Less than one hundred years ago artists were excited about the growing democratization of the arts. Artists bypassed the exclusionary establishments by coming together, briefly mounting their own exhibitions before moving on. Regional movements rose, along with a sense of limitless possibilities, and an explosion of innovation and style consumed the remaining three quarters of the century.
This, according to James Elkins, is proof that “painting is the art of metamorphosis.” Tradition, arguing with innovation, generated ideas that grew wildly, while materials in combat with methods ruled the day. And then, the experiment reached a conclusion with nowhere else to go, like a wave that sweeps up onto the sloped beach and then recedes.
Today the viewing public has unprecedented access to art of every type at any time and any place. It is the ultimate democratization. And a subtle loss of meaning. A thousand images of trees can make your landscape seem pointless. Up against the art of five hundred years, the desire to be an artist leaves us embarrassed. With democratization, we cannot quite find our place. Everything has become homogenized: there is no right way to apply the paint, or select subject matter that will convey the complex reactions of our eyes and our minds and emotions when we experience that sense of awe.
With democratization we have, in a significant sense, lost our boundaries. Everything has become nothing. And we are rootless.
Visual art is a fundamental human desire, to both create and interpret, dependent as much upon the viewer’s receptiveness as the artist’s sensitivity. There is a philosophy proposing this: at the moment of creativity, the act is everything. What is interpreted out of the result is simply an artifact. Yet this idea conflicts with the modern concept of art as a commodity, to be created specifically for the viewer, admired, and sold. The selling is proof. The viewer’s money becomes the only validation of the artist’s talent.
Years ago, I remember reading a blog post about talent, and writing a naively indignant response. Talent, I stated, was not some blessing endowed at birth to a selected few but available to everyone if they developed skill. But now I realize that skill – or talent – in fine art is not an end result but an ongoing process of learning and progressing. We do not know what we do not know until one morning what we heard a few years ago suddenly solves a problem as we manipulate the paint. It is both a mystery – the talent bestowed – and an understanding – the skill developed: A metamorphosis which assigns equal importance to the quality of the finished work as to the moment of creation.
The struggle for today’s aspiring artist is to maintain the boundary that makes this metamorphosis possible. This is not a boundary that specifies method, for as German Expressionist painter Max Libermann said “there are as many techniques as there are painters.” It is a boundary that excludes what it cannot refine, that seeks the “qualities” that exist in the art that sinks in, stays with you. And while there is a universe of artistic approaches, there will be only a few that can pull you in with the force of gravity. These are the ones you follow. Despite the voice we try to silence, that art might be a sham, that there is no real meaning left other than the ultimate “selfie” of expression – there is gravity there, a mystery.
Let it pull you in.
One significant challenge most artists face is maintianing perseverence. Whether it's weathering the disappointments that come with failed aspirations, or the increasing demands of simply getting through the day, creative activities are inherently isolating.
What is most gratifying are the emails I receive from artists reading Ancient Wisdom, Emerging Artist, and a frequent comment is "Thank you for your accessible...inspirational words." Art should be viewed as a gift. Knowledge was passed on to me, and I try to pass it on to others.
And thank you for reading this blog!
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