My Daughter Hates Rothko


My daughter Annie likes some artists, but hates Rothko.  I am an oil painter, and she grew up around my work and picked up an understanding of the creative process.  Annie developed a mild interest in modern art and has given me thoughtful art related gifts, including a book about Firelei Baez, a cutting edge artist from Miami who combines text, decorative patterns and readable imagery into thought provoking paintings and installations.

We agree on most political issues and have many interesting discussions about books and literature.  We disagree about Mark Rothko’s paintings, however.  His wispy clouds of color do nothing for her, and she thinks that his work is a hoax.  If I want to set her off all I have to do is talk about a rapt moment I once had contemplating a Rothko at the National Gallery.  I can go on and on about the subtlety of the shifts in color and tone in the deep plum paint floating on a field of black, about the quiet, contemplative feeling I got from the painting that reminded me of the hush and awe of sitting in my grandfather’s church (a mini-cathedral with high columns and a painting on the domed ceiling of Mary ascending into heaven).  My daughter rolls her eyes and sputters out puffs of air in disgust as I wax poetic.

I can understand her frustration.  I visited an exhibition in Cincinnati in the early 80s that featured a conceptual piece of art that consisted of a framed piece of graph paper.  (This was back at a time when I still wondered whether I was cool and smart enough to understand why an arrangement of bricks in a rectangle on the floor of a museum was a significant contribution to western culture.)  I looked closely at the graph paper and saw three penciled dots at three intersections of graphed lines.  A book rested on a pedestal nearby, and it explained the significance of the dots.  I didn’t bother to read it as I discovered, at that moment, that I no longer cared whether I understood something that pretentious, precious and hermetic.

There is a lot of conceptual and minimal art that seems pointlessly self-indulgent and obscure.  Little of it speaks to the daily experience of what it means to be human in this time and place.  And there is a huge disconnect between the art going public and the intelligentsia who determine which new work is worthy of support.  It appears to many that there is a willful campaign of obfuscation going on, that only a select few with the right connections and a pile of cash are told the punch line to the inside joke.

I’ve recently come across youtube rants by conservative critics and artists calling for the demise of modern, conceptual art.  Their view is that all modern art going back to Picasso is a cruel hoax invented and perpetuated by no talent, Marxist degenerates.  They want a return to craftsmanship and realistic imagery.  A painting of a young woman should be beautiful;  a painting of an old woman should show the pathos of aging.  Public money should not be spent on an artist who sits in a cage nude while gibbering at passersby, or on a painting that’s simply an arrangement of cream colored squares on a field of bluish white.

I can understand the anger and frustration of conservative critics.  But they also want to throw some artists whose work I understand and appreciate into the art history dumpster.  I enjoy the abstract work of Paul Klee, Georges Braque, Kandinsky, Rouault, Rothko, Philip Guston, Arshille Gorky, Miyoko Ito, etc.  The musical arrangement of their shapes and colors, lines and organic imagery evokes the same complex emotional states I experience when listening to jazz.  Several of my colleagues in Orlando paint color field abstractions, and I understand, at least partially, the inner logic and poetry of their compositions.  I know for a fact that they are not frauds.  They sincerely believe in what they do and work diligently to hone their craft.

Miyoko Ito

Conservative critics, those who support work that appeases their preconceptions about high quality art, worry me for another reason.  A dictator with a similar set of opinions staged an exhibition in Munich in 1937.  Its title was “Degenerate Art”. The work collected for the show was taken from museums throughout Germany, and part of Hitler’s rant at the opening was a diatribe against spending public money on paintings and sculptures that he thought showed no merit and poor craftsmanship. His arguments against the work of Klee, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, the Cubists and Expressionists are fairly close to the tirades spouted by youtube ranters today.

Any act of creativity is an act of communication. Conservative critics often get angry when confronted by a message that doesn’t agree with their traditional values.  Liberal art world elites, on the other hand, maintain their priestly power by acting out rituals in a mystery cult.  They give value to hieroglyphs that few outside their circle can decipher.  They are like the Delphic oracles who delivered prophesies difficult to interpret, easy to misunderstand.  It’s hard to decide which side to favor as both seem equally unattractive to me.

I am more comfortable using the traditional skills of western art to tell my stories, to deliver my message.  I’ve lost the ability when painting to feel the emotional impact of a streak of blue juxtaposed to a smear of orange.  But I’m not an arch conservative either.  I get caught in between.  I nearly got pushed out of my position when my department at a local art school was taken over by an artist who truly believed that oils based on 18th century painting practices and subject matter were the only genuine form of art.  And I got dismissed from an adjunct post for teaching practices and concepts that were too traditional to be in accord with the postmodernist, conceptual prejudices of the department director.

In the end I believe that a good piece of art speaks to the changing human condition in a fairly intelligible manner.  I don’t care if that is achieved by traditional or experimental means.  I’m not addicted to either novelty or convention.  If one artist wants to speak about the brevity and fragility of life by painting a detailed portrait of a wrinkly old man holding a delicate egg, that’s fine with me.  If another makes a grotesque human figure out of pieces of bone hot glued and tied together with lengths of hair to show that our bodies are haphazardly mortal, that’s fine with me.

A few months ago I was confronted by a man at an opening reception who got angry at me when I told him my story about the graph paper with the three penciled dots.  He was a passionate advocate for all things conceptual and modern, and was even more appalled when I told him that Robert Ryman’s white on white paintings (an ongoing series that Ryman started in the early 60s) were a joke to me.  The man blustered and clenched his fists, and I thought that he was about to punch me in the face.  Then I added that I liked the austere paintings of Agnes Martin, a transitional artist from the abstract expressionists to the minimalists, and he started to calm down.  He still thought that I was a conservative fool, but a moderate one.

R. Ryman painting exhibition

I was more amused by his reaction than offended, and didn’t mind it all that much when he challenged my intelligence and taste.  I had suffered through similar forms of condescension in grad school.

But I did wonder why he was so personally invested in the debate.  His world didn’t come to an end when I disagreed with him.  And the conservative critics on youtube seem to enjoy their outrage a little too much.  What would they do to feed the anger machine if every artist suddenly painted the conservative version of politically correct art (fruit and flower still lives, reverential illustrations of Bible scenes, etc.)?  Would the rage addicted critics switch targets and start yelling at chefs who experimented with nouvelle cuisine?  Would they start screaming, “What’s the matter with meatloaf?!”

I think that it would be lovely if we stopped yelling at each other and just went out and supported art that speaks to us.  Time will tell if anything we currently value is of lasting importance.  And I’ve resolved, in a sudden fit of forbearance, to let my daughter hate Rothko and never speak his name to her again.


The Right to Bear Arms: Let’s Talk About the Second Amendment

I try to avoid political discussions (especially in an election year) as I never relish a hot-headed argument that leads nowhere and changes the mind of no one.  But this morning I read that Orlando set a new high in gun deaths in 2015, and the local section featured four articles about recent shootings and gun deaths in 2016.  We central Floridians appear to be picking up right where we left off. The news of the ongoing bloodshed distressed me once again, and I decided to publish an essay I wrote last month following the mass killing in San Bernardino.

Many gun ownership advocates claim that they are strict readers of the Constitution, but conveniently forget that the Second Amendment speaks about gun ownership in the context of maintaining well regulated militias. I agree that state militias should bear arms and be well regulated. Private gun ownership is another matter.

But before I anger a number of you let me say that my father owned bolt action rifles and a shot gun when I was a child. He never used them to threaten bodily harm to any living creature other than squirrels and an occasional rabbit. He taught me how to aim and fire a rifle and a shot gun. I enjoyed target shooting and understand why folks are fond of their guns. Consequently I do not oppose ownership of single shot hunting rifles and shotguns as they are not designed with the sole intention of killing human beings. And if someone did wish to use them to commit mass murder he would have greater difficulty concealing these weapons when entering a crowded space, and if he did manage to get off a shot there would be a delay before he could begin targeting again.

Weapons that are designed solely to kill other people should be restricted or banned. Hand guns are used in the vast majority of gun deaths in America. Their only function is to kill human beings. (You’ll never see a deer hunter pull out a .45 to take down a buck.) If gun rights advocates assert that individuals have a right to defend themselves and should own hand guns if they desire, then I can reluctantly agree if the weapons have a limited magazine. If confronted by someone breaking into my home I don’t believe that I will need to turn the invader into mincemeat by firing a clip at his torso. Assault rifles have been used in mass shootings for the last 30 years. They obviously are intended to be used in situations that go beyond the self-defense of an individual. Their primary purpose, in their original design as military weapons, is to spray bullets at a wide field of targets with the intent of killing as many people as possible in a short period of time. Unless I am attacked on the street by a swarm of well armed gangsters it is unlikely that I will ever need an assault rifle to defend myself.

Strict and conservative readers of the Constitution claim that updated interpretations of and recent amendments to the original document pervert its meaning and belie the intentions of the Founding Fathers. They believe that the Second Amendment must never be challenged or reconsidered in light of current social and technological changes. My comments above brand me a traitor in the eyes of these purists. But are they being strict enough? I’d like to take their argument one step further to introduce a greater form of patriotism that truly adheres to all things deeply conservative. Put aside the endless debate about whether gun ownership is made sacrosanct by the Second Amendment. Let’s say that it does guarantee the right of every American to own a gun. But let’s turn our attention to the guns themselves.

If we take up the issue of gun rights then let us be faithful to the intentions and understanding of our forefathers. They spoke and wrote in terms of the weaponry of their age. At the time of the writing of the Constitution the only guns available were single shot rifles and pistols. Their weapons had to be muzzle loaded. The accuracy of pistols and rifles were as limited as their firing rates. It took a lot of care and concentration to hit a target, and a skilled rifleman could only take two successive shots within the span of a minute or two.

A man had time to consider the effect of his choice to use deadly violence before firing once again. He didn’t have the soft leisure of squeezing a trigger and holding it down while indiscriminately firing in all directions. He had to choose one particular victim and take deliberate aim.

I fully support a return to the good old days of our forefathers and the use of their weapons of choice. Let’s honor tradition and the original intent of the Constitution by jettisoning our modern, newfangled weapons and by replacing them with flintlock rifles and single shot, muzzle loading pistols. We could all still defend ourselves if absolutely necessary in our every day encounters. All other weapons should be banned and confiscated as they are unmanly and unpatriotic. Folks who consider themselves true Americans can get behind this incredibly conservative movement, can’t they?

Then no religious, racist or political fanatic could become an “active shooter” and mow down masses of people trapped in a crowded, enclosed space. Then no conscienceless punk could kill a score of innocent bystanders while trying to rub out a member of a rival gang. Then no father, mother, sister, brother would have to identify the body of a loved one torn into hamburger by bullets rapid-fired from an assault rifle by a suicidal, psychopathic idiot.