27 May 2015

Jacob Lawrence and Peter Schjeldahl

Today I was reading an art review by Peter Schjeldahl about the painter Jacob Lawrence. I like Lawrence's work very much and would like to see the show in NY if I could. At one point Schjeldahl described Lawrence's work as "world changing art" which pricked me with a kind of strange surprise. People often say things like that about art work and I am often rather astounded. Hyperbole is endemic in the Art world after all. One thinks of Picasso's Guernica and immediately thrown into a world of war. That it was about Spain is beside the point, which I guess is why the painting possesses such a universal appeal. And yet, what exactly has it changed? Has it awakened anyone to the brutality (often futility) of aggression on a national scale? (or even on a personal one for that matter) I doubt it. Can it shape a person's sudden decision to become an artist? Of course, but so can Monet's Hay Stack's or Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can although for different reason probably. But what does "world changing art" mean? Somehow I cannot understand how art can change anything except in a very deeply personal nature. I don't believe Schjeldahl means that. After all the title of the show in question is Migration and the paintings are illustrations on this theme of the great Black migration northward to the cities. It is a monumental theme but I love his work mostly because of the paintings themselves which I find graphically arresting. The theme, although important, isn't the reason I like the paintings anymore than I like angels painted by Giotto. The theme is secondary unless one is in the propaganda business. The real reason is because of the dramatic integrity of the art work which has a unified motion of its own after the work is finished.

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