The bigger questions

Dear Artist, Yesterday, Robert Isler Wanka of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada wrote, “I’d like to see my work move toward saying something about this century and our civilization. In other words, deeper considerations rather than just pretty pictures. With the sundering of science and religion I suppose it was only natural that art would remove itself from these as well. Is it possible that art may once again be employed to look at the bigger questions?” Thanks, Robert. For everyone’s interest, we’ve put some examples of your art at the bottom of this letter. Robert, while there are a million directions you can take your art, there’s the old tug between relatively neutral subject matter and the possibility of meaningful social comment. The international contemporary conceptual art world is currently dedicated to the latter proposition. Slicing up a cow, uterus and all, and putting her in formaldehyde and on display in the Tate Britain, talks to people about life, death, mistreatment of animals, public cruelty, vegetarianism, food sustainability and other of the “bigger questions.” This type of art is the legitimate end-result of the longing you mention. On the other hand, there will always be believers in the difficult business of painting well and delivering life-enhancing objects of beauty and personal passion. Further, popular collectorship will continue to find a need for landscapes, figures, florals and portraits. And while there are plenty of seriously dark concerns out and about these days, there is not much wrong with the sunny side. My own feeling, and it probably coincides with yours, is that works of art can be made in a respectful, craftsmanlike way, and still subtly tell a modern story that’s not too sentimental, commonplace or banal. Art can indeed say something, and when you combine your craft with your better mind, great and lasting images are likely to arise. This, in a way, is our job description, and it’s a tough one, especially these days when the visual arts are in competition with newer creative technologies like film and video. For those who take the challenge, there’s a tangible reward that’s right up there with science and religion. Best regards, Robert PS: “A painting doesn’t have to have a profound meaning. It doesn’t have to ‘say’ a word. We fall in love for simpler reasons.” (Harley Brown) “A painting without a message is wallpaper.” (Sam Adoquei) Esoterica: The often unrequited longing for meaning is part of our territory. I encourage artists to give in to the impulse. Once, at a beach workshop where people were madly painting the scenery, a disgruntled fellow decided to dig some clams, shuck them and lay their nude bodies on a full sheet of weathered plywood in the design of the American Confederate flag. In the bright sun the art soon became offensive, and the local gulls had a feeding frenzy just like a major art gallery opening. “That felt good,” said the ungruntled artist, who returned to his scenery painting with a new dedication.   Robert Wanka

“Balloon Over The River”
oil painting
30 x 20 inches


“Tomato #1”
oil painting
5 x 6 inches


“Conestoga River Moonrise”
oil painting
24 x 18 inches


“Red Admiral Butterfly”
oil painting
12 x 10 inches

            Shock for media consumption by Robert Erskine, Harrow, Middlesex, UK   In regards to the reference made to Sliced Cows in formaldehyde, I have to disagree with the explanation. It has nothing to do with talking to people about life and death. As Damien Hirst has recently stated, it has more to do with shock and placement in the eyes of the media. This week a UK publication has highlighted the fact that we have reached a state in both science and art where innovation has ceased and that there is nothing left to discover or say. Perhaps a lot of individuals have forgotten how to open their eyes and also the importance of the word ‘play.’ There are 3 comments for Shock for media consumption by Robert Erskine
From: Robert B. — Sep 10, 2010

A publication stating there is nothing in science or art left to discover seems to me to be as foolish and short sited as the Director of the U. S. Patent Office who in the late 1890’s recommended they close the Patent Office because there was nothing left to invent.

From: Jerome Rochon — Sep 10, 2010

Brilliant! Nothing more to discover? – find a new line of work, bub! No one has yet mathematically formulated gravity or explained the mechanics of evolution. Harley Brown’s wisdom is true Truth- “We fall in love for simpler reasons.”

From: Anonymous — Sep 15, 2010

Only you can see, create and express the way you do…that is always a discovery, even if just for yourself.

  Meaningful social commentary? by Carol Campbell, Kingston, Jamaica   Every painting student should read this! Personally, I’m quite tired of the dark, morose, depressing work that’s being churned out by too many art students in our well recognized institutions, under the guise of meaningful social commentary. What on earth could be wrong with bringing a little light to a world already mired in social ills? There is 1 comment for Meaningful social commentary? by Carol Campbell
From: Bayberry L Shah — Sep 13, 2010

I often wonder if I should be painting more conceptual scenes. My current series is of unusual plants and flowers. I use macro photography to get up close and personal with my subjects and this results in responses of , “What is that?” On the contrary of the statement that there is nothing more to explore and discover, I find that though I’ve taken thousands of pictures of flowers, there is always something new to discover.

  Pretty pictures with bigger questions by Carmen Gardner, Haiku, HI, USA  

“In the Pink”
watercolour painting
by Carmen Gardner

Artist Mary Whyte from Charleston, SC just completed 50 paintings for a museum tour titled “Working South.” What I find most amazing is how she paints “pretty pictures” that are ’employed to look at the bigger questions.” Her work is the result of her ability to see “deep considerations” in things most of us wouldn’t even notice. Her work is a spiritual quest. Painting from the heart, she sees in a way very few ever do. Folks often ask how she does what she does. It is because her art is life and she breathes a part of herself into each and every stroke she places in a piece. CBS Sunday Morning just aired a segment on her recent work. There are 5 comments for Pretty pictures with bigger questions by Carmen Gardner
From: Anonymous — Sep 10, 2010

Thanks for sharing that. Whyte’s work is awesome.

From: Sandy Donn — Sep 10, 2010

I couldn’t agree more. . .Mary Whyte’s work is superb and emotional.

From: Anonymous — Sep 10, 2010

Thanks for sharing this link. Wonderful paintings and insights.

From: Lorraine Khachatourians — Sep 10, 2010

so wonderful to see great watercolour – thanks for the link. I shared it on to my facebook friends.

From: Anonymous — Sep 13, 2010

“Miss Mary” is a dear friend and mentor . . . She is every bit as beautiful as her work and I am constantly amazed, inspired and honored to know and paint with her. Lots of aloha from Maui. Carmen Gardner

  Artworks restore suffering psyche by John F. Burk, Timonium, MD, USA  

“Forenoon Watch”
acrylic painting
by John F. Burk

Far more than a pretty picture, the right piece of art in the mind of the right collector, can convey a deep emotional response capable of restoring a suffering psyche momentarily from its current state of affairs. It can restore faith in beauty, in the planet and life upon it. It can remind the viewer of pleasant places and good emotions felt there, and a desire to return. At least, I am banking my work on the possibility this is true.   Topics limit lifespan of contemporary art by Scott Kahn, NY, USA  

“Lunar Eclipse”
oil painting, 24 x 28 inches
by Scott Kahn

The art which speaks to a universal audience concerns itself with the “big” questions of life and death, and delivers its message with unrelenting and powerful emotion. The conceptual and politically driven art so popular and considered to be the forefront of contemporary art today is limited by its topicality and will lose its “punch” when topical concerns move on to other interests.     There are 2 comments for Topics limit lifespan of contemporary art by Scott Kahn
From: Stephanie Vagvolgyi — Sep 09, 2010

A very striking image. Thanks for posting it.

From: Mishcka — Sep 09, 2010

I love this painting! It seems I’ve seen this in a dream. I went to look for your work on line. It’s wonderful. Thank you.

  Mission accomplished by beauty by David R Thompson, Cambridge, UK   Cutting up a cow might make us think about vegetarianism but what kind of person needs to go to a gallery to be made to think about such an issue? Aren’t we just as likely to think about it, if we think at all, when seeing a live cow in a field, or walking past a butchers shop or a restaurant or at a thousand other moments in our life? Surely the most worthwhile art is that which gives what only art can give us, a perfect arrangement of beautiful forms, which may if we are so inclined be a sublime intimation of a platonic(or religious) world of beautiful forms but at the very least gives a unique joy. There is no deeper or more important mission an artist can accomplish than bringing beauty into a world which lacks it more than ever before. Personally, when painting, I always call to mind Swinburne’s words about the painting of Albert Moore, “One more beautiful thing is born and its meaning is beauty and its reason for being is to be.”   Powerful images by Margaret Mair, Toronto, ON, Canada  

“The Real Price Of Oil”
original painting
by Margaret Mair

This is a conundrum that faces many artists. Commenting on life has been a part of my art almost from the beginning, mostly because commenting on life has always been a part of my life. If there is something I feel powerfully about, I want to create images that people react to powerfully. It is the way I speak best, and reach the most people. After a cross burning in Nova Scotia, I created Love/Hate; after the Gulf gusher, I created The Real Price of Oil. I cannot create these kinds of images all the time, but sometimes I feel I must. Those who can create powerful images should, and that thoughtful comment is part of the work of an artist.   Protest pictures tanked by Bill McEnroe, Tumwater, WA, USA  

“Spider Sun”
pastel painting
by Bill McEnroe

I understand Robert Wanka’s frustration at only being assigned to the “pretty picture” department, feeling that railing at life’s injustices needs an audience. As a young man I learned that people don’t like being hit over the head over and over and that the easel is a lousy bully pulpit. The year — 1956 — Russia had invaded Czechoslovakia, and the world was aghast at the wanton violence. I painted a series of protest pictures, using black, white and red oils, which I titled, Women Against Tanks — women, wearing shawls, throwing rocks at tanks. It made me feel good and noble, but as the saying goes — it “tanked.” There are 2 comments for Protest pictures tanked by Bill McEnroe
From: Diane — Sep 10, 2010

I , too, did a series of protest paintings about injustices to women in the world. While I felt virtuous in making the art, it apparently didn’t stir a positive response in viewers, as I still have all but one the pieces from that series.

From: Liz Reday — Sep 10, 2010

Check out the massive paintings by Leon Golub. I saw them at the los Angeles County Museum of Art, but he only became famous after 60 yrs old (hope for us all). Goya painted “protest art” as anyone who’s been to The Prado museum in Madrid will attest. On a personal note, I did a series of paintings around the Watts riots and the inspiration of Martin Luther King and won Scholastic nationwide awards and publicity while still in High School.

  Use pigments, not body parts by Nader Khaghani, Gilroy, CA, USA  

“Pacheco Pass”
acrylic painting, 36 x 36 inches
by Nader Khaghani

Painting needs to tackle the big questions, beyond the floral, landscape, figure, etc. If film and video take up the big questions and we keep up with the old traditional subject matter, we painters are losing ground and getting pushed to the sidelines. We need to use the good old pigments not body parts to say something. Generally, if we have something to say we find a way. Franz Marc is more expressive in color and than for the shock value of cut out cow organs.     There are 3 comments for Use pigments, not body parts by Nader Khaghani
From: Darla — Sep 09, 2010

What a wonderful landscape! That’s one thing that art can do — help us see the world with the artist’s eyes.

From: Stephanie Vagvolgyi — Sep 09, 2010

Afine work. You really put depth in there…

From: Michael — Sep 10, 2010

And a truly mouth-watering use of colour too.

  Avoid lecturing in paint by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA  

“Evening Poetry”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

Art always speaks about bigger questions, if the artist is sincere in painting what appeals to him. Leave the loud modern voice of shock theatre to the evening news, the politicians, filmmakers and writers. Literary needs to stay out of the visual. Any forced lecturing in paint should be avoided. Mr. Wanka’s underlying question in writing to you is one that most artists will have flash through their mind at regular intervals. That question is, “Is my painting relevant in any way?” Maybe it isn’t. We all feel at various times that our trade is silly and indulgent. Why should we spend our life making pictures when we could be campaigning for safer drinking water in Calcutta? Wouldn’t that safe drinking water have much more benefit? Shouldn’t we sell all our paintings and give the money for a well in Kenya? In the end, these are spiritual questions that each of us must wrestle with. What is wrong with taking on the challenge of making a beautiful painting? It has occupied some truly great human beings like Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Winston Churchill and countless other truly special people. There is 1 comment for Avoid lecturing in paint by Paul deMarrais
From: Diane Artz Furlong — Sep 10, 2010

I believe my art is my gift to share. I don’t want to go to India.

  Enduring art by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA  

“Red Dakini”
pastel painting
72 x 39 inches
by Sharon Knettell

Art that has lasted has both power and beauty. Rarely does it address the problems of the era they were created in. The Italian Renaissance, the Baroque, Rococo and Impressionism produced breathtaking work, though many people lived in heart wrenching poverty and despair. There were constant wars and misery. Very few artists have addressed this successfully — only Goya and Kathe Kollwitz come to mind. There are others — but they have not reached the collective consciousness like those two. It is unwise to use your art as a pulpit. That is best left to preachers, politicians and journalists. I can remember the scores of paintings done in the 1970’s excoriating the Vietnam War and Richard M. Nixon. Ugly paintings sprouted like cancerous mushrooms after 9/11. Where are they? Are any still memorable? Do other generations weep over these or do they have other sufferings to engage them? It is easy to criticize an age or time — so easy — that is why there is a glut of pious rants on canvas, walls, overpasses, heaps, museums and galleries. Do you feel as an artist you have the understanding, power, compassion and wisdom to do this. Harder is still the effort to make something so beautiful that it brings tears to the eyes and stops your heart. There are 3 comments for Enduring art by Sharon Knettell
From: Elizabeth Lasley — Sep 10, 2010

I feel one can make a statement about these times and still create a visually beautiful painting. This is not an easy task, but it’s one that can push an artist to another level. I make myself try to find the sensitivity/beauty of any given subject, even if it’s a difficult subject. The point made in my work may or may not be understood by the public, but that’s OK. I think as artists we are visual journalists of our time, whether we intend to be or not. I know I can’t help but be influenced by this time in which I’m living in.

From: Anonymous — Sep 10, 2010

We are all influenced by the times we live in. Absolutely. In style and content. Only two artists come to my mind that have done that well, Kathe Kollwitz and Goya. For myself I find it better to paint what I love.

From: anonymous — Sep 10, 2010

in Photography, Dorothea Lange.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The bigger questions

From: Roy Zuniga — Sep 06, 2010
From: Faith — Sep 06, 2010

I also have a hunch, but I won’t bother you with it. However, I am racking my brains for something to (re)discover that will get my paintings to the top of a clickback! Will it be that instinct is not just a human trait, but one animals not only thrive on, but depend on? Could that be why paintings done by say elephants or apes sell like hot cakes while mine languish somewhere dark and damp (not literally)? No, I’m not knocking the paintings at the top of any clickback! But I have to say that Mr Wanka is living on an island. I could point to hundreds if not thousands of artists who earnestly try to capture both the times they live in and the dreams they live on. As for science and religion being asunder, haven’t they always been? Look what happened to the alchemists? At least scientists press on looking to improve their knowledge while religion harks back on what has been or is supposed to be and is right according to which club you support – and that is certainly not something to be proud of in any century. And I could make one salient point. Yes I will make it. I don’t think the “artist” has a mission to improve anything outside himeslf or herself, since that is where all creative energy originates. If a painting, sculpture, piece of music, poem, etc. ignites the creative energy in any one viewer, listener, reader etc. the artist has done a good job!

From: Ted Pankowski — Sep 07, 2010

My view?…after struggling with similar questions for the past 20 years, I think that whatever the medium, genre, subject matter, audience, purpose or other variables… Beauty First! even in the depiction of objects considered “ugly” or “gross” e.g. Van Gogh’s old shoes, Manet’s dead fish!

From: Robert Isler Wanka — Sep 07, 2010

In response to Faith’s comment: “As for science and religion being asunder, haven’t they always been?” Actually Faith, in the very first nation state on our Planet (Ancient Egypt) art, science and religion were combined to serve one purpose and that was to focus upon those things that demonstrated mans move beyond the basic instincts of his animal nature. Amazing things were accomplished when those disciplines where brought to bear upon the larger questions regarding our existence, not the least of which was to discover, and use for the benefit of the entire nation, an understanding of the complex rhythms and patterns of nature . I do agree with your point about the artist doing a good job when the viewers own creative energy is ignited. However, I doubt any such thing can be done with any coordinated purpose unless the artist has an interest in adding something mutually salient to the outer world. That is where the science and the spiritual aspects of our interests combined bring about the ability to do some amazing things.

From: Marvin Humphrey — Sep 07, 2010

Art speaks to the soul in a non-literal way.

From: Denise, NW Artist — Sep 07, 2010

People who paint flowers are happy people. Someday I hope to be at peace with myself and enlightened enough to attain that bliss. For now, I am 58 and still painting my issues.

From: Brian, Upstate NY — Sep 07, 2010

What if people who paint flowers do so to avoid painting their issues and aren’t truly happy just merely avoidant? It can be looked at either way, happy people paint flowers, avoidant people paint flowers. The trick though is to look at the flowers and find the persons issues in them :) Personally, I would rather paint/sculpt my issues than flowers. I have no interests in producing such content.

From: Dorenda — Sep 07, 2010

My work and subjects always mean something to me (very symbolic in my world)…however, I have found that usually it means something else (or nothing at all) to a viewer…just a pretty picture perhaps? I guess it’s true, “beauty (and possibly meaning) is in the eye (and mind) of the beholder.

From: Kamoos Obomor — Sep 07, 2010

Some people bake a wonderful cake now and then. Some have almost nothing to eat. Others want to change the world with their new will-stay-fresh-for-30-days Twinkies. Painting is like that, it’s personal. I have many hunches, too, but I won’t bother you with them either. I do know that in the third world, most people just want to survive.

From: Beverly Kies, Pastel Artist — Sep 07, 2010

I have always wanted to have an art show and title it “Being An Artist in Spite of a Happy Childhood.” I paint things that make me happy and sad, but having a life with few “issues” makes my art more happy than sad. I do respect those that put their deep personal emotions into their work. If we all were the same, how very dull.

From: Thierry — Sep 07, 2010

I like what Kamoos wrote; all of this so personal; of the millions of artists, only a few have an effect on the world.

From: Phyllis Stone — Sep 07, 2010

I think there is room enough in the world for all kinds of art expressions. But I often think about what a painting teacher said many years ago —– “Think about what you can add to the culture”. That seems to tell me that if I want to paint a flower, maybe I will let myself go and do it in a way that I may not have seen before. I try not to think too hard about how to do it — that can spoil it and make things tight. If something pops ino your head, try it immediately. Remember that things can always be painted over or wiped out (or thrown away !) This feels more to me like painting in and of our times, rather than being held to all the old rules, Though of course first we learn the rules before breaking them. As always, sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. I think it was Jasper Johns who said, “Sometimes I see something and paint it, and sometimes I paint something and then I see it.” After all, if we don’t happen to be a really deep thinker, we probably won’t be painting deeply interpretive paintings. Give something new a whirl. It’s always a learning experience. Deeply meaningful, humorous, or light and beautiful, what does it matter?

From: Darla — Sep 08, 2010

It’s one thing to point out social issues, but in many cases, it’s just repeating what is said elsewhere. If you can point out something new, or do it in a more effective way than has already been done, go for it. We don’t need more “tantrums on canvas”. As others have said here, it’s all about contributing to the culture.

From: Gwen Fox — Sep 08, 2010

I think we all wish we could make a strong statement in our paintings about something that touches us deeply. Injustice, stupidity, abuse….you name it….how do we translate that to our canvas. Usually these statements are filled with such emotion they translate as anger. The world is much too full of anger as it is. Here is my take on the situation. When we as artist paint from our heart we feed the world. It is our art that promotes calm and colors our fears with hope. It is our art that gives people pleasure, makes them smile, brings up a memory or maybe it just stirs their heart. Paint with your soul wide open and what will come forth will be a statement beyond any other. The world needs us more than ever ……anyone up for the challenge?

From: Brenda Behr — Sep 08, 2010

There is no wrong in wanting to change the world. I felt envy at one time for my male friends who burned their draft cards. It didn’t matter that my dad had been a military lifer. As Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens, once sang, . . . Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy. I have worried about my country being in two wars simultaneously. I worried at the onset of the Gulf War that we were at the beginning of the Bible-prophesied Armageddon. I worry now that we’re destroying our planet with oil spills, industrial pollution and nuclear waste. I’ve seen policemen once referred to as “pigs” become a nation’s heroes, and in fact, I see that same nation now consumed with recognition of all its heroes. Firsthand, I once saw signs in the American South that read Colored and Whites Only and now I’ve seen firsthand this same country elect her first African American President. I’ve seen couples once labeled “queer” share their matriarchal vows in public. I’m worrying less now, and my hair is perhaps turning grey at a slower pace. I realize that I may not change the world through my art, but if I can bring visual pleasure and meaning to those who honor me with a purchase or even a visit to see my art, then my mission is worthwhile. Although my goals in life are humble, and to many may appear self-serving and trite, my goals, just the same, bring tremendous joy to me because, for one, I’ve seen these goals crystallize in art that brings joy to others.

From: Carole M. Sikes — Sep 08, 2010

I have spent most of my teaching and painting career attempting to illustrate my belief that painters and poets can make ordinary subjects and events extraordinary. Most of us walk by and around and through so much in life that is worthy yet we don’t see it as such. So learning to see is the first step. Seeing is different from looking; Seeing involves understanding, using our cognitive resources as well as our visual. I like to call it using our “art eyes”.

From: Rodney C. Mackay — Sep 08, 2010

Robert Wanka’a lyrical paintings are as contemporary as anything else painted in this century. They already say something about “this century and our civilization.” Like some other artists my training is also in the sciences, and I can assure everyone there is no “remove” between the arts and the sciences. There is more art and craft in science than outsiders will ever know! I have yet to see a painting that addresses “bigger issues.” And indeed what’s wrong with simply appreciating the simple daisy? Disgruntled fellows are like angry old men, interesting in an abstract way, but totally irrelevant to people like my 18 year-old grandson and his crowd. The word will end, personally, and in the wider view. Painters will not solve the world’s problems, but will probably continue to try!

From: Peter William Brown — Sep 08, 2010

On my first trip to Europe, while visiting the museums, I was shocked at the many artists that had chosen scenes of murder, torture and mayhem as their subject matter. These gruesome images were both pictorial and sculptural, and they were ubiquitous. One particular victim stood out among the many others, and rooms were filled with the same murderous depiction. It was hard to get my 20th Century head around these images. After reading a few painting labels, I learned that the primary victim’s name was Jesus of Nazareth, and I guess He was very important to those people back in the day. I did see a very few other pictures of Jesus doing other things like turning water into wine, healing the sick, eating dinner with friends, and feeding multitudes. And, while there were quite a number of images of His birth, the murder seemed to be the overwhelming favorite. He must have started a religion, because I saw a lot of these images in churches. In some religions, it is against the rules to depict the Prophet. In other religions, you see the Holy One sitting around smiling, or sometimes reclining. Subject matter, especially in religious art, seems quite diverse through time and among cultures. It remains rather odd, however, while comparing depictions as contrary as a crucifixion to a Buddha smiling, that both images are venerated to serve the same uplifting purpose. Ultimately, I do not think that subject matter is nearly as important as the skill and passion that goes into the art making. Subject matter blurs into metaphor and storytelling, and sometimes into opinion, and (Oops!) even to cliche. Whatever the subject, it remains vital to make an interesting composition, a flowing structure of lights and darks, and to surprise your audience with color.

From: Carol Spicuzza — Sep 08, 2010

Undoubtedly, our initial impulse for art making began with the urge to express something beyond ourselves, the felt experience of a seeming “other”. Whatever it is we sense “out there” – be it an inner or outer fact – it still calls to us, as though it would lead us somewhere. Whether we recognize it or not, it seems to express itself through art and comment on our lives, choices and behavior. It does not seem to need our permission. The more art removes itself from spiritual considerations, the more this factor enters quietly through the back door.

From: Bill Hibberd — Sep 08, 2010

To my knowledge I don’t think Art has ever influenced politics or corporations has it? I know the Futurists and others have made valiant efforts but it seems that the targeted groups are the most resistant to change. My best wishes to those artists that are called to that task though. I do believe and have witnessed first hand that Art does influence individuals. So I take heart in the idea of painting at least some of my work with the intention of stirring hope and awareness in my fellow humans one by one.

From: Edna V.Hildebrandt — Sep 08, 2010

What would be considered unique about this century that it should be the subject or inspiration to our art. Is it the message we would like to deliver to our audience to shock or jerk us to reality? I would say that images of the world around us is still true today as they were in the beginning of time the trees, flowers, shrubs, ocean,mountains and rivers are still around us of course some of the animals. Men have modified the face of the world with edifices and buildings no limit as far as the money flows to these ambitions and dreams of men to leave a memorial to be remembered by. But I wonder are they better than those of before and nature as they were before all this madness? What effects if any do they have on our planet that is being exploited for the sake of progress. I know that people today in the “first and perhaps second world countries” love their comfort and playthings of which I am also a part of sad to say. I admire great architecture and works of arts but I cower at the sight of things that shocks the senses like the use of living things for use as their canvas. Don’t we see that everyday already? Why do we immortalized them in this way?

From: Haim Mizrahi — Sep 08, 2010

Robert This is a question you do not ask anyone but yourself.. The other Robert This is one question you should not attempt to answer.

From: Brad Michael Moore — Sep 08, 2010

I would like to think we can do our art, and still make our statements without slicing a cow in half. A true artist can illustrate that idea in writing, or, better yet – show their artistic prowess, as an artist, by rendering the cow on paper, or canvas – ala Trompe l’oeil. Sensationalism is best left to the ‘Cross of Jesus upside down in a jar of urine’ – which is just as effectual – but only our consciousness has been injured to make a point. A more subtle and realistic consideration might be to look back at slides, canvases, or prints of our oldest landscapes – ones we remember where we were when we painted them. Now go back and repaint it again as true as it is today… Could likely be that the landscape will show changes rained upon it through the course of time. Portraits work too – in that you can either illustrate the physical changes, or your change of perception that time has allowed… Show the two works side by side, and we will get the picture…

From: Susan G Holland — Sep 08, 2010

Some of the most banal subject matter can say profound things. It may not be said to the intellect, however. It may be said to the heart, or the soul. The glory of God can be proclaimed with the wonder of color on color. The misery of man may be expressed in an abstract drawing. The peril of the universe may come to us in the message of a traditional Dutch still life, with the truth of dying integrated into the painting. If it’s done well, it will say something, whether by “story” or by expressed passion. That’s how I see it anyway.

From: Roger Buston — Sep 08, 2010

“A painting doesn’t have to have a profound meaning. It doesn’t have to ‘say’ a word. We fall in love for simpler reasons.” (Harley Brown) I believe this extends to all art-forms. Sometimes, the act of creation, the result of the act, triggers a response that requires neither lofty purpose, nor weighty underpinning. It’s something new by someone who felt compelled to share it. Our response shapes its purpose. And that is enough.

From: Susan, Chilliwack, BC — Sep 08, 2010

Life is tough enough, sometimes is just nice to make or look at something pretty.

From: Suzette Fram — Sep 09, 2010

….the possibility of meaningful social comment. The international contemporary conceptual art world is currently dedicated to the latter proposition. Slicing up a cow, uterus and all, and putting her in formaldehyde and on display in the Tate Britain, talks to people about life, death, mistreatment of animals, public cruelty, vegetarianism, food sustainability and other of the “bigger questions.” On the other hand, there will always be believers in the difficult business of painting well and delivering life-enhancing objects of beauty and personal passion. … Thank you Robert for such a wonderful explanation and comparison of two very different types of art. Very well put.

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Sep 09, 2010

What a delicate question to tackle, Robert. I think you tickled it a little, but perhaps leaned a little too much on the role of art in creating pleasant environments to be and live in vs the far edge of shock and disgust, as certain galleries seem to promote. I don’t think that art can be divided up so neatly. The opposite is, as you thoughtfully pointed out, is not just the extremes:there is the middle way of thoughtful art that can influence awareness of the viewer. However, I think the fact that you created the dichotomy by using that contrast tends to shape the way the discussion takes place. Art that goes beyond the pretty and pleasant may not necessarily change a corporation or a government, at least not directly. But it can play a role, either individually or within a community, of giving a kind of voice to feelings, goals, ambitions, not well expressed by words, and can provide a nexus for thinking and talking about what we can be and do, and that can lead to action, of a small or large nature. There are many examples. Here are three very different ones, both in scale and in intent. I hope that they might give your readers a way of thinking about how artists, no matter what they produce for the galleries, can participate in communities of various sorts (and in their own lives) to spark that discussion and potential for action. The Hands to Hands project by Cecelia Kane The Art of Action (Vermont Arts Council) Tools of the Trade: A Citizen’s View of Law Enforcement Thanks once again for providing the forum that you do for discussing all the facets of art with civility and respect for various points of view. PS: Photos of my contributions to The Hands to Hands project can be found on my blog here: I think, though, that the real power of the show is in the installation of over 7 years of day-by-day small pieces contributed by the nearly 200 artists who participated. The show is now at ATHICA in Athens, GA, and in October will be at the Chaffee Art Center in Rutland, VT.

From: Rick Rotante — Sep 09, 2010

I believe art can be beautiful and meaningful all at once. There is no need to shock or hit viewers over the head with images made to provoke. I don’t think this is the point of the initial letter. Much can be said with many of the same motifs used in the past. It’s all in the way you say it. Artists today feel they have to be different or spectacular or shocking to get a response. This comes from not having the tools or forethought to say what it is you want to say. Maybe we should go back and examine the effects of color on the psyche or the dynamics of design. If a child isn’t getting a response from its parents, it resorts to outrage or shouting or bad behavior to get attention. A wise person once told me to paint things that aren’t innately beautiful and paint them beautifully. Look at Courbet’s landscapes. Take a look at George Innes work and tell me he isn’t making a profound statement about life. Maybe before we pick up our brushes we should be thinking of saying something about which we are as an artist and what we want to say in the next picture. I agree there are too many “pretty picture” out there. But these come from those with little to say, and that’s okay. One reason for this today is we are too “politically correct” and can’t say anymore that some art is simply crap. The execution and skill of the artist is very limited. Much of the art I see today is student grade or worse but because the public forums have exploded the world is filled with this type of work. I don’t say stop painting just use more judgment in publishing it to the web. If you want to put more meaning in your work, put more meaning in your life and your work will reflect it.

From: Richard Mazzarino — Sep 09, 2010

Your work will be noticed by those with a like mind if you do it well, no matter the subject. You don’t have to be outrageous to get attention. And if you are, you most likely will get the kind of attention you won’t want to get. Paint from your heart, keep learning, study the masters, paint every day or every time you get the chance. Paint what moves you. Don’t paint just to use the paint before it dries. Make every painting as if it were you last, then paint it to last. Keep you student work to yourself.

From: Brian, Upstate NY — Sep 09, 2010

@Rick R. I can’t agree more with your sentiment concerning current art and political correctness or the fact that there is just plainly a great deal of crap art out there. Sadly however not everyone wants to be honest about what they are looking at and instead pads their words with kindness. Sorry but if the work is crap then someone owes it to you to tell you that your work is crap.

From: Bernie Victor — Sep 10, 2010

This really is painting at the sharp end !

From: Theresa Bayer — Sep 10, 2010

Everyone has his or her own artistic vision. It would be a boring world if we all had the same aesthetics. So if my art is pretty, and yours is gritty, well viva la difference!

From: Suzanne Ste. Therese — Sep 12, 2010

Paintings will not become obsolete due to other media like film or computers – the stillness of a piece can be precisely what makes it so compelling. I have landscapes in my collection that are very precise but will “speak” to me forever (my criteria for owning a piece of art in the first place.) There are layers, trees in front of mountains or views to cliff edged rivers or roads that go somewhere beyond. This leads me to particular “bigger questions” all of the time: where is that road going (euphemistically, “Where am I going? What road am I on?”), where does that river go, what’s in it, what’s behind or underneath those trees? What makes a mountain? These are all “bigger questions” I find in landscapes. I appreciate the subtly of this landscape experience. I hope this reflection will stir all of those fine landscape painters with whom you converse to see that what they do is very, very important to me and to our culture.

From: Brian, Upstate NY — Sep 12, 2010

@Suzanne, you said that when a piece speaks to you, do you only collect pieces that speak positively to you? I am interested because for me, even a piece I really detest, I would own. A friend of mine had a photo he took of another guy (think cliche hippy college boy) capturing a hot air balloon with a mason jar and lid. I detest that picture, everything about it irks me something terribly and I told my friend that BUT I also told him I would hang it in my house (it was NFS) because of the feelings it evoked. So I am often curious when people use the “feelings” criteria when collecting art and whether or not they only collect pieces that make them feel good.

From: Robert Isler Wanka — Sep 13, 2010

Brian, I do not think it is a mystery as to why people, who wish to stay healthy, and happy, gravitate towards life enhancing activities. This, I think, is reflected by the thoughts they chose to entertain and the people, work, play, food, and yes, the art that they surround themselves with. There is scientific proof that the chemistry of your body is affected by what and how you think and it is also known that in your body that chemistry is delicately balanced so you might live with energetic health. This does not mean challenges and negative issues are avoided by people seeking balance, it dose however mean one does not actively seek out nor surround oneself with things that purposely aggravate or stir up feelings that serve to depress the spirit and cause one to rage against life. Anything that triggers feelings of anger and powerlessness has nothing to do with answering those bigger questions I was hinting at. I spoke about bringing science and spirituality back into art for a reason, and that reason was so that we might go deeper into a balanced understanding of the personal mental and physical stance that must be taken in order to enhance our life experiences. To state the obvious, it will take balanced people to solve the imbalances perceived in our world. I believe art can play a part in achieving that balance.

From: Henry Kloeppers — Sep 23, 2010

Film and video are the true arts of our time

From: Rick Rotante — Oct 27, 2010

@ Henry- hogwash! Film and video are quick, immediate visceral arts and are not the “true art” of our time. If all you look at is film and video, it’s because the real “arts” take knowledge and understanding and effort to appreciate. Make an effort to discover, for yourself, what art is and not take others visions for truth. Film can be misleading and the filmmaker can use techniques to make you think in ways you otherwise would not. This isn’t truth per say but a manipulation of your mind. A suspension of reality if you will to the alter idea of the filmmaker. Too many succumb to this idea of film being the new reality. But in truth, it’s our fascination with celebrity and spectacle that really intrigues us, not the truth. And it’s one persons truth not a universal truth. Quality artwork; not poster art or prints or advertising art and merchandising art, is something that speaks to everyone, it holds you, speaks to your soul and keeps you spellbound long after the popcorn is eaten and the sodas drunk. I enjoy a good movie once in while, but for real art I look to painting and traditional arts. Just my opinion Henry.

  Featured Workshop: Painting in the Bugaboos with Robert Genn
091010_robert-genn23 Painting in the Bugaboos with Robert Genn The date for next year’s Bugaboo Helipainting trip has been set for September 7 to 10, 2011. To obtain more information or to be kept up to date, please call Audrey Frey at 1 800 661 0252.   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 
    Painting in the Bugaboos

‘Just wait over there while we get ready, thanks.’


Louise Swan contemplates the potential ahead.


Guide and fellow painter Liz Wiltzen packs the precious stuff.


Laurel McBrine and an early dusting at Cobalt Lake.


Sudden squall at Hourglass lakes. Nathan Cao and Laurel McBrine.


Golden silence. In back: Nathan Cao, Laurel McBrine, Dennis Fairbairn.


Don Hodgins puts Louise Swan into the picture.


Sally B. Pearson came all the way from Florida for this.


Sharon Stone and Laurel McBrine. Snow in the foreground when we started.


Far away but close. Foreground: Tatjana and Sinisa Mirkov.


Hourglass Lake. The private reverie of Hormoz Poorooshasb.


Looks like Dennis Fairbairn is getting a crit from Liz Wiltzen.


Liz Wiltzen sorts one out above ‘Kick Off’


Don Hodgins checks out a view at Rocky Point Ridge.


Pretty well gobsmacked at Cobalt Lake.


In the crouch just before the white out.


Warm Summers Eve

oil painting by Grace Schlesier, CA, USA

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Louise Francke of NC, USA, who wrote, “I have always believed that art should have a social conscience and reflect the times in which we live. Consequently, my art has most often been issue oriented. I try to speak to the subconscious through the surreal juxtaposition of different elements. It takes a special person to buy this type of art and want to have the constant reminder of our own inadequacies, no matter how surreal, on our wall.” And also Rodrica Tilley of Montrose, PA, USA, who wrote, “There is a great deal that is unattractive in our modern world, not to mention downright harmful. I think we have never needed beautiful art that celebrates nature and our blue planet more than we need it now. When asked what she was trying to do with her painting, Georgia O’Keeffe replied, “Fill a space in a beautiful way.” Why isn’t that enough?”