Art historians agree that the emergence of a new style in the visual arts--a new "ism"--is highly unlikely. Artists facing this so-called dead end are looking at the world with an activist eye. They advocate a cause, a preconceived purpose for creating. Common themes for these artists are the environment, animal rights, LGBT rights, world peace, religious freedom, etc. Also prominent is indigenous art, especially when it incorporates ethnic techniques into western themes or western techniques into ethnic themes. These endeavors are highly contextual and often adopt interpretive brands that compete for market dominance.
Have artists abandoned the higher calling to create artworks that are valued in their own right? Is the new emphasis on social and political issues an abandonment of the intrinsic meaning of art? History has shown that artists have not found solutions to these problems artistically. Death of Marat by David, The Third of May by Goya, and Guernica by Picasso are good examples. Only art historians could recognize these paintings today.
This orientation toward use-value moves art away from an exploration of our being. The artist no longer enjoys an inner vision or an intuition of spirit. It is this inner-directedness that separates the artist from special interests and politics. But is this a claim that the artist has a fuller experience of life? An environmental artist might see a landscape in a different way, highlighting the effects of global warming on flora and fauna by using colors that have a radiant effect. But what is the intention of these artists? To establish a style or to change people’s opinions?
In a backwaters exhibition entitled Environmentally Engaged held at the Lighthouse Art Museum in Tequesta, Florida, first place honors went to “South Florida Rainbow Snake” painted on a collage of photos of people. It begs the question, why should we fear snakes? Is the rainbow snake venomous? Such primitive reactions are no longer valid in the modern era and prejudice our knowledge of nature. To a degree, yes, but when an eight-foot king cobra recently escaped from its cage near Orlando, Florida, it made headline news and caused an intensive search of the region. Its capture one month later also hit the headlines.
My entry in this competition—Escape Artist—wasn’t even recognized, even though there were ten awards given. It might have something to do with its accompanying artist’s statement, which questioned the aims of environmental artists. The alligator has survived impossible environmental odds for 37 million years. Though a hurricane has deconstructed a billboard's commercial significance, the gator heads in a new direction hoping not to become another roadkill.
No better evidence for the predominance of use-value is needed than the amount of nonsense found in artist statements. It’s as though artists peruse philosophy texts and extract catchy phrases that sound profound but have absolutely no meaning in their art. They get away with this because art professors and curators are as ignorant of philosophy as the general public.
But isn’t it idealistic to think of the artist as enlightened, like the slave in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, breaking out of his chains, discovering his reality to be an illusion, and climbing up out of the darkness to see true light? The artist is very much determined by the culture in which he lives and is never wholly free from the motivations and interests of the social system to which he belongs. Even scientific knowledge is not absolute and free from influence. Old experiments conducted with new and more precise instruments and in different environments like microgravity are producing different results.
After all, the media is constantly telling us that such-and-such an event has changed our lives forever. No wonder artists are so affected. They want viewers to be stirred by their artworks and be motivated to change their lives and the lives of others. The artwork becomes an image of an event very similar to a photograph, which is stuck forever in one place and time. It has lost the freedom to exist in itself and create its own space and time.
There are artworks, especially paintings, which resist assimilation into the surrounding milieu, aided to a degree by frames that border them. This resistance has been called by various names—spirit, visual effect, artistic essence, phenomenological depth, pure givenness.
This multiplicity of expressions is problematic. Chief is the criticism that this view leads to a reductionism as expressed in minimalist art. It might free art from every cause or thesis in the world, but it results in a certain nihilism, which defeats its original purpose.
Artists sometimes speak of transcending the world of things and even the body, “so as to provoke in the soul the vibrations of pure resonance.” (Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art). The images in a painting are not objects in space and, as such, take on a total interiority, much like the human soul does. To be sure, a framed painting has many of the same aspects as self-consciousness, more so than literature, music, and even film.
In the 20th Century, the work became the artist’s alter ego; it revolted against the world. It was a “desire to break up forms—to decompose them like the cubists had done… to go further…in quite another direction altogether.” (Duchamp, 1946) It was the opposite of classical art, a refusal to disclose the self, a distinct attempt to obscure the self—the artist’s eye for discovering beautiful objects in the world. Art was no longer a mental process like consciousness but more of an automatic process where beauty existed in the medium itself.
The world was too chaotic. Representational art was a pretention, an incomplete approximation, “an approximation that grasps something of it, but in doing so it also constantly grasps an emptiness that cries out for fulfilment.” (Edmund Husserl, 1928) The abstract artist would have nothing of this emptiness and filled his works with vibrant colors and inimitable forms. It was a form of escapism that was very popular during world wars and rampant terrorism.
Abstractions are very popular today, offending our powers of perception and consciousness. Objects never come together between the interstices of the eye’s wanderings. Internet galleries value, rank, and award artists based on likes from users who have little knowledge of art history and no interest in what an artwork might be saying about being human. The cooler an artwork looks, the better it is. Even the great painter Gerhard Richter has gotten into the act. The artwork is judged on how well it blends into the décor.
There is a conviction amongst some modern philosophers that the (internal) stream of consciousness cannot furnish the (externally fixed) content of meaning and belief. Objects become singular when they move within the field of perception, either by themselves or through the varying perspective of the conscious person’s body. The self remains the same or stable during this process. The self is fixed; the world changes in consciousness. This stability or directedness of the self toward objects in the world gives the self meaning and is interpreted in two-dimensional artworks. Just as the objects in my consciousness are not the actual objects experienced, so too the objects in my paintings are not the actual objects experienced. It is the world not in itself but in the self of the viewer that we see fixed in my paintings.
The viewer aligns with the artist’s rendering of objects, which are represented from personal experiences or artistic appropriations, converging on and becoming part of the now and also anticipating an interpretation or future outcome or resolution. Like words in a sentence, the objects in a painting are joined to give it meaning. The connections are visual and mental. The viewer moves from one object to the next, remembering the value (appreciated, liked, hated, resented) of an object while viewing the next object, until the final link in a chain emerges and the pattern reveals a whole, which is appreciated or judged. The present never persists and, as even the smallest link in the chain contains the memory of what has been seen and expectation of the next object, it can as such never be experienced alone. This is in essence the way we live our lives moment to moment—remembering, valuing, and anticipating.
The objects in a painting do not move, flash, or glitter. A painting is not a game, and we cannot play with it or manipulate its parts. We cannot change the past or predict the future but they both converge upon the present and give it meaning. The present in itself can never be experienced. In this way, a painting gives us an exemplary insight into human nature, and its purpose is to communicate meaning without any ulterior motive.