Posted by Sarah on October 9, 2007 - 9:39am

"There are no facts, only interpretations." -- Friedrich Nietzsche

As an intern here at The Modern, the topic of art comes up rather frequently. And while "art" is a highly extensive subject, there are plenty of things to talk about and consider. I recently had a discussion with Rueben about contemporary art and how it is interpreted.

As humans, it's only natural that we see first, then think. Our first reaction to a painting or sculpture is purely based on the visual. It is only after this that we ask ourselves "so what is the significance?" Is there some sort of meaning behind it or are we just looking at a pretty picture? With modern art, there tends to be a fine line between profound meaning and mere aesthetics. Keep in mind that it wasn't really until the nineteenth century that the idea of "art for art's sake" came into question. Before this, most art is narrative. Whether it's a religious, literary, or moral theme, the meaning is always relatively obvious. Aestheticism came as a challenge to the academic and conservative art of the past. It was an exercise of freedom. By rejecting the moral justification in art of the past, this art became "purely visual".

While "art for art's sake" was a mantra of the 19th century, the idea seems to have seeped into modern art of the 20th and 21st centuries. One such piece in The Modern's collection that comes to mind is Edward Ruscha's Jar of Olives Falling, 1969. Although Ruscha has been associated with Dada, a movement that rejects aesthetics and is considered the "anti-art". I find this piece to be aesthetically pleasing and completely ridiculous at the same time. This feeling is also reflected in his declaration that "paradox and absurdity have just always been really delicious to me."

If we were to read only the title, unassociated with the image, we might imagine a jar falling from table, or in some kind of kitchen/restaurant setting. But in this case, the jar of olives is falling through a gradient of olive-green (which is quite appropriate to the subject) into a space unknown to the viewer. In viewing this piece, we find that the title describes exactly what is depicted.

I have often wondered if contemporary artists assign a meaning to their work before or after its creation. Or is there even a meaning at all? When asked why he chose olives, Ruscha admits that he doesn't know, and never could figure out why. This affirms the fact that he could produce a work of art that is both illogical and compelling, but completely detached from meaning. In short, not all art has to have an explanation, but it is not impossible to find meaning. It is up to us, the viewer, to form our own interpretation.

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