably came to that conclusion because of the chapter I read for the John Carey book, which got me thinking about such things. In that chapter, Carey chronicles the attempts of several scientists to find biological “rules” for works of art that apply across the human race. Such an attempt, he points out, is foolhardy, but it raises the question of whether there are universal qualities in works of art.

  7. Bruce Herman permalink
    April 11, 2011 12:49 pm

    Perhaps the universal element in art is where a certain unity of the three — craft, content, and context — occurs. In other words, when the work of art so perfectly weaves the three together that they cannot be teased apart without destroying the thing. In that case any person from any cultural context can appreciate or participate in the work. I can think of any number of artifacts like this from many different cultures and time periods.
    It’s interesting to note, however, how the Aztecs appreciated baubles and traded gold for worthless European trinkets. The question, I suppose, remains as to how the work of art gets valued and whose criteria are applied. Yet intuitively I think we all want others to share our enthusiasm for particular objects of beauty — whether natural or humanly fabricated. The yearning for universal criteria is there whether or not we actually have it.

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