Carefully curated images on social media of shiny children and food, vacations and relationships presented by normal breathing humans, are irking social scientists. Apparently, the suffocating display of a polished facsimile of human experience without evidence of the associated toil, rather than delivering the desired feeling of connection and love, is alienating us and giving us the blues.
When it comes to painting, we do expect a level of proficiency and an absence of mistakes. And to call it art, we look for magic. As humans, we may also need some sign of struggle to know we’re dealing with the real. I recently visited an art dealer who took pains to tell me about an artist’s process of layering house paint on a strip of linoleum to achieve a linoleum-y-looking house-painty thing. His justification felt like an earnest response to the popular suspicion of contemporary art. In the last hundred years, experts have manufactured into art’s story an “effort” metric — think poverty, outsider-ness, deep thoughts or process. A new absence of obvious signs of skill or toil has saddled contemporary art with a reliance on myth-magic to explain its worthiness. If this magic isn’t immediately apparent, an instructive blurb can help. Like Rembrandt, the universally magical Brian Jungen doesn’t need a blurb, though words for his work are a seductive calling for many.
For the rest of us, we play between the realms of our hardscrabble and the aspiration of effortlessness. Those of us who work in hyper-detail, super realism or chiseling have the workman’s edge. A bronze, too, comes with a set of knowns about its process and the artist’s pocketbook. Still, nobody’s impressed by the painstaking arrangement of orchestral instruments if the symphony itself doesn’t inspire. Art, like charm, awards no medal for sweat alone.
“Mine is the horny hand of toil,” said John Singer Sargent, while transcending realism for virtuosic light and shadow-play. Deft, gestural fingers and chins and oily folds of silk eclipse the babblings of future curators. Knowing his effortlessness to be but an illusion, we worship at this perfection.
PS: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” (Brené Brown)
Esoterica: The myth of effortless perfection betrays our vulnerability — the very conduit to intimacy and connection. As human beings, we crave the real and want to link our common strivings. In art, we search out these indicators of authenticity while toiling for polish and master craftsmanship. And how do we summon the magic we call artistry? In cleverness, innovation, imagination, ingenuity or originality? In exertion or skill? In pure struggle? I’ve always had the feeling that paintings are the products most impossible to divorce from human touch. The illusion of effortless perfection we reach for simmers with potential within its own exquisite vulnerability.
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“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.” (Winston Churchill)