In Defense of Painting and Art
In defense of Painting and Art.
Every so often in today’s contemporary cultural mix, I hear painting
be criticized as an art ‘that has run its course’. The following is
from a recent New Yorker profile article on Hans Ulrich Obrist, an
important contemporary art curator, critic, and historian, D. T. Max
Obrist is not interested in all art equally. He can be skeptical
about painting, because, at this point , he told me, it is difficult to
do meaningful work in that medium.
(these lines taken from a paragraph of a much longer article of the man. New Yorker Dec 08, 2014)
I don’t really want to dwell too much on a given individual, rather I
want to address what I see as the underlying assumptions that have gone
into forming this kind of unconscious and even foolish take on
contemporary ‘art’. The above statement is simply emblematic of a
specific approach to creativity that has been in motion since the great
break from the neo-classical concept of art in the 19th C, that is named
‘impressionism’. So it is simply a catalyst for me writing this. Here,
I am offering another view of the contemporary, and yes, I am not at
all skeptical about painting and the ability to do meaningful work in
that medium. I am a painter in fact. It turns out that meaningful can be
understood in more than one way. especially when it applies to art and
its purposes and value to the human. And importantly, given the cultural
conditioning, focusing on the nature of the medium is essential to
understanding art, craft and value.
That so many contemporary art ‘experts’ subscribe to the idea that
‘painting is dead’, is laughable if it weren’t such a destructive
viewpoint, AND if many of these people weren’t in positions of
influence. It is primarily a viewpoint centered in concept and egoism.
Let’s look at the nature of ‘medium’.
Every form of expression and creativity occurs through a medium. In
order to appreciate the work it is essential to have some feeling and
understanding of the medium. Rather than critique the various and
variegated mediums of contemporary expression and performance that have
virtually nothing to do with painting and everything to do with some
concept or other, I’ll focus on painting. Should mediums even be
compared? I am not going to say there is no value in ‘new’ mediums of
expression, simply that when you explore the mediums of conceptuality
that embody that expression, I think you will find that they are more
mediums of craft than of art. Also there is a concept that new in this
conceptual sense IS better. Ultimately however, it is the medium that
tells you if it is craft or not or capable of being art. Now it is
fashionable to say it is all art. This is a specific human opinion and
viewpoint. To make the distinction between art and craft takes some
right education and background. If you cannot make that distinction or
are unwilling to, it means you are not really appreciating art, its real
meaning and value. (Let me say here I have nothing against craft, in
fact I love craft! Art certainly has its grounding in craft.) Maybe it
just takes a refocusing of attention from experiencing the world as
primarily conceptual to seeing the world as distinctly real and able to
be experienced directly without concept. In order to make the
distinction between art and craft one must contemplate deeply the
personality of the medium in its ability to express the human psyche.
Like, for example, is pushing a button like pushing color with a brush?
The medium of painting will always be meaningful to human experience,
and is always available for deep and meaningful , original expression!
From the cave paintings to today, the medium remains constant and
profound. At the same time as humans have evolved so has the art. What
remains constant is the medium. Brush or fingers or whatever ‘tool’
applying color to a surface, with a resulting work that represents the
consciousness of the individual that did it. This is key. What
continues to evolve is the artist’s understanding of the medium and its
potential to communicate the ‘self’. The individual at the center. Not
the concept of an individual. So the truly modern and contemporary,
enlightened reality of the art would be the view in which the individual
expresses who they are as the medium. The value being the self. The
value being originality, instead of some stylized, conceptual version of
reality or originality that is the hall mark of neo-modernism, the
reverse side of the coin of neo-classicism.
How do we appreciate this kind of originality? First, we have to
remain very open and receptive. Trusting that a true judgement will
ultimately arise out of that openness and receptivity. This degree of
receptivity can be and is threatening to conceptual mind and ego.
However, the rewards are great. Once we truly recognize the value of the
human at the center of expression and beyond concept, the journey takes
on an ever deepening appreciation of the medium’s potential for
expressive communication. Perhaps it would be better to say before
concept rather than beyond concept. I am reminded of a zen Koan, “Show
me your face before Mother and Father.”
So, if you look at the evolution of art as a conceptual journey than
the reasonable outcome in the contemporary is that painting has run its
course. or ‘Painting is dead.’ If however, you are seeing the art from a
place of direct experience and can honor the human expressing from the
first place, then the door has opened to a virtually infinite arena of
self discovery, exploration and expression in the painting and
sculpture. The value being as it has all along, the original expression
of a human being in terms of the medium.
Let’s briefly look at that profound modern break from neo classicism
known as ‘impressionism and post impressionism’. Monet, Pissarro,
Sisley, Gauguin, Morisot,
Le Trec, Degas, Cezanne, Van Gogh, etc…to name some famous examples.
Check it out. While related, each remains themselves. Each expresses
their artistic personalities AS THE Medium, ie. brush, color, motif, and
personality in balance. How is it that Gauguin does a still life which
is absolutely beautiful but is completely different than a Cezanne still
life, or a Van Gogh still Life? Yet, they all ‘speak’ of the brush, and
they all create astounding color harmonies and compositions. This is
the esssential value of the modern. This ability and gift to share the
self as the medium, not as a conceptual experience but as a direct
So much in our contemporary culture instigates against this kind of
originality. The pressures of a vast marketplace and academia run by
individuals more concerned with the dogma of contemporary art and art
history, business, prestige and financial reward than art, is certainly
part of the aesthetic and artistic dilemma artists face. Believe me, I
don’t have a problem with financial reward or business except in how it
perpetuates the neurotic issues so brilliantly illustrated by the tale
of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes”. It seems we humans have this uncanny
ability to take the real for granted, while believing our own bullshit
and the illusory hierarchy of The Emperor and his New Clothes.
To end for now, this whole issue is again illustrated by a Sufi
allegory about the divine fool Nasruddin, who, is searching for his keys
at night under a street lamp. A friend comes by and takes up the search
with Nasruddin to help. Finally the friend says, It doesn’t look like
your keys are here. Nasruddin replies, I know, I lost them over there,
but this is where the light is!
Post a Comment