What is the point of producing artwork in the present moment, or any moment? Western art history describes an evolution from illustrating the sacred, whatever that may have been thought to be at various points in time, to the present, where it is widely believed that there can be art without content, purpose or meaning.
I am trying to explain what I do as an artist and why.
In college I majored in art and in Geography.
I have drawn and painted for nearly as long as I can remember.
I have an ongoing intellectual and aesthetic engagement with the history of ideas about the relationship between culture and environment, and with the idea of landscape as a cultural artifact. This leads me to a pessimistic view of the near, but uncertain, future.
I worked many years as an urban planner.
I cannot save the world. I can, however, produce works of art.
There is nothing more important for me to do than to paint.
Modernism is said to have ended sometime in the 1960s. Much that has been written about this alleged transformation is confused, if not nonsensical, and, in any event, is unhelpful to artists trying to situate themselves in the 21st century. A refreshingly useful exception is the work of Hans Belting, particularly The Invisible Masterpiece, and Art History After Modernism.
In Invisible Masterpiece, Belting chronicles the history of the idea of the masterpiece and how its significance changed in the Renaissance as the role of art changed from religious explanation to individual expression. Belting describes the diminution of the importance of a tangible artwork to the point where it is claimed by some that a work itself is unnecessary.
He describes the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1913, and how the theft contributed to the commodification of this painting, a process aided by Duchamp’s mustache and goatee re-creation. Belting discusses conceptual art and other manifestations of what is sometimes referred to as post-Modernism.
Duchamp, in the end, reasserted the primacy of tangible works of art and provided detailed instructions for the posthumous completion of an installation titled Étant donnés, on which he’d worked for many years. (Invisible Masterpiece, 329-32). It is worthwhile to visit the Philadelphia Museum to view Étant donnés and the supporting exhibition illustrating the production of the work. Click on the link to see the museum's description of the piece.
My understanding of what constitutes art has evolved over the years.
A work of any kind is currently considered acceptable, from painstakingly executed technically demanding pieces to ephemeral actions requiring neither technical competence nor creative risk. An artwork can even be imagined.
An example of the range of the idea of the work is illustrated by Alfred Leslie’s career, which extends from the end of World War II to the present moment. This period can be most accurately understood as a continuum, not a series of “isms,” as is widely said to be the case.
Leslie has produced a large oeuvre in a variety of mediums — several series of large paintings on canvas (from Abstract Expressionist to hyperrealistic figurative), films, watercolors, and large digital paintings.
Link to the artist's website: www.alfredleslie.com.
Where does art come from?
According to Susan Buck-Morss, Walter Benjamin, after working through Brecht’s dialectical approach, concluded that “the images of the unconscious are thus formed as a result of concrete, historical experiences, not (as with Jung’s archetypes) biologically inherited.” (Dialectics of Seeing, p. 278.) This situates aesthetics in the realm of human experience.
In Walter Benjamin: an Introduction to His Work and Thoughts (2004 in German, 2010 in English), Uwe Steiner gives a description of Benjamin’s discussion of Critique of Pure Reason, which quotes Kant to the effect, “ ... ‘that all speculative knowledge is limited to objects of experience,’ and that we can have knowledge of things only insofar as they present themselves as objects of sensory perception, that is, as phenomena.”
This passage elegantly and parsimoniously characterizes the act of apprehending artworks as I experience it — perception as a neurological process.
I’m excited to find the source of Benjamin's materialism in Kant. It suggests a potentially informative line of inquiry into the origins of this idea about the nature of perception.
Art and Religion
In my view, a supernatural source for subject or content is neither credible, nor is it susceptible to rational discussion.
This is not to say that art has no role in religion, quite the contrary. For much of human history, and apparently prehistory, art has been central to the practice and explanation of religious belief.
My point is to distinguish between the entirely human experience of the artist being inspired by religious beliefs or ideas, and the unverifiable attribution of a divine source for artistic inspiration.
The Sensory Experience of Perception
For as long as I have thought about art I have been aware of, and experienced, the subjective apprehension of art and artworks — the feelings associated with experiencing art, which I have come to understand as a sensory experience of perception.
Where does the sensory experience of perception originate?
It occurs in the minds of artists and observers. It doesn’t come through the ether from Jung’s collective unconscious, nor does it arrive by the grace of a god, other deities, or supernatural forces.
It doesn't actually come from anywhere. It is the active experience, at a particular moment, of seeing, hearing, smelling, and otherwise apprehending something. This palpable gob of sensations is an emotional, visceral, and visual experience. It is difficult to put into words.
Part of the problem is linguistic and cultural. Central European philosophers, artists, and critics, writing in German, have used a term that expressed spiritual feelings, but without a supernatural dimension.
Geisteswissenschaft, (dictionary definition – history of ideas) is described by George Lichtheim as, “an untranslatable term, since Geist carries metaphysical overtones very inadequately rendered by ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’.” According to Lichtheim, “What Geisteswissenschaft, ultimately implied was the identity of the reflective thinker’s own mind with the Mind whose manifestations lie spread before us in history.” (p. 16, George Lukcás. Lichtheim. Viking 1970).
My impression is that in the German-speaking Central European intellectual world, the apprehension of nature and its subjective experience constitute a large body of discussion and writing not widely discussed nor appreciated in Paris or New York.
These writers, without intending to suggest supernatural agency, produced something in German that, when translated into English, sounds religious, and, as a consequence, is contrary to the sense of the original.
This aspect of Central European aesthetics suggests a corrective to the regrettably sentimental, if not mystical, nature of much American thinking about art.
Artwork is the product of an autonomous artist who is not beholden to theocracy or the bourgeois/global market, who is not possessed of a desire to be socially useful, nor is this individual trying to resolve dialectic tensions.
I strive to create tangible works of art that are products of innate talent, informed by study and practice, and refracted through an intensely militant individuality.
I do not rely for a living on the sale of my work.
I am a member of the Edgewater Gallery, an artists’ cooperative in Fort Bragg, California
I am a member of the Arroyo Arts Collective. I have served on the board, and on the curatorial committee of the collective.
I served as a board member, and president of the board, of LA Artcore.