Art’s Function: Soup Cans, Trap Music, and Quantum Physics
When we look at the systemic art movements of the last 400 or so years, the function and form of art as we know it have undergone numerous changes, and multiple defining and redefining periods. From the Renaissance (1300-1602) and its symbolism to Romanticism (1790-1880), Impressionism (1860-1890) to Pop Art (mid-1950s), we’ve constantly reconsidered what can and should be deemed as art, as well as the role that art should play in shaping our society. Take the Renaissance for example, a time when the masters of painting and sculpture created from their minds’ eye the forms of biblical characters and spiritual entities. These artworks were praised, and their subjects revered as inspiration for how we should seek to live our lives, cementing art’s role in society as a moral director, at least for a time.
Though, due to the tendency of art (and humans for that matter) to evolve, this role and function would later be replaced, as Realism sought to assert the importance and significance of the representation of the real world, and even later as Pop Art challenged what could even be considered art. However, these examples are but a minute selection of the shifts and movements in the world of art. Art has a multitude of approaches and underlying philosophies that extend beyond painting and are common throughout the various media. Because of this, it, too, has a multitude of functions and roles in the development of humanity, and can act as a catalyst for social change and introspective understanding. But, what are the roles of art in our society? Furthermore, how do the various forms of art impact the art’s function? Ana-Maria Aprotosoaie-Iftimi’s “The Role of Art in Human Development” tackles the idea of art’s multitude of developmental functions directly, acting as an umbrella under which we can assess different forms of art and how they enact various functions.
Iftimi cites an impressive amount of functions for art in human development: to represent the appreciation of beauty, to experience spiritual life, to communicate with others, to address a personal psychology, and many others to boot (293-295).She concludes, after the listing of and assessment of the aforementioned functions, that “art, through its nature is aesthetic and it is based on the development of the sense of human existence” (296). Following this logic, the creation of art must have a recursive or reflexive quality of some sort. Art is an expression, and is used to communicate. However, though it is based on our own human development, it can have an altering effect on the creator as well, and if we scale up, our creation of art yields a result that alters how we exist.
The art that we create modifies our collective perception of the world, and thus, changes how we interact with the world around us. The idea that art is by nature aesthetic and based on the development of human existence is one that is crucial to Michael Chabon’s assessment in “Wes Anderson’s Worlds”. Chabon argues that, through experience and creativity, we are able to create “accurate scale models, of this beautiful and broken world. We call these scale models ‘works of art’.” This ties into Iftimi’s assertion that art has both an aesthetic and communicative property by which we can create a dialogue about our own personal beliefs and experiences, as well as the phenomena and complexities of the world as a whole. In addition, it speaks to art’s representative qualities, as artwork is able to scale down the world into a more easily understandable form.
Chabon later argues that complex emotions like grief are “at full scale, [are] too big for us to take it in; it literally cannot be comprehended”. Thus, art has a way of creating an ease of communication and universal understanding. In a more global sense, art allows for us to have a group conversation, without such losses in translation. In addition, he asserts that, like Cornell boxes – boxes which artist Joseph Cornell used to create assemblages out of found objects in a representative fashion – the important part of the property inherent in Wes Anderson’s films to scale down the real world is that it creates a boundary. In fact, there is an important significance to the boundary itself. The boundary is an indicator of artificiality, though an honest artificiality, which means that it is inherently fictitious to some degree, and does not seek to hide this.
Aside from movies, sculptures and even realistic paintings have an obvious and inescapable quality of artificiality. However, Chabon argues “that artifice, openly expressed, is the only true “authenticity” an artist can lay claim to.” This assessment of the artifice inherent in many works of art is lacking in Iftimi’s listing and analysis of the functions of art in human development. Perhaps, the artificiality is irrelevant to the overall purpose, though the lack of this discussion in Iftimi’s work neither suggests no discourages this idea. Chabon’s final assertion is that “Anderson’s films, like the boxes of Cornell or the novels of Nabokov, understand and demonstrate that the magic of art, which renders beauty out of brokenness, disappointment, failure, decay, even ugliness and violence.
” This final claim could also be considered a return to Iftimi’s list. Anderson’s films fulfill many of the functions described in Iftimi’s work. The work is beautiful, and helps us appreciate the things that we consider to be beautiful. It communicates a notion or an ideal to be considered. It represents the world, and does so on a small scale so that it is more palatable and easier to understand. It addresses Wes Anderson’s personal psychology.
The artwork is not purely aesthetic, as Iftimi states, it is also based upon the human development, and serves a function that has an effect on us individually as well as in terms of the entire society. E.M. Forster’s work, juxtaposed with Chabon’s, allows us to analyze how the function of art is based around the world inherent structure and composition. In “Art for Art’s Sake”, Forster confronts the traditional and classical artistic philosophy of the time – postwar 1949. With this temporal context in mind, Forster admits that his philosophy is “unfashionable”, being that the more classical conventions of art were more popular and widely accepted at the time.
Forster’s work is centered around this discussion of what “art for art’s sake” really means and the implications it has about the form and structure of art. He goes on to state that art has a life of its own imposed on it by its artist, and that it has internal order, with external form. The external form is how we identify it, but the internal structure and order is unique and is lacking in other things save for art. Forster concludes that, unlike politics and science, art is influenced by our own creative impulses which yield an internal order not found in other objects. Thus, Forster believes that art matters, and he believes in art for art’s sake – creating art for the sake of crafting a work with its own internal structure, with its own intrarelated aspects. What’s being explicated in Chabon’s essay can be analyzed as somewhat of a proof of Forster’s claims in “Art for Art’s Sake”.
If we are to hold true his claim that art has an internal order and inherent structure from which we can derive its meaning and mold its form, Chabon’s assessment of Wes Anderson’s work must be deemed accurate in that he is able to aptly explain how Anderson creates this internal structure in his poignant films. With this in mind, Iftimi’s academic essay serves as an umbrella, somewhat validating both Chabon and Forster’s work, while encapsulating other perspectives on the complexities of art and its implications. Iftimi agrees that yes, art can serve as a window through which to see in a new point of view, and that yes, it can help us better understand the world around us, but that is not all that it is or does. While the implication doesn’t seem to exist in Forster or Chabon’s work that art’s only purpose is to help us better understand the real world, Iftimi’s essay does a good job of covering all the bases. Iftimi is able to list several functions of art that, however nuanced, differ from Chabon’s argument of small scale representation. In a tree-like structured analysis, one could see the progression from general to specific from Iftimi’s work to Forster’s and then to Chabon’s.
Even if the texts were not written in that order chronologically, viewing and analyzing them in this way allows us a better understanding of the properties of art both in a wide perspective and down to the specifics. A bit unlike Anderson, and more akin to Forster, Andy Warhol is an artist whose unconventional works have contested how we view the relationship between art form and function, inciting controversy. Warhol and the Pop Art movement were crucial in the challenging of the classical art world’s definition of what art is and what its function should be. One of his more famous bodies of work, “Campbell’s Soup Cans” (1962), could be considered one of his boldest statements against classical definitions of art. Each work in this collection has essentially the same object, at the same scale – a Campbell’s Soup Can. However, what varies from can to can is the name of the soup, nothing else, save for a golden banner on the Campbell’s Cheddar Cheese Soup can.
The work takes the idea of commercialism and repetition and uses it in a way comparable to abstract expressionism. One piece in the collection, “100 Cans” (1962), is a blatant, almost egregious use of repetition. The work is a hand painted, stencil assisted rendering of 100 Campbell’s Soup cans unevenly spaced and non-identical. It becomes almost mundane, yet the unvaried names create some sort of dry humor in the piece. It is the largest piece, 72 x 52 inches, and perhaps this is what accentuates the repetition.
Warhol’s use of silk screening, the repetition of a commercial design and inherent screen printing imperfections, and his later colored and torn variations of the soup cans, as a whole, challenge what art is and what it could be. The construction of the cans is not primarily what he argues art should be, the fact that he can repeat thirty or more and place it on a canvas and call it art is his argument against the classical and archaic conventions of the traditional art world. It is the concept, not the literality, that is important. Even the process, screen printing, was an argument against the standard of what art could and should be. Screen printing and automation were threats against the usual artistic conventions as these processes change the definition of what art could be and how you could go about creating it.In terms of its composition, each can’s construction yields no emotional response or indicates any argument about society, nor does it seek to.
It is simply what it appears to be, a can, however imagined and presented by Warhol. Whether it be the familiar red and white of Campbell’s or the neon colors later used by Warhol, the can is just a can until it’s placed upon the canvas. Then it becomes art, at least according to Warhol. Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” lands awkwardly along the spectrum if we allow Chabon’s “Wes Anderson’s Worlds” to be a proof of concept for Forster’s “Art for Art’s Sake”, to be further encapsulated in umbrella fashion by Iftimi’s “The Role of Art in Human Development”. Warhol’s work with the Campbell’s soup cans does not allow us to more easily understand the complexities of life.
It is not a small scale representation of the world around us, as Wes Anderson’s films seek to be. The work lacks that purpose. Nor does it argue to be art for art’s sake. The work’s inherent argument is that anything can be considered art and presented in an artistic manner, no matter the process or the subject. However, Warhol’s work still has meaning in terms of Iftimi’s “The Role of Art in Human Development”.
Its role is to challenge our perception of art, to challenge how we think about creating art. Doubly true it is that the work also serves as a means of expression for Warhol, however abstract. “Campbell’s Soup Cans” acts as many of the roles described in Iftimi’s work, yet it finds no direct relationship with Chabon’s analysis of how Anderson’s films relate to the real world or Forster’s argument of the internal order of artwork. Perhaps, this is because Warhol’s work seeks to be nothing but itself, but art all the same. Warhol’s works create a relationship between itself and its subjects.
If what’s on canvas is art, then so too is the physical, metallic can itself. Anderson’s films have a relationship with the subject, the subject being the emotions targeted (grief, brokenness, etc), but do not argue that the subject is in itself art. This is where the two artist’s intent differ. The repetition in some way distracts from the internal order, as it becomes unimportant and mundane. Its only real argument is that, as a piece of artwork, it can, should, and does exist.
The relationship between a work of arts function, form, and social impact is very complex, and as such, there is space for problems to develop. The controversy surrounding Warhol’s work was due to a confusion in the art’s purpose, its form, and its internal order. Since it questioned classical artistic theory, but in a way that was unconventional, people became confused and interpreted the art in a negative way. When the function of a work isn’t clearly attributed to the form in which the art is presented, there will be room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. So, whenever I come around to discussing misunderstood or misinterpreted art, my mind always circles back around to rap music under the “trap” genre. The word used to describe the genre has been somewhat redefined in urban black subculture, originally referring to the state of being trapped in the ghetto or “trapping”, selling drugs in order to trap addicts in the cycle of addiction and gleam money through the process.
Recently, though, artists within the genre have tried to put a more positive spin on the word, attributing it to more positive hustles to detach the negative connotation from the sub-community. As a black youth, there are common trends amongst the community when it comes to music. There are the classic Biggie vs Tupac debates, arguments over the definitions of the words “lyricist” and “rapper”, and whether or not Drake is a serial emotional crooner or a respectable rapper with credibility. However, in 2011 with the rise of Keith “Chief Keef” Cozart and other Chicago and Atlanta black youth in the rap industry, a new phenomenon would be developed. One of his first singles, the onomatopoeic “Bang”, presented a new formula for making rap music that proved to be common in his peer’s work as well, influenced by the “gangsta rap” wave that came before them.
Hard hitting, bass filled beats alongside lyrics delineating promiscuous sex, drug use and sale, and gun violence took over the radio, and the accompanying videos have since acquired millions of views on Youtube. Fast forwarding to the present time, the genre is stronger, with more influence than ever. Though, alongside the success, critics remain vehemently protesting the popularity of the genre.I distinctly remember the critique of an older black gentleman who spoke before I participated in a panel at a black youth outreach program called Esquires for Education:To Be Young, Black, and Gifted.
In a preaching like tone, he asserted that trap music and its practitioners are the root of the black male struggle in America. However, like I mentioned before, this must be due to a lack of clarity in tying the function of the art to the form in which it is presented. In a way fundamentally different from Wes Anderson’s films, as expounded upon in Chabon’s “Wes Anderson’s Worlds”, music and trap music specifically is able to represent on a small scale the more complex and sometimes more decadent aspects of society. It is true, though, that the music can and often does contain violent language, obscenity, drug use, promiscuous sex, and other villainous behavior. However, people’s assumptions based off of this first layer of observation are often misconstrued. One popular argument is that the music serves to promote the actions it illustrates, but this is not always or even mostly true, and the opposite can be seen significantly often.
Especially in regard to gun violence, many artists have used their fame and position to speak out about such issues outside of their music. In exemplary fashion, Chief Keef and company have since promoted gun violence awareness through the sport of paintball and held hologram benefit concerts for victims of gun violence. Trap music has a distinct relationship with its own function and within art’s inherent roles in human development, as explained by Iftimi in “The Role of Art in Human Development”, and it is one that is different from paintings and films because music is not a visual art. The repetitive quality of the music in its illustration of the subjects that generally compose the genre is often contrary to its effect. Actually, what the music does is draw more attention to the actual problems at hand.
Without it, how many uninformed youths would even know about the numerous gun violence victims in Chicago or the increasing heroin usage? Although it doesn’t purely serve this informative function and sometimes does the opposite, it does, in a very effective manner, draw attention to the issues and lifestyles that it talks about so that we can identify problems and create solutions. Indication does not always equate causation. Thusly, we cannot assume off the bat that trap music is a cause for the surge in gun violence in urban communities or the surging drug use rates. The music is a reflection of the state of the community, so we must treat it as an indicator and not vilify it as a sin or unholy occurrence. it is art, and as such, it serves an important societal function. The aforementioned example serves as proof that a variance in internal structure affects how different forms of art achieve their function.
From classical paintings from the Renaissance Masters and their moral implications to trap music and its contrary illustrative properties, art can serve a multitude of functions in a variety of ways. However, what remains critical in any case is the way in which we interact with art. We can derive from art a greater understanding of the complexities of life, as Chabon insists in “Wes Anderson’s Worlds”, or we can appreciate the art for the sake of itself, as Forster believes to be true in “Art for the Sake of Art”. We may even find beauty and artistic merit in everyday objects or commercial products in a manner akin to Warhol. The role of art in society can be contingent upon the social climate, and the form can be interpreted in many ways due to the ever changing social climate. Regardless, though, perhaps it is true that art’s function or even its lack thereof can only be observed and signified as long as humans are there to create it and interact with it.
Is it possible that art existentially holds no purpose, but at the same time has all the purpose that we as humans have given it? If so, this would be a state considerably similar to quantum superposition – a bit of a Schrodinger’s cat, if you will. In layman’s terms and without too much quantum physics discussion, the Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment is based around a situation where a cat is in a closed box with something that could kill it, and since you don’t know whether or not the cat is dead until you open it, the cat exists in both states – alive and dead, in a state known as quantum superposition. Perhaps this is one way to think about the function of art. Maybe, the artwork has no function until we observe it, or we only derive its function or lack thereof upon observation. Much like how the cat’s state of existence relies on our observation, so too does the function of art and its purpose.
If there is no one to interact with the art, can it serve a purpose? We know nothing of the work, its structure, its form, and its purpose without observation. Without the existence of humans to create and interpret art, it is impossible to assess art’s function, purpose, and form, for the existence of humans and the complexity of art are interrelated. We depend on it for various purposes, and it depends on us for significance and creation.