Modern art exists in an interesting place in our culture. Some people love it. Others struggle to see the artistry, sometimes dismissing it as “not real art.” Of course, the same things they say about Pollack or Warhol (or more recent artists), they said about Van Gogh or Picasso. Art is always evolving, always changing. Different artistic movements rise up to respond to the culture or context.
Art has never been simple. It’s always made statements about our world. However as long as artists focused on realism, it was easier to decipher that statement. When comparing a modern piece to a Rembrandt, it can be harder to see the artistry. Appreciating modern art sometimes feel like Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok. You have to wrestle until it blesses you.
That’s how I felt experiencing On Kawara’s Silence exhibition. Silence incorporates several different series of Kawara’s work. His most well-known is probably Today. Each painting has the date the work was completed in white letters on a solid color canvas. The dates are always centered regardless of the canvas size. The paintings are sometimes displayed with newspaper clippings from the day he painted or following day (so news on the actual day of painting), but Kawara chooses the clippings solely by whatever struck him. He makes no claim that these events were worthy of noting the day.
The one that really struck was a joint collection of I Got Up, I Met and I Went. I Got Up are postcards sent to friends with the time he woke up that morning. I Met is a binder with collections of names of the people he met in a day, a project he began because he was bad with Western names. I Went are maps with highlighted routes of where he went in the day.
The exhibition presents information without context. We see particular days and news stories or places, names, and wake-up times, but nothing about the day’s value. Each day simply is, with no positive or negative statements. I have no idea how Kawara feels about any day, the people he met, or the places he saw. Which also means I don’t know how I feel about those particular days; they are just days.
In our age of extreme information, it’s a bit unsettling to realize that all this information doesn’t actually tell us anything. With everything that gets published, spoken, sung, or tweeted in a day how much information is added to our experience every day? And yet, in a vacuum of perspective, it’s all just words.
How many of my days are filled like this, lots of information but little to no meaning? Places, times, even people, but no life. For me, this is the challenge, the revelation of Kawara’s Silence. These things on their own do not make a life. They are only a tiny drop in the ever-growing sea of information. Their true value requires meaning and perspective to come alongside. The what, where and who needs the why.
How do you stay focused on your why in the midst of the what, where and who? How do you define the value of your day?