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Eye of the Beholder

Summer 2012 | By Korina Wilbert.

In 1937, after a small town in northern Spain was bombed to ruin, Pablo Picasso took paintbrush in hand to release his rage over the killing of women and children. Guernica, the mammoth black and white canvas of grotesque and distorted images, traveled around the world where it was proclaimed to be everything from "genius" to "the dreams of a madman."

Not only did the painting shape perceptions of the Spanish Civil War, but for the next seventy-five years, it served as the rallying cry for protestors against military force in such places as Vietnam, Iraq, and Syria.

In the late 1940s, Samuel Beckett wrote about two vagabonds enduring the agony of waiting for someone who never comes. Shortly after Waiting for Godot premiered in Paris in 1953, inmates in Lüttringhausen Prison smuggled it in, translated it into German, and staged it to a rapt audience.

The play has been produced over and over in situations of volatile political unrest. Not only does it resonate with those who are suffering, but at times seems to trigger a quantum shift where the reality of the unrest becomes theatrical

Does art reflect life, or is life the imitator?  Or, perhaps the ne plus ultra occurs when the two become one. The debate is long and storied and peopled with curious characters from the past to the present, from Paris to Purdue.

Act 1: Life Imitates Art

In 1889 Oscar Wilde claimed that "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life". Art sets the aesthetic principles by which we understand life; what we see is not what is really there, but is what artists have taught us to see, he argues.

"Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows?" Wilde says. "There may have been fogs for centuries in London…But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them."

Not convinced? The Impressionist's depictions of the brown fogs of London may be less familiar to the contemporary reader than today's cinema.

Consider the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Sheer fantasy when it debuted in 1968, the film was an uncanny predictor of today's technological achievements, such as the International Space Station, flat-screen computer monitors, digital music and movie players, and computers with e-mail access.

The Godfather, based on the book by Mario Puzo is widely believed to have influenced the way the mob operated. Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano of the Gambino crime family claims that the movie influenced the way he behaved.

"I'm just saying it didn't hurt our image," Gravano says. "It made our life seem honorable. I would use the lines in real life like, 'I'm gonna make you an offer you can't refuse,' and I would always tell people, just like from The Godfather, 'If you have an enemy, that enemy becomes my enemy.'"

Gravano claims that he only killed one person before he saw the movie, but 18 people after. Was it the mob that influenced Puzo, or Puzo who influenced the mob?

Act 2: Art Interprets Life

Historians take a different view. Art expresses the temper of its age, the spirit of its time, the moral and social conditions it's steeped in, and the influences of the artist.

"Art must be viewed for the time that it was created in," says Jennifer L. Foray, associate professor of history. Foray routinely uses art to help her students understand historical movements and ideas.

"For example, WWI was so surreal to those who fought it," says Foray. "There was almost no real way for them to describe what the conflict was like."  She uses paintings such as Flanders and Stormtroops  Advancing Under Gas by Otto Dix, who fought in the war, to punch up the volume of the story.

"Some of the scenery is just so indistinguishable; you can't tell what's what. You can't make out what's a person, what's a horse, and what's landscape, and that reflects the surreal aspect of it. This is so much more powerful in conveying the historical reality of the war than photography or film."

Arguably, no painting became more famous as an anti-war piece than Guernica by Pablo Picasso. For his honors thesis, J.T. Lang (CLA 2012) analyzed the public response to the painting from the time that it debuted in Paris in 1937 through 1942.

"Picasso intended Guernica to be a protest against General Franco and the Nationalists, who were trying to overthrow the Spanish Republic in the Civil War," says Lang. "While much of the politically left-leaning intellectual elite praised Guernica as propaganda, there was criticism both from many of the Marxists on the left and conservative art critics."

Though ultimately it did not help win the war, it became an important anti-war symbol in our international lexicon. In 1940, when the Germans bombed Rotterdam, there were references to the bombing of Guernica and the painting.

"People said, 'Oh, God, this is our Guernica'", says Foray. "If they heard the name, they thought of the painting. Even if they didn't like it, that painting became a symbol of bombing from the sky against unarmed civilians in war."

After WWII, "Guernica became an important anti-Vietnam war symbol in the 1960s," says Catherine Dossin, assistant professor of art history.  It also became a hot button for journalists in 2003 when the U.N. covered a tapestry of the painting while Colin Powell made the case for war in Iraq.

Act 3: Art and Life are One

Perhaps art and life are not independent variables. Lance Duerfahrd, assistant professor of English, argues that the goal of art should be to break down the line between art and life.

Duerfahrd points to Beckett's classical absurdist play, Waiting for Godot. The play is so stripped down and elemental that it contains no political statements whatsoever, yet it has invited many interpretations across the globe in times of political crisis.

The play was staged by inmates in 1953 in Lüttringhausen Prison and in 1957 in San Quentin, during the Civil Rights Movement in the South in the mid-1960s by the Free Southern Theater, in the besieged city of Sarajevo in 1993 during the Bosnian War, and in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans in late 2007 after Hurricane Katrina all but erased the predominately black neighborhood.

What was common to all these crises is that they were intense moments of rupture when the disenfranchised felt that those in positions of power failed to intercede on their behalf. And that's when the play was summoned.

"What these people did in these environments is that they engaged with the play empathetically, almost cathartically. They related to it emotionally, with some understanding and familiarity." Duerfahrd says. "There is a kind of magical resonance. When it's performed in crisis, you see something new about Beckett, and you also see something new about the crisis at hand."

Duerfahrd staged the play in 2011 during Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City's Wall Street financial district. "There had never been a staging of the play in a financial crisis," says Duerfahrd. "It seemed like a 'Beckettian' protest to me. They were not making any demands. They had an amorphous need which didn't fit into any agenda. They were just occupying uselessly, and that's when theater began.

"It's not that Beckett is influenced by reality or politics or that politics is influenced by Beckett, but that somehow in these situations where this play unexpectedly appears, reality starts looking theatrical."

Perhaps the line between life and art is least distinguishable in architectural design. Lisa Banu, assistant professor of design history, says, "There is no separation between art and life. Everything is art, and art is style." She points to the table we sit it at a local coffee shop, a nondescript white building across the street, the porticos on the Tippecanoe County Courthouse, and the Purdue Mall Water Sculpture.  

The way each of these things is designed and built presupposes a relationship and a language. "Everything we see is a reflection of our human relationships. It's a language, but instead of being oral, it's visual." Design reinforces our social connections. They are stand-ins for our stories, for what we value as a community.

But, while art can be shared, it can also be hotly contested. "We can agree or we can disagree about whether something is beautiful or necessary or what it is or what it means," says Banu. "Where it becomes politically charged is where these conversations go into areas of shared space, such as the environment. How do you build a collective global agenda without squashing local identity?"

Perhaps we'll ask Godot about that one.

Ryan Trecartin Lucky, the slave, is surrounded by Occupy Wall Street protestors during Assistant Professor Lance Duerfahrd’s 2011 staging of Waiting for Godot in Zuccotti Park. Though the play has been staged during wars and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, this is the first performance during a financial crisis. The vagabonds waiting endlessly on Beckett's stage for a character that never comes echo with the Wall Street protestors. Photo by Stacey Mickelbart.

Eye of the Storm

If you are reading this, you are likely in close proximity to some flavor of digital device, a computer, smartphone, or digital reader perhaps. As these types of gadgets become smaller and more ubiquitous, the way we think, behave, and express ourselves is evolving.  The technology to upload to the world our opinion on everything from presidential political agendas to what’s for lunch is readily available, and availed of with increasing frequency.

It’s a virtual storm of information, one that has not escaped the eye of contemporary artists, both in the art they produce and the manner in which they produce it.

Rosanne Altstatt, curator and former Visiting Scholar in the Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts, specializes in media art. She is interested in art produced with new technologies and how people digest, interpret, and are affected by it.

“There are a lot of artists out there who create artworks that are about connected associative stories or images, much in the way that you would click through the Internet,” says Altstatt. “They may not actually use the Internet in their artwork, but that surfing mentality has taken hold in their artwork much in the way it has taken hold in society.”

She points to contemporary artist Ryan Trecartin as an example of an artist who uses new media to interpret how Internet connectivity affects our lives.

“For me it’s that constant exchange between art and life that’s most important. Because, if it’s just a matter of one imitating the other, then we have all the answers right away. And who wants all the answers when it comes to art? It’s more about raising the questions, raising discussion.”

Curtain Call

Whether art imitates life, life imitates art, or they are somehow symbiotic, the last word hasn't been spoken. Perhaps the greatest value of the debate is that we continue having it.

"Art exists because common sense is insufficient," Duerfahrd says. "We need common sense; it helps us to survive, but without art we'd be dying in a more crucial way."

Professor Catherine Dossin

Eye-Opening Experience

From 1964 to 1965, an international exhibition of realist art circulated around Western Europe. As the show traveled from city to city, the representation of American artists, in particular the young Pop artists including Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, increased.

Sophomore Patrick Wu assisted Catherine Dossin, assistant professor of art history (pictured at left), in studying this exhibition. They wanted to understand how the art was perceived in Europe, why changes occurred in the exhibition as it toured, and whether or not any connection could be found between perceptions of the exhibition and the post-war political milieu.

“We established connections between each exposition, such as the return of figuration and realism in 20th century Western Europe, the rise of popularity of young artists, and ultimately the prevalence of Pop Art,” says Wu. As Pop Art is essentially art of popular culture, the optimism prevalent during the post-war boom was reflected in the art and, in turn, the exhibition reinforced the mood.

Wu was one of 25 first-year students chosen for the Dammon Dean’s Scholar Program who participated in a research internship assisting faculty mentors with their research. 

“I am definitely grateful for this amazing opportunity,” says Wu, an economics major from Austin, Texas. “I realize that not many freshmen get to do research with a professor. This experience enlightened me on various aspects of the academic field.”

Dossin’s research project, titled The Triumph of American Pop Art? American Art in Postwar Western Europe, benefits from the support of a CLA’s Global Research Synergy Grant and is part of ARTL@S, the digital atlas of the arts. It will be featured first as an interactive web interface that will be launched in the fall, and then released as an ARTL@S book in spring 2013. 

“Working with a Dammon Dean’s Scholar was a great experience,” says Dossin. “Not only did we accomplish a lot in terms of research, but the fresh and intelligent perspective Patrick brought to the project was very stimulating.”

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