Aesthetic Autonomy

This blog introduces the current exhibition Fables, Allegories, and Aestheticism: The Art of the Message.  

The exhibition compares two modes of art making; a mode which prioritizes the art itself as “the message of form” and a mode that prioritizes “the message of content.”

Artists who follow the “message of form” create art without an intended moral or political point of view and instead offer a tableau that viewers can interpret based on what they see. Those who follow the “message of content” create art with an intention to deliver a socially beneficial message of some kind. Both modes have benefits and purpose. At their best, both modes want viewers to see something from life that they had not see before.

Fables, Allegories, and Aestheticism: The Art of the Message brings together a diverse group of artists with the intent to understand how these artists use art to convey messages. Key are the artists who practice art with no pre-planned message. For these artists, there is an important social value in creating artworks that may stimulate viewers to find their own message. These artists are Dominic Finocchio, Michael Onken, Glenn Moreton, and Daniel Overturf. The artists with implied social messages are David Yates, Lizzy Martinez, Chloe Flanigan, and Margaret Keller. A Siegfried Reinhardt (1924-1984) painting is included from the Cedarhurst permanent collection as an example of a type of allegorical social commentary found in modern art that viewers must interpret for themselves.

Dominic Finocchio, Purged Ideology, 2017, oil.  Finocchio’s signs and symbols, though carefully chosen, are left open for interpretation by the viewer based on his or her experiences.  

David Yates, Nighthawks Revisited, 2015, oil.  Yates intends his signs and symbols to carry messages, but encourages the viewer to determine meaning.

Lizzy Martinez, Little Red Riding Hood, 2017, oil.  Martinez intends a social message.  Here, turning the fable plot upside down, the artist would like to see improved gun regulation.

Fables are supernatural short stories featuring a useful truth told by animals or inanimate objects. Fables often conclude with the aphorism or maxim. Aesop is a prime example. Allegories are stories where the moral message is implied but never explicitly stated in the storytelling.  John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, published 1678 is a major example.

Aestheticism was a late 19th century movement of art for art’s sake. The Aesthetic Movement was the idea that art only needed to express beauty or formal excellence without a socially mandated requirement to espouse moral lessons. The Aesthetic Movement together with the especially powerful and influential Neoclassicism and Romanticism gave rise to the Modern Art movement.

Glenn Moreton, Open, 2020, acrylic.  Moreton paints carefully chosen scenes from real life, but imposes no storyline.  Viewers are free to determine significance for themselves.  

Modern Art championed the priority of the aesthetic autonomy of the art object itself.

In literature, New Criticism emerged in the 1920s which insisted that the art work alone was the bearer of meaning. Outside references to biography or history were unnecessary. The new critics insisted that everything needed to understand a poem was already in the poem. To an important degree, that is still true today; interpretation begins with form, but social and historical issues are also considered.

Chloe Flanigan, Hide and Seek, 2018, watercolor, color pencil.  The artist’s social message is to bring awareness to sexual violence against women.  

Clement Greenberg in 1939 began a battle against the products of the mass market by urging that the fine art avant-garde must elevate art with art for art’s sake and “pure poetry.”  This elevation of “pure” art could be easily distinguished from the banal mass culture.

The early beginnings of postmodernism began in America with the critique of Greenberg’s narrow definition of high art. Pop Art inaugurated the postmodern formal and social critique with its reaction to Abstract Expressionism.

Michael Onken, Tea with a Traveler, 2019, watercolor, gouache, acrylic. Though loaded with symbolism, Onken intends no message or agenda.  

By the late 1970s and 1980s postmodern artists took Pop Art’s socially referenced outlook and combined it with Conceptual Art’s critical thinking and social commentary to make a new kind of art. The realization grew that it was no longer logical to separate art based solely on its formal qualities from social issues.

Daniel Overturf, Lonnie Swept the Playroom and Swallowed Up All He Found, 1994, darkroom C-print from original camera negative. Clearly intending a story, Overturf nevertheless leaves room for individual interpretations.  

Margaret Keller, Tortellini Means Venus’ Navel, 1984, watercolor. Though Keller today is better known for her social messages, here, in this early work the artist plays with visual and written language as well as the sensuous gaze.  

Today, aesthetic autonomy means the freedom to choose between the values of “the message of form” or “the message of content”. Art for art’s sake has its place as does art with a social message.  As we know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Artist Hometowns:
Dominic Finocchio, Lizzy Martinez, and Margaret Keller are from St. Louis. David Yates lives in Edwardsville, IL. Glenn Moreton and Chloe Flanigan are from Mt. Vernon, IL.  Michael Onken lives in Carbondale, IL. Daniel Overturf lives in Murphysboro, IL.

A brief interpretation of The Magic Game

Siegfried Reinhardt was born in Germany and lived and worked in St. Louis. Reinhardt taught at Washington University for 15 years. Reinhardt’s The Magic Game, 1961, is a moody, allegorical painting where children play amid abstract, geometric cabinetry against a sheer wall. Circles on the wall appear as holes and moon-like; more circles echo throughout. I think it would be a mistake to interpret the children literally. The tenor of the 1960s was a time of great change and influence. Consider these 60s events – Kennedy was elected, the nuclear sub Triton and nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise were launched, sit-in protests in the South, birth control pills first marketed, spy plane U-2 shot down, and the Bay of Pigs. Reinhardt’s painting reflects the mood of the 1960s and is social commentary of a high order.