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.
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.