What We as Artists Say, and How We Say it
Normally I focus my remarks on the painting process, but today I would like to take a moment and wax poetic on the subject of painting in a more general sense. I am mainly directing this commentary to young aspiring artists who are trying to find themselves artistically. That journey can be a long one and involves discovering both how to paint and why we paint.
In many institutions today it seems concept has so eclipsed craft that the visual arts are more about commentary than aesthetics. For me, the role of commentary is commentary; and commentary can be about art; but I’m not generally thrilled about art as commentary. My question really comes down to, what are we artists trying to say with our work, and is the message more important than the execution? Some artists feel the need to use their creative output to make a statement that causes other people to think; this approach sometimes makes me wonder if there is a shortage of newspapers.
By now you are probably thinking that commentary in art rubs me the wrong way. Not necessarily. For instance, I am reminded of the story of an alleged meeting between Picasso and Goebbels at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, where Picasso’s famous mural on the bombing of Guernica was hanging. Legend has it that Goebbels walked up to the artist and asked if he was responsible for the painting. Picasso replied, “No, you are”! I don’t know if the anecdote is true, but I would like to have been a fly on the wall that day if it was.
Some years ago, while a student at a California college, I had the experience of observing (ala “fly on the wall”) an interesting exchange between a fellow student and our painting professor, a renowned artist in the local area. The student mentioned that he had recently seen one of the professor’s large paintings on display in a public building. While there, the student noticed a couple of older women who were shocked by the painting, which depicted a much distorted representation of a human form, dressed in a flamboyant costume. Hearing of the women’s reaction, our professor swooned in joyous ecstasy while exclaiming, “That’s the reason I paint!” I really had to wonder if that was reason enough! Compared to Picasso, what was his message anyway? Furthermore, what did his remark say about his love of art, the excitement of a well placed brush stroke, the satisfaction of mastering the craft of painting, the sheer joy of expressing an emotion? Was his reason for painting really just about its shock value?
To be quite honest, when I viewed his paintings I wasn’t struck so much by the content of his expression as by the lack of paint quality and handling of the medium. The whole thing became clear to me one day when he said that I was doing well, but that I had to hasten the rate of my development as an artist. I couldn’t help but wonder how that concept worked! He said that I needed to speed up the process, because there was no time for learning, in the traditional way. I figured at that point he was referring to content over craft.
I don’t want to give the impression that this artist had nothing to offer as a teacher; he did, and I really liked the man on a personal level. Unlike some professors I’ve heard of, he gave me the space to paint what I was interested in, and was generally supportive of my goals as an artist; I truly thank him for that. Nevertheless, after that I resolved to seek out an art education anywhere I could piece it together, and piece it together I did! The Scottsdale Artist’s School and numerous other workshop venues, copious trips to museums and art galleries, along with mountains of books, tapes and associations with many good artists, has made up the bulk of my experience in gathering knowledge of painting thought and practice since then. I would never say that I was self taught, because as the saying goes, I would have had a poor instructor! Self directed study is a more accurate description of what I went through, and am still going through to gain knowledge. I’ve learned that knowledge is not the sole property of institutionalized learning. That is not to say that you can’t get some good training in schools, but so much of what has been taught for many decades has been more concerned with content than craft. If that’s what you are experiencing in school, you might think about rounding out your education with some study on the side.
I know now that my art is an expression of what I love, what I feel, and who I am, coupled with a hard-won foundation in the craft of painting. I’ve learned that there are no artistic short cuts, just lots of hard, but rewarding, work. Learning to paint well is a lifetime pursuit, just like learning to play an instrument, or any other discipline that requires mastery. Self expression may be the goal, but self discipline is the vehicle.
Social commentary in art is fine — if you have something important to say — but it’s not why I paint. I could have chosen that, but I chose to convey feeling and emotion instead; perhaps that’s my commentary. It’s beauty that inspires me and has inspired many other artists both living and dead whom I admire — the beauty of how light affects various forms in the visual world, the beauty of expressing an emotional reaction to visual realities through the manipulation of paint.
Having said this, I realize there are others whose painting goals are different than mine, and that is perfectly ok with me, we can’t all be after the same thing. We are all free to make our own choices. One can depict tragedy, hopelessness, satire, disrespect or any number of human failings in their art; I figure we get enough of that on the evening news. For me painting will always be about an emotional reaction to form and the painting process itself. The great thing about Picasso and other artists of his generation was that they learned their craft first, and then went on to do what they wanted with it. Since those days, many aspiring artists have thought to bypass the craft, thinking that they could substitute raw emotion or commentary for quality. In music that would be the same as an untrained musician banging on the keyboard of a grand piano. Whatever you decide your art will be about, I would encourage you to avoid the soapbox for a while and take the time to learn the fundamentals. There will always be time for commentary.