Believing is Seeing?

[Rant, which means I write this in one go, no editing. There’s a certain poetry to how sentences just unravel like a coiled rug. But mostly I don’t have time to write my more academic articles right now, and that’s because I’m much more subsumed in making my own art. Wait, I’d better do one quick edit for egregious errors.]

You might recognize this trope from the intro to Tom Wolfe’s reviled “The Painted Word”, which he typed up in, get this, 1975. The book is still hated by the art world today, and loved by the outlying visual artists who cling to imagery and the visual imagination like a life-raft. I’ve never read more than the intro, and that was a few hours ago, after my girlfriend discovered a pdf version online. Woo-hoo!

This shit was written when I was going to James Madison Jr. High in Van Nuys, LA, CA. Now I’m nearly 52, and I’ve never had this little life-saving shield against a few of the worse, yet most fashionable, ideas in the history of art or the Western intellect.

I probably don’t need to read it, as, well, I went through college not before the internet, but I didn’t get my own connection until after I got my MFA. And this means that when dealing with various fashionable ideas, ideology, indoctrination, and otherwise navigating my way through the incredibly anti-painting/anti-imagery arena that was my advanced art education, I only had my own noodle to rely on. No, the other noodle. I had to think shit through on my own two feet, and it was hostile shit if one was/is essentially a painter of novel images. I won’t say it didn’t eventually break me down, demoralize me, and cause me to quit art. That may have been the lethal dose of identity politics (which everyone is being subjected to NOW), but I strode through alone, back when it was new, and I was the only SWM in a radical and rabidly political graduate art program.

So, right off I can can see the kernel that Wolfe is going to dismember, and that’s the idea that art without theory to support it is like feathers not on a bird – worthless fluff slowly drifting down into ignominy. He starts off quoting a prize philosophical gem from conservative art critic, Hilton Kramer, in a review of a half dozen realist painters. Kramer said there’s always been an audience for realist painting, but without a theoretical underpinning – a contextual rationalization – the paintings were essentially intangible. You couldn’t get a hold of them. This notion is obviously preposterous, and I gather Wolfe will spend the whole book grinding it into a pulp.

I can do it in a paragraph (not that Wolfe couldn’t). If you need to legitimize an artwork within a rational, historical, theoretical framework before you can appreciate it, you aren’t appreciating it, you are just categorizing it. It’s like saying you can’t love your dog until you know its exact mix of breeds and lineage. On top of that you have visual language entirely filtered through verbal language constructs/linguistics. This is as odd as declaring that we can’t understand a piece of music until someone makes a painterly interpretation of it. The visual images speak directly to us without the need for the intervention of the rational intellect and the unfurling of sentences in time.

Back to Hilton Kramer and his notion that realist painters don’t have a theoretical underpinning. Just because painters might not be particularly adept at the rarefied expertise that is expounding art/philosophy doesn’t mean there isn’t a worthwhile motive behind what they are doing. I’m not a realist painter, though I’ve done a few of them, and most recently I’ve done dozens of images from my unaided imagination, and unpremeditated. But, having done a few realist paintings I could easily offer the following.

In painting realistically after how things appear, the artist defers to unfiltered, or uncontextualized reality. There’s an acceptance of how things are, and the artist bends her or his mind, elbow, and wrist in deference to the reality of appearance, and in so doing to reality. There’s a Buddhist notion of choice-less acceptance, to a degree, and the painstaking work invested in recreating the thing as it is is an exercise, a deep study, and a self-imprinting of “nature” or the plebian urban environment into the self. It’s a surrender of the self to the totality, a coping measure, and an attempt to embrace the world as it is. That could be polished, but, there’s an argument there.

I’m sure there’s stuff I’m not going to agree with Tom Wolfe about, and, my guess is if I were able to share my own work with the esteemed novelist/critic, he’d probably not get it. People have a real struggle with a contemporary artist using contemporary tools (Photoshop, Painter, Zbrush, Blender), even if my work carries on the torch of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Francis Bacon, and it’s rather obvious, or painfully so in my tributes to such artists.

I wanted to write my reaction to the opening passages, and not wait until I’ve read the whole book, because I want to express my own ideas first. But, I do think he nailed a big problem with the belief that art is only good if it illustrates a persuasive theoretical argument within a certain historical framework (often a linear model of art history in which one ism follows another like dominoes). Visual art is not a prop for rational ideas or, God help me, politics.

Back in ’75 critics might have thought all art needed to be sifted through the filter of theory, but Today, it’s much worse. There’s a double filtration, double homogenization process. Art has to be seen through the twin lenses of theory and social justice politics (which are not necessarily socially just). One of the most important factors in appreciating art today is knowing the biological information of the artist responsible for the work. All of my work, for example, was created by a white male, and is thus, most likely, an unintentional reaffirmation of the patriarchy, colonialism, predatory capitalism, white supremacy, despoiling the environment, taking candy away from babies and sodomizing them with it… In other words, it’s heinous shit or vile crap, which are the same thing, but you might prefer one or the other adjective/noun combo. Art now has to subscribe to the correct political agenda, or it is irrelevant at best, and at worst should be banned or burned (see Dana Schutz or Sam Durant).

Oh, you think I’m exaggerating. I can still remember my colleagues accusations in my graduate art critiques. I remember one woman accusing, “It’s soooooo misogynistic”. In her defense she’d just learned the word and was dying to use it. She didn’t learn misandry (WordPress spellcheck doesn’t even know this word, goddamn it) because it doesn’t exist. It’s impossible. As the same woman insisted, back in 199-whatever, “Only a straight white male can be a racist or sexist”. There should be a statute of limitations, in terms of decades at least, after which it’s OK for me to be annoyed at being the evil villain and scapegoat for the world’s problems… I say “times up”. Now everyone’s getting sick of that stuff, but I’ve been choking it down for a lot longer, as it brewed in academia for generations before overflowing into the general public and enraging a generation of YouTubers.

That’s all a load of shit and death to enjoying art imagery. Imagine, say, looking at Black Sabbath that way. Let’s say the good stuff, which was the early stuff, like the album “Paranoid”. Well, shit, from a contemporary, theoretical, political standpoint, Sabbath is the eructations of a backed-up toilet in a forlorn gas station restroom. And yet, there’s something there in that music from 47 years ago that still stands. There are lots of days when if War Pigs were to come on my playlist, I’d still be impressed. One clue is that in embracing faux devil/evil stuff, the band was working the flip side of religion, and thus infused some of the awe/mystery that musicians and artists had lent to religion throughout history.

Did religion infuse art with mystery, or was it the other way around? I think some of the more spectacular cathedrals answer that question in the latter. And so there is a certain kind of yearning for the sublime/transcendent in early Sabbath, and there’s a certain attaining it, as unfashionable as that mere notion is today. Nevertheless, the music (and much of the music of the period) resonates with it. And that element that is hard to pinpoint, to dissect and serve up as clinical verbiage, is precisely the part we now want to remove from art. All art must be reduced to an argument within a theoretical framework, within an accepted narrative, and must be morally correct according to a certain agenda.

THAT is propaganda.

Art is an antidote to propaganda AND the tyranny of the limitations of the purely rational intellect as expressed in verbal language, not a pawn to be moved around in a game of bullshit contextualization.

And that’s why Black Sabbath trumps Rosalind Krauss (and her imitation of translated, deliberately opaque French Postmodern philosophy), Hilton Kramer, various critics (Jerry Salz!), and their often threadbare, cerebral, calculations and categorizations of art.

As it turns out a painting can be eviscerated by a scathing review, but it can also sweep all the reviews off the table. All the literature about Van Gogh’s paintings, whether praising or attacking, are meaningless without the actual paintings, and they stand to rebuke the criticism rather than the other way around.

Wolfe was pointing out that for him art was originally “seeing is believing” but that had been turned on its head, and now art was “believing is seeing”. Sorry folks, art, at least my art, serves to undermine beliefs, not be a cog in substantiating belief.


Corrections & addendum:

  1. In 1975 I wasn’t in Jr. High. I remember the U.S. bicentennial of 1976, and the bicentennial coins, and seeing those when I was in elementary school (Kittridge Street, Van Nuys, LA, CA).
  2. In my concluding sentence I said that art undermines beliefs and is not a tool for substantiating them. Well, quite obviously it can be the latter, and is, especially in the deliberate case of overtly political art with a specific agenda. And surely Western art has been harnessed to substantiate the beliefs promulgated by the church. So, I should have said art “can” undermine beliefs. Here I think of the possibly satiric portraits of royalty Vasquez painted, or certainly Surrealism. Still, my art may reflect and bolster my own personal beliefs, as I am not without them, so I would further elucidate that art need not be in the service of articulating someone else’s, or some institutions beliefs and agenda, nor necessarily ones own beliefs. When I do works from the imagination, in which I employ subconscious suggestion, I may simply be going outside of my beliefs. One doesn’t always have to operate according to rational convictions and conclusions, and I think we often can’t. I think we all know it’s kinda’ hard to get the body to cooperate with the convictions of the mind.
  3. I should probably clarify that while I’m really, really fed up with being the bad guy responsible for all of society’s ills, and not due any sympathy or compassion or even understanding, I am overall very supportive of empowering the actually underprivileged and giving everyone a fair chance at least to get on the playing field. I do take exception to people being excluded, and for logical consistency alone that should include myself (truth be told I haven’t had it that easy at all, and come from a working class background with a vengeance). Relatedly, I’ve never done any remotely misogynistic work. I think I’m incapable of it as I’ve always liked and respected females (exceptions might include the type who accused me of being “soooooo misogynistic”, though I often sorta’ like firebrand feminists even if they categorically detest me).

~ Ends

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