20 / The Artist’s Role in our Quest for Understanding

Ive been sent the transcript of a lecture on the question, "Why Art?" where the point was made that, “people are estranged from their self, they rather follow someone else's ideology than finding their own truth … but everybody is frightened … to depart from this world of fakes and substitutes.” “Society produces humans without features, adapted to norms without say or personal beliefs. No individual thinking, but following the pre-produced ideals of unknown others. Most people have the same house, car, clothes and even the wishes seem to be streamlined: Ikea props and furniture, hit parade music, fashion, film stars …” 

In contrast, “the artists, who sacrifice their lives for their passions, may never have a sufficient income, but they try to find their own truth … with the aim to learn and find a deeper understanding and occasionally happiness … artists display this inspiration, the result of their meditations and individuality, their inner freedom. Painters, musicians, actors, sculptures, photographers, film-directors are all part of the creation, that has no end, has not been finalized and most likely never will be. Visitors to museums and art galleries, buyers of books, posters or pieces of art, receive experience, emotions, instincts and a learning process, that the artist shares. Fears of technology, war, loneliness, disease, force by governments and the fears of god and death are shared and perhaps the artist has at least a partial answer or the better question. With artists we can find allies in this difficult world.”

Well said … but I am not quite so optimistic about the artist’s role in our quest for the truth. Without a doubt artists may wish to express their own truth in their work … but is it necessarily relevant to the rest of us? If an artist experiences a revelation and expresses it in his/her painting of a black square … is this a contribution to anyone’s understanding of the world … or an expression of the artist’s ego? Undoubtedly art-works impact us … but there is a dichotomy at work: What is of importance - the art-work, or the impact? 

It’s a rhetorical question: What counts is the impact a work of art has on the viewer when they experience art, not the art-work. But importantly, to provide such an experience may or may not require an artist or an art-work … the fact is, neither art nor artist are necessary for an individual’s experience of understanding, of realizing their truth, of gaining enlightenment. Art may aid the experience … but so may a walk in the park, observing the clouds above, gazing at the stars or a visit to the temple/ashram/mosque/church. The artist and their art are the messenger … the process of understanding life is internal in the viewer - described by Zen Buddists as ‘satori’ (literally ‘understanding’) - triggered by an external influence that may be as insignificant as the sight of a leaf falling to the ground; the chime of a bell; or - well - a painting. Remember the Zen dictum: 'The only thing important is inside you.'

It probably is a hard pill to swallow for the (modern) artist (and it is the modern artist toward whom this critique is directed), to have to come to terms with the notion that their artworks sometimes are merely pigments on a canvas … but it is just that when an art-work does not move a viewer. It is in this context that art and the artist are often over-rated, where the art establishment is able to con the public and where an amateurish, simplistic, slap-dash squiggle of paint on canvas is elevated by an in-awe-of-the-celebrity-artist group of art-experts, who fall for the proverbial ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ syndrome.

My case in point is the recent acquisition by the Art Gallery of NSW of the paintings ‘Three Studies from the Temeraire’ by Cy Twombly - for some $4.5m.

According to the painter his art-works were inspired by William Turner’s  ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ (voted - no less - the greatest painting in Great Britain). I - for one - am at a loss to see any correlation between the masterpiece on the one hand, and Twombly's doodles & squiggles on the other. 

On further reading I am made aware that apparently … ‘Looking at the three canvases together, as a single panorama, there is a potent sense of passage as the ships drift, float and sail into the warm, sensuous but slightly ominous embrace of infinity. There is a strong sense of procession, with the flag-ship bringing up the rear, or maybe they are all images of the same ship, passing into history. This ‘dissolving’ fleet is a poignant echo of Turner’s Temeraire as she is towed by a tugboat to her last resting place in the cooling glows of a fast descending sunset.’ This art critic, Bill Israel, must be looking at a different set of paintings than myself; to me the Twomblys are the epitome of what’s wrong with modern art. Looking at the triptych I stare into the abyss of charlatanry, fakery and swindle; of crudeness, artlessness and contempt for the viewer (not to mention contempt for Turner's art.) 

My understanding of art involves a modicum of skill - I have little respect for a painter whose paint runs … whether it's when painting my front door, or when it's meant to be art. 

We observe a distinction between ego and soul - that distinction exists in art, as between chaos and beauty, delusion and truth. Since the Age of Enlightenment we know not to lose ourselves in delusion. Delusion leads to chaos. The chaos of the delusional modern artist runs counter to the beauty of true art, which is in alignment with our soul, our self, our spirit. It is this alignment that brings about understanding. 

At the time of the Twombly's purchase I wrote in a letter to the newspaper:

16 November 2004 - Sir,
It's true after all: There are different universes occupied by ordinary people and the likes of Edmund Capon (director of the Art Gallery of NSW, who commented on the purchase saying, ‘Every now and then we need to get a great, empowered, individual work of art that owes nothing to anybody.’) In the one artists largely have to make do with a yearly income of, say, $20k or $30k - while in the other $4.5m flights of fancy are afforded, described in terms like, "scribbles, doodles and moments of existence on a profound and richly emanating light". Come again? Profound and richly emanating light? I will trek to the AGNSW a.s.a.p. (after all it's one of my favorite places of worship) to inspect its new purchase, but I can tell from the newspaper reproductions that, yes, the Turner painting is a piece of art, due to its profundity and richly emanating light. While the Twombly is, well, a doodle. 
I put it to you, this acquisition, at this cost, is a slap in the collective face of Australian artists (especially the struggling ones); let me put it another way: 45 Australian artists could have received $100,000 each in recognition of a lifetime of struggle and creative contributions. 
And Capon is an alien from another universe.

Furthermore, in the ‘Why Art?’  lecture it is said that art, by and large, is religious. I would like to make the point that, while obviously there is much religious art, art in general is not religious but - when it is secular - it still may be spiritual (a good read in this context is The Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville). Religion is a process that involves dogmas, bigotry and control - the opposite of the freedom offered by art. Religion in fact is denying free-thinking - a requirement for the practice of all arts; whereas spirituality is the embodiment of a free mind, unencumbered by the restrictions imposed by religion. 

Nevertheless, art is not a primary requisite for the attainment of this inner freedom, it is rather one of many contributors - philosophy being another. But importantly, the (modern) artist has a minor role in our understanding of life. This understanding always is a result of our own meditations, not theirs - guided by outer influences, but resultant from inner reflection on and contemplation of issues such as life & death, war & peace, art & passion, truth & Truth, religion & spirituality, philosophy & science, ethics & Zen. 

Thus it is that those with “no individual thinking … with the same house, car, clothes … Ikea props and furniture … fakes and substitutes”  … may well find that the modern artist offers not much more than yet more fakery, masquerading as art. While it is true, artists may strive for truth and integrity in their work, I am struck by the banality on display in much of modern art. Yet, modern artists - while their contributions sometimes are dubious or outright farcical - often enjoy elevated positions in society, where the community ascribes them a celebrity status that generally is not available to others with more constructive roles, such as teachers, doctors and garbage collectors. 

Oh, if you now think I don't like modern art, you'd be wrong … far from it! But often it is just too self-referential, dilettante and trite for me. And Kazimir Malevich's Black Square? Pure genius? Maybe, but only when seen in the context of his other works (he was a prolific avant gardist) and his background as art-theorist (Malevich held art can exist merely for art's sake). 

The lecture "Why Art? - because we fear death … but (through art) we live” is by Detlef Trefz, a German/Finnish photographer and painter.


Comment by Christian, 2009 July 7

So much energy spent on very little. Art is subjective - you like it, good for you; you don’t like it, good for you too - just get on with it.

I know, art is subjective. And getting hit by a truck as you cross the street is subjective too. So what do these two statements have to do with the need to discuss and expose mediocre art (and mediocre artists)? Nothing. 

Modern 'non-artists', with their credo of ‘everything is art’ and ‘art is what I decide to be art’ have forfeited their right to be taken seriously by anybody other than the art-in-crowd. In their quest to express their truth they have reverted to expressing their ego above all else. Obviously arriving at this stance could be the end of it - we can disregard mediocre art and go back to our business of living our life; you probably are right there, Christian.

But why is it so disappointing to be confronted with ‘art’ like Cy Twombly’s squiggles? Because it falls so spectacularly short of the promise art holds. In his book, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, Lewis Hyde says: “A work of art that enters us to feed the soul … makes us gifted … and we respond by creating new work …” Does that apply to the work I criticize here? I think not. 

Having said all that, of course it is a no-brainer that everybody has the right to like, purchase and hang what-ever they like … my beef is with a public institution purchasing a ho-hum piece of work, from foreign lands, with no cultural value to us here in Sydney (other than satisfying an elitist art-establishment's desire to be seen as part of the hip and ever so cool art-in-crowd). And, yes, I know: No tax payers' money was spent on the doodles, there were enough crazy, gullible philanthropists on hand to pick up the bill … to think what good they could have done for the local art scene with their money!

But why the need to make my point, to expose mediocre art? Because - in the reversal of Lewis Hyde's argument - to get drawn in by mediocre, fraudulent art has the potential to blur our vision, to render us oblivious to true art and ultimately stifle our own creativity. Young artists-to-be get mislead. They may think, 'well, there is a huge, expensive painting in the art gallery that is not much more than some squiggles and doodles … why should I not be allowed to get away with producing stuff like that; it's easy enough to paint.' Quick too.

Again, of course every artist has the right to express themselves in which-ever way - even with squiggles and doodles - if that's what turns them on. Perhaps art - particularly modern art - is primarily an expression of the artist's ego. So is it necessarily relevant for anybody but themselves? Maybe the question of relevance in art is irrelevant. Just a thought, in the discussion "Why Art?"