Yesterday, Brian Oschwald of Mendham, N.J. jingled the studio inbox: “Are there any authentic, intellectually respectable reasons for the apparent divide between the contrasting and often opposing worlds of 1) “serious” contemporary painting and its practitioners, and 2) the sprawling world of proud retro painters, and their constellation of activities and venues that are ignored by prevailing learned scholars and critics the world over?”
Thanks, Brian. In the marvelous and diverse ant-hill of human creativity, there are many fine minds that have taken a crack at understanding and explaining the divide. I’ve asked Andrew to put up my recommended books at the bottom of this letter.
It helps if you try to see some contemporary arts as a form of entertainment — and the retro-painting world as a form of craft. It’s of course proper to take the contemporary art world seriously. One ought not confuse the playful mind-bending entertainment business of Disneyland or Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum (recently sold for over a billion dollars) with the sort of mind-bending business that might be going on at your local Public Gallery. High-brow entertainment serves many purposes. It stretches turgid minds. By the use of metaphor, it shows possibilities. It speaks of the outrageous potential of human imagination. With “schlock” and “shock” it may invite polarization and even anger. Furthermore, because many contemporary works are “conversation pieces,” the cultures of criticism, journalism and scholarship are supported. “Those “learned scholars” that you mention can get in on the action.
Retro work, on the other hand, is about dedicated private individuals developing time-honoured and often difficult skills. With craft these folks go after an elusive idea known as “quality.” Retro challenges the very hubs of human sensitivity and capability. The processes and techniques of retro give unprecedented joys of accomplishment and personal satisfaction. Surprisingly, retro is not so much concerned with fashion. But the result can be fine-tuned individuality and style. Retro, when excellent, is widely admired and naturally collected. But like a lot of noble activities there’s not much to talk about, so it’s often overlooked by the media. But for both the retro artists and their retro collectors — it’s one of mankind’s highest callings.
Esoterica: Recently we were attracted to a video-piece in the Costa Rica Cultural Center. It showed a close-up of hundreds of leaf-cutter ants scurrying from off-screen into the foreground carrying newly cut sections of green leaves. The accompanying sound track sounded like the babbling rush of humanity. Every once in a while an ant would come on the screen bearing some odd object — a flag with a peace sign, a tiny surfboard, a small Da Vinci print. The busy, jumpy images mesmerized everyone who stopped to have a look. We liked it so much we came back another day.
Robert’s guide books to understanding the art divide:
The Painted Word — by Tom Wolfe. A short persuasive insight into the New York art world, what makes it tick, and why critics, dealers and the glitterati need something to talk about and how they can’t deal with traditional art.
The Shock of the New — by Robert Hughes. An expanded version of a PBS television series on Modern Art. Many colour illustrations. Choice anecdotes, telling characterizations and witty observations. It’s bristling with insight.
Theories of Modern Art — by Herschel B Chipp. Required reading in some College courses, this is a great starting point in understanding the thinking of artists. Gag-ga but investigative. Documented through personal letters, manifestos and articles, the variety of belief shows what art can be.
Art for Dummies — by Thomas Hoving. No insult here. One of the “for dummies” series, this remarkable overview by the well-known gallery director and enthusiast shows that it’s okay to be in love with all types of art. Basic stuff you always wanted simplified and lots of privileged, no nonsense information.
True art a blend
by Sandy Sandy, Tabernacle, NJ, USA
Truly fine art is not either academic or retro, but is also a blending of entertainment and craft. Frank Webb said it best for me when he stated in his 1987 video: “The world doesn’t necessarily need another pretty picture. But what the world sorely needs is a sense of how things might be put together, that hither to have not been put together. It is the qualities and relations of a creative concept that gives meaning to art.”
Regarding ants, the ant has a complex social structure. Living in underground colonies, each member has a specific job classification. This symbolizes working for the good of the group. It makes us aware of our own specialized strengths and reminds us to be happy with our own life without comparing it to that of another. If an ant enters your life, it may be telling you to focus on your job, refine your skills or to acknowledge or seek the support of others. When we live our life in a constructive and cooperative way, everyone and everything benefits. Ants also symbolize tenacity, clarity and dedication to achieving our goals.
The Death of Culture
by Hans Werner, Australia
Today I have been reading Donald Kuspit’s book, End of Art. There is a degeneration of our culture, and so-called Modern Art is part of this. I have held the opinion for a long time that someone who is incapable of drawing, and cannot master line or colour perspective can always express themselves in some form of abstraction. This has been made all the easier these days by the manipulation of computer images. The buying public doesn’t know. They buy art as a fashion product or a status statement, and have no interest to know if it was created by a computer or intellect. This to me is the death of culture. In 1945 Pablo Picasso said, “People who make Art their business are mostly imposters, and have lured the wealthy to desire the peculiar, eccentric and scandalous in today’s art. I have fed these fellows what they wanted and satisfied the critics with all the ridiculous ideas that passed through my head. The less they understood, the more they admired me.”
Healing the divide
by Judi Birnberg, Sherman Oaks, CA, USA
Dedicated abstract artists also “develop time-honoured and often difficult skills.” Perhaps it’s time to try and heal this divide rather than widen it. Perhaps a divide does not even exist; the present builds on the past, just as the future will build on the present. One facet is no more valuable than another.
Showing that no one can draw well?
by Linda Anderson Stewart, Twin Butte, AB, Canada
Having just been to see the David Hockney exhibit in Los Angeles, I am freshly interested in a question like the one raised by Mr. Oschwald. I can see why the general public, walking into that show, would be confused about how badly painted, childlike watercolours of the English countryside could possibly be considered valid within the current discourse of art theory, or perhaps more importantly demand prices of $175,000.00 to $300,000.00. To be fair — perhaps in light of being currently embroiled in a discussion of the use of the camera obscura, Hockney felt the need to illustrate the point that no one can draw that well? I am offended, as a working artist, while at the same time feel disloyal to my peers for believing we are all being led around by the nose.
Style is a path
by Melanie Peter, Gainesville, FL, USA
I wonder if there’s really a clear division between “serious” contemporary painting and “retro,” even though it exists in the minds of most scholars and critics. I wonder if classical realism, for one example, can even now be a path to something beyond realism, as it was in the past for, say, Picasso or Cezanne. A Quaker mystic said that if Revelation ever happened, it is still happening. For me realism has seemed, not like an end in itself, but like a portal to something truly new, which would naturally, not forcedly, speak of the “outrageous potential of human imagination.” I also wonder about intentionality — whether it’s legit if one’s main intention is to paint something “new.” I’ve harbored the dream that my style is only a path which will eventually take me someplace I haven’t even imagined yet. I guess I’m asking, “Can’t the ‘new’ manifest from anywhere, through any portal of style or idea?”
Can’t reinvent the light bulb
by Ernst Lurker, East Hampton, NY, USA
The decisive criterion that separates the two camps is nothing other than creativity which stipulates that the artist truly makes a step forward in expanding our horizon and the possibilities in art. Art history is simply a history of creativity. All the great figures in this sequence are distinguished by their innovations and contributions. The rest, such as imitators or latecomers by the thousands, fall by the wayside. Making a step forward can be a daunting task. I personally had no idea what to do when I finished art school and was totally clueless for three years. You can’t reinvent the light bulb.
Rothko is retro by now
by Susan Canavarro, Florence, OR, USA
The nature of the question itself reveals an underlying judgmental thinking process of which we all partake. This great “divide” is an intellectual and judgmental construct created by humankind and has existed in the art world for centuries. As I see it, the inherent problem in the question is the use of the words “contemporary” and “retro.” By implication or connotation, they are ambiguous and judgmental or possibly even meaningless words today. One word means “of the times” or “modern” and it can also mean “of the same time as.” I am a “contemporary” painter even though I paint traditional subjects. Rothko was a “contemporary” modern painter who painted abstracts that were non-traditional and “shock-worthy” for his time. The word “Retro” implies going “backward” or making something from the past look new and contemporary — it is both ambiguous and judgmental. Thirty years later, to paint like Rothko may be considered “retro” or even “traditional” because it is now considered mainstream and normal. It is not possible to go backward in the world of art because, with each individual hand and in the context of the times, styles and subject matter change and evolve into something new. Take out judgmental words and maybe the divide will disappear. Having said that, the divide gives art critics, academics and scholars — and all of us — a way to talk about art.
Media neglects the less famous
by Margaret Henkels, Santa Fe, NM, USA
In answer to Brian Oschwald’s question, it’s about power. The situation of fractional inclusion in the media’s mirror of cultural affairs boils down to the fact that media is profit driven. Profit is the controlling motive. It’s a lens that we forget we are looking through even as it dominates our lives. The French Impressionist painters received no coverage in the magazines of their times. Cezanne was virtually ignored. So this isn’t new. But why do we give these structures our power, our money and time? Maybe we should stop agreeing with their reality. A small instance for me was to stop giving to the fundraiser auctions in my town because they continually advertised the “star artists” and neglected to market the donations of the less famous. I still do charity, but not at glitzy events where they advertise only the name brand artists. Many artists here felt the same on this issue. Our charities had an opportunity to raise money while championing inclusivity of art in Santa Fe, but they chose repeatedly to tout the established stars. So, the emerging artists were left with nothing, not even a free ticket.
Media needs the ‘new’
by Melinda Collins, San Francisco, CA, USA
I often marvel at the reviews in our local paper of art shows that are sometimes interesting but often just trivial pursuits of making or painting something that will catch the eye of a reviewer and a public that wants something they have not seen before. Rarely does traditional art get noticed by our local art critic, because it isn’t “newsworthy”. It can lead one to believe that traditional painting isn’t really valid anymore except as decoration. Those of us who pursue it seriously know that each artist’s eye and mind is unique and, if there is a high quality of craft, worth the attention of a serious viewer.
Happy diversity ahead
by Susan Silvester, Citrus Heights, CA, USA
I’m an artist who has been practicing the craft of art techniques for over 25 years. I made my living as a model maker and set painter for TV commercials and shows. Most recently, I have diverted my skills to concentrate on my own creativity, questioning what and why I paint. I fall somewhere between the serious contemporary painter and the world of retro painters. The drive to create and how I approach this endeavor is to keep learning — I am thinking of going to graduate school. To me it’s not enough just to paint and paint well: I like to be able to explain it at some level and have my painting mean something beyond a nice picture. I feel there is more energy and substance in a painting conceived this way. As an emerging artist, perhaps it’s a bit of snobbery and elitism that I want to be aligned with the more esoteric group. On the other hand, I would be happy to sell some of my work and just enjoy painting whatever pleases me. Happily there is a diversity of artistic styles and there is also diversity in collectors, so there’s room for all.
Excellent use of gesture video
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Vancouver, BC, Canada
There was a video piece in our local Public Gallery a couple of years ago where you got to watch a pair of hands making different gestures with fingers, some obscene, some just plain stupid. I felt a stupider person in a stupider world while watching it. My husband and I still use one of those finger gestures (not in public) when we want to show our feelings upon seeing bad modern art.
Imagination comes after mastery
by Jennifer Bellinger, Ketchum, ID, USA
I am one of the “craft” type painters or “Retro” as you call us. Back in the 1970s when I was in art school I received no instruction on the “craft” of painting, but was told to “do my own thing.” Fortunately, I had been painting for many years prior and for a short time in junior high school I took private lessons from a professional realistic artist who stressed the “craft” of painting. Imagination takes hold and can be expressed best when one has control of one’s tools/materials. The abstract artists that I do admire were grounded in drawing, composition and design and it shows in their work. The others, well let’s just hope they enjoy what they are doing.
What do we venerate?
by Che Baraka, Brooklyn, NY, USA
The cultural perceptions, as evidenced primarily in the western world view, have little if anything to do with authenticity, intellect or reason. What is reflected in the “divide” is the extension of those perceptual elements that also serve as underpinnings for our acceptance and belief in the absolute validity of western science, philosophy, values, and human psychology. Note the divisions, contrasts, and opposing worlds, between heart and mind in those particular areas. Is there a similar “divide” among the Dogon artists of Mali, Central African? And if not, why? What do we venerate, the object or the process of its creation? Two valuable books: Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, by Robert Farris Thompson, and Kemet, Knowledge, and Afrocentrism, by Dr. Molefi Asante.
Advice for ladies leaving home
by Liz Reday, Pasadena, CA, USA
I left my small town shortly after finishing High School. I had a teacher at UCI called David Hockney and he told me to go to art school in England, preferably the Royal College of Art. I went straight to Italy and hitch-hiked all over Europe, settling in London where I got a day job and took etching classes at night. Several years later I did get into the RCA. I highly recommend this approach to young women. Sow your wild oats and learn what the world can teach. When you are young it’s easier to take a sleeping bag, put up with a certain amount of discomfort, travel on a student pass, hang with fellow travelers and find out where the cool inexpensive places are located. In third world countries, if going solo, head for the mothers’ section of the bus and amuse the babies. Also it helps being young and cute with good health and a sense of humor. Ladies, the world awaits.
That elusive quality
by Sylvio Gagnon, Ottawa, ON, Canada
My inspiration is the entire motif and the spirit of a place. There can be so much to put in. How can I simplify all and at the same time capture that spiritual feeling that I inexplicably experience? There are no guide books to help us. But I do know from experience that painting is mostly problem solving. It’s different each time. Self-confidence and assurance that come from hard work has a lot to do with finding solutions. And there is not only one way. At the same time, emotion, passion, intensity, spontaneity and creativity play a big part. But the objective is always quality — the elusive quality that is never guaranteed but we know is there on the palette. Now doesn’t that elevate “retro painting” to levels far above “contemporary painting?” Like you, I say maybe it does, but my picture was not on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen this morning. However, it helped me and everyone that saw it understand a little better what is going on in this world.
The Ivory Tower crowd
by Pat Hart, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
It seems to me that it’s largely a case of ‘he (she) who can, does, and can then practice on either side of the divide, and he (she) who can’t, is stuck with abstraction or non-objective works that hide the lack of drawing skills.’ Since ‘modernism’ became the Establishment and the teaching of basic skills in most art schools became practically non-existent, its practitioners will continue to regard it as ‘cerebral’ or ‘highbrow.’ It’s the old Ivory Tower attitude. This Ivory Tower has a moat around it, of their making, and I’ll bet they won’t lower the drawbridge any time soon! That’s okay, if it makes them happy and feel special. The Ivory Tower lot simply haven’t yet realized that we’re all in this together. It reminds me of the old joke about St. Peter showing a newcomer around Heaven. The newcomer pointed to a high white wall and asked why it was there. St. Peter replied, “Oh, that’s where the (put in your choice of religion) stay. They think they are the only ones here.”
Regarding your book list, I have another book called The Shock of the New, by Ian Dunlop, published in 1972. It covers the period from 1863, Salon des Refuses, to 1938 and the Nazi purges of ‘degenerate art.’
(RG note) Thanks, Pat. Robert Hughes called his book The Shock of the New after a remarkable study by his friend Ian Dunlop of seven historical art exhibitions.
Artist stoned by mob
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
Last week, in Bourg, France, I set up my easel in territory that was already claimed by a group of teenagers who definitely did not appreciate my presence. It was a beautiful view of the river, so in spite of a vague sense of disquiet, I proceeded. More boys gathered, and circled, and were decidedly not friendly. I was surprised by their hostility, because otherwise, in similar situations, the sight of a painting in progress seems to turn everyone into my friend. Things escalated; they began kicking rocks in my direction, and one of the rocks hit me. I kept painting for a few more minutes, torn between fear and my determination to finish what was turning out to be a pretty good painting. Finally, when one of the boys almost ran into me with his motorcycle, I gave up, gathered up my stuff and went back to the barge. I’ve been reflecting on that afternoon. Why did I keep painting when things got so unpleasant? I think most painters would have simply moved on at the first sign of hostility. I think all of us, every time we go out to paint, are full of reasons why painting right this very minute isn’t such a good idea; the ferry is about to leave, it may rain at any moment, there’s no comfortable place to sit… on and on, our brains come up with a hundred reasons not to pick the brush up. I have a reputation for being a prolific painter, and I think the reason I get as much work done as I do is that I simply ignore my inner pessimist. I hear all the reasons why it would be a good idea to stop painting now, but I keep painting, anyway.
Her Favorite Place
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Tim Adams, Eureka Springs, AR who wrote, “Carlson’s Guide To Landscape Painting is one of the best books on the subject of painterly quality that I have read. For me it has eliminated a great degree of trial and error.”
And also Sally Pollard, Weiser, Idaho who wrote, “The odd thing about taking a stand about an issue is that things you are strongly attracted to or repelled by usually work together. You render objects using both light and dark. Expressing a negative opinion about John Ferrie caused me to look up his art (that I ignored in first passing). So there.”
And also Banne of Arizona who wrote, “Labeling the types of artists’ work is for the ‘bean counters’ of the world.”
And also Teresa Hitch who wrote, “What is art? When is it art and not craft? Many years and after acquiring a few university degrees by spending considerable time contemplating this question, I don’t know. In fact, it seems the older I get the more I know that I don’t really know and wonder if I know anything at all.”