Friday, September 25, 2015

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 writes:

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 experience.

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! 

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