The World as a Painting

rauschenbergI’ve been poking around New York taking a break from wine tasting. At the Museum of Modern Art I came across this quote from Robert Rauschenberg next to his 1961 work “First Landing Jump”:

There is no reason not to consider the world as one gigantic painting

When teaching aesthetics I always struggle to capture in a few words the essence of modern art. Rauschenberg’s quote I think does it.

For helpful oversimplifications, if Renaissance painting is about religious narratives and their intersection with ordinary life, classical and neo-classical art about the grandeur of the human form expressed via harmony and rational proportion, and romantic art about emotion and the glorification of nature, modern art takes all of reality, its colors, textures, lines, even at its most mundane, as its subject matter. From the impressionist’s interest in light, to the cubist play of surfaces, Kandinsky’s geometrical forms, the use of found objects, to the environmental art of today, visual artists treat the world as one big painting of which each individual artist abstracts only a small portion.

Students often express frustration with modern art wondering what it’s about, what meaning is has. Obviously some modern works have meaning in the conventional sense of a narrative or set of characters that do something intelligible. But the larger project of modern art is to simply take some dimension of reality and highlight it, put it on a pedestal so we see it anew.

It’s about the visual play of matter in motion which cannot be constrained by anything as limited as a narrative. It takes perception seriously, not merely as a precursor to conceptual understanding, but as something in itself worth exploring.

I doubt that Rauschenberg’s “First Landing Jump” has an articulable meaning other than to portray a collection of familiar textures and shapes in a juxtaposition never before seen.

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