2014-04-03

Oeuvre

Spring-boarding off my two recent posts on Modernism and art equivalence, I'd like to explore a somewhat related concept, which for lack of a better term I will call oeuvre.

Technically, the word oeuvre means the work of an artist regarded collectively. According to this (the primary) definition of oeuvre, Romeo & Juliet is not "an oeuvre," but The Complete Works of Shakespeare is (are?). Oeuvre is what you get when you produce an entire collection of art and then take a look back in retrospect. Philosophically, oeuvre is an artifact of art appreciation. We might love all the individual paintings of Claude Monet, but his oeuvre presents us with a whole new way to appreciate them, and it happens on an almost "meta" level. Not only will you love his Impression, Sunrise as a great work of art, you will also love it as an aesthetic chapter in the book of Monet's oeuvre. You'll conceptually link it to The Luncheon and The Magpie and others, and experience a form of appreciation that both involves and yet still transcends any individual painting.

Furthermore, just as you might compare 1984 to Brave New World to explore and contrast two individual works of literature, you can do the same thing with oeuvre, too. You can compare, say, the underlying themes of the individual within society as it pertains to Nathaniel Hawthorne's oeuvre versus how it pertains to Franz Kafka's oeuvre. Many academic papers and high school book reports have undertaken that and similar tasks. It's a form of art appreciation to look for similarities and differences within and across oeuvres.

Now, every artist has an oeuvre, but not every artist's oeuvre is worth talking about. Some artists produce more or less the same art from the beginning to the end of their oeuvre, and even their choice of subjects is not particularly noteworthy. Others have an oeuvre that evolves over time. Still others produce very consistent art work, but their choice of subjects is conceptually meaningful. We can say much about these last two artists, but almost nothing about the first.

Clearly, there is more potential for the audience to appreciate an artist with a highly noteworthy oeuvre. But here's the even more interesting thing: this implies that there is greater room for artistic expression, too. That is, an artist can choose to "say something" with his/her oeuvre, in addition to making stand-alone statements with each individual work of art. If an audience can appreciate something about art, then the artist can therefore leverage this sense of appreciation to build additional messages into whatever it is they're appreciating, even if that means manipulating his or her own oeuvre for the sake of a deeper message.

Does this mean that artists with noteworthy oeuvres are more interesting than artists who do not? If so, how so?