Sunday, October 26, 2008

Someone talk me down*

I was reading through a few chapters of the "Writing About Art" book I recommended below, when I started to get my knickers all in a bunch, (i.e., a tizzy, a conniption) because something's been bothering me for a while now, and it's hard to broach, like telling a coworker they have bad breath. That takes trust, and shouldn't be undertaken by someone without a lot of compassion -- and if you'll bear with me, I'll try to show that I have compassion. And it will only look as if I'm a hypocrite, but that is merely an illusion, (sweeping abracadabra hand gestures inserted here) because I have an excuse for myself...

Presented for your consideration

Consider a couple of artworks: Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, and any given "odalisque" (I'll pick Ingres.) Both great art. Both classics, in the sense that they changed the way art was done. Each a painting of female nudes, the former a tribute to brothel workers, the latter an aesthetic rationalization for invading other countries and ogling their women. Now, let me not put too fine a point on my examples: these are parlor pornography, celebrating masculinity and representing women as objects to be used, possessed, possibly -- if charity is given -- to be rescued. But nothing so much as bedmates, accessible and either willing, or vulnerable to domination. These are painted by men, for a male audience. Although I'm not qualified to speak for them, I'll vouchsafe few women would be disposed to depict these subjects in either of these ways.

Am I condemning these works? No. I'm criticising them, because I need to make a point, and these examples provide an obvious demonstration: art is (arguably) made for an audience. One task of art criticism is to ask, "Who was this art made for? Who will relate deeply/be moved by/find beauty in this work?" These examples demonstrate that even great art is aimed at a minor segment of the potential audience, not the whole populace.

So, what's your point?

I went to a Sustainability Fair this weekend, where people were presenting alternative energy and local growing techniques. Last week, I was watching Frontline's documentary, "Heat." In it, an Indian woman -- either an engineer or economist, I think -- is saying that Asia is having the US/European way of doing things shoved down their throats, but if Asians were to live like Americans, there would be no more resources left, not enough energy, not enough food... disaster.

Dude, you're harshing my buzz, and you still have no point.

Take your everyday paintings of confections... Hershey's Kisses? Seriously? What group does that appeal to -- aside from Hershey's executives (because now that the last plant in America is shutting down, it sure as hell doesn't appeal to Hershey's factory workers)? No, it appeals to people that can't afford classic art, but want to have some "real" art to hang on the wall. It's not too "modern," it's not too "old fashioned." It pats them on the head for being not too rich and not too poor. It fits just where it should: in the vanilla zone.

The point is this: look at us, and by "us" I mean us artists. We make culture. When we change, culture must follow. Our work either reinforces the status quo, or challenges it. What's got me upset is -- for lack of any new terminology -- middle class art. Is the work we are doing simply stroking the egos of our audience, feeding their complacent self images, like Ingres painting an ostensible seraglio slave so that his audience could feel justified in colonizing those barbaric parts of the world (while having a flight of sexual fancy)? Should our audience feel self satisfied, or should they really ought to be getting off their butts and going out to change the world? I mean, "Artists! Pull your heads out of your asses!"

No, I don't mean message art

... Unless you're into that. The plein air paintings I do in my town today are different from the ones I did 20 years ago in college. Back then, the air was so clear, the blues so dark, you'd swear you could catch glimpses of the stars in broad daylight, if you looked carefully. Today, the skies are paler -- a washed-out blue, almost white. When I paint a sky today, I'm recording a change for posterity. I'm documenting for my (someday) grand kids, "I saw the sky lose its color, a change that occured in the space of a generation. It wasn't like this a few decades ago." I find myself wanting to 'cheat,' make them bluer, more saturated than what is in front of me. It is sentimentalism, and a sense of loss. Sometimes, I give in to nostalgia, but I'm just lying to myself.

There's a scenic vista not far from me, rolling foothills and low mountains, that may soon be the site of a new open pit mine. If I paint that 'scape today, I am preserving my impression for a posterity that will no longer be able to share it. They will see an entirely different vista from that roadside overlook.

So, let me turn the question around. When you paint, what's your point?

*Credit for this title must be given to one of my favorite political commentators, Rachel Maddow, who has been one of my favorites since the days of the lizzbians (and if you recognize that reference, you know what I mean.)

Okay, don't look at it, feel it

Canson Montval Marine paper block. Cover says: 9" x 21.125". Ruler says: 9" x 19". Maybe that's why it was on sale. But it is a beauty of a super-wide panarama sheet.

Yeah, the painting is pretty bad, but a few things worked: First, I was able to use my "penance sheet" (see below) to choose colors deliberately, instead of accidentally. And it saved me from a couple of bad choices I'd have previously made. So, "thanks," to all of you that encouraged me in doing my homework.

Second, I was able to paint "big" (for me -- things being relative). It was liberating to use big brushes and my whole arm to make strokes. I didn't have much time to prep or paint this one -- it was a fast sketch. But, oh, the joy to be able to move through the medium! Can't wait to try another (hopefully with more time to work on it).

But time has been short -- thus the dearth of posts, or comments elsewhere. To any of you that have borne with, and come back after my long absence, you have my gratitude. We happy few.

One last thing-- a book to recommend, for all of us looking for the language to describe what it is we do: "A Short Guide to Writing About Art" by Sylvan Barnet. It's small, easy to read, and no doubt inexpensive in a used copy of the many editions extant.