Meditations on Art


I think I had better write down some thoughts about painting and visual art. I'm imagining that you, dear reader, are sitting at my dinner table, and we've both had a beer, and I'm talking about painting and how I've learned. Being myself, I'm on a bit of a monologue, and perhaps a ramble. Shall we begin?

Painting is a strange fusion of the material, the perceputal, and the symbolic. The eyes and mind must perceieve it and assign it meaning. Art doesn't exist in a vacuum; it is located within the continuity of previous artists that the viewer has seen.

Approaching learning painting from the schools of nature - I grew up in the mountains of Idaho - and of music - I played in local orchestras, and then to work through graduate school in computer science, I confess a rather rustic and naive view of art: one I believe is rather shared by the common archetypical Man in the Street. I like things that are beautiful. Bob Ross made nice paintings. Rembrandt made amazing paintings. That is to say, they are pleasing to look at. They may carry messages, or simply and clearly be friendly to the viewer. A Norman Rockwell art world, if you will. With this desire in mind, I am moved by many of the modern illustrators in fantasy and science fiction art. Profound skill and symbolisms brought to bear on the task of beauty and drama.

When I look at art in sort of the Modern High Art scene, I can't find much any of it. In a tab on my computer, I see a work titled Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange,Red - squares of the same name. This was considered a pretty big deal - it's mentioned in a catalog of Quality Painters by the Guggenheim.

A 7 year old could do it. There's no art there. There's no meaning. Next to this sad piece of wasted canvas is a rectange with an interesting spinal-style pattern. What I'm given to understand is that modern art is aimed at reflecting inward realities. But let me, in my knowledge of music, remark here: music too is aimed in the same way, and is not representative in the least. But there is no pretense of great conflict; it's nice to hear. If it's not nice, the only people who care to listen to it have to force themselves under some pretense. That is why Beethoven is so popular, hundreds of years later; and why the Beatles are; and Louis Armstrong too, and Taylor Swift. People enjoy it. Lyrics guide the mind here. I don't mean to be crassly populist, but there's something to the idea that if only a few people like something, contrary to what the mass of other people thing, there might be a good reason. But, as we all know, voting doesn't make facts facts.

If I tell you that this pebble I picked up reflects the reality of our universe, you have every right to ask me "in what way", and "why", and perhaps, if I gabble on long enough about it, you will call social services and I will be locked in a room with soft walls - or perhaps I'll start a cult, wear funny robes, and smoke exciting chemicals. You understand, these kinds of assertions are basically vacuous until you can explain it in a way that has a logical chain behind them.

So it is with art: does your square of black have deep meanings? Well, probably not. You might assign it meaning, but there's no constraint on it in the universe of semantics. A language is composed of words, and words go together in grammars, and grammatical sentences are constrained by semantics. Generally a semantically meaningful phrase is required before sounds become meaning to others. A square of black has no meaning in the grammar of vision. The grammar of vision and the symbols established thereby could be - at minimum - a red octogon - STOP. Now, just between you and me, that's not much of a thing to say. Maybe it'd be best to use that symbol at a protest, or use it as part of a bigger work. I mean, really: STOP. Stop what? Stop who? Why stop? Come on! Say something here. So I think the abstract impressionists and their cohort really fell off the deep end. They had nothing to say - look at their work - and they said it loudly. It's not alien, or elite, or refined: it's just blocks and colors - blasts of static, dressed up in pretension. After fifty years of study into what makes a language - after Chomsky, Aho, and others - we can pretty much smile and consign them to the dust heap; some of the nicer work, like Matisse, is aptly put to shower curtains or maybe the tiles of your kitchen. Good geometry, nice colors.

About Picasso and the others who favor highly distorted and jumbled up works - what's to be done for them? Well, they aren't quite as mad, but what's the difference between them and a child's scrawl? A name? A pretension? If they chased a platonic ideal of a thing - what then? Can they communicate it? Is it worth buying a realization of this ideal if all one can do is stare at it and shrug. I suggest no. Regrettably, lured on by the dreams of innovation and the lure of selling some romantic new Idea, these people produced works fit to be junked - or placed in museums to represent the failure of mind resultant from World War. A good deal of ink has been spilled over the meanings in this art: I suggest something rather more prosaic - the 1960s and 1970s yielded a lot of experience with psychadelics and the mutterings of drugged people: most of them ignorable and most of them equivalent to what people said about this other kind of art. Ignore it all; put it in the "Never Again" museum if you will. Don't bother with it; it's a bad joke. The last 50 years rather put to rest the idea that Humanity is Evolving toward a Higher Being, and Superior Artists and Openminded Druggies Are Guiding The Rest of Us. You know that was a big part of the idea landscape back then, right? Anyway.

What we're looking at in the opening years of the 21st century is the growing understanding that the last hundred years in Formal High Art has rather been pig swill, and the real progress in the arts have been made in lower art: in painting, it's been the illustrators who really have done the West a solid. Rockwell, Frazetta, Whelan, Hildebrandt - the list goes on. Today we see the realism and representational tradition coming back, big league with the atlier movement at the forefront - Aristides, etc.

I don't know about you, but when I look at a painting, I want the language to be visible and communicable to others, not just inward grumbles from a bad lunch. I want that painting to be wondrously beautiful, and I want it to help bring a bit of a song into the world.