The medium affects the artists’ aim, and

The idea that art’s purpose
is to “transmit that feeling that others may experience the same
feeling” is a concept that many artists have explored within their work.
Many argue that the purpose of art has varied depending on the movement or time
period, and comparing expressionism with contemporary art can be a insight into
whether Tolstoy’s belief is a valid claim for all art. To many, expressionism
aimed to evoke emotions, moods or ideas, implying that a ‘feeling’ may be among
these objectives, however, it is debatable to what extent this is the main or
only aim, how context affects this and how expressionism compares with
contemporary art, and whether there are similar objectives despite the  difference in time period. This essay will
focus on the work of Edvard Munch and Tino Sehgal, one being a member of the
expressionist movement, and one being a contemporary performance artist. It is
important to discuss how difference in medium affects the artists’ aim, and
whether Tolstoy was correct in his claim.

Edvard Munch was an artist
who greatly influenced German expressionism from the late 19th to the early
20th century. Many aspects of his work provide evidence that the ‘actuality’ of
art is indeed to convey a feeling to the viewer. His work can be said to be
highly emotive as, ‘he suffered, and depicted the condition of modern man’.1
This implies he used his own pain to create art discussing the state of
humanity, and his own mental health, suggesting he aimed for a communication
and a conversation between the art and the viewer, allowing the audience to
perhaps relate to his pain. Additionally, ‘he (Munch) proclaimed’ this aim to
be ‘the content and meaning of his art’.2
If one were to view Munch as one of the most significant members of the
expressionist art movement, it is reasonable to argue that transmitting a
feeling was both a vital and consistent objective in his work, and therefore a
common theme in expressionism, supporting Tolstoy’s claim. However, it is
important to acknowledge the content of Munch’s work assessing whether this aim
was reflected in his work. Munch’s piece ‘Death and the Maiden’ (1895) (below)
deals with two foundations of humanity: Death and love. A woman tightly
embraces a skeletal figure creating the illusion of love refusing to separate
on the account of life and death. This suggests a spiritual aim to Munch’s
work, commenting on an afterlife, and the eternal nature of love. Death is a
part of life and always has been, and so to Munch’s audience, the feeling that
Munch is projecting can easily be transmitted onto the viewer as it is
something that every person has dealt with. Therefore it is reasonable to argue
that Munch uses both content and composition to ‘transmit that feeling so that
others may experience the same feeling’.

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Fig.1 Edvard Munch, Death
and the Maiden, 1894,

Dry point etching, 23.20 x
16.70, Private collection

 

Tino Sehgal is a British-German contemporary artist
who’s main practice is performance art, or ‘constructed situations’. Like
Munch, Sehgal’s art can be used to support Tolstoy’s claim. Many view ‘Tino Sehgal as
constructing situations that challenge conventional art-and-spectator
relationships’.3 Already this
suggests that Sehgal’s aim is to communicate something with his work, by
exploring the relationship between the art, artist and spectator, therefore
something must be transmitted to form that relationship. The structure of his
work involves ‘players’ who enact all manner of  ‘conversational or choreographic activities.’4
This creates a scene, or a narrative, which is not dissimilar to the way a
painter paints subjects depicting a story or scene. This highlights a
similarity between Munch’s and Sehgal’s practice. ‘Kiss’ (2002) (below), for instance,
‘involves two dancers in a gallery whose movements allude to various amorous
scenes from throughout art history’.5
This suggests that Sehgal and Munch both use their subjects as characters who
emit a certain emotion. The amorous scenes reflect a sexual desire, allowing
the audience to relate to the feelings being transmitted. Their gentle, almost
slow motion movements give the impression of a deep love and feeling, as well
as a lust, which is then communicated to the audience as they observe these
movements. Both artists use the relatable theme of love and lust, therefore one
can argue that both Sehgal and Munch use the content and theme of their art to
transmit a feeling to the audience, supporting Tolstoy’s claim is indeed valid
for all art, regardless of the movement or time period.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig 2,  Tino Sehgal, Kiss, 2003, Live
performance,

 Museum of contemporary art, Chicago

 

Context and current events happening
play a large part in how the art is received by the audience, and what the art
is saying in the first place. The time we live in now is significantly
different to the late 19th/early 20th century, therefore it is important to
analyse how this might change the actuality of art. ‘Expressionism’ is said to
be a movement ‘which appeared in times of great spiritual tension’.6
The 1800s saw the rise of Darwin and his ideas about science and evolution,
which conflicted many people’s views on religion. People began to value
mathematical and scientific evidence and theories over religion and faith.
Munch’s art often depicted an afterlife, which are shown prominently through
his project ‘The Frieze of life’. Death and the Maiden (see above, page 3)
offers many spiritual connotations such as the use of a skeleton, which is
symbolic of an afterlife, and the idea that love goes beyond death, represented
by the ‘maiden’ kissing the figure. One can argue this is a response to the
changing ideas and theories of the time,

therefore his aim for his art was not to communicate
a feeling, but to make a stand for his own beliefs regarding religion and spirituality,
arguing against Tolstoy’s claim. This can be both compared and contrasted with
the emergence of performance art. Many argue that performance artists’ aim is
to ‘shock the audience’7
to keep performance art relevant in today’s art world. Sehgal’s “Kiss”
(see above page 4) displayed an honest and direct interpretation of love and
lust. Through out history, love and lust, in the form that Sehgal’s work takes,
is not always appropriate to display so openly to the public, particularly in
the context of a live performance in a public art gallery. To shock an
audience, it can be argued that it is vital something must being transmitted
from art to viewer, however it is reasonable to argue that this was not
necessarily a feeling, but a message, seeking to challenge the audience’
thinking, which is similar to Munch’s intentions with spirituality and
religion. However, one can argue that the word ‘feeling’ can include messages,
warnings and beliefs. The way that both artists choose to communicate their
message is through a feeling, such as Munch using the universal ‘feeling’ of
love and lust, and even grief. This is comparable to the way that Sehgal used
lust and sexual desire to communicate with his audience, shocking the audience
with a truth that is usually kept behind closed doors. This argues both for and
against Tolstoy’s claim. On one hand, current events have impacted on the way
that both artists have chosen to communicate with their audience, yet with both
cases there is something being transmitted from art to the viewer. On the other
hand, one may not consider a belief, or the aim to shock the viewer ‘a
feeling’, and that this is not the actuality of art.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig 3, Edvard Munch, The
Scream, 1893,

 Oil, tempera, pastel and crayon on cardboard

91 x 73.5cm, National
Gallery, Oslo, Norway

 

One can argue that claiming the entire purpose of
art is to transmit a feeling to the viewer cannot account for the variety of
materials used in fine art and how they can be used to convey different
motives. While with some art it is clear that emotion is the key topic which
their art conveys, it is unfair to say that this is the case for others. It can
be argued there is a difference in how significant communicating a feeling is
to both Munch and Sehgal with regards to their choice of medium, questioning
whether more traditional methods of creating art such as painting and etching
are used more to transmit a feeling than more contemporary methods, such as
performance art.  Many believe Edvard
Munch used traditional mediums in a way that ‘secured for European art a new
vitality, a new truthfulness’ 8.
Munch conveyed the ‘truthfulness’ using his own pain and troubled childhood,
particularly in works such as ‘The Scream’ (1893) (above). This painting was
based on Munch’s own experience of a piercing scream while on a walk with two
other companions, although the protagonist of the painting does not resemble
Munch himself. The seemingly genderless, almost creature like figure suggests
the agony that Munch was experiencing, as this could be interpreted that Munch
felt depersonalised and detached from reality, while his pain takes over. The
way the figure blends in with the background through use of similar tones and
expressive brush marks could represent Munch fading from himself as human,
becoming attached to the power and grasp of nature, reflecting a loss of
control. These are things that can easily be transmitted through a traditional
medium, such as painting, as they are first interpreted through the mind of the
artist, and then realised in an image that the artist creates entirely. This is
a clear example of the artist conveying a feeling, allowing the audience to
also feel and understand his emotions through observation of the piece. This
suggests Tolstoy’s claim is most certainly valid for expressionism and Munch’s
work. However, Sehgal’s art and use of performance could suggest that not all
art has this same aim, and some mediums are better to imply an alternative
motive. One can argue that Sehgal’s performance art actually aimed to bring
forth questions about the actuality of art and its purpose, which causes a
conflict with Tolstoy’s claim. Perhaps Sehgal aimed to ‘engage his
audience and challenge their thinking’,9
which is argued to be a common motif with performance artists. ‘This
Situation’ (Tino Sehgal, This Situation, 2007, Live performance,
Marian Goodman, New York)  for
example, takes the ‘form of a salon in which six people enact a conversation
game in which each point begins with a statement from the history of political
and social thought.’ 10
Visitors are encouraged to participate in the discussion, which therefore
helped create the on going philosophical thinking and conversation that the
work generated. Topics include racism in the united states, and same
sex-marriage. In this context, performance art was used to create a
conversation and allowed the audience to be a part of the work, rather than
interpreting an understanding from it. In addition, rather than an emotional
reaction being the focal point, it became a philosophical and political
reaction. Therefore it can be argued that Tolstoy’s claim is invalid, as some
mediums work better to communicate something other than a feeling, making the
‘actuality of art’ more open and inclusive of other objectives.

 

In conclusion,  Leo Tolstoy’s claim has become less valid over time. While
transmitting a feeling is and has certainly been a very popular intent, with
emotion being the focus of many artworks, it is not true for all art. There has
been a shift over time from the expressionist movement to contemporary art,
particularly comparing painting and etching to performance art, that has shown
a number or new aims and motives for artists’ work. Munch used his pain and
spirituality in his art, conveying this to the audience, while although Sehgal
used emotion in  ‘Kiss”, he also
aimed to shock the audience, and challenge their thinking with works such as
‘This situation’ (Sehgal, This Situation, ) which overrides the aim to
transmit just a feeling. Therefore the actuality of art in his case was very
much different to Munch’s. However, it is reasonable to acknowledge that a
‘feeling’ may be interpreted as anything that can be transmitted though art.
Even if the artist does not wish to convey an emotion, it may be a message, a
warning, or a belief. This allows for a grey area, as it can depend on how one
interprets ‘a feeling’. Overall, there are too many variables with regards to
whether the actuality of art is to ‘transmit that feeling that others may
experience the same feeling’, to properly conclude a definitive answer as to
whether the statement is true. The claim is too exclusive however for the
artwork of today’s society, therefore, invalid.

1 Hodin, J
(1972). Edvard Munch, London: Thames and Hudson, page 7

2 Hodin, J
(1972). Edvard Munch, London: Thames and Hudson, page 7

3 Collection Online, (2017),
Tino Sehgal. Online Guggemheim, available at:
https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/tino-sehgal Accessed 28 Dec. 2017

4 Collection
Online, (2017), Tino Sehgal. Online Guggemheim, available at:
https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/tino-sehgal Accessed 28 Dec. 2017

5 Collection
Online, (2017), Tino Sehgal. Online Guggemheim, available at:
https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/tino-sehgal Accessed 28 Dec. 2017

6 Hodin, J
(1972). Edvard Munch, London: Thames and Hudson, page 9

7  Bernstein, L. 2016, ‘Perfomance Art’, Salem
Press Encyclopaedia, Research Starters, EBSCOhost, viewed 8 January 2018

8 Hodin, J
(1972). Edvard Munch, London: Thames and Hudson, pages 29 to 30

9 Bernstein,
L. 2016, ‘Perfomance Art’, Salem Press Encyclopaedia, Research Starters,
EBSCOhost, viewed 8 January 2018

10 Collection Online, (2017), Tino Sehgal. Online
Guggemheim, available at:https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/tino-sehgal
Accessed 28 Dec. 2017

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