Romantic love is a mysterious thing. Most all of us have been under its all-encompassing spell at some point or another. Whether the feeling is mutual or unrequited, its impact lingers. That life-changing yearning can both invigorate and destroy our spirit.
With this in mind, I find it surprising that so few contemporary artists choose to address love in their works. Maybe the subject feels too personal, and making artwork about loves won and lost seems comparable to a permanent overshare on Facebook. Or perhaps it’s easier to make work about carnal lust, without risking the potential cheesiness of addressing such a vulnerable emotional state as romantic love.
Or maybe visual art stays away from love because other parts of popular culture cover the subject ad nauseum: it seems you can’t watch a TV show, listen to a pop song, or see an opera without encountering some expression (positive or negative) of romantic love. It makes sense — these methods of entertainment are well-suited for tales of courtship; they’re all about storytelling.
Artists may shy away from the subject because art is supposed to be more conceptually rigorous than an extension of their own feelings. Artists may feel that their art is supposed to be backed by an intense philosophy, by a high-mindedness that transcends the messy, intimate impulse of falling in love.
But romantic love really isn’t so base. It’s complicated and rich territory. And the works that artists do make about love, when they do, can communicate something deeper than a Hallmark-card reflex — they can conjure the earnest, heartbroken, brooding, obsessive, disappointed and joyous — sometimes all at once.
Here are some of those works.
Forrest Prince’s mirrored pieces allow you to see yourself surrounded by love. Be it love from the artist, love from God, or the love of your partner reflected back at you, you can’t escape the fact that you matter.
The sensuous glow of Steven Evans’ neon sign is both a plea and a tease — a question that anticipates its own answer.
Making a first impression that’s more macabre than sweet, Lester Davis’ coffin-shaped box expresses the finality of love. May we all have the unyielding, timeless mutual infatuation shared by Minnie and Mickey Mouse.
Not all love has to make sense. Sometimes our feelings lead us down complicated paths.
Christopher Blay’s ArtSmarter Prize asked Texas-based artists what they would do for love. It felt like Jamie Panzer believed he could undo all of the damage love has caused in his life by reversing his actions, as if traveling through time could ease his present-day pain.
Love isn’t perfect, but the imperfection is what makes it real.
A flowerless, thorny stem is a symbol of wavering love. Every last petal gone, the feeling was just that — only idealized, never realized.
Love drives us to do crazy things — the gaping hole of a love lost can feel like a car crash.
When we’re lucky, carnal knowledge and romantic love overlap. Though rarely depicted, this kind of moment is an instance of both trust and ecstasy.
In the end, the human-made accouterments of love don’t matter. Love’s trappings and mythologies can lead us down a path that distracts us and distorts our experience of romance. True love doesn’t need the perfume, the hearts, the aspirational props. In the end, you’ll just know. Or, if you’re unlucky, it might just pass you by.
Happy Valentine’s Day.