|Raoul Middleman, 2004, Nancy|
I've had this thought ruminating in my brain in the last few weeks about how the perceived beauty or ugliness of a piece of work is its power and how that perception changes over time and as a result changes that power.
It started when I had students in my expressive drawing class read this interview: Beer with a Painter: Raoul Middleman. I don't particularly respond to his work and I knew my students (mainly graphic design majors) would really struggle with it. But we are working on portraiture and the figure and they need to stop being so preconceived and clean with their drawings. I like what he has to say throughout the interview, here is an excerpt:
"I try to keep the primitive quality of a painting. I paint fast, because if I spend too much time on a painting, I might bring it back to a place where it becomes a palliative condiment to assuage the nerve endings of a jaded public. I would rather keep it at that point where it is a frontal assault on our central nervous system."
He goes on to discuss how many of the great masters Rembrandt and Titian and De Kooning were using ugliness and vulgarity to "attack a closed moral system", to get people to see again when looking at a painting.
|Marcel Duchamp, 1917, Fountain|
A week later I found myself at the Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life exhibition standing in front of Duchamp's Fountain. I have looked at it many, many times, always thinking about what art historians say about how appalling and shocking it was --sometimes going with friends or family and passing on the story to them.
But as I stood there last week by myself and looked at it, I thought, its actually kind of beautiful. In 1917 the urinals were glazed porcelain with tiny imperfections. The shape of it is something you might find in a Guston painting. Any hipster scrolling through Etsy would find this object delightful. Maybe that's being a bit facetious but it was truly a different statement then than now. Now our toilets and readymade industrial world has gotten to be so much more standardized, disposable and pedestrian that this object looks interesting to me in a way Duchamp did not intend.
|Philip Guston, 1977, Black Sea|
As I look at work from the past, how much should context actually be considered? I think I got more from it by genuinely engaging my 2015 eyes and thoughts than I ever did by thinking about its importance in art history and its time. Of course I needed to know its past to think about it this way but maybe the best work can evolve in why it is powerful, as I think Rembrandt and Titian have. And work that is only important for its shock at the time and has no way to transform forward should no longer be part of the canon (you know who you are)... And I guess that eventually will happen.
Which brought me back around to Middleman's idea that many times artists are noticed, in their real time, for making work that is shocking to the aesthetic of the day. For so much of western, relatively recent, art history that has meant doing things that seem vulgar or ugly or unconsidered. But does it get to a point where what is shocking to our central nervous system is work that takes on an aesthetic of exquisite beauty and overtly considered design? I think that would be work that would be hard for me to look at and believe to be genuine and good. Which is why I had students read the Middleman interview in the first place -- because the illustrative, preconceived designs aren't strong and won't be taken that way by the contemporary art world we live in.
But simultaneously I think the art world is tending towards work that is more thoughtful and subtle and beautiful. Which is different than being illustrative or preconceived. More interest in the evidence of the hand and the handmade. Hmmm. Not many answers in this post but that's never really what good art and thinking ends with anyway, right?