Artists to the Barricades – or not

 Francisco de Goya, El Tres de Mayo

Francisco de Goya, El Tres de Mayo

 

Had a nice meal last night with several artist friends in Harlem, after which the conversation veered off into what kinds of art we admired, what drove us to create, what was off-base.  I was surprised that the genre of art which wrestles with political/social issues received short shrift from the group.  We were talking about Ai Weiwei in particular, but connecting him to a lineage of artists calling out repressive government or social tyranny that is well-represented in art history, from Picasso’s Guernica to Goya’s 3rd of May or Max Beckmann’s depictions of decaying Gestapo enablers.  (to say nothing of Dostoevsky, Dickens or Balzac)

 Ai Weiwei: 'Remembering', Installation of backpacks for the facade of the Haus der Kunst, Munich 2009 (c) photo by Premier Art Scene

Ai Weiwei: 'Remembering', Installation of backpacks for the facade of the Haus der Kunst, Munich 2009 (c) photo by Premier Art Scene

 

What seemed to turn the group off from creating this sort of work today was never completely clear – it could have been a sense that the issues needed to be personally experienced in order for them to find their way into one’s art, or that the issues were no longer the province of visual artists, that the cudgels were being appropriately or better taken up by those in other mediums – film, writing, music.  Or else the social criticism by artists had been so overly worked – issues of gender and race were mentioned – that it was hard to say anything new or authentic.

 Max Beckmann, Die Nacht

Max Beckmann, Die Nacht

 

Authenticity seemed to be the underlying value, and one’s devotion to a personal process of experimentation and discovery in the art-making.  This seemed to argue for a bottom-up approach, wherein the work arises out of purely visual considerations or diligent tinkering as opposed to starting with some sort of overarching idea or discovery and seeking to respond to it or express it visually through one’s work.

 

I still don’t know where I come out on this, though I started the evening arguing fairly vigorously for work in the Ai WeiWei-Goya-Beckman vein.  I see now how it might be somewhat passé, certainly only one of many possible entries  into the creative process, but am skeptical that it is appropriate only for the small number of artists directly affected by state or social tyranny.   Beckmann, I recently learned, believed the moral purpose of the artist was to depict the spiritual condition of his age.   It was refreshing to read that, too, and realize that as recently as 80 years ago artists could say things like "the moral purpose of the artist is..."   In any case, it’s the New Year and I am committed to making nothing for awhile, just thinking and puttering and trying to get clearer and make room for some new things to take root in my art-making practice so this was a particularly valuable discussion.