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.)


Melinda said...

You don't need to be talked down. This is your place to rant and a good place to question, seek illumination, gesture wildly and even foment a little rebellion--in yourself and others.

I'm reminded that art is political whether we like it or not. We cannot escape exposing ourselves while making art and, perhaps, that's why we care so much about whose exposing what and why! Are we intentional? Are we directed by clarity of purpose? Or, do we wander aimlessly, splattering paint without realizing how naked we really are, how transparent we are to others while pretending to hide behind shiny words and interference color (prolly why I like interference paint so much), sometimes revealing just how shallow our brushstrokes may be?

What do we do when our hunger for beauty thinly disquises the wretched pornography of unexamined efforts? Do we ferret out true intention and speak it with bravery, knowing that we may be speaking into a very noisy world inhibited by the speed of daily life to see past technique, skill and trickery?

Keep pushing through your own tangle of culture. You are beginning to shine with authentic hue.

Edgar said...

Melinda -- it's nice of you to give me the room, but this is also a place of conversation. Yes, 'a little rebellion' would be a delight for me to see.

Yes, art is always political (in the broadest sense). Interference color is a fine metaphor for what we do unconsciously. Damn shame that interference color doesn't show up in the computer images. That would be the coolest internet, eh?

I think I must push. Our culture seems to be something we do, or something that will be done to us... And I don't like the sound of the latter.

Anonymous said...

I will not talk you down. I'm here to add fuel to the fire.

Have you read the book, Has Modernism Failed? by Suzi Gablik? Don't let the title turn you off. It's one of the most amazing and important books about how artists affect society and what our responsibility has been throughout history.

My copy has more highlighted passages than not. I think I should have dipped the whole book in fluorescent yellow.

Here's a quote, pg.51; "...obviously, art does not do the same thing, epoch after epoch, merely changing its style; its function varies enormously from one society to another. Art has always interacted with the social environment; it is never neutral. It may either reflect, reinforce, transform, or repudiate, but it is always in some kind of necessary relation to the social structure. There is always a correlation between society's values, directions, and motives and the art it produces."

A painting of Hershey's kisses tells me the artist has allowed himself to be heavily influenced by a commercially driven culture. Also, maybe even more tragic, doesn't know good chocolate. And lastly, he paints what is emotionally neutral and safe. Fluff.

You can order a used copy of Has Modernism Failed? from for approx. $3.

Unknown said...

oh edgar, you and your witty political jokes.

fantastic post. every time i visit your blog, i remember how well spoken (written) you are. and i am supremely delighted that you have put into words the concerns you, mom, and i have about certain... um... artists... cough cough thomas kinkade cough. sorry, excuse me, i think i have a bob ross in my throat. anyway, would love to see some more art, or art history analyses. like, often. unless you send me some more mail art, in which case, i suppose i can wait. for a little.

Edgar said...

Silvina -- between you and Melinda, we'll get ourselves a real swell bonfire crackling. And as artists, we'll have lots of highly combustible kindling to light the torches with (nothing says 'rebellion' like a can of lacquer thinner blowing up -- and you purists can keep your mineral spirits, that's for reactionaries).

Well, you persuaded me, I ordered the book (seller says it's heavily highlighted... seems to be epidemic).

Yes, Gablik seems to assert the same problem, but (speculating here from the title, not having read the book) our blame is different -- I don't think it is the artist's responsibility to change the middle class aesthetic, I think it is the artist's responsibility to be conscious of what she is promulgating, and to exercise judgement...

Edgar said...

Elliði-- Thanks for coming by. Getting a comment like yours makes it worth doing.

I re-read this post, and realize it's all over the place. I guess I'm calling for a little bit of critical thinking on the part of artists, through the eye of cultural materialism. Ask "Who benefits...cui buono??" when we look at art, and you'll be on the track.

Kinkade's sins... maybe are best left for his Maker. But foremost is charlatan, which will place him in the silent fourth ring of Dante's underworld. An artist (and I think he is one on some level) without a 'voice.' That's torment. Shades of Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." ...For some of his sins, he may already have paid a price.

I'm planning to keep posting... just having a hard time making new work. I've been tempted to put up older stuff, just to have something to post, but I'm using the 'pull' of the blog (my desire to post and see if anyone notices) to spur myself to keep making new work, so that would be self-defeating.

Barbara Muir said...

Hi Edgar,

the question of the "point" has arisen in many classes I've taken over the years. Teachers discuss "design", "story" etc. When I hire a model, or paint a commission, the point is the person. Style seeps into me from everything I look at.
Sometimes I'm glad that I've been inhabited, and sometimes I have to start over. But for me, the point is the person. Beyond that in the act of making art that gives me pleasure, I am barely conscious of
what I'm doing. Over and over I've been told to concentrate, remember my original purpose.

But what if that purpose was, as it
always is, enjoyment. Okay -- I'm shallow. If the painting works for me, I'm happy. As for my metier, or
what my art says about the future, or whether it lies (it does), it
isn't the main thing. The main thing is my delight, and if anyone else gets it. Bonus.

Love your blog, and your big brain.


Edgar said...

Barbara -- no doubt, there should be enjoyment. Look at those old cave paintings: animals of speed, or grace, or power. Not - usually -food animals. Early man was admiring the animals, not trying to invoke them with magic, so that they can be eaten!

And yes, there should be a sense of "inhabitation", too, because we need a mystical connection between us and our subjects.

My point(s) were: 1) We, consciously or not, seek to fulfill our audience's fantasies... so we bear a moral burden in choosing our subject, and 2) Hershey's kisses may make a terrific exercise in painting reflected light, but don't make good art, because it serves only the narcissistic impulses of the bourgoisie. (There I go again with the inflammatory jargon -- this is why I need to be talked down).

Someday, when Hershey's kisses are just mythology, the audience will invest the image with other meaning: but that doesn't get us off the hook today.

Barbara Muir said...

Hi Edgar

One of my favorite artists right now paints fruit and glass. Sometimes he deviates into china and fruit, or,vegetables. But the subject in this case is just part of the equation. His style is all (I told you I am shallow). As for the Hershey Kisses. I think what you're objecting to is high realism which can iconize anything it touches. But so what? Check out the high realism of Canadian artist Mary Pratt. She can turn fruit on a plate into a spiritual image of deep significance.

My point is simply this, we all gots to do what we gots to do Edgar.

You do your thing, let everyone else
slither along with theirs.

Take care,

Love your blog,


Edgar said...

Barbara -- thanks for the comment and thoughtfulness... Excuse me, but I think your lack of shallowness is showing. ;->

I may not be expressing myself well, but I don't think I'm objecting to a style, or knocking any of them. And I'm not opposed to transcendent beauty, either (although that opens another topic for later).

Ian Roberts - an author with whom I largely disagree, (but I'm glad he writes about art) - said, "The subject matter of a painting ... may move our emotions sentimentally, but there [can be] something superficial about it that we may even come to resent. Watching a predictable Hollywood romantic comedy... the strings are playing and the guy gets the girl -- which you could see was going to happen from the beginning. I feel manipulated, not moved."*

I'm really just asking artists to think about whom they are painting for, and why: we're supposed to be "creative," right? So, are we creating culture, or just rolling around in it? Are we painting, or pandering? Art should lead, not follow.

*Creative Authenticity, copyright 2004

Marian Fortunati said...

I find your posts always so interesting. Not sure I fit in here artwise or word wise as I'm not so intellectual about any of it. I just like to paint, read, and write...
I am reading David Leffel's book, "An Artist Teaches". He's saying that "painting is the pursuit of intelligence.." That every great painting is a picture with one essential visual idea.. the painter's concept. Hmmmm
I know I've got a long way to go in MY journey but although there are many absolutely gorgeous examples of his work... with close-ups to see the brush work... I was disappointed that he didn't suggest the visual concept of any of them.... even more sad that I couldn't see beyond just a really wonderful example of a still life, portrait or landscape.
Perhaps the painter's concept is his/hers alone.... It's up to the viewer to bring their own meaning to the painting.... if there is one to be conceived.

Barbara Muir said...

Hi Edgar,

Too many shoulds for me. I used to be an assistant editor on an art magazine. Mark Prent was a big favorite here -- wax models of people dying in the holocaust -- profoundly meaningful, disturbing, and repulsive.

I decided looking at this kind of art to take the Keatsian way. "A thing of beauty," et al. That seemed as fair as anything else. In my case,
rolling around in it my good fellow.

Take care,
and keep painting and writing,


Edgar said...

Marian, you raise some interesting points, and they fit in quite well here. Please, make yourself comfortable, and help yourself to some lemonade or tea.

Melinda also talks about "intentionality" or consciousness of the message, and Silvina agrees that art either reinforces or repudiates its society. (The drift of this post is that I'm hoping for a bit more awareness of it, and a little less reinforcing of the banal).

But, to your points: if you admire an artist's brush strokes, but don't understand the point of his work, I think that the artist has -- partly -- failed. I think that art is primarily communication, which (by definition) requires a sender and a receiver. Trying to guess a bit, but maybe what you are describing is a partial lack of communication... which can be caused by either party's ability to understand, the medium itself, or "noise."

I think what you are saying is very similar to my response to our Hershey's Kiss example: I look at it, and ask, "Why?"
What is the intent behind the effort?... and either the answers to that aren't embedded in the message, or I'm just not receiving them. Maybe I need to see more work by the artist (have context) to "get it". Maybe, the message isn't aimed at me as the intended receiver(for example, Silvina thinks Hershey's isn't very good chocolate, so the subject doesn't make her mouth water). Or maybe, the artist hasn't really intended more, and there isn't anything more to "get," the image is what it is.

... but artworks in books that teach art can be problematic. I've seen some, where the work is produced for the purpose of providing examples to the lesson, and therefore, they choose emotionally neutral content in the images chosen. Do you think that may be what's going on in your book?

Edgar said...

Barbara-- "Too many shoulds..." That's a fair view to take — I was preaching. "Art should lead" is just my opinion for today (and only for today -- because, when things get ugly outside, I'll want a nice fantasy of comfort and warmth to dive into, inside.)

I went a little off topic with that "should lead" comment: first and foremost, I'm hoping that artists will recognize, at some level, that each work they do is taking a position, intentionally or not ... and just be conscious of that position.

If you don't mind, I'll use you as an example: You're a very talented artist, with a very strong frame of reference in your work. Your paintings are beautiful, and assertively positive in tone, but, don't sell me short, I don't conflate that with superficiality.

Actually, depth is beside my point altogether. I'm preaching consciousness — beyond that -- there is a solid place in the world for paintings of Hershey's Kisses, and an audience that will love them. Let each audience be served, let each artist choose her audience, consciously.

Does that make sense?

Barbara Muir said...

Oh my goodness Edgar,

When I am painting, I'm barely conscious of what I'm doing. Apparently our brains (artists) are
different so the good old fashioned (and much preferred by me) tungsten light bulb shining on a silver marble,in a half clam shell from
Pugwash Nova Scotia, sitting on my swamped with papers old pine desk catches my eye, and I'm pleased. At
least a thousand times a day I see
things, people, scenes, flocks of birds, you name it that please me.

Other people (not artists) are not so easily thrilled. Consciousness
can only intrude when I stop painting. And I think then it's the problem of getting out of my own way. The consciousness messes
me up, and I wonder should I try to be more like Larry Rivers?

Can't get nearly camp enough, abstract enough, unattached enough.
So I paint people, and they do the changing for me, sitting under the tungstens in my living room.

I really enjoy these discussions I
must say.

Take care, and
keep painting -- consciously or not.


Barbara Muir said...

Hi Edgar,

Of course that should have been signed


So tired (marking student papers) I
couldn't even spell my name.

Take care,


Anonymous said...

Edgar, I enjoyed reading through your post and comments on this. It's something I've thought about a lot myself. I don't really have anything to add to the discussion but will say that I've come to think, at least currently, that it's important to consider who your audience is and what you're creating for them but, when it comes to the act of putting brush to canvas, you have to let it go and paint what you paint. Otherwise, for me at least, I don't paint. Because I'm not up to the task I've imagined for myself.

One more thing I'll say, now that I'm started. I think that the most important thing about art is that it continue to get made. Good and bad, including Kinkaide. It is part of what makes us human.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

artist in the arctic said...

"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."

Brillant thing to witness..."Stars in broad daylight"

nice post.

Edgar said...

Bill — I agree with the sentiment: art must be made, because it is what has made us human, and continues to define us. Barring some taliban-esque worldwide dictatorship, I don't think that there's any way to stop art from getting made. Even the Stalinist government couldn't stop underground modernist experimentation.

Kinkaid's marketing machine serves as a useful object lesson, but not one I want to see emulated. His art... well, I could live without it, but that's just me.

But your initial point is very interesting: there are three 'poles' in our making of art. 1) We have an audience in mind, no matter how unconscious the thought. They frame our concept with their biases and point of reference. 2) We have an urge to express that we can't resist (the artistic compulsion). It is, in my mind, independent of skill and audience. 3) We have an internal critic that referees/watchdogs/criticizes our work before it's even started.

My dictum for this polarity is summed up in a bumper sticker: Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.

Amy — So nice to see you in the Southwest. Thank you for coming by. Merry Christmas, and stay warm.