Dialogue with an Art Historian: Is Art Always Useful?

I am quite interested in voicing my opinions, in my art and literature, and also about art and literature. One of my regular discussion partners is an art historian (Ricardo). We approach many topics and themes and enjoy our “popcorn for the brain”-banter. Here is a short extract from a recent discussion that began with attribution of style definition and concepts by museum curators, art critics, and artists … and proceeded to historical perspectives regarding valuation, commercialization, and politicization of Art throughout the ages, and especially in the present. I will — for the sake of simplicity and for practical purposes — subtitle this extract “Is Art Always Useful?”

Adam:

I would love to read an art history piece addressing the question of when an idea in artwork becomes monotonous (same repeated image, same colors, same image in fourteen color variations, etc.), and why (eg. commercialization, over-exposure of the artist or style or theme, weak ideas and images that are not deserving of repetition, etc.). Works by many artists — living and not — and in all styles and periods could be examined here, Klein, Warhol, Rothko, Pollock, Basquiat, Munch, iconography, many medieval paintings, as well as impressionistic ones. And a curated exhibition exploring this topic would be excellent: whose work survives the test of several hundred years, and whose will not? What are the expectations and needs today as opposed to previously? How do attention spans compare among audiences? And finally a study of how long people spend gazing at various artworks, and which exhibitions are done within a very short amount of time? Does cramming art spaces with too much art have a negative viewing effect? Could art museums improve upon their presentations by having simultaneous online and in-museum exhibitions, whereby curator questions are drafted online and the same concurrent museum exhibitions provide a more limited visual experience of selected works?

And regarding the question of museums’ search for relevance:

Museums are struggling for relevance, are desperate to meet the younger generation’s interest, and to compete with speculations of art galleries and Internet trends. But they now risk making themselves even more redundant than before. All major art museums have huge inventories of works that are rarely shown. Surely showing these works is more interesting than beating a dead horse by trying to capitalize on fads. Moreover, the attempts to give more relevance and significance than is deserved to certain fads and trends are tiring for audiences. How many retrospectives and themed exhibitions of the works of Mapplethorpe, Basquiat, Warhol, Rothko, Picasso, Pollock, Banksy, etc. do we need? The same is true of art galleries that show an artist collection of the same image in a series of multiple colors. Once you have seen one work there is no need to see several more of the same. This is laziness on the part of the artist, and a case of promoting “the emperor’s new clothes” on the part of the galleries. Also, many museum presentations are a far stretch in regards to their political agendas. There is so much more and better that could be done. I have seen much graffiti art — on the streets, in art galleries, in curated museum exhibitions, on the Internet, etc. Is the reputed relevance not now rather overstated?

Less is often better. And not all “art” deserves a constant promotion. Every museum must have and show its Picasso works, but not all of the acquisitions are first-rate, significant, or even well-made. Like Warhol, fame, and money led him and many other artists to become “hacks”, to repeat themselves, and to sell things they were less proud of. And newer generations strive to copy their styles and make “knock-offs” of their signature works as short-cuts to creative expression and to pay their bills. True enough, many famous artists are propelled rather unnaturally and undeservedly, while some others’ hard work goes largely unnoticed. “When you are hot you are hot, and when your period of popularity is over and the crowd is pushed on further you are no longer hot.” The Internet exacerbates this problem.

I have many questions and ideas.

 

Ricardo the Art Historian:

All very good questions and ideas.

 

Well, now we are having fun! I pride myself on all art and objects in my home being functional and utilitarian, due to limited space. The implication is that all objects are also chosen for their esthetic and artistic qualities, and the ways they can complement one another.

 

Ricardo:

I guess I didn’t mean to suggest that what we call “art” has to be utilitarian. I suppose an economist might take the position that anything someone spends money on or otherwise acts to acquire and which gives them pleasure — esthetic, intellectual, “I can afford this and you can’t”-satisfaction, etc.) is, from an economic standpoint, utilitarian….it keeps the wheels of commerce churning. And certainly, there are and should be all types of “art” — confrontational, challenging, mysterious, didactic, tendentious — as many types as there are tastes in the consumers and other “receptors”. And I’m reminded of the debate about Matisse’s declaration that he made art to “soothe” those viewing it**…..and so in the ’20s, his art seemed to become “decorative”…..both developments (his statement, his colorful, soothing paintings and, eventually, cut-outs) raising some minor storms from critics. By the way, I meant to mention a wonderful observation by the critic Clement Greenberg sometime in the early or mid-1950s to the effect that he almost regretted that the Renaissance had put so much emphasis on perspective and the idea of looking through a window onto the scene depicted…..half-musing what the development of art might have been without that kind of focus and objective.

** The Matisse quote: What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

 

Adam:

I must admit that the Andy Warhol and Basquiat period confounds me now that it is at a distance. I was — like you — in Manhattan during their time, and also during the time of many other now-famous artists of that era. In Manhattan and in Los Angeles it was common to see these persons, to cross their paths on the streets, at parties, at restaurants, etc. and there was a sense of respect for their personal space and experience. I never idolized them as persons or as artists, and their work was for me just one of their many expressions; and not unlike the clothing they preferred to wear, the night clubs and discos I saw them at, and so on. Everyone was “an artist” back then; and a few “made it” (i.e. made most of their income from their art). It seemed almost coincidental oftentimes, dependent upon who you knew who knew someone, being in the right place at the right moment in Time, etc. rather than one particular person’s art being greater or better than that of all others. I could not — and did not even think about trying to — compare one artist with another. Personal expression and uniqueness were paramount; and one’s artistic personality was a large part of one’s art. Graffiti was everywhere back then. I did not evaluate if it was “Art” or “Vandalism”. It was just part of the background to the constant Entertainment Show going on all around us, and which we were a part of — regardless of whether we considered ourselves as artists, or not. When Basquiat teamed up with Warhol the social protest/vandalism (reminiscent of Michael West’s “Blinding Light” painting which pre-dates Basquiat) made its way into the prestigious art galleries and art museums. While graffiti was by no means “new” or revolutionary art, the concept of taking it inside was novel. Warhol was a businessman who knew how to make lots of money, and who loved doing that. I will always wonder what Warhol and Basquiat had within them beyond the commercialized expressions of protest (Basquiat) and everyday iconography (Warhol). What would they produce today? I suspect that Warhol would have long since moved on to video/film, photography, and computer art. I suspect that perhaps Basquiat did not have so many more ideas beyond what made him famous. That is all well and good. Everything in its time. It is increasingly difficult to compare art — not only in the same few decades but also over centuries. It is perhaps akin to trying to decide who is the G.O.A.T. (the greatest of all Time) in any discipline, sport, or art form. But comparing artists working within the same basic styles and within the same time periods is rather possible. Perhaps that is the foundation of comparative Art for art historians? But, back to Basquiat. After his fame, many other artists moved from the streets and walls inside of galleries and museums. And as they did so their graffiti art became more and more stylized and commercial. Graphic representations with accompanying tagging dumbed down the previous abstractions so that every Tom, Dick, and Harriet had mental and financial access to these politically-correct posters that were mass-produced. Now, the trend is again returning to selling original works at art auctions and museums. But I question whether such art is really a significant style in the greater context of art history. Graffiti in prehistoric caves, in ancient Italy and Greece … and even in dilapidated neighborhoods in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Amsterdam, NYC, etc. can often be much more “primal” and evocative than many of the works commanding exorbitant prices at Sotheby’s and museums. Michael West’s paintings are powerful because she speaks to herself — about her experience of her existence and environment — rather than making her art into a speakeasy. It is that introspection that makes her own “rage” a different kind of abstract protestation. Perhaps a more powerful and primal expression than that of Basquiat and those who have followed him. Her work — like the early, pre-splatter works by Jackson Pollock — has a vibrant primal quality that is, to me, closer to being an original style — even though she was greatly influenced by a few of her close artist friends’ styles. Today it is common for contemporary artists to name their styles (which is perhaps often preferable to being pigeonholed and typecast by art historians and gallery owners). We can be quite creative at putting together hyphenated known style categories in questionable combinations. Just as vague and intentionally meaningless as much gallery show bullshit written in invitations to vernissages. Or artwork titles. My question is more and more, does any clean style exist today? Is it desirable to have only one style anymore? I dunno. But I think more and more that historical social and political context is equally important (if not more so) than style classifications. Most art is situation-inspired and thereby specific to an Era, rebellions, or promotions of then-current modes of expression and themes. Perhaps that is equally interesting to talk about rather than merely style and technique? I note that modern art museums are moving increasingly in that direction in curating their exhibitions. Historical and sociopolitical context is now allowing art museums to be social learning institutions, and thus more relevant for today’s audiences.

 

Ricardo:

Yes, to all you brilliantly have written. I find some contemporary curating a little too “politically correct”-intended as they pair works from different eras or centuries in one space. Implying what? That artists respond similarly in different times (to what, tho?) as evidenced by a similar style or subject matter or use of materials? So what, I say? What’s your point, dear curator. Or maybe a curator is using artworks like a poet uses words, to express herself/himself? I don’t think they’d ever admit that, but choice, by its very nature, involves the curator’s thought, emotion, outlook, intention. On balance, I think we’re in an age of cultural confusion and drift. New means of expression, like iPad art, may yet come to dominate the “art scene”.

 

Adam:

Exactly my point. Let contemporary artists talk about their art and process, and let the public decide if it achieves its goals — if there are any beyond mere pleasure. But here art critics are equally to blame.

 

 

Are Realism, Naturalism, Photorealism or Hyperrealism more valid or “real” than other genres?

«Breaking through», oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.

 — Jean-Jacques Rousseau 


Are Realism, Naturalism, Photorealism, or Hyperrealism more valid or “real” than other genres?

This debate keeps coming back, with new non- or less-realistic genres continuously popping up in rebellion. It is an endless game … of Whack-a-Mole.

As regards “realism” and “naturalism”, I am more on the abstract – semi-realism continuum. Not because I do not appreciate the joys and satisfaction of trying to make a painting look “real” like a photograph, but rather because I interpret perception as a combination of naturalism and subjectivity. Perhaps I just experience and observe painting subjects differently than others. As Picasso said: “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” However, I am always interested in the internet debates regarding comparative preferences for Naturalism versus Abstraction, in painting/Art — including everything from Impressionists, Fauvists, Abstract painters, and Expressionists to genres even I have not yet heard of. Many of the aforementioned having come about partly in rebellion against the very long and established traditions of the older classical traditions, and a few of the newer ones that were in vogue for shorter periods of time. This back and forth movement is quite apparent throughout modern Art History. What troubles me is how the camera and internet have solidified and limited subjective perception (and acceptance of it) in individuals today. What is photographed is not actually “real”, as it is a momentary interpretation and often (like naturalistic paintings) staged and glorified. Art has many functions, including making people feel good. “Feel-good Art” (in all its forms), is also valid. I consider much Impressionist Art to be feel-good art as well, My own focus in my Art is more confluence-psychological, in that I attempt to focus on a wide continuum of feelings, thought processes, and subjective questions, rather than to make beautiful paintings that strive to elevate positive self-perception or predominantly positive perceptions of the World. My approach is to explore different degrees of abstraction and naturalism in order to mate the recognizable with the subjective/psychological. This is perhaps somewhat akin to a stream of consciousness approach in literature.

That being said, while I do appreciate many naturalistic paintings, I prefer classical art photography to painting hyperrealism and photorealism. Photography somehow gives me a greater sense of freedom to interpret possible next moments after the image is photographed than a painting designed to mimic a photograph exactly (or even more so than the original image itself). I do not know why that is. Perhaps it is because paintings are for me more permanent and powerful, if not insisting, than photographs. When I look at photos it is generally for a few seconds at a time, but paintings I tend to study for many minutes … taking in the images more intensively, and allowing them to become ingrained and to impress themselves into my consciousness and perceptions of what Reality “really is”. Many of the Old Masters managed to create naturalistic paintings that allowed for greater degrees of Viewer interpretation and freedom than Photorealism and Hyperrealism do today.

I personally feel that Art (in all genres) is best when it balances the technical with the subjective. Technical mastery is important, but when it overtakes and overrules the subjective freedom of the Artist and the Viewer it becomes more of a technical feat and marvel than Art.

The perception of “Realism” being the only true art form was re-inforced by Gustave Courbet who commented: “Show me an angel, and I will paint one.” Well, many have painted angels and unicorns without having seen them in person, and paintings that personify mythical and Biblical creatures and events are also — in my eyes — valid Art. If you know what unicorns are, and how they generally are perceived to look, then they do actually exist for you. Like with realism, we perceive things as we know and interpret them in our minds. Or through a photographic image. So, we do not always solely paint what we see, and what we “see” is not really the totality of Reality. “Realism”, “Naturalism”, “Photorealism”, or “Hyperrealism” do not actually exist any more than more subjective interpretations (Abstract, Semi-realistic, Primitivism) and are, therefore — to me — not more valid or important on the larger scale of Art History.

And by the way, Gustave Courbet’s (a Realist) self-portrait — «Le désespéré», is one of my all-time favorite self-portraits. It combines incredible technical mastery with a subjectivity that makes the image jump right out of the painting.


Just my opinion, of course … as always.

NB. Balancing the technical with expression to maximize the “artistic” is achieved by planning and by lots of aesthetic decision-making; which leads to much more technical decision-making. These decisions and plans range from determining subject/theme/mood of the painting to picking the size and format of the canvas or board, to choosing colors that serve the theme/subject and/or mood, to decisions concerning overall composition, genre and style, to determining which tools to use (eg. brushes, palette knives, credit cards etc.), to deciding about brushstrokes (visible, or not; painted with broad, large brushes, or not; aggressive brushstrokes or caressed brushstrokes with small, medium-sized, large, flat, round or angled brushes or even fan brushes etc.); determining how much brush pressure to use, and how much paint is to be on the brush; deciding whether to paint impasto, or not; deciding upon degree of uniformity in the look and feel of the painting or eventually how to balance non-uniform sections in the artwork; the velocity of the painting process, and of the brushstrokes; to knowing how much detail is needed, and where; to knowing when to stop; and to deciding what cosmetic finishing tricks to use to make the decisions taken look intentional. Technical mastery is all-important. But it should not be divorced from the artistic vision. This holds true for all genres, styles, and complexities of compositional elements … as well as the level of detail. Every one of these decisions will affect your painting and the impressions it gives. Looking for the above mentioned is also how I view paintings in art museums and galleries, as well as technical accuracy and finish, the political, historical, social, and psychological aspects and effects of the painting’s theme and ideas presented, etc. My reactions to Art are based on my experiences of these technical decisions and skills in relation to larger artistic goals and expressions. And yes, I struggle with all of these technical decisions and skills in each painting, and in every genre and style.

 

«Secundo fluctus» (Second Wave), 60 x 50 cm., oil on canvas, 2020. The theme of this self-portrait is the impossible dream that is never finally achieved — no matter how much success we or others may think we have achieved, the dissatisfaction is always there. That has been the plight of most artists throughout human history; and it is no less today — for artists, and for non-artists. The tremendous Saturn-influence enveloping us at this time insists upon the renewal of our dreams, our motives, our ways of seeing, acting, living … imposing a heavy reality check upon us all. It is not all negative from an overall perspective, but it takes a higher degree of ingenuity, creativity, and persistence in order to create the much-needed and long-overdue New Consciousness. This dark expressionist self-portrait entitled “Second Wave”, provides a subjective inside-looking-out acknowledgment of the present experience. The intention is to document the thick muddy gelé of fear + the careful hopefulness that we are all enduring in this Winter of darkness. The observant viewer will note that the face is itself a mask, as is the masking Darkness.

 

Toxique / Toxic
“Toxique / Toxic”, 40×40 cm., oil on canvas, is an abstract painting which uses colour field and geometric styles to induce feelings of the “disgusting” which is beautiful. Here “the disgusting” is created by color combinations and the dizziness of the geometric images seemingly twirling about in atmospheric bile. The painting gives a sense of elegance in its overall balance and technical precision, while at the same time requiring quiet acceptance of discomfort.

 

“Threesome — Me, Myself, and I”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

 

“Flying”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

 

“Choosing a COVID-19 Vaccine — The Three Prisoner Problem”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

 

 

 

 

“The Scream” (Isbad), oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm., 2021.