Realms of Rubble

Art exists in the city as the city exists in art. The formal definition of art, any vehicle of aesthetic pleasure that communicates a chosen message, implicitly associates artistic creations with painted or sculptured works. Such works exist within a set context; framed by walls, these artistic creations beautify  their immediate surroundings. At the core, formalized or academic art is that which can be observed, critiqued, and questioned by human spectators. However, this overly narrow definition of art limits masterpieces to domestic or selectively public museum settings. Adopting instead a wider definition of art, the spectator must observe the greater context, the city, before dissecting the object of creation. A house for art, the city is the purest form of art. Thus, in discussing an overarching definition of art, one must evaluate architecture—the rubble, ruins, remains, and reconstructions.

While our lives concentrate around the hearths that house us, the buildings in which knowledge grows, science advances, government legislates and business operates, it is easy for the modern citizen to take for granted the aesthetic beauty of such basic foundations. Often termed concrete jungles, cities are viewed as technological and human hubs and championed for their concrete advances rather than for their concrete foundations. It takes an honest observation of the architecture of antiquity to fully realize the artistic soul of the city. As Socrates infamously stated, the city completes the individual; it is a place for realization and contemplation.

Standing on top of Filopappou Hill (Hill of the Muses) in Athens silently observing the sun crest the mountain, illuminating the Acropolis with natural light, I grasped the eternal truth of Socrates declaration. Ruined and rebuilt, the city of Athens is a place for realization. It forces the spectator to realize the finite nature of his existence—life rises and falls like the cresting sun. Yet, such realizations prompt contemplation on the beauty of such a finite existence. The Acropolis stands testament to the genius of man passed. However, it is also a symbol to the progress of man present. The stoic Doric columns and imposing geometric forms are weathered, but resilient. While fragmented, the structure stands. The Acropolis’ architecture retains the poignancy of a picture, affecting emotional musings within the spectator. Rather than a lesser form of art, architecture, as evidenced by the Acropolis, asserts the supremacy of materiality—the beauty of our classical beginnings. Turning an eye on our present state of architectural ingenuity, one can only revel at the sublimity of glass, scaffolding, and brick.

The Relevance of Artistic Creations

The question is not whether an object is art, but rather whether that piece of art is relevant. In a period of rampant artistic proliferation, the line between fine arts and creative musings blurs. A subjective standard of judging art is adopted. The classical cannons no longer dictate the process of making; instead, in this modern age, the adoption of multiple canons or the rejection of all traditional models has become commonplace. Thus, rather than struggling to define what “is” art, we should determine the calculable impact that the piece has, which will subsequently determine its artistic worth. Following this line of thought, for a piece to be art, it need not be aesthetically pleasing, only intellectually stimulating.

Increased exposure to radical public art during my time in the city has prompted me to search for, and at times realize, the intellectual method of each piece. Most recently,  the works commissioned by the Public Art Fund situated in City Hall have stimulated my curiosity. Amanda Ross-Ho’s work, The Character and Shape of Illuminated Things (2015), or more bluntly an enlarged mannequin head illuminated by a fluorescent green box, continues to flummox me. While I do not find the finished product aesthetically pleasing, I can acknowledge the artist’s public statement, which critiques the need to incessantly document, or tag, oneself on social media sites. In looking beyond the physical work, I can more easily grapple with the finished product. Even though I prefer works that adhere to a more traditional cannon, I respect the political, cultural, and racial statements that artists are making in the present. Artists are utilizing public spaces to catalyze meaningful conversation, just as artists a few hundreds ago intentionally sparked controversy with provocative saloon compositions. Yet, it is still the job of the viewer to observe with caution, steadfastly searching for worthy bold art.