July 15, 2004


But isn't all art the tension between, on the one hand, a raging passion bordering on the psychotic (Caravaggio), and on the other the cold, steady, technical eye needed to master surface (David Bowie, or, if you must, Ingres)?

I think you find utter mastery at both levels in the artists GRAG (generally recognized as great). Velasquez's Los Borrachos has plenty of surface, but the more you look, the more you find yourself staring into a grinning but meaningless existential void. Or Michelangelo showing us the face of The Damned:

Get too close to the sun, of course, and you get burned. The artists I used to like, inspired by Lorca's "Theory and Divertissment of the Duende" were those barely holding the ragged edge. The poets Cesare Pavese and Randall Jarrell. Van Gogh. Kurt Cobain. Of course they all killed themselves (including, arguably, Lorca, who chose death by fascist), which points to a limitation in the aesthetic: experiencing their art comes perilously close to ghoulish voyeurism. Sylvia Plath was a great poet with or without the early exit, but the head-in-the-oven thing really sucks in those adolescent girls.

So, as one becomes jaded by promiscuous fatalism (the same porn over and over), one retreats, and there are really only two ways to go. We can fall into sentimentality and romanticism ("Sorrows of the Young Werther", making passion and death a kind of light entertainment, and making real passion or vision virtually impossible), or retreat into sterility and surface.

Of the two vices, sterility and surface are preferred in modern times. Like aunt Edna who's on valium but insists nothing is wrong, we use Warhol's soup cans or...(well, I was going to cite Lichtenstein’s BLAM! here, but now realize it's a little darker and more serious that I remembered - dig that black body falling into space)...anyway, we avoid the facts, we use sterility as a crutch, a placeholder, a placebo, an aesthetic methadone.

We're left with Hiroshige, Hokusai, Hockney, Hopper, Robert Hughes, and the occasional Rauschenbergian goat.

I'm not saying it's right, but I do dig it.


Blogger First Sea Lord said...

That's just it - Caravaggio was the most extraordinary of visual masters, NOT an expositor of transmformative psychosis at all. His innovation was fundamentally his treatment of LIGHT, raking light, artificial pushing across the picture plane, far and above subject matter - the very use of light BECAME the subject matter - hence, art.

I must heartily disagree - the radicalism of Velasquez, and Goya, and Michelangelo was humanism, humanism above and piercing through religious and political orthodoxy. The pictures of the damned are interesting most to modern eyes, but are a tiny part of his production. The idea of transformative, liberating negation, piercing the void through a kind of liberating psychosis, is a product of the modern era, and is largely, well,
a mistaken interpretation of the intent and productive work of most painters.

The great movements in painting were changes in seeing - changes in what painters could become conscious of. This is the opposite of negation- this is rather an expansion of human consciousness. It is the institutions under examination that believed they were being negated by the artists. Botticelli seeing and rebuilding Venus is a constructive act unless your world view regards any presentation of sexualized women and the pagan past as negation.

This boils down to: Deconstruction, negation, is in the eye of the Beholder.

Let's take one classic example - Munch's Scream. You'd think he would have shot himself looking at that sucker. But he drove hard his whole life to understand the female power he feared and could not escape, and finally, beautifully, repeatedly, began to understand without sentimentality either for or AGAINST the feminine eros. He was prolific, and increasingly brilliant, until his death in the middle of WWII. His late paintings live in me still as extraordinarily powerful.

Here's my thing: trangression, and still less fatalistic trangression, of aesthetic and cultural norms by artists is neither new nor particularly interesting at their begining, although negation is a necessary course for examining what is valued in order to begin to understand it. In every figure drawing class, you destroy the human into a shadow of nothing but light and dark values, until you learn after this destruction to begin to allow humanity (dark or light) to reinfuse the study.

Which is why I'm very fond of Ingres drawings, where his labor is revealing, but not so much his paintings, where his labor obscures.

And you bring up two of my favorite examples: Lichenstein and Warhol. Both earn their place in the cannon. But Warhol represented something tremendously dark and empty in his studied exploration/celebration of the surface and mechanical appearance, where Lichenstein, with deep humor and visual penetration never lost, still less attacked, the artist's natural humanism.

You're case is far more in vogue in contemporary art. But I have to tell you I oppose it - the image is not the object, the context is not the artwork, and negation is only a strategy to begin to unbuild inherited assumption, not an end to be tragically confused for liberation, or still less, for love.

Sentimentality is to force meaning into the meaningless, or worse, to subjectify the object (sorry, that was unavoidable)

I'm looking for the irreducible shadows, what emerges after the acid bath. This is the flaw of an aesthetic of sterility - a strategy confused for an end - which becomes sort of a cultural placeholder. Curators love it, because it reflects visually the exhausted battlefield of language, and confirms their faith in meaninglessness.

Which is a position not shared by most working artists, who are always, even the highly questionable ones like myself, pulling something out of a field of nothing, and doing it again, and unable to abandon the process, because the very process, that yields and yields again a shard of the unknown, is unrefutable.

There is a great confusion of psychological style and cultural substance. I heartily embrace your points about sterility and romanticism - these are both ideologically preloaded and therefore exhausted creative strategies; the point is the use of vision, applied and piercing and applied again, human consciousness leaving a direct trail on paper, screen, or god forbid, canvas.

The real trick is the existential substance, what is but is unknown to consciousness- it remains, it exists, beyond our strangely comforting fantasies of nihilism, and every artist with an eye and pencil knows it. If you don't believe me, spend an hour bearing down your eyes on your coffee mug tomorrow morning.

July 15, 2004 at 11:18 PM  

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