In previous blog posts, I’ve written about art and beauty, and how the two terms are not synonymous. Beauty is relative, and limiting artwork to only the beautiful and pleasant restricts the full range and impact that ugly and disturbing art can have. Art is an especially relevant topic for me, given my role as an art student and artist here at BYU, so I found it imperative to expand on this topic—especially concerning artistic intent.
When I use the word “art,” I’m primarily speaking about any purposefully constructed work that is a creative expression of the human mind. Traditionally, this has taken the form of painting or sculpture, but art has long since proven it can take many other forms: literature, theater, video, film, performance, installation, etc. However, as a practicing artist participating in the contemporary, capital-A “Art” world, I will primarily refer to examples regarding this sector of studio art practice.
Artistic intention or motivation ultimately determines the end product that we consider as artwork. Just as a team of writers will determine a movie’s plot progression, an artist determines what material will be used and in what way. Eventually, their work is exhibited in a context like a museum or gallery that allows us as viewers to evaluate what we experience. This can often be met with mixed reactions. As BYU professor Collin Bradford stated in his Faith and Works lecture, it is not unusual for most people to walk into these places and become agitated when their expectations for beautiful, technically skilled, or uplifting artwork are not met. It is also highly unlikely that you will see the artist present and ready to explain their exact intentions when creating their piece. Rather, it is just you, the museum staff, maybe a few visitors, and the art work—along with all of your preconceived ideas and expectations ready to influence how you experience what is placed in front of you.
As Bradford put it, “I think we approach art as a culture with what King Benjamin might call the natural man…The natural man, King Benjamin tells us, lacks meekness, humility, patience and love.” We often become threatened by what we do not understand and as a result, dismiss or even antagonize something that could potentially inspire or provoke us to think differently. Furthermore, by separating the artist and his intent completely, we are removing critical context that could enrich the way that we experience the work.
One example of an unconventional—but purposeful—artwork is Walead Beshty’s FedEx works. He packed cubes of glass in FedEx boxes and shipped them across the country to various exhibitions and galleries. Normally, artists are careful to protect and pad their artwork from the casual rough handling of mail carriers. In this case, Beshty designed these pieces to break while in transit. His FedEx works were constructed to fit seamlessly within the dimensions of standard shipping size boxes. Then, when shipped, the objects would inevitably crack and shatter. It became the responsibilities of the curators and gallerists to carefully unpack each piece and display them as-is for the exhibition. The fragile volumes were then given titles that specifically mentioned the date, tracking number, and box size of the shipment.
This work of Beshty was reliant on his initial intention for the shipping process to affect the overall outcome of the work. The final product then becomes a commentary on a corporation’s ability to copyright the exact dimensions of a box, essentially owning an empty shape, as well as highlighting a typically invisible act. As a culture, ordering items and expecting them to arrive in pristine condition is the norm. We hardly take into account the many stops and motions of transit that occur behind the scenes. It also points out the systemic nature of art institutions—normally, gallerists and conservators would panic and file insurance claims over work broken in transit. The specific instructions of the artist were necessary for the works to take their final shape and form.
Talking about his work, Beshty said, “I was interested in how art objects acquire meaning through their context and through travel…I wanted to make a work that was specifically organized around its traffic, becoming materially manifest through its movement from one place to another.” A casual viewer may have entered this space and judged this works based only on their aesthetic qualities as broken glass boxes. Informing oneself of the works’ context is imperative to experiencing it fully. Without the artist’s intent, the pieces would not be what they are.
Another artist who makes work using unconventional methods is Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Perfect Lovers is one of his pieces that expresses a deep interest in love,
relationships, and mortality. Gonzalez-Torres synchronized two industrial clocks placed side by side. Because batteries fail and all items eventually fall into entropy, the clocks would slowly begin to advance at differing rates, out of sync, until finally one of them stops altogether before the other. Felix Gonzales-Torres’s intention is important in this piece; the work is a commentary on the mortality of life and inevitable flow of time, specifically derived from his experience when his partner was diagnosed with AIDS. It’s a beautifully simple piece. There is no extensive manual skill or craft present; the objects are cheap, easily obtained clocks. His arrangement of them however, is everything. The batteries of the clocks could not have been maintained by the museum or replaced with new ones; they needed to fail. Had this been disregarded, we would never have the full effect of his piece—that time runs out and we will all reach our fateful ends one day.
Perhaps there are times when intent doesn’t matter as critically, such as in the case of abstracted or formal works that exist as paintings to be hung and admired. These serve a different purpose to the ones of Beshty and Gonzalez-Torres exemplified, but neither is necessarily better or worse. We may feel pleasure or comfort from beautiful things decorated in our homes, and they are important for that reason. However, art can be so much more and its influence far wider if we simply consider it in all the forms it can take, not just the conventionally pretty ones.
As an artist at BYU, I’ve had an interesting journey. I’ve made work that has become increasingly less popular for a general audience, and I’ve often questioned why. I don’t draw photorealistic portraits of family members or illustrate children’s books. I’m not an interior designer or a religious painter like Simon Dewey. When people ask me about my “medium,” I’m often conflicted on how to respond because artists have long since proven that they can do more than one thing. I use cardboard boxes, drywall compound and found furniture. I take photos of manila folders, DHL envelopes, and make videos with long periods of silence or Spanish speaking with no subtitles. I’ve had many supportive friends think my work is “cool,” but after spending a grand total of three seconds with it, affirm that they just “don’t get art.” It may be a lost cause that I’m arguing for, but I do believe that there’s value in work made purposefully with items that we don’t traditionally associate with beauty. It’s just a matter of taking time with what you’re viewing, of fully considering the context that it’s placed in and thinking about what the artist intended.
This post was written by Dalila Sanabria, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.