Sunday, July 30, 2006

Thoughts on painting - I

All assumptions about the stylistic evolution in painting for the last 100 years are suspect. The idea that there is somehow "progress" in stylistic evolution is false. What one might see as the evolution of painting in the twentieth century, the popular path, Picasso to Pop, is only part of the story. It was built on the idea of the "modern", the constant roiling change of styles leading into the future. It was about the radical social changes brought forth by the industrial revolution. (From my remark in the comments section of the previous post.)

Painting and the Industrial Revolution: "The effects [of the industrial revolution] spread throughout Western Europe and North America during the 19th century, eventually affecting most of the world. The impact of this change on society was enormous and is often compared to the Neolithic revolution, when mankind developed agriculture and gave up its nomadic lifestyle." [Wiki] The Industrial Revolution ushered in the modern age and the shift away from an agricultural to an urban lifestyle. Coincident with this radical social change was the invention of photography which provided an alternative to painting for documentary representation.

No longer confined to strict representation, painting in the Modern era (roughly 1840 on) began to explore other modes of expression, which for lack of a better word I am referring to as "styles". I cannot think of another period in the past where there has been such a rapid and radical evolution of pictorial styles. The modern quest for the "new" resulted in the proliferation and rapid turnover in pictorial styles.

If I can digress for a moment here, I concede that "personal style", the way a painter makes a painting, the trace of the hand, can be unique within certain categorical parameters. This is an important aspect of the work which conveys personal identity. It is not what I am referring to as "style" for this discussion. When I say "style" I mean "cubism" and the like.

Painters who desired to make "advanced work" saw the quest for the "new", the invention of a "different" pictorial style, as the path to follow. So here we are, 160 or so years later and I want to suggest that this course of inquiry cannot logically continue. Because the course of this inquiry is closed, it is a loop. Once someone makes a "stripe painting" it becomes a definition and the stripe paintings which follow are variants and therefore technically not "new".

While I have no doubts that there will continue to be "new styles" I am questioning whether this can continue to occur at the same pace as we proceed further into the new century. Is this quest for "newness", nothing more than just playing "dress up" with painting, reducing it to nothing more than an ever-changing decorative fashion?

Is to be the course for painting for the next 100 years? I don't think so.


Hans said...

I think we still change very fast in our ability to percept our world, visually and contextually, so the visual arts will develope too in the next years. Even, maybe art today got behind, in a lag, as the changes are going to fast and time to develope (trial and error) becomes less and less. On the other hand I often feel tired and frustrated by what create todays artists (including myself), sometimes I like to agree that art came to its end, what I think is in fact impossible.

George said...

Hi Hans,

Although it seems like everything is happening faster, I am not sure if art evolves stylistically much differently now than in the past. Looking back at previous movements, they all had a relatively short period of intense initial development. What probably is different now, is how quickly the information is shared.

This initial post, my musings on painting was partly a speculation that a new century is sort of a psychological roman candle, it engenders a new sense of the future. This time around it's a mixed blessing, certainly the world is a mess, making a optimistic futurist ideal seem more futile than ever.

I've spent a number of years studying the behavior of the financial markets. This might not seem immediately relevant, but the financial markets are more about crowd behavior than finance. For example, prices react or stall at round numbers, 20, 40, 80, there is usually no real financial reason for this, it is purely psychological. Taking it a step further, a new century or millennium, should be seen as a significant event, a mental or psychological dividing line between the "old past" and the "coming future".

So part of my thinking was based on the simple idea that the optimism for the future, the fascination with the idea of the modern which started in 1900 has run its course. The idea that somehow there can be "progress" in art really makes sense only in light of the changes spurred on by the industrial revolution. If we look at the cave paintings at Lascaux, as painters how can we say we have made "progress"? What occurs going forward will take a different path than the one followed in the 20th century.

Partly because of the strong art market, a lot of thinking about art, about painting, is still in a runoff period from late 20th century thought. The art market needs to cool down for a bit before the affects of the new century change will be made manifest.

I'm not interested in either thinking about, nor making predictions about the "next new fashion" in painting, I don't think it matters. Among other things, because of the internet I believe that for the first time in human history, artists from anywhere in the world have relatively easy access to reproductions of great paintings along with the latest developments all over the world. This is a particularly unique condition because it allows an artist to look at work they are interested in regardless of where they are. I know it is no substitute for seeing the artworks in person, but it is a start.

Because this information is readily available for all forms of artmaking, I think it starts to make the idea of "stylistic progress" less relevant. What becomes important again is how the artist relates to the world and his art in a personal way. The stylistic means are all out there and up for grabs, one can just look at the kinds of work you like or take inspiration from. If the "new" becomes less relevant, more of a marketing factor than anything else, then new painting must compete with all other paintings in history. Placed in a contemporary context, who becomes more interesting Caravaggio or Katz?

At the end of the 20th century, art theory became so obscure it lost touch with all reality. I think it's time to reconnect again with the modern world, with real life and real life issues. Sex, love, death, hope, fear, loss, etc, these things know no national or cultural boundaries, they are about real life. How an artist deals with these subjects depends on a lot of personal factors, someone in Istanbul will have different feelings about them than someone in NYC. Still they are both universal and personal at the same time.

I visit your blog frequently, some of the photographs of life in Georgia are quite amazing. (Grey horse, dead horse, circus, meat head in market, see! all from memory;-) That's is real life.


Hans said...

Hi George,

are you an artist also, beside a critic ? I think art was never very close connected to art markets or collectors really. Ok, sometimes well, like in Holland 17th century, but 95% of those works in that timeframe is lost, and its probably ok. I think the connection of art and market and stock is a very new phenomena and do not forget, that in most countries that does not count very much. I am sure 99 % of worlds artists never get close to Christies or NY and still make a decent living. Short in my opinion, the art market does not affect the discoveries of the artists, f.e. Neo Rauch's now famous works have been made, when he was very unknown and Leipzig Art was absolutely not popular. That it became popular was good Lobbyists work, and today I personally do not see much progress in those artists work...

Of course Caravaggio is more interesting, life, light, impact - the good old fashioned truthes, wich does inspire the artists to make some brushstrokes. I do not think, that paintings "compete" with all the other before and after, I am rather very happy, if they succeed to stand on themselfs, just hanging in an empty room and remaining interesting.

I do not know, why your analyzes allways start with the market ? You think Picasso thought on market and sales while making the cubistic paintings ? Rilke or Hemmingway thought on buyers ? No. The capitalist market just wants to exploit everything, for example art. This market is just playing and joking but the artist stands above that.

Recently, I find a lot of forgotten 2nd class artists much more interesting, than the markets mainstream and idols. I even think, that big parts of the 20th century art history could maybe be rewritten in a couple of years (20 or 50 or 100) What seems today important to us does not nessecary to be that for next generations.

Best regards, Hans

George said...

Hans, I'm not a critic, I'm just a painter. I write the blog because it seems like an interesting thing to do.

I write about the market, partly because I know about markets. The financial markets have been an interest of mine for 30 years. Off and on, I write about finance in some other venues. What I have learned from the markets is that crowd behavior is fairly predictable and the art world seems to follow the model.

I live in NYC, and here, the art market is definitely a free wheeling capitalist exploitation. I agree that this is not the case in most other countries. You mentioned Leipzig Art, the original group of painters were able to develop their work in an environment where the dialog between the artists was as/more important than the market place. In part the paintings were exhibited for other painters. (I could be wrong about this but it how I understand the situation.)

Over the last 6 to 7 years the amount of money being spent on art has increased by a huge factor, maybe its 10 times greater than it was before. I suspect it is not true in many places in the world, but in the major art centers, including now Leipzig, it is the case. I'm not sure if it is a problem or not, but I think it is causing a distortion in peoples perceptions about what is really important about art.

My use of the word "compete" might have been ill chosen. I didn't mean compete in the sense of competition. What I was trying to imply is that, as artists, we have some sense of what we consider good painting, the paintings which inspire us, they set a standard which we aspire to. I think this is what artists have always done. It's why you can find that painting hanging in an empty room interesting.

My point here was to suggest that because of the internet, artists anywhere have access to a vast selection of paintings throughout history. You don't need to go out and buy an expensive art book, you can see a reasonable reproduction right now. So if I want to see how another artist paints the figure, I'd rather look at Caravaggio than Katz, and I did. I think this is changing things, I'm not sure exactly how yet.

Your remark about finding forgotten 2nd class artists much more interesting is again, exactly what I was suggesting about how the internet is changing things. It makes it possible to reconsider artists who works have not been generally easy to find. Sometimes they were working in a unpopular (unfashionable) style and were just ignored or sometimes they were just lesser artists. I also find that sometimes work which appears unresolved, doesn't quite work, or is culturally different, can provide a starting point for ones own work. It's an interesting idea, even if history isn't rewritten.

Take care, George

Hans said...

George, anyway, great ideas of you and a great blog. Thank you !

Yes, the art market is maybe 10 times greater today, it became an industrie on its own and it needs products. But it seems very difficult to me, that an artist could plan to make especially successful works for that market, because it is hardly predictable. In the 90s in Berlin, painting was absolutly unpopular, even Gallerists had been hardly interested and found paintings hard to sell. I myself could never predict, that painting would start with 2002 become again that popular.

George said...


But it seems very difficult to me, that an artist could plan to make especially successful works for that market
Your absolutely correct, not because the market isn't predictible but because the market is business, it has nothing to do with making art.

Angela Ferreira said...

I decided to look beyond galleries to sell my art because I can’t find one that goes with my style. I decided not to change what I enjoy doing so I am now marketing in other areas, public places and postcards.
George I think you are brilliant thinker and a very intelligent artist!

Hans said...

Hi, George, when is coming part 2 of your thoughts ?

Best regards,

Tim said...

One thing is for sure: technology has raised awareness and created more leisure time, in that there are more artists, particularly painters than ever before in history. This link Saatchi Your Gallery is overwhelming to browse through. The amount of individual style observed there leaves me believing that Art is more alive than ever. Trying to predict or detect an evolution of stylistic trends that would be relevant historically for our time is purely subjective depending on who is predicting and in that case it must be the critics or dealers. Now I suppose that it comes back to the market and whoever is watching it with the power to influence the sales of works.

Hans said...

Hi Tim,

very good observation ! For me its particular difficult to conclude, what I want to say with my art, to put it in a natural context. It swings from here to there, no real theme, no real discoveries, only hip and hop and platitudes and attempts, wich are rarely interesting the next day. Even sales are not too interesting, as I have good jobs and enough money. I feel a lack of orientation and I see this allover the other studios. I even tried to stop with art. Shit !

thomas said...

You say that the quest for newness reduces painting to nothing more than decorative fashion!

What is it reduced from?

I know it is hard to define, and that is why I wondered about your thoughts. It is easy to call something merely deorative, but isn't the impact on soceity disconnected from the artists intention? F.ex. did Warhol start out thinking merely decorative or was he conceptually aware of his impact from the beginning? Or was he ever even aware or even interested?

At school I had a gay teacher studying Andy, and she was very into him expressing his gayness! She could find plenty of evidence that his work was all about expressing his sexual identity. Maybe he was expresing himself and it reflects his personality including sexual tendencies.

Anyway what is art reduced from when it becomes decorative?


George said...

Hans, sorry for the delay in responding, I took a break to tend to other pressing matters. The next part is forthcoming (meaning I’ve been thinking about it but still have to put it into words.)

Tim, you make some good points. In particular I do think the internet is changing the way information about new art is disseminated, it occurs much more rapidly than before. In addition artists anywhere in the world now have easier access to reproductions of historical work as well. While this can be a double edged sword, I think it is a positive development.

When I use the term "style" I was referring to stylistic trends which I believe are nothing more than fashion in art and critical thought. I think this has been the case for at least a century, if not longer. In recent history, the notion of "stylistic evolution" (the isms) was seen as an indication of "progress" in art. I don’t believe art is subject to "progress" in the scientific or technological sense. Art does progress through time as the culture and fashion changes but the cave paintings at Lascaux still look good today, why’s that?

As I noted, I do think that the individual artist has, or can have, a personal style, an intuitive way of making things and an identity. An artists personal style may be, or may not be, fashionable. As long as one is honest with oneself it doesn’t matter. Fashion, the marketplace and the critical discourse are part of the cultural environment, these things may affect the artwork or not. In my view, art is something which should exist on a higher plane than mere fashion or commerce.

Hans said "For me its particular difficult to conclude, what I want to say with my art, to put it in a natural context."
This may be one of the big issues for the 21st century. The modern era (1840’s to 2001) was characterized by a succession of "styles" which provided at least an intellectual starting point for the artist. The critical term "Pluralism" was the first good indication that the old framework was changing, I suspect its occurrence was spurred on because of of the rapid development of what is now termed the Information Age. The result is a bit like having too much freedom, if you can do anything, the problem becomes choosing what to do.

Thomas said "what is it reduced from" referring to my remark that "the quest for newness reduces painting to nothing more than decorative fashion!"

I personally do not have a problem with the term "decorative" in the sense that a painting can be pleasing to the eye. I personally assume that art has a deeper meaning and importance in the culture, than just providing a momentary diversion from everyday life. I think a painting should be about more than chasing the latest fad, the newest style, the "hot, hot, hot" whatever it is. The "reduction" I was referring to has the same sentiment as "which blue jeans should I buy this year?" While it is certainly part of the culture and subject to commentary, really it is a fairly banal fragment of life experience.

Regarding your comments about Warhol. What I think matters more than "his gayness", decorativeness, or even his original intentions, is what I would suggest is his honesty with himself. Like his work or not, I believe he was an honest artist, true to himself. When we look back after the fact, we can draw all sorts of conclusions about what his intentions might have been, some true, some not. More importantly, he was the right person at the right time, an artist with a sensitivity to the "commercial" aspects of American culture and he was able to exploit this vision within himself. It is not as if this perception occurred in a vacuum, for there were other artists who worked in a similar vein. It turns out that Warhol was able to express this particular vision with a fair degree of discipline and insight, others fared less well.