The purpose of science is to explore the universe, make discoveries, and bring back evidence: and the purpose of visual art is to explore the visual imagination, make discoveries, and bring back evidence (visual evidence).
Maybe a more goofy analogy would be more direct and memorable:
You are the Captain of the Art-ship Enterprise, and your job is to boldly see where no person has seen before, to explore the visible imagination, and to bring back visual proof.
If that is still not obvious enough, consider it from the audience angle. When I see art I often want to see something I haven’t seen before, and that is interesting. But I mean SEE, not think about. Duchamp’s “Fontain” gives me nothing new to see at all. That’s not visual art, it’s conceptual. Yves Tanguy gives us something new to SEE.
How painfully obvious that is to me, and yet how utterly disregarded. When you look back at ancient civilizations, what most gives an impression of the level of sophistication of their society? I’m sure there are several contenders, but art has to be tied for the most. The beauty of Egyptian hieroglyphics impresses (me at least) far more than the often plebeian information they portray. You know instantly by looking at those images that a very intelligent civilization produced them; one that understood beauty. And we might judge the artifacts of an alien civilization in the same way, if, for example, we discovered a crashed spaceship on an asteroid (sci-fi movie fodder). Would we find something in that ship that could be “visual art”, and if so, how would we recognize that as art apart from everything else? That’s a separate question, but if there was something that we could recognize as visual art, we would have an idea about the civilization.
Someone upon hearing my answer to the question of the purpose of visual art asked, “Does everything have to have a purpose?” That’s a bit too broad. I wasn’t talking about the purpose of everything, or of each thing, but just of visual art. To answer his question, which was a borderline non-sequitur, I just tossed back the logical response, “Does everything have to be purposeless?” To answer my question, the purpose of visual art is to explore and expand what can be visually represented. That’s one way of stating the obvious. There are other ways of articulating the same meaning.
In the past I’ve characterized the quest of visual art to unravel the edges of the collective imagination. We could say that it’s to discover the previously unimagined. And this is taking place in the visual form, not the audio (that’s music)… I’ve said the goal is to see the unseen. And that is also to provide the unseen to others, to manifest ones own inner vision in visual form. It’s a bit like science in which we might say a primary goal is sheer discovery, in which case we may not know the value of what’s discovered until it is discovered.
Still not convinced? Would you agree that the broad purpose of music is to explore and expand what we can create musically? What are the alternatives? To NOT add anything to our collective musical repertoire? How about to do nothing musical and call it music merely because it can be heard? Surely if you wrote a novel you’d want to add a bit of your own unique experience and vision. If visual art isn’t the exercise of the visual imagination, what the hell is it?
Here are some other things people think visual art is for:
- To make money: This is low-hanging fruit, but allows us to slice off multiple wrong purposes. For one, if there are other and especially better ways of making money, than art would have no unique purpose. It’s nice if art makes the artist money, but art has an independent purpose and there are far more reliable ways to make money (even working for Burger King, which I’ve done).
- To bring about social change: This has the same two flaws as making money, above. There are probably much more effective ways to bring about social change (direct protest, voting, making documentaries, writing…), and art must have a unique purpose that doesn’t make it subordinate to another. Further, nobody loves art for social change unless they like the change the artist has in mind. There’s a guy out there arguing for a “white homeland”, which would constitute “social change”. But we can be pretty sure that art advocating a “white homeland” would be hated by the art community in general regardless of what it looked like. Thus, art for social change completely subordinates art to the cause, whatever the cause is, and it has to be the right one for its audience or the art is worse than worthless.
- To change the way we think about art: This already has the problem of the word “think” tucked into it, which is better handled by philosophy or just a good argument. Yes, this is probably what was considered the most important function of art in the 20th century, but this presupposes that what we think is more important than what we see, and in the terrain of the visual. This paradigm is so damned popular that it will probably help if I give an easy analogy. If we are going to talk about what a great work of music is, it should primarily revolve around the experience of listening to it, and not be because of ideas it gives us to ponder. Again, philosophy is just so much better at doing that. Additionally, this view usually applies to conceptual art, or art in a general way that encompasses all artistic pursuits. Here I am just talking about visual art, which is about as broad or specific as talking about music. The perspective that holds as most important ideas values what we think about visual art more than the experience of viewing it. Fail!
- To express yourself: Well, yes, but this would apply to all other art forms as well, so isn’t unique to visual art.
- To provide an outlet for the imagination: Same as above – applies to all art forms – and definitely an impetus for me. When I used to play the guitar (badly) I might pick it up when I had that urge, and sometimes I composed music on the computer. But usually I will work on imagery, and often it is to exercise or quel that very strong urge to creativity.
That’s probably enough examples. I’m sure readers can come up with more. And it should also be apparent by now that I am arguing something so obvious it hardly needs to be pointed out. And that is true until you consider how much of what the art we holds as the most important does not explore the frontiers of the visual imagination at all, but flatly rejects it. Further, art that DOES expand the visual repertoire of our species is often dismissed out of hand as automatically inferior or antiquated in comparison to art which rejects attempting to do anything much at all in the realm of the visually possible.
In my art education through the Master’s level, Andy Warhol was always championed and I never heard anyone challenge his reign. But did he really add anything at all to what was visually imaginable, or did he merely move already extant commercial imagery and techniques into the fine art realm? Now we might consider a Brillo Box AS art, and change the way we think about art, but we haven’t really seen anything new.
This art, and so much more, is not about seeing something new, but about looking at something old in a new way. It does not contribute anything to what is visually possible, but rather expands what we consider possibly art. His silkscreens, also offering little new, had more flair, admittedly, but were still essentially a commercial art vision recontextualized in a fine art context. Whether this is important or valuable as art is another question, which I won’t attempt to address here. I am merely pointing out that it’s not adding anything new to the visual imagination.
The same goes for so much of the most popular and successful art, from Koons to Hirst to Richard Prince. You may have seen Koons’ latest piece, which is a giant ballerina based on a small figurine by a Ukranian artist:
Not only did Koons add nothing much to the original figurine (other than making it an inflatable within the already established parameters of inflatables), the original goes nowhere outside of very well established traditions. There’s something new to sell here, and I read there are smaller wooden copies or some such utter tripe as part of the marketing promotion; there’s something to talk about; but the visual imagination of the human species has not been explored in the slightest.
If you’ve gone to a more (self-proclaimed) radical art college, like me, you may have had the experience that anything and everything other than exercising the visual imagination is held as automatically superior as art, and even visual art. The imagination itself, if it were to issue from the unconscious, dreams, psychedelic experiences, and so on would be basically dismissed unless it could be wrangled into a fully conscious, cerebral, conceptual or political statement via an artwork which largely served as a prop or vehicle with which to make that argument. Visual art is primarily examined through conscious, verbal arguments, which is a pretty dire mistake. That’s like debating food based on recipes rather than eating the meals. Nothing against intellectual wrangling about various topics, but, that’s not what I call the experience of listening to music, or of looking at visual art.
There are many ways one could explore the visual imagination, whether it’s subject matter, handling of mediums, content, and combinations thereof, and for different ostensible purposes. I am merely arguing that visual art do something original visually. I DO appreciate a nicely painted bowl of fruit – in rich oils and a traditional style, mind you – and would hang it in my kitchen, but I wouldn’t bother to make one myself. It’s more of the same and is it just me or do you kinda’ think the purpose of life is to expand ones mind, awareness, understanding, and become more conscious and wise? The alternative is to become less aware, duller, less understanding.
Let me throw out a couple examples of obvious art that explores the visual imagination. H.R. Giger comes immediately to mind, whether one likes him or not (thinks he’s a perve or sexist or clichéd, etc.) because he invented a biomechanoid universe that once seen, can’t be unseen, and wouldn’t have existed without his Earthly incarnation. Here’s one of the first images I ever saw by him, when I was a teenaged boy (and, yeah, this is stuff teenaged boys totally dig):
And here’s another one from the ELP “Brain Salad Surgery” cover:
There are tons of other examples I could have chosen by Giger, but I chose these two because I know I spent some time looking at them (it helped that one was in a book and the other was on the cover of an album I possessed), intrigued. I’d never seen anything like them before. I wouldn’t list Giger as among my favorite artists, though I think I might need to reconsider that bit of snobbishness. Even in High School I was surprised when my drawing teacher said Giger was a “genius” (a term I dislike). At the time I thought that was a bit superficial. Wasn’t he supposed to be talking about Titian or Picasso or somebody? One of my High School drawing class friends loved Giger and said it was because of his pornographic drawings. I thought he was a moron. For me it was the futuristic depiction of long decay. The eroticism was perhaps not 100% as blatant as it is to me now. However you slice it, Giger’s vision is unique, and contributed to the collective visual imagination of our species.
Another prime example on the far other end of the spectrum is Van Gogh. In his case it’s not an imagined future in which technology and decay are interwoven, but peasants tilling the soil in broad daylight. It was the manner in which he painted his subjects that make Van Gogh’s paintings unforgettable.
Among his many achievements, Van Gogh, more than anyone else before, made paint PAINT. When you look at one of Vincent’s many paintings of sowers, above, you know you are looking at a painting, because you can see all the strokes and the thickness of the paint. The canvas is encrusted with scintillating paint, and the light which the mind tricks us into seeing as shimmering in the pure blue of the field simultaneously refutes the materiality of the paint by insisting it is LIGHT.
This is not one thing or the other, paint or light, but both, magnificently, simultaneously. Van Gogh and Giger have very little in common that I can see, but both opened a window in the mind of the human to a new visual vista that wouldn’t exist without them. Take away these two guys, and we wouldn’t live in the same visual universe. Take away Duchamp, Warhol, Koons, Hirst, Prince, Wool and the rest of the appropriationists and the world would still look the same, but we’d have less to argue about in terms of what is or isn’t art, and actually some pretty fine examples of extant visions. Koons’ Balloon Dog is a bright shinning example:
That is a newish object in reality. Rather superbly executed, I might add. But I am not looking into a new universe, but rather at a new object in quotidian reality. Mostly what we take away from this Balloon Dog is that it’s clever, and perfect. We might admire it for a few minutes but it’s also kinda’ sickening in a way, like eating cotton candy (I’ve actually never tasted it because it looks so repellent to me). A show of Koons’ high-polished chrome balloon sculptures is gaudy as all fuck, and is as painful on the eyes as is listening to one of those Greeting cards that plays music when you open it. Those things make me wanna’ scream. Maybe they’ve improved by now, but you probably remember the ones where each note sounds like a dentist’s drill, with no modulation, no subtlety, just the correct notes in the correct order. Even thinking about them makes me kinda’ angry.
You may say something like, “Who cares about Van Gogh or Giger, they are just typical painters, and there are so many new ways of making art”. True-ish. Painters but not typical ones. It’s really hard to do something original with imagery. But, yeah, there are tons of other ways of making art, and I’m all for it. One of my sculpture teachers, Charles Ray, once filled a box, I think it was marble, with Pepto-bismol. I forget how many gallons of the stuff he needed. I find that funny, clever, and I wanted to see it. What does that much Pepto-bismol look like? I have no problem with all the new ways of making art.
My problem is with the attempt to extinguish the visual imagination, and I need look no further than much of my own art education to see that in action. There’s been a century long war on the visual imagination led by the crusader for the cause, the avowed anti-artist, Marcel Duchamp, who gave us a urinal. People who don’t recognize that this was a prank (and a good one) need to look at how sloppily he painted the mock signature, “R. Mutt”. But the point is that “The Fountain”, as that piss pot was cleverly named, was a flat denial and repudiation of the visual imagination, and THAT has been celebrated as inherently superior to anything the visual imagination of the human mind could conjure for over a century now. To be more accurate that’s a current revisionist version of art history, and for a goodly portion of the time Duchamp was rightly considered a minor artist making comments about art on the periphery. But nowadays, he is the GOD of art and people have compared his urinal to Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I can dig up the quote if you don’t believe me. Believe me though, Duchamp has been compared to da Vinci as well.
A war on the visual imagination is the same as a war on music. Somehow you can have any and every new form of art-making and nobody, unless he or she is a complete asshole, is demanding that music be eliminated, or thinks music is challenged or sidelined by it. Music is in another category. And yet, somehow, painting is lumped in with every new kind of art, such as performance art, video, sound sculpture, text art, installation art, and hybrids thereof. On top of it painting is considered, in general, inferior to all these other types, where music doesn’t have to compete with them at all. I’ve talked about that at great length elsewhere, and how peculiar it is (y’know, performance not relating to theater, and video not relating to film, but to painting), but here I just want to remind people of the forgotten thing which is the visual imagination.
For a metaphoric century we’ve been denying and stomping on the visual imagination, and now I think some of us see that as rather stupid when we should be cultivating that imagination. That is, after all, the goal of visual art – to cultivate the visual imagination.
You can get nit-picky and whatnot in the comments section, and I mostly reply. I’m trying to keep it brief here, so didn’t address things like whether Pollock adds to the visual imagination (yes) or if there is a hierarchy of art (there is but I don’t support it). If you disagree and are polite, we can even have a bit of a debate.
Oh, yes, of course, as a visual artist, the above is what I try to do. Here are some better examples of said attempts. Lots of people prefer works I didn’t include here, and I left out all the B&W ones. But here are 25 images I propose offer something new to the collective visual imagination:
If you want to see any more of my art, or more about any of these pieces, you are or should be reading this at my blog, in which case it’s very easy to navigate and it’s comprehensive. Last I checked I had over 50 articles on art-criticism, for example. And there are lots of close-ups, process, interpretation, and so on about my art.
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