Saturday, August 22, 2015

beauty and art

What is an "Art Show" without a Definition of Art?
what about the word "beauty"?

After years of displaying art that requires
contemplation, to an audience with an
ever-decreasing attention span
it was time to try a new approach.
I had continued to paint but
refrained from exhibiting.
I shifted my energy to the
Arts and Science Lab-
saving the planet,
and the boat.
I had become increasingly uncomfortable
calling myself an "artist" because the meaning
of the word itself had shifted so drastically
that it no longer fits my definition, or
what I was doing.
i.e. someone who pulls their pants down in
public to get attention used to be called an exhibitionist,
not an artist. If you're getting naked to draw attention
to a worthy cause, that great, but that's activism or
civil disobedience, not art. When a word that has a 
definition is used to include almost anything imaginable, 
the word itself becomes meaningless.
So why exhibit, Why Now? ….
...Have you ever come across an idea that you
found so perplexing that you felt compelled
to share it ? For me, that question was,
how exactly will "beauty save the world?".
While that was rattling around, "my biggest fan"
had asked me to paint a self portrait….
I hadn't painted my self since art school
in the late1970s but painting portraits had
also been rattling around…
If beauty was to prevent humanity from rendering
the earth un-inhabitable, would art play a part?
Or, would nature itself speak so clearly that humanity
would begin to understand? Will "mother nature"
have to appear hurling lighting bolts
to make herself heard?
and Beckett grabbed
a necessity
to paint
and went out into the woods…
the woods of maple syruping
and firewood and
nesting songbirds and
crows and
dropping trees and
dragging sawlogs
for timber
for boat parts
doomed-to-bugs ash
the cherry crowding-the-wires
were sawn and stacked to dry
shifts to
and a vision of
freezing rain
on oil soaked shore
other beautiful disasters
that will decimate all of
come into view
so you see
will save the world

                                                        48 x 66 in. oil on canvas
For years the word "Beauty" has been banned from
anything to do with contemporary visual art.
Like fashion, political correctness is as ruthless as
it is arbitrary.
My sense of visual order, whether in choosing
a canoe design or deciding when to stop work
on a particular painting, comes primarily from my
experience of the natural world.
So, why would an "art world" that includes, publicly funded
schools and galleries agree to exclude
the word "beauty," if not to keep a safe distance from
nature, or to keep nature in it's place.
We used to call this place "the Dominion of Canada", 
expressing the "dominion over every living thing" translation 
of a bible passage to favour the same adversarial relationship 
with nature that lingers to this day.
Why is "natural environment " correct whereas "nature"
and "beauty" are not correct?
My suspicion is that it's the
"Natural resources" make money in extraction,
whereas "natural beauty" costs money to protect.
Years ago, (in the 1860s)
and far away, in a place where people
feared their government, a man named Dostoyevsky
had written, "beauty will save the world"
and another man was intrigued.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote " Works steeped
in truth will attract us with a great power and
no one will ever presume to negate them.
Perhaps that old trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty
is not the worn-out formula it used to seem during the
heady days of our materialistic youth.
If the three branches; Truth, Goodness and Beauty join together
…but the too obvious, too straight branches
of Truth and Goodness are crushed and cannot reach
the light— perhaps the whimsical branches of
Beauty will make their way through
and perform the work of all three."
In that case it was not a slip of the tongue for
Dostoyevsky to say that “Beauty will save the world,”
but a prophecy. After all, he had the gift of insight,
he was a visionary."
From the perspective of cultural anthropology,
we see that in other "less developed" cultures
the importance of such visionaries is acknowledged.
They are called "shaman", "elders" or "seers" and
their observations and advise are highly valued.
By contrast, in our current industrial regime,
cultural elders and truth seeking environmental scientists
are repressed and attacked by the powers-that-be.
Of course this is nothing new, truth is quite often unpopular.
Galileo, after all, was imprisoned for suggesting that the
universe did not revolve around the pope at the time.
In our society there is an opportunity for those who
would be visionaries to adopt the cloak of cultural
anthropology to allow them to lurk at the margins
of society and to make observations. At other times,
in other places, before the arts and sciences had
been pulled apart these people would have been
called artists.
The cultural anthropologist, Wade Davis warns us that,
when a language is lost, much of the knowledge that
that culture has developed goes with it. The beautiful
and treasured objects that the culture used to tell their
historical narrative are silenced and displayed to collect dust.
From our perspective, he is talking about marginal indigenous
cultures. Thanks to my friend Dan McGee for pointing out
that in this culture, "beauty" is superficiality…
Hair and make-up is the "beauty industry".
As we lose the traditional language of visual communication,
what knowledge of the culture that produced it will be lost ?
Hint: Lots…..i.e. the history of civilization.
As ancient sites and museums are being plundered to
buy weapons we might also ask who would want to erase
historical records, and why?
In times past, there were artists who
stepped forward and took a risk to voice
an opinion contrary to the to powers-that-be
Gericault"s large painting, "The Raft of the Medusa"
which depicts dying sailors on a make-shift raft
was a comment on the political appointment of
an incompetent who caused the shipwreck.
Democracy in France at the time was sufficiently
valued that he was neither jailed nor executed….
How robust is the democracy in Canada these days?
Currently we live in a state of perpetual confusion and
empty promises. But of late the issue has become,
whether we chose to preside over the greatest mass
extinction the earth has ever seen, or not.
Where are the activist artists of this generation ?
To survive, many "artists" have become careerists.
Like, scientists and other academics, they risk
losing their funding or their jobs if they share their
discoveries or voice an opinion.
I was once asked by a curator friend of mine to write
"a definition of art." I've carried it on.
Most "artists" run like scared rabbits.
None have ever admitted to making "pretty things"
as decoration.
A common response is, "it's not my job to define art",
When pressed a little further,
occasionally the "artist" will offer,
" art is anything I say is art".
So, why are "artists", so unable or so unwilling to
define their intentions? After all, some of these
practitioners have diplomas from art colleges and
post graduate degrees in art from universities.
Currently, post graduate art students in Canada are
being told that there is no audience for visual art .
They are being advised that their "art practice"
needs to include: a teaching position,
commercial representation, public exhibitions and
a grant writer. They refer to their, "art practice" as
"smarty pants art."
Smarty pants art sponned the "pathetic art "movement that
defended the incompetence of it's practitioners as
reflective of the society from which it sprang.
So, If the definition of art included…
" a reflection of the society from which it emerged,"
Mr. or Ms. smarty pants get top marks.
That's how the educational component of the "game"
is currently being played. This is not new.
The definition of art from ancient Greece, includes
"artificial" and"artifice" … "cunning", "trick" and
"distinct from the technical skills of science" are
part of the current Oxford definition.
Is there a certain amount of intellectual bias
amongst writers against a different form of
self expression? Human nature is tribal.
It evolved by identifying, fearing, and attacking
the different, so why should academics be any different?
what about, "the media is the message?
We are being fed a diet of ads, celebrity gossip,
sensationalized conflict and competition in the
main stream media, and on the interweb, its marketing,
tribal politics, porn and cat videos.
What is that message?
Give me distraction and indentured servitude?
Greed and envy make the world go round?
A current psychological look at cultural practices suggests,
Conformity is useful, if not essential for survival,
Majority behaviour is viewed as correct and
Innovation is seen as the product of great thinkers of the past.
( cbc "the180" aug3-15)
If we examine the evasive "art-speak" to
try to figure out what the contemporary art world
is all about, a reasonable distillation might be,
"art is what ever you can get away with."
Does art imitate life or does life imitate art?
If we look at the "consumer goods" on offer in this society,
we are expected to put up with whatever they can get away with.
So, that would be "art imitating life"?
On the corporate / political front, if the truth was not,
"whatever you can get away with", why else would all those
bridges be falling down?
At the turn of a previous century, an academic who had an
interest in music and art was imagining a more peaceful world.
Recognizing that paintings aren't in French, English or Russian.
He thought that developing a kind of painting that transcended
the boundaries of nations and language might be a good idea.
He thought that, rather than a painting being admired for
how well it depicted something "external" like a horse or a tree,
a painting might be valued for it's ability to share the "inner
necessities'' of the artist with a receptive viewer. Like when
tuning fork is touched to the top of an acoustic guitar, the
vibrations in one become a corresponding sound in the other.
His name was Kandinsky. In the "spiritual" kind of art that
he was envisioning, the artist would have something original and
valuable to share.
In 1912, he wrote, "That is beautiful which is produced by inner
necessity, which springs from the soul…. and even outward
ugliness contains potential beauty". Art that had no such
"inner necessity" he called "art for art sake"
"Art for art sake" is the banner under which most art
is currently, proudly displayed .
What if the object of the exercise with art, is to move product?
Never-mind that Andy Warhol set out to prove that the contemporary
art buying public could be easily manipulated … herded like sheep.
He simply applied what he had learned in advertising- selling soap and shoes
to move product.
If art was intended to celebrate the ruling class and
reassure them that all is well in the world," then,
flattering portraits and mythical beasts in mythical
landscapes would be the definition of art.
If the definition of art included, " to glorify the government "
then artists would be employed building monuments of
the leaders across the land, like they did in the former
soviet union.
“Since humanity, collectively seems unable to see
the necessity of preserving the natural environment,
I’m looking to the intelligence of the biosphere for insight”
I went to University in the seventies to study earth science
and or / art, so Al Gore's "inconvenient truth" has been
old news to me for over 30 years…. I used to be content
thinking that my art would be discovered by future generations
but seeing how reluctant humanity is to take responsibility
for the mess we are making of the planet,
I came to wonder if the meek who inherit the earth,
i.e. cockroaches and jellyfish, going to care much about art?

So, environmental activism seemed to a logical next step….
In 2011 I teamed up with a victim of the art world and we launched
Arts and Science Lab to see why Guelph, the loudly proclaimed,
provincial leader in "green" initiatives was stumbling at
the starting gates.
The "one page" began:
The Arts and Science Lab
As artists and environmentalists, we celebrate the
beauty of the natural world and understand the necessity
of its preservation. We see the need to move beyond simply
drawing attention to environmental problems into focusing
our creative energy on interdisciplinary problem solving.
The most elegant solutions reflect the efficiency of nature's
interconnected cycles. We hope to shift social architecture
toward an embodiment of sustainability.
Again, my mother was right, …"nobody cares"
"expertise" is arrogant willful blindness.
Circling back to, beauty saving the world…
I live on a rocky hillside in a hardwood forest
in a house I built 35 years ago.There's a lot of
wood in the structure and furnishings that came
from the site. The woods provides good company.
Gearing up to paint a self portrait, I started
collecting up small abstract paintings, landscapes,
beginnings with portrait shapes etc.
A plywood drawer bottom came-to-hand and
I hung a mirror in the studio to see what might come of it.
The plywood had "v" matched ash veneer one on side
and was varnished. I saw the shape of a head in the
wood-grain so I lightly sanded that side and, like those
sculptors who see something in a piece of wood or stone,
started to paint to see what would emerge.
Starting a painting with at least 4 intentions is similar to
the way I begin big abstract paintings, with no intentions.
As things proceeded, I had an angry likeness, in a
heavy painting and had lost the wood-grain. Scraping
and wiping revealed some other likeness so I went with
that. Gradually the current image emerged. If you look
carefully you will se how much of the shape of the face
relies on the wood-grain describing 3D shapes
like lines on a contour map.
Since the veneer is peeled off the tree like paper of a roll,
the surface describes the undulations of the surface
of a particular tree at a particular time in its life.
So, I painted a portrait of a tree through my eyes which
was some combination of my intentions but beyond.
As such the painting is a vehicle of exploration as well
as a record of discovery to share.

                                     portrait on plywood 24 x18 in., detail
So, what if in the representation of nature,
an anthropomorphized image of mother nature,
beautiful by some measure,
was used to remind humanity that the natural world
gave birth and provides sustenance to this
infantile blight we call humanity.
Environmental degradation being akin to
raping and dismembering our own mother
It's probably futile, but what's the harm in trying
for the sake of every other living thing on the planet.
That's why I'm showing my paintings,
oh, and by the way,
they make great decoration.

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