The origin of art: a reflection following my first college art class

Written on May 5th, 2016

Many things interest me about Josef Albers’ The Origin of Art.

One of them is that a man who studied squares so intensely would write a poem that is much longer than it is wide. Another is that someone who spent an abundance of time working with color would also feel the need to document their thoughts with plain old black and white text on paper.

But perhaps the most compelling is the complexity of every statement expressed in this work; each one can be interpreted and analyzed in a myriad of ways. The one that speaks to me the most vehemently is when he defines the measure of art as being “the ratio of effort to effect”. What exactly does he mean by this?

Is he saying that an artwork is the greatest when it contains a large amount of effort and also produces a large effect, thus giving a ratio of roughly one? This is a desirable outcome in many situations, such as dealing with A/F forecast ratios in business manufacturing or when you’re dividing the number of points you scored on a test by the total number available.

But is it also desirable in art, or is the goal instead to invest as little effort as possible but to achieve a massive effect, such as in the works of Duchamp or Judd? Neither artist actually assembled their works themselves, yet both altered the landscape of art and culture as a whole in impressive and enduring ways (this is exemplified quite well in the simple fact that we spent a semester learning about them in an art class years after their works were first considered innovative).

If this were true, then the ratio ought to be low, reflecting enormous impact with little sweat… but is there a scenario in which a high ratio is also desirable? If you spend countless hours on a work but no one ever tells you it’s good or you receive a poor grade or it’s never shown in any museums, should you still be proud of your effort even in the face of minimal external effect?

Or is the art you create defined instead by how it’s perceived, by the mountains it moves, by the way it colors an existing cultural landscape or forges an entirely new path?

Another idea we have to consider in order to understand this ratio concept is how Albers is defining effect here in the first place. The above examples are mostly concerned with effect on outsiders: viewers, critics, society and artistic expression as a whole.

But is the personal effect of an artwork just as important? I would personally like to say yes. I believe that effort itself can have a massive effect on the person who is providing it, and that can be just as important as receiving external accolades. If you create a work and no one ever appreciates or notices it but you, that doesn’t mean it’s effect was zero – perhaps it completely transformed you as an artist, as an innovator, or even just as a human being.

That’s still important, but is that what Albers means, or does he see the value of art from a broader viewpoint? Effort and effect are both subjective, making this statement in the poem one that might never be fully debriefed.

I believe the works of Donald Judd are an embodiment of the complexity of this idea of the relationship between effort and effect, as they can fall everywhere on the spectrum from a very low ratio to an extremely high one.

As far as his effort, a solid argument can be made in both directions. On the one hand, he merely sent in plans to manufacturers to be made for him, and never really got his hands dirty with the industrial materials of which his works were constructed – but on the other, he had to envision those plans, to create the initial idea, to kickstart the process of building something by deciding what exactly it was that needed to be built.

Similar arguments can be made in regards to the effect of his work; some who see his minimalism on display are inspired by the use of shape and space to think critically and thoughtfully about the world around them and about what art is, while others completely miss the point of a steel rectangle sticking out of a wall. In this way, Judd somehow created works that had both little effort and large effect, yet also large effort and little effect. The subjectivity of it all is absolutely riveting.

In the midst of countless perspectives, ideas, and feelings regarding art, my favorite thing is simply how open-ended the field really is. What is art?

Somehow it is everything and also nothing all at once. It is neoclassical paintings and it is plain gray canvases hung on museum walls. It is romanticist interpretations of man versus nature and it is abstract forms birthed from poured paint. It is literature, and dance, and communication and physical interaction and the tangible and the intangible and the entire world around us.

I believe that life itself is art – and I believe that art is a necessity. As professor John Keating said in one of my all-time favorite movies, Dead Poets Society: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

As for my future relationship with art, I know it will always exist, though perhaps not in a traditional academic manner.

I’m going on to earn my certificate in graphic design but realized over the course of this semester that I actually want to pursue a career in front-end web development, meaning I’ll also be working with code day in and day out.

Though perhaps unconventional, I believe there is something overwhelmingly artistic about programming – it is this sublime reconciliation of logic and creativity, and I think that at its core that’s a lot of what art is.

I know I will always find myself drawn to beautiful things, that I will always doodle song lyrics and try to develop my hand-lettering skills, that I will always appreciate design wherever it exists – whether it’s on the web or in the physical world via architecture or fashion.

I will always be a writer, drawn to the art of language itself, to the rush of stringing together letters and syllables and creating something so much greater than the some of its parts. More than anything, I will always look to find meaning in the world around me beyond what is inherently present.

I will always seek to have an artistic mind, one that appreciates metaphor and juxtaposition and the absolute wonder of something that supplements your life in a way so important that it feels like you just can’t survive without it.

We are all artists, in vastly different and fascinating ways, and at the end of the day I just want to be the best creator that I can be.