Thought — 2 Min Read

Banal Matter

by Case Greenfield, Febuary 12th, 2023

Thought — 2 Min Read

Banal Matter

by Case Greenfield

February 12th, 2023

I find it difficult to have a love relationship with an artwork. After all, any artwork is banal dead matter, a piece of canvas and dried paint, a piece of marble, metal, whatever. Still, people do fall deeply in love with artworks. How does that work?

This may sound strange for a artist, but I have a difficult relationship with physical artworks. In particular, I often find it banal to have a warm emotional relationship with, what it ultimately is, a piece of dead matter. Only sometimes I find a deeper meaning in an artwork, that creates this emotional bonding.

Is that what makes an artwork good or real “art”, the emotional bonding?

Is it the deeper meaning for an individual person, the beholder’s share, that makes a banal dead piece of matter into a valuable artwork? Is it the story around the artwork? Or still, the intrinsic, objective or perceived, subjective ‘beauty’ of the artwork?

Is it religion?

Maybe it is my pretty strict christian upbringing that taught me that it is forbidden to create images (The Bible, Exodus 20: 4-5) :

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me (…)

(And I believe there are similar bans in other religions that I am not so familiar with.)

Especially it is not allowed to worship the images. Interesting, and confusing.

A lot has been said about this by philosophers and artists, already. This is just one example (in Dutch, sorry).

Is it existential?

Maybe the religious consideration is based in a deeper feeling: the intrinsic loneliness of bonding with a piece of matter. It has an existential sadness for me. We humans are a deeply social species.

Remember the Swiss Xavier Rosset who took the challenge of staying on a deserted island for 300 days to see if he could survive. After a few months he caught a wild boar piglet. But despite his hunger, he didn’t eat it but kept is as a pet to stop his loneliness.

I remember a documentary about the owner of a famous painting (I think it was Nu couche, Amadeo Modigliani or it was a privately owned Rembrandt, no it was a portrait of a woman, no … well, I forgot what it was exactly) who cherished the painting as if it was his daughter. I found that cringingly uncomfortable, uncanny. It touched me emotionally. I found it sad, in a way, that someone could feel such almost religious, heavenly attachment to a painting, a banal piece of matter.

I found it extremely intriguing.

Is it social, after all?

Apparently, it is possible to bond emotionally with an artwork.

For me, there are two ways how this works:

  • Intrinsic (The object itself) – Either the image itself has such incredible beauty (think of Mona Lisa) that you sort-of fall in love with it. And I mean that quite literally. It may give you something to ponder about, to stimulate your imagination, to dream away.
  • Extrinsic (Something inseparably related to the object) – Or it is the story that creates an emotional bond. The story of the artwork makes it an integral and intense part of your life. Maybe, the artwork is of exceptional (art) historic value, maybe it depicts a specific event.

And, now that I think of it, there may be a third way. A social argument, yet. Maybe, the artist is your friend. Or maybe, ownership of an artwork gives you social status with other art collectors. Or it gives you something to talk about with friends.

In the end, everything is social.

Yes, I’m sure now. That is the main mechanism. Implicitly or explicitly. It must be social. We are a social creature. In the end, everything is social.

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