19 November, 2010

The Artist's Ideas - The Artist's Ethos

Edvard Munch
The Scream, 1893
o/c, tempera & pastel

A work of art can't be questioned or dismissed. Saul Bellow.

The obscure word ethos has a different meaning today than it did seventy years ago, and it has traveled a malleable path since the days of Aristotle. Whereas, today, it is a corporate creed, it formerly held a deeper meaning. Pre-war artists owned the word - it was the artist's ethos. My 1936 Webster's dictionary has the following:
Webster: From the Greek, ethos, ἔθος, character. The moral, ideal or universal element in a work of art as distinguished from that which is emotional in its appeal or subjective.

How do the artist's ideas exhibit themselves in an artwork? Is it important for an artist to express an ethos through the making of art?

We have been considering
The Artist's Ideas, with these previous posts:

Have Ideas
Quotes - The Artist's Ideas
The Inner Meaning
The Artist's Ideas
Paint Better Now

The Artist's Ethos.

The Greeks saw ethos as the first proof of debate, and it had to do with trusting the moral competence of the
rhetorician. Fast-forward to our concerns and the artist's ethos. Let's unpack the definitions of moral, ideal and universal elements.

The Moral Function of Art.

Webster describes a moral element in a given artwork, which is, by definition, an illumination of right or wrong. As concerns the formal parts of art, there is no right or wrong. "There is no must in art because art is free," Wassily Kandinsky. So, we are left with artworks that reveal a moral quality intended by the artist, such as in the case of Sacred Art. See below some artworks that reveal strong moral qualities in a broader context. See The Sistine Chapel for Sacred Art.

John Dewey said that
“Art is more moral than moralities.” Artist and blogger Katherine A. Cartwright is reading Dewey's important 1934 book, Art as Experience, and hosting a community discussion on The Moral Function of Art. See here, here and here, and remember to read the comment fields.

Here is the "see below." For my part of the discussion at Katherine's blog, I have been illustrating the moral function of art by identifying individual artworks that I see as strong moral forces in the canon of Western art. Blogger/artist Linda W. Roth had the idea first, and she chose Edward Munch's The Scream for its moral content. I think she's right on with that, and I thought of Andrew Wyeth's Groundhog Day, and Willem deKooning's Woman 1. These artworks are linked below.

The following opens a window into Dewey's thinking: Art is morally powerful because it is indifferent to moral praise and blame (loosely quoted). Do you agree?

Ideals - The Artist's Ideas.

otice that the Websters definition relates to a work of art, and not the group known as artists. My understanding of "the ideal" is that an artwork must, to be true to the artist's ethos, reflect his ideas. See these quotes on The Artist's Ideas.

Universal Elements.

Art is a universal mode of language. John Dewey. Philosophers will tell you that language is wanting in descriptive power - it falls short of expressing what man is able to think. Art is a huge bridge in "speaking" to mankind aught words.

Edvard Munch, The Scream.
Andrew Wyeth, Groundhog Day.
Willem de Kooning, Woman 1.

Ethos at Wikipedia.
John Dewey, Art As Experience.


Sonya Johnson said...

Glad you finally got the post up and running, Casey!

Interesting food for thought, here. I know for myself, I view art in many different ways, and knowing the intent behind it often changes significantly my appreciation of it. Some art I like simply because at face value, it is beautifully composed, shows masterful technique, or triggers some other emotional response. Often times, I have to stop and think about what exactly in the painting results in my reaction to it.

Another example of art as a moral statement is Picasso's "Guernica", which I don't personally think is beautiful, but is a reaction to the tragedies of war. It transcends language with its powerful symbolism.

Dan Kent said...

I looked through the past posts you listed - I had already read a few; the rest were new. Valuable - and I know I will be thinking about your insights while I paint. Virtually all I have posted online have been sketches, part of my learning process. I hope and trust paintings I intend to do will be suffused with meaning, and an artist's true intent. Fingers are crossed.

Casey Klahn said...

Thanks for our talks, Sonya. I look forward to seeing more of your Colorado paintings, BTW.

One vote for Guernica.

Hi, Dan. Thank you very much for reading the series. I think artist's ideas are a worthy topic, and hope that these posts ask some questions we can all think about. I look forward to seeing your paintings, too.

Unknown said...

Casey - this is a great synthesis of this topic! Thanks so much for the nod, and thank you for creating a more comprehensive view. I'm particularly interested in the Dewey quotation: "Art is more moral than moralities." This is a good definition for art because it's all-encompassing. By that, I mean that any sincere intention on the part of the artist will make the product a work of art. Famed art critic, Arthur Danto, once said "For something to be deemed a work of art it must have meaning." That meaning is provided by the artist, and - as you point out - the artist isn't restricted. I could refine my statement here at length but I think you get the gist. Thanks for partnering with me on this fascinating and important topic!!

Casey Klahn said...

Hi, Kathy. Yes, I think we are collaborating on this topic - what an honor for me!

The quote, "Art is more moral than moralities," interests me, too. I feel the need to read his book before I can comment on it, though. Not sure how he means it.

As you point out, the artist enjoys (or ought to enjoy) much freedom. Quite a responsibility.

Katherine van Schoonhoven said...

Hi Casey! My "art" connection began when I was seven years old and identified myself as a musician. Music spoke to me down to my bones, and as I have played through lo these many years and decades, I have the juice of music.

To play music in such a way as to communicate ideas or stir the feelings of the listener is heady stuff. We by pass the limitation of words and get to the essence of experience.

Now, to art, which is much newer to me. As my facility with the medium improves, so too does my ability to communicate in a soulful way with the viewer. But, I think that it takes putting the time in to feel unselfconscious about the medium before more can be done than technique.

Titles become less specific so as to invite the maximum freedom to the viewer to project and question and wonder and feel all that the artist has put into a work.

Ethos. Worth more consideration. Thanks for inviting us in. Kvan

Casey Klahn said...

Thanks for engaging in this, Kvan. One good exercise is to look at a collection of your paintings, and try to identify the message you were meaning.

In an exciting note, one of our readers has sent me a post with their recommendation for a master painting demonstrating ethos. I will be posting that soon.

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