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.

 

 

Primordial energy in Art.

Simply put, for me the process of creative artistic endeavors involves the constant exploration of intuitive approaches to alternative ways of «seeing» combined with technical exercises (both accepted and experimental). With several centuries of recorded art history now available as a learning resource and guide, the predilection to limit oneself to long-established styles, genres and motives is often overbearing. It has often been said that all has been done before, and indeed the history of Art is evidence of a dance that is two steps forward and one step back — with each new style yearning to establish itself as “the new original style or genre”.

But what impulses are commonalities in the process of creating Art — i.e. beyond established academic and technical norms? What is it that makes one particular work of Art so encaptivating that it is difficult to get out of our minds? Is there not some primeval instinct that is awakened — perhaps a recognition deep inside? Something that is far more basic and powerful than iconic and archetypal images such as Biblical scenes, the Madonna, or Marilyn Monroe? And is this primordial energy present within the artist whilst these powerful works of art are being made? Oftentimes such works seem to be « guided », divinely inspired; and that they almost paint/create themselves. Almost as if an ingenious idea jumps out at us … or that the « luck » of the Universal providence brings everything together, magically, suddenly and spontaneously. 


And how does the Artist access this primordial energy source? Some decades ago scans of old paintings revealed background sounds embedded in the painted layers. Will we one day be able to research, measure and compare energy output differences from certains works of art? When artists tap into that primordial energy source, how does it feel — excited, a warm burning, joyful, passionate… perhaps an active combination on a short continuum? And is this energy present in all genres and styles of Art? Nature landscapes and figurative works often feel “inspired”. But what about primitive art and some abstract art (eg. works by Rothko, Picasso,  Pollack etc., or even in musical works by Philip Glass and Meredith Monk? 

Many artists over time have employed shamanic rituals, hallucinogens and drugs, alcohol, Kundalini yoga, prayer, chanting, meditation, sex rituals, primal therapy, out of body travel, background music, etc. to attempt to access their primodial energies. And those practices are still explored and practiced today: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-shamanic-practices-making-comeback-contemporary-art

Artist and Dharma teacher Kongtrul Jigme Namgyel has written about his own process of painting with an awakened eye: https://theawakenedeye.com/pages/on-painting/

The mysterious gaze of the Mona Lisa has been explained as a technical effect, but the decisions by the artist involving both the figurative and landscape elements create a subjective overall effect that feels “other-worldly” and which cannot be wholly explained by the subject’s gaze and the technique used. Here DaVinci has – in my opinion – tapped into a primordial source, and achieved much more than a portrait of the subject. He has created an experiential bridge to the Common Viewer, and an unforgettable recognition of something so personally identifiable that it is unforgettable.
Even works by lesser-known and less technically adept artists than the Great Masters sometimes achieve a similar effect as regards primordial recognition. The fact that few (if any) artists have fully replicated that effect from one work of art to the next suggests that this inspiration is a phenomenon, rather than perfection of style and technique. 

Most artists are in and out of “the zone” while both away from and in front of the canvas. Although much of my painting ideas and planning takes place before I actually move from preliminary sketches to actual painting, I do enter another world/another state of mind when painting. There ideas, conversations in my head, constant experimenting and decisionmaking coalesce with “automatic painting” — where the body and less-structure mind move of their own accord in an exciting state of paranormality. Of course, translating these ideas and impulses into proper two-dimensional images that can open the passageway to the Viewers’ own primordial recognition requires a solid mix of technical experience and expertise. But we learn from one artwork to the next, and newly-learned techniques are incorporated or at least considered in subsequent works. In this way, each work of art in progression is a continuation of one’s magical dance in and out of a primordial subconscious.

— Adam Donaldson Powell

Revisiting Jean Cocteau’s ballet libretto “Le jeune homme et la mort”.

“Le jeune homme et La Mort”, 65×90 cm., installation de peinture: huile sur toile et filet de camouflage, Adam Donaldson Powell, 2017.

L’histoire chorégraphique :

THE YOUNG MAN AND DEATH.

Redefining Cocteau’s interpretation of “The young man and death”:
My painting — entitled “The young man and death” – represents a violent and hazardous order; whitewashed mental chaos with the conviction of purification and with cutting knife marks of self-harm … and swirling depression; and with so many overwhelming rhythmic atonalites that the blue electricity of pulses and currents are stifled by a huge blanketing whiteness that gives a general impression of calm and control – as long as we follow each breath religiously. It is an atmosphere of violent beauty; the inner environment which cleanses and consumes all the perceptions of the outside world that drive us to the ultimate act of correction and glory: suicide. The whiteness of depression is the light at the end of the tunnel of death – promise of rebirth, new virginity and ultimate seduction. The thick slabs of paint represent the mud walls we erect to keep ourselves safe inside our cocoons – in our fortress. Depression does not concern sadness, but rather the construction of our castle in heaven, where our indifference to success and failure can finally flourish. Nirvana. Here, death is not a woman, but the young man’s own psyche. The misogynistic vision of Cocteau will be whitewashed and exposed as a void that disguises itself as male self-victimization. Once the many layers of oil paint were completely dry, I then covered the minimalist painting with camouflage netting, this in order to force the viewer to want to look at the discomfort in the pictures … to encourage the Viewer to look under the veil, and then to identify oneself sufficiently in the Mind … Yes, to be able to look for the veil of Emptiness that is under the veil. Of course, no one really wants to know about another person’s depression – especially if they are suicidal. We are all fighting the same depression and nothingness. It’s only a thought away. The result is a two-dimensional sculpture painting.

Jean Maurice Eugene Clement Cocteau was very talented, very brave, very “gay”, very famous … and very misogynistic. Only the unfortunate (or idiots) would be stupid enough to try to make him angry.

“The young man and death In a workshop, a young man alone is waiting. In comes the girl who was the cause of his distress. He rushes towards her, she pushes him away, he begs her, she insults him, scoffs at him and tells him to go hang himself. He hangs himself. Only the body of the hanged man remains. Through the roofs, death then returns in a prom dress. She takes off her mask: it’s the girl. So she puts her mask on the face of her victim. Together, they go through the roofs.
— Jean Cocteau”

More than seventy years have passed since this work had its world premiere. And the idea still haunts me. The story is too thin … a cheap shot designed to shock. The cheating woman has the coldness of a man, and the desperate man (the cuckold) hangs himself as the woman demands. The irony is that a number of men today commit suicide after their wife’s infidelity or divorce. But what else is behind this suicide? Surely, there are problems of depression and relationship within man before this development? Was the woman really responsible for his death? Is the infidelity of another person really the cause of suicide – or is it just a symptom, the result of a long-standing illusion that can no longer be denied? Is not this another expression of misogyny in the age of Romanticism? And how can I recreate this story / painting – penetrating more into the young man’s psyche – far beyond this woman representing death, who can so easily be blamed?

It’s the same for both or all genders (there are more than two now). Because depression and suicide are taboo subjects, I want to force the public to commit to watching and walking inside the painting. These problems need to be normalized – like cancer and other syndromes and lifestyle diseases.

“It is important to understand and simply accept that all our past experiences, whether joyful or sad, continue to accompany us throughout our lives and greatly affect the way we feel today. Problems can only trigger feelings of insecurity, shame, envy or revenge if we deny that they are part of us. To be overwhelmed by such feelings in the most difficult situations requires us to recognize them and consciously integrate them as natural parts of our psyche. Only then will we be able to develop a loving acceptance of ourselves with all our flaws and shortcomings.” — from www. astro.com

As I always say, a lot of fiction is more factual than readers realize. Cocteau was very misogynistic and obsessed with wanting a son, and had great anger when the woman of his choice (Princess Natalie Paley) rejected him: he said that women were “the killers of poets’ children”, there had been many suicides in his life, and so on – all of which indicate psychological problems at work in this story.

With Nureyev in the title role:

Read about Gustave Moreau’s painting “The Young Man and Death” HERE!

2389ECFE-7F46-4E2D-BD0E-23B579D37284

LE JEUNE HOMME ET LA MORT.

Redéfinir l’interprétation de Cocteau de «Le jeune homme et la mort»:
«Le jeune homme et la mort» – il représente un ordre violent et hasardeux; chaos mental blanchi à la chaux avec la conviction de purification et avec des marques d’automutilation … la dépression tourbillonnant avec des atonalites rythmiques tellement écrasante que l’électricité bleue des impulsions et des courants est étouffée par un énorme oreiller blanc qui donne une impression générale de calme et contrôle – tant que l’on suit religieusement chaque respiration. C’est une atmosphère de beauté violente; l’environnement intérieur qui lave et consume toutes les perceptions du monde extérieur, nous pousse à l’ultime acte de correction et de gloire: le suicide. La blancheur de la dépression est la lumière au bout du tunnel de la mort – promesse de renaissance, nouvelle virginité et ultime séduction. Les dalles épaisses de peinture représentent les murs de boue que nous érigeons pour nous garder en sécurité dans nos cocons – notre forteresse. La dépression ne concerne pas la tristesse, mais plutôt la construction de notre château dans les cieux, où notre indifférence au succès et à l’échec peut enfin s’épanouir. Nirvana. Ici, la mort n’est pas une femme, mais la propre psyché du jeune homme. La vision misogyne de Cocteau sera blanchie au néant, et exposée comme un vide qui se déguiserait en auto-victimisation masculine.

Une fois que les nombreuses couches de peinture à l’huile sont complètement sèches, je vais couvrir la peinture minimaliste avec filet de camouflage ; qui forceront le spectateur à vouloir regarder les désagréments dans les images. Regarder sous le voile et ensuite s’identifier suffisamment dans le Mental pour pouvoir chercher le voile de Vide qui est sous le voile. Bien sûr, personne ne veut vraiment connaître la dépression d’une autre personne – surtout s’il est suicidaire. Nous combattons tous la même dépression et le néant. C’est seulement une pensée loin. Le résultat sera une peinture de sculpture en deux dimensions.
Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau était très talentueux, très courageux, très “gay”, très célèbre … et très misogyne. Seuls les malheureux ou les idiots seraient heureux de le mettre en colère.

Le jeune homme et la mort

Dans un atelier, un jeune homme seul attend. Entre la jeune fille qui était cause de sa détresse. Il s’élance vers elle, elle le repousse, il la supplie, elle l’insulte, le bafoue et s’enfouit. Il se pend. La chambre s’envole. Ne reste que le corps du pendu. Par les toits, la mort arrive en robe de bal. Elle ôte son masque : c’est la jeune fille. Alors elle pose son masque sur le visage de sa victime. Ensemble, ils s’en vont par les toits.

— Jean Cocteau»

Plus de soixante-dix ans se sont écoulés depuis que ce travail a eu sa première mondiale. Et l’idée me hante toujours. L’histoire est trop mince … un cliché inverse conçu pour choquer. La femme qui triche a la froideur d’un homme, et l’homme désespéré (le cocu) se pendent comme la femme demande. L’ironie est qu’un certain nombre d’hommes aujourd’hui se suicident après l’infidélité ou le divorce de leur femme. Mais quoi d’autre est derrière ce suicide? Il y a sûrement des problèmes de dépression et de relation au sein de l’homme avant ce développement? La femme était-elle vraiment responsable de sa mort? L’infidélité d’une autre personne est-elle vraiment la cause du suicide – ou est-ce simplement un symptôme, le résultat d’une illusion de longue date qui ne peut plus être nié? N’est-ce pas une autre expression de la misogynie à l’époque du romantisme? Et comment puis-je recréer cette histoire / peinture – pénétrant davantage dans la psyché du jeune homme – bien au-delà de cette femme représentant la mort, qui peut si facilement être blâmée?

C’est la même chose pour les deux ou tous les sexes (il y en a plus de deux maintenant). Parce que la dépression et le suicide sont des sujets tabous, je veux forcer le public à s’engager à regarder et à marcher à l’intérieur du tableau. Ces problèmes doivent être normalisés – comme le cancer et d’autres syndromes et maladies de style de vie.

“Il est important de comprendre et d’accepter simplement que toutes nos expériences passées, qu’elles soient joyeuses ou tristes, continuent à nous accompagner tout au long de notre vie et affectent considérablement la façon dont nous nous sentons aujourd’hui. Les problèmes ne peuvent que déclencher des sentiments d’insécurité, de honte, d’envie ou de vengeance si nous nions qu’ils font partie de nous. Être submergé par de tels sentiments dans les situations les plus difficiles nous oblige à les reconnaître et à les intégrer consciemment en tant que parties naturelles de notre psyché. Ce n’est qu’alors que nous serons en mesure de développer une acceptation aimante de nous-mêmes avec tous nos défauts et insuffisances.”(astro.com)

Comme je le dis toujours, beaucoup de fiction est plus factuelle que ce que les lecteurs réalisent. Cocteau était très misogyne et sa fascination pour vouloir un fils, sa colère quand la femme de son choix (la princesse Natalie Paley) l’a rejeté: il a dit que les femmes étaient «les tueuses des enfants de poètes», les suicides dans sa vie, et ainsi de suite – indiquent ses problèmes psychologiques au travail dans cette histoire.

”COVID-19 — fini les bises à la pelle !”, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm., 2020, is a self-portrait of myself hesitating to kiss my own death skull, and is surrounded by a ring of blue roses. The blue roses symbolize the unattainable; here, an unfulfilled love-moment that is even too complicated to be described in words because our natural habit of performing the delicious bises à la pelle is abruptly stopped by the cold mental forewarning that “some doors should never be opened”. There is nothing to say, save perhaps “Oh, I almost forgot.” This is, indeed, a challenging conceptual and technical study and essay. The image of a person kissing a death skull is an age-old meme (if not a cliché). Here the twist is to play on the concept of The Picture of Dorian Gray, whereby the death skull is the mirrored image of my true Self — i.e. that part of me that always remains constant, regardless of the « accoutrements » of fashion, disposition, or aging. In the Age of COVID-19 a simple kiss on the cheek can become the shovel that digs our own grave… Indeed we must all face our own Death, with eyes open or shut. And yet Death finds meaning only against the background of Life, though measured in mere years or breaths. Just as Light has no significance without shadow or Darkness, we cannot live Life fully being afraid of Death. “On ne peut pas vivre en ayant peur de mourir … “
“La mort rappelle une vie passée”, 60 x 80 cm., huile sur toile, 2020.
«Eternal Sleep — Mors Vincit Omnia», oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm., 2021.