Sunday, October 18, 2009

What is Art, Part III

For parts 1 and 2, please go to

October 18th 2009

What is Art, Part III

In a recent conversation with a friend, I was struck to hear him say, “Who cares if a bunch of scam-artists sell worthless crap to some people with too much money and too few brains? Art has become irrelevant to most people.” Holy Cow, Batman!

I ‘m an artist. What does that say about my lifetime of effort if he’s right? And, sadly enough, on some levels, he is. But, lest I ‘eat the Luger’ in a fit of hopelessness, there’s hope. I am, and will remain optimistic that fine-art, especially the visual arts, can recover from a century of confusion and foolishness. [See Part I, if you don’t know what I am referring to, please.] The fact is that the arts—including literature, drama, music, and all the visual arts—are the most important way in which a society both gains insight into itself, and is able to imagine what its potential is. Unless we are in a constant state of introspection, looking with acute curiosity at ‘who we are’--and are willing to see some aspects that we find distinctly repugnant, along with those we can admire--we are essentially BLIND.

It is our artists, in every medium, who hold up a mirror and reflect back to us a vast and multi-faceted image of ourselves, on every possible level. The arts deepen and inform, in infinite detail, the sense of ourselves that we could never develop without them. Would you really want to create a composite of the state of the human beings based on the news? If that was the full extent of how we were able to perceive ourselves, I project that the suicide rate would go through the roof. More and more people I meet are sick of seeing almost nothing but pathos and misery on their t-v, in their papers, and on the web.

When we consider the arts, however, it’s a whole different story. It is through the arts that we enter into a creative space in which we are able to dream of what we might become. Without doing so, we would surely limit ourselves to mindless repetition of the patterns of the past. Whether you’re an avid reader of fiction or non-fiction, there is a steady stream of new books that can give you a powerful experience of any and all realities that have ever, or will ever exist. Think about it. Between all the various genres of writing you can experience ANYTHING at all…no limits apply to our ability to imagine moving towards a better world, better lives for people around the planet. Of course, the inverse is true as well, and there is a lot of energy put into a nightmarish vision of the future. Each person gets to choose how they want to envision and project what will come of themselves and of the entire planet.

This is equally true of cinema, which, of course, draws heavily on books for its material. A movie can transport you to any point in the real or imagined time-space continuum and then tell you a story that can amaze, enlighten, or of course, horrify. Contemporary storytelling typically offers some kind of resolution that allows you to walk out of the theater feeling okay, maybe even great. Lately, however, a genre is gaining traction that lets you down at the end, leaving you to walk out of the theater with a feeling of hopelessness. Have you seen “No Country for Old Men”? While it will never be accused of being a formula ‘feel good’ movie, at least it tells a story in which the humanity of the characters is portrayed and explored in a believable way. There is, however, a creeping tendency in literary writing to slap the reader up-side the head and leave them with the notion that, “…life sucks, deal with it.” And, while this might be more true to how life is for most people, I find it depressing and serving little purpose in helping the reader/viewer to come to terms with life. I mean, do you really want to avail yourself of stories that leave you feeling that life sucks? What’s the point?

Novels and movies that portray life as an endless treadmill, with only pain and disappointment waiting to pounce on us, are essentially the same as paintings that make you feel inadequate, or worse yet, BORED. Conspiring to portray such storytelling as ‘cinema verité’, and novels as ‘literary’ is no different than giving museums entire wings dedicated to paintings and sculpture that have no real meaning. And just because a few supposedly ‘wise’ and knowing critics assign meaning to them, does NOT mean that it is there. They are part of the scam too, and perhaps they even believe what they are spouting is some form of arcane wisdom. And, Bernie Madoff thought he was actually making money for his investors, right?

Music is and has always been a huge source of consolation, joy and even bliss for people. Most of us have our favorite genres and artists and we listen to music wherever we are, if at all possible. Nowadays—with the advent of the I-pod and Mp3 files, etc—it’s pretty much an integral part of our lives. And, there is something for absolutely everybody, from gospel to rap, from Beethoven to the Beatles. Avant garde music has plumbed the depths of what is possible with sound. But much of it is simply so boring or annoying that it hasn’t found an audience beyond a few people who must also like modernist painting….and dead German philosophers.

Then we come to painting. Ouch. As a lifelong painter myself, it is painful to feel that the greatest paintings happened centuries ago. And, if you take a good look at the entire history of painting, it’s even possible to argue that the purest, and most stunningly beautiful paintings were done on cave walls, by Cro Magnon people…from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago!

When I first saw images of the cave paintings of Lascaux, I was mesmerized. The animals were graceful, powerful, almost alive. Much of the greatest painting that ensued never accomplished the same level of elegant simplicity and power.

But, if you give yourself the great gift of a reasonable exploration of the history of painting, there are many, many stops along the way where one can see that skill and the mastery of the materials and subject matter was elevated to a level so high that no contemporary painter will ever match it. Yes, that is my honest opinion. A system of rigorous screening, preparation, training and apprenticeship existed that was capable of creating artists who had astonishing abilities to use pigment on a surface. You simply cannot stand in front of a Vermeer, a Rembrandt, a DaVinci, or a hundred others, and say that any living artist could do what you are looking at. They cannot.

Then we walk to the modernist collection in name your great museum. And, the dream is over. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, and the beginning of the twentieth century, a sudden shift occurred. You can read an excellent explanation of it on, a website dedicated to supporting the return of traditional values in fine art, especially painting.

And, the rest, as they say, is history. Part I of this series has dealt with the great scam that has been perpetrated by the art world for the last hundred years. If you agree that this is what has happened, read on.

Although you wouldn’t know it from looking at Art in America, a magazine that chronicles the pathetic state of the art world today, it is still possible and, in fact, more important than perhaps at any time in history, to consider that along with making art, comes an ethical code: Artistic Ideals. Once art was misappropriated by those who would have you believe that it’s not for ordinary folks, the idea that painting served anything but the greed of the gallery owners and the cause of the artist’s ego, became laughable. Now it was for the ‘insiders’ and its only ideal was to get recognition as the first step in becoming a valuable commodity that ‘knowing’ collectors would pay handsomely for.

In the coming paradigm shift, painting will return to its longtime role as a source of enrichment for our society at large, and become a meaningful way of communicating once again. We have had this taken from us by people who did so for self-serving reasons. Critics like Clement Greenberg were merely snobs who used their critical credentials to look down on mainstream society. When Greenberg first began to gain traction as an art critic he held up Modernism as a way of resisting ‘kitsch’, and was the first to popularize that term. He argued that by maintaining an elite world of painting--which cleaved more and more to lofty flights of rhetoric in order to justify its supposed superiority—it would keep the art world from plunging into the abyss of mediocrity. He was saying, essentially, that we need to remain above the ordinariness of ordinary people. And, along with this endorsement of elitism, he and his colleagues roundly condemned any artist who was capable of communicating on a level that most people could relate to, like Andrew Wyeth, for instance.

Life in these times is fraught with challenges. For most people, these are hard-times. With all the demands and stresses of modern living, who needs painters to be putting up work that baffles, insults, pontificates and generally obfuscates life itself? Their cloistered little world is becoming increasingly ridiculous and irrelevant, while at the same time more and more people are once again embracing the fact that beauty is NOT irrelevant. Art is humanity’s gift to itself. It always has been, right up until a hundred years ago. And, now we need it to be that great blessing again. We need the return of paintings that can take your breath away, bring tears to your eyes, create a feeling that, even with all its difficulties, life is doable, an opportunity to experience being fully human, and, very often, a great blessing.

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