In recent art news, the 2014 Whitney Biennial is now in full swing, the New Museum is hosting Laure Prouvost’s first American solo exhibition, MoMA has a major exhibition of Gauguin prints and drawings, the Art Institute of Chicago has a Christopher Wool retrospective and the innocent denizens of Great Falls, Montana, must be subjected to another Western Art Week.
I am (un)fortunate enough to live in the self-proclaimed “Western Art Capital of the World” and every March Western Art Week inevitably rolls into town with all its silver-belt-buckled, leather-fringed, 64-ounce-charbroiled-rib-eyed glory.
The funny thing is, despite having taken numerous art history classes, prior to moving to this corner of the world I had never even heard of the term “Western Art” outside of its use as a general descriptor to distinguish art stemming from the European artistic tradition as opposed to the “Eastern Art” of the Far East, such as Japan, China, etc.
The notion of Western Art as a legitimate artistic genre is dubious at best. Most of the so-called Western Art that I have seen falls much more closely in line with illustration or craft; there are little (if any) conceptual jumps from one piece to the next, little exploration of greater artistic themes and traditions and a stubborn adherence to a strictly limited subject matter.
This work is not about ideas, it is about technique, it is not about expression, but rather depiction. Each piece is a self-contained story that lives in its own narrow world, whereas true art draws upon conceptual leaps between works, cognizant of broader traditions and intent on conveying intellectual and spiritual truths. Western Art retreats to the safety of genre, while art in its truest sense expands and explores and challenges and even obliterates such boundaries.
The “art” of Western Art is merely a commodity, another decoration to adorn the wall of a hotel lobby or hang between the trophies of your most recent hunting expedition.
But perhaps pictures speak louder than words. All of the pieces below were done in the year 1912. Top to bottom, left to right, they are: Bonnard, Saint-Tropez, Pier; Kandinsky, Black Spot I; Matisse, “La Danse” with Nasturtiums; Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase; Russell, A Bronc to Breakfast.
One of these is not like the others …