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honest v. integrity
What Is Art, Anyway?
When you get interested in painting you naturally look around to see what others who got this bug have done. Finding out what painters are doing in the U.S. today is like listening to rock on the radio. You have to wade through a lot of “forgettables” before you hear one that will be an “oldie” in ten years. Museums show oldies. Most of their collections have been filtered. The forgettables have been thrown out. On this painting journey you will run across an opinion that painting is dead, irrelevant, old paradigm. You can ignore that, and be sure you will encounter it again and one of these times you might buy it.
Current paintings are seen in modern galleries and new museums dedicated to sorting out the wheat from the chaff. The big museums are located in the same places as the big money. It was the 19th and early 20th century tycoons or their wives who collected art and the art was European. The oldest paintings in the museums are of religious subjects or are portraits of rich folks of the 14th century – in Europe, of course. Before that it’s mostly sculpture that has survived and architectural ruins.
Through history nations or civilizations arise, make their mark and fade as great powers. Much of what is valued in our civilization derives from the Greece of 500 B.C. When Greece had its day in the sun it invented democracy. Its architecture and philosophy had such impact that they are alive today in our thoughts and in our public buildings. The history of painting, as presented in the museums, has shifting power centers too. At one time Italy for some reason, blossomed, producing giants like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael. At another moment tiny 17th century Holland dominated the art world with Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Judith Leyster, Vermeer and many others.
A bit over 100 years ago non-Greek, non European influences began creeping into painting. The first was Asian; elegant Japanese prints which violated some of the rules. When you look at railroad tracks they appear to converge in the distance. The Japanese didn’t feel bound by this kind of perspective in their pictures. The second influence came from the Pacific Islands and Africa. They were bound even less by European conventions. Theirs was an art of intense feeling and expression. What European painters learned from this art was that a picture could depict things that happened at different times, different places. It could distort them to suit itself. They could be any color, size or shape, to suit itself. The questioning of the “rules” brought about by this invasion of ideas lead to the radical notion that a picture didn’t have to necessarily depict anything. A line, a shape, a color… they can be interesting or funny or moving all by themselves.
Actually the idea had been around quite awhile. People had been going to concert halls for 200 years, listening to patterns of sounds which were interesting, funny or moving without depicting anything. But in painting this idea was revolutionary – people had been looking at painting for too long, expecting scenes and stories to suddenly convert. But gradually some of them did. Soon the wild man Vincent Van Gogh, without selling a single painting in his lifetime, was hanging in reproduction in the most modest of quarters, and selling in the original for millions.
Some artists took upon themselves the mission of staying ahead of popular taste (some were simply ahead of it naturally, by temperament). This frequently meant doing something outrageous, sometimes with that in mind, sometimes as the result of a development of ideas. So it was that sacks of coal or a bicycle wheel were offered as sculpture, paint was mixed and thrown at random, half finished meals were encased in epoxy resin. The variations were as endless as the 88 keys on a piano and some of it was actually beautiful, funny, interesting or moving.
In the 19th century the painters Millet and Gourbet were criticized for their “vulgar” subject matter, depicting farmers and workers rather than heroic generals and mythological scenes. Some artists have always followed their own bent and clashed with the upholders of “standards.” And among the experimenters of course were those intolerant of anyone who failed to embrace “advanced” ideas.
Today there is mass confusion. Numerous schools of painting claim to be on the right track while everyone else is gone astray, living in a previous, discredited aesthetic. A sociologist whose name I forget remarked, “For every significant work of art, there is a truckload of trivia.” As a painter you are faced with this confused situation and you must choose for yourself which is the significant direction. If you are serious then you meet the challenge with this in mind: there is a difference between being honest and having integrity. A fascist may believe that he should kill those who disagree with his beliefs therefore he is honest, congruent, when he does so. But to have integrity one must be willing to question one’s convictions.
- Author's Note: This series on art originally ran, in a slightly altered form, in the Dublin, GA Courier Herald, 1989. Image: By the author, Tom Ferguson.