Arts and Entertainment

Artists: Juliette Aristides




Painting is no longer about representation, it is about inspiration. However, painting today is too focused on the creation of the "new" rather than the creation of the "true". The 20th century was infatuated with new painting styles and materials, which has led to a focus on the mode and medium of expression rather than the message being expressed. After one-and-a-half centuries of innovation, with so many art taboos shattered, with so much of the field colonized and long-inhabited, the search for the new is becoming increasingly shallow and repetitive. Creating the new, purely for newness' sake, can bring academic significance but offers little long-term weight. Truth and beauty, on the other hand, have longevity -- they affect the viewer and the resonance of that experience lingers for a long time. All three need to be combined to create art that has impact as well as freshness.

What is truth? Like everything in art, the concept of truth is completely subjective. People define their own truth. A person might wax eloquent on the truth embedded in Mondrian's simplicity. I, on the other hand, only see sterile intellectual concepts placed on canvas. We both believe that we are right.

I view truth not simply as honesty, but as emotion or expression that has a deeper, more powerful effect on the viewer. Satire and deconstruction are objects of fashion; this kind of art is easily forgotten. Comments on the human condition have the strongest impact. The viewer can relate to the canvas, both today and -- since the human condition stays consistent through the centuries regardless of how our environment changes -- in the future. Truth about humanity does not need to focus solely on subject matter. Cezanne's and Basquiat's truth can be found in their paint handling. Their uncompromising passion leaps out of the canvas. Cezanne is more popular because he balanced the trinity of truth, beauty and innovation.

This year's Whitney Biennial, a survey of American art from the past two years, is largely flat. Coverage is limited, naturally, to those artists who have fallen within the limited spotlight of curators and dealers. Much of the work is attractive, but few pieces have an impact. Shirin Neshat's short film is an exception, because it combines beauty with a powerful statement on the human condition. Others, like Vic Munoz's copy of The Raft of the Medusa in syrup, have wonderful wit but do not stay with you long. Munoz's images are striking because craft and technique seem so rare in today's art world, but craft alone does not give a piece of art truth. So many works I see today are trying hard to be innovative. They are desperately fresh, and inescapably derivative. They are "neat" and "funky" rather than emotional and hard-hitting.

Why not live in the moment with disposable art to match our plastic wares and TV game shows? Certainly many artists in the latter 20th century pursued that theme. Sarcasm and kitsch are easier than emotional honesty. More difficult is the struggle to create something greater than ourselves, something that can outlast ourselves. Most human beings don't want to be unexceptional. We want to be special, to have some nugget of brilliance in our own way. It might be fixing cars. It might be working a sable brush at 3am as lack of sleep wears on your eyes but the imperative of being better, making better, expressing better drives you on. And just as we hope for brilliance in ourselves, we like to touch it as well, whether in a conversation, reading a novel or staring at a canvas.

There are still more Cezannes, more Dostoevskys, to come. We will spot them more by their truth and their beauty than their hipness.

Giff Constable

May 20, 2000

[post-note: Much later I came across an interesting entry in Paul Klee's diary. See '1901, Entry 142' on the Paul Klee page.]

Art & Originality
Short Talk to Addapt Conference, San Francisco, June 5, 1999

What I wanted to do today was take you on a short, slightly rambling tour of thoughts on originality in art, both my own and those of artists that have come before us. I wanted to begin by reading the first stanza of a poem E.E. Cummings wrote in 1926: some ask praise of their fellows, but I being otherwise made compose curves and yellows, angles or silences to a less erring end "but i being otherwise." Alfred North Whitehead once said of scientists, "they do not discover in order to learn, they learn in order to discover." Human nature wages a battle between individuality and originality on one hand, and community and "fitting in" on the other. And where does it get us? Often -- trouble. Creating, pursuing originality, is often a destructive process. Every scientist, entrepreneur -- anyone chasing their bold dream -- is inherently making obsolete what came before. And as we all know, it sure adds difficulty to our lives.

First let me touch on originality itself. The debate of whether original thoughts still exist has gone on for centuries. In The Thought Gang, the British author Tibor Fisher wrote in his tongue-in-cheek way that all ideas were covered by the Greeks long ago, and we're just rehashing what we've collectively forgotten. It's a fear that resonates among many artists, especially painters these days because we've run the full range from purely representational to purely abstract.

It seems amusing to us, now that we've seen Duchamp's toilet bowl, Jackson Pollock's splattered canvases, and god forbid, even a Basquiat, to hear painters from previous centuries questioning whether all that could be done in painting had already been done.

Eugene Delacroix, a French artist in the first half of the 18th century, is an interesting case. His work, seen through modern eyes, seems very safe, but he was actually a passionate, individualistic man, who, while successful, was very much an outsider to the more popular, more formal school of David and Ingres. Delacroix loved color, movement, and vigorous painting, even though in the end, he always tempered his works to make them ready for "public viewing." But he laid the foundation, inspiring artists like Van Gogh to pick up where he left off and carry the mantle further.

Delacroix wrote two things in his journal that I want to share with you: May 14, 1824 Paris;

,p>"The very people who believe that everything has already been discovered and everything said, will greet your work as something new, and will close the door behind you, repeating once more that nothing remains to be said." ... "Newness is in the mind of the artist who creates, and not in the object he portrays."

"What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough."

One of the reasons why I love these quotes is they point out the hubris in assuming we've done all there is to do. It's a much safer bet that we are continually going to be tossed on our ass by something new. I hope so. Many are scared by this, but the creatives are terrified by the opposite and so we always try to buttress our belief that innovation can be attained.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, a French artist twenty years younger than

Delacroix, wrote in his notebook in 1856:

"Be guided by feeling alone. We are only simple mortals, subject to error; so listen to the advice of others, but follow only what you understand and can unite in your own feeling. Be firm, be meek, but follow your own convictions. It is better to be nothing than an echo of other painters. The wise man has said: When one follows another, one is always behind."

This transitions me into the next area I wanted to touch on. I believe that interacting with others leads to greater innovation than ivory-tower, closed-system work. It's something that a lot of artists wrestle with. For centuries, art academies taught through copying. Today, some artists say, "I won't look at what has come before, I won't go to galleries or museums, I won't read or talk to artists, and thus I can't help but be original." It's an argument with some validity, but I believe that you can't escape the human and historical context within which we live and work.

Originality and individuality cannot exist without its opposite. You might remember the old Monty Python line in The Life of Brian, where crowds of people have come to worship their proclaimed, and highly unwilling, Messiah. And he says to them, you don't need me, you can think for yourself, you are all individuals. The crowd chants back in unison, "yes, we are all individuals, we are all individuals." Far in the back, a tiny voice squeaks out -- "I'm not." You are original because you are different from something else.

John Sloan and Robert Henri were two American painters at the turn of this century who helped break the American art scene out of its stagnant conservatism. They didn't want to paint pretty, clean pictures. Sometimes their innovation was in their subject matter -- dirty street scenes of prostitutes in New York -- and sometimes it was simply in the vigour and roughness of their brushstroke in a landscape. Both were art teachers and, luckily for us, wrote down their thoughts in two wonderful books. Robert Henri wrote in his 1923 book The Art Spirit:

"We are not here to do what has already been done."

"I have little interest in teaching you what I know. I wish to stimulate you to tell me what you know."

"Know what the old masters did. Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established. These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful. They made their language. You make yours. All the past can help you."

In 1939, John Sloan wrote in Gist of Art:

"Sometimes it is best to say something new with an old technique, because ninety-nine people out of a hundred see only technique. Glackens had the courage to use Renoir's version of the Rubens-Titian technique and he found something new to say with it.

Cezanne may have tried to paint like El Greco, but he couldn't help making Cezannes. He never had to worry about whether he was being original. Don't be afraid to borrow. The great men, the most original, borrowed from everybody. Witness Shakespeare and Rembrandt. They borrowed from the technique of tradition and created new images by the power of their imagination and human understanding. Little men just borrow from one person. Assimilate all you can from tradition and then say things in your own way.

There are as many ways of drawing as there are ways of thinking and thoughts to think."

Keith Haring, the late pop artist, also wrote an interesting comment in his Journal:

October 14, 1978, NYC

"No artists are part of a movement. Unless they are followers. And then they are unnecessary and doing unnecessary art. If they are exploring in an 'individual way' with 'different ideas' the idea of another individual, they are making a worthy contribution, but as soon as they call themselves followers or accept the truths they have not explored as truths, they are defeating the purpose of art as an individual expression -- Art as art." You can say something old in a new voice, and you can say something new in an old voice. If you want to get really fancy, you can even occasionally say something new in a new voice. I believe very strongly that originality still exists in art and painting, although it is getting tougher. Originality exists in something as simple as your signature. Too often we close off our creativity by over-thinking and seeking approval. Yes, we are social creatures, we need approval, we need community. But to those of us who are hard-wired to seek our own path, you have to remember to put aside the comments of fashion and the criticism of the establishment. Believe in yourself, pursue your individuality, and the journey will be worth the trouble. I want to end with a quote from John Sloan. He was speaking on art, but his words can be applied to all individualism:

"Though a living cannot be made at art, art makes life worth living. It makes living, living. It makes starving, living. It makes worry, it makes trouble, it makes a life that would be barren of everything -- living. It brings life to life."

by Giff Constable

Here are our other E - Zine publications [] About Us [] Arts and Entertainment News [] Ithaca Impact [] International and National Arts Network, RMC []
Academia ~ International Students / Scholars News [] Roger's Fashions and Trendsetters News [] Dance 4 America [] Dance Ithaca E - Magazine [] Worlds of Dance Visions []
© CopyRight 2008 - 2009 Ithaca Night Life ( NightLife ), NY OnLine Publications, D.B.A., Ithaca, New York, 14850 - all rights reserved.

Local, National, and International Art Links.