Monday, February 05, 2007

de gustibus non est disputandum

I recently rewatched Julian Schnabel's tender bio-pic of Basquiat.
Now, I will begin this essay by stating that I really don't care for Schnabel's painting all that much. Do I think he is a talentless hack, getting rich off of the intellectually bankrupt corpse of post-modern art?
I believe he did some interesting things as painter, but his endeavors in the plastic arts do not move me.
de gustibus non est disputandum
In matters of taste, there is no argument
That motto should engraved on every easel, embossed on the cover of every art critic's laptop. And I think Mr. Schnabel might agree with me on this.

Anyway, I have the highest regard for Schnabel as an artist, though personally I prefer his cinematic works to his painting. Some reviewers concentrate on Basquiat as an indictment of the art world. I don't see it this way. Basquiat is a movie about painting, about painters, and about what it means to live as a painter. And it is told from a perspective that is as close and understanding, as intimate and frustrated with the creative life, as a lover with the beloved.

Egos, politics, economics, substance abuse, these are all part of the art world. So yes, they figure in the film. Schnabel loves art, loves creativity, not with the adolescent illusions of a young romantic, but with the patient heart of a husband who after years of contempt inducing familiarity can still be struck by the vision of his wife in the afternoon sun, and honestly call her beloved. Basquiat is a sort of bittersweet love song to the creative life, a declaration of unconditional love with eyes wide open.

Perhaps you can tell, the film gets under my skin.

After watching it last night, I have been doing some research.
Since I left Little Rock in 2000, I have been basically isolated from the art world. Sure I did a lot of creative things in college, hung out with some arty kids. But nothing like spending 40 hours a week in a fine art supply store, surrounded by high-falutin art magazines, and interacting with professional artists.
I don't know who the hot artists in Olympia, Seattle, or Portland are, not to mention LA, New York, Tokyo, or Syndney. I don't know what's happening.

So I've been trying to do some research.
Though I had internet when I was peddling paint, I found researching art online daunting. And I had vast resources at work, so I didn't feel the need to obsess about it while surfing.
Now, suddenly I'm curious.
But researching contemporary art online now is at least as daunting as it was seven years ago.
Don't believe me check this page, where Wikipedia has basically thrown it's hands into the air on the topic.

Don't get me wrong. I don't necessarily think this is bad thing. I enjoy the fact that since the middle of the last century it has become increasingly difficult for any particular "-ism" to predominate in the art world. I am distressed, however, by vitriol that is produced by many of the warring factions. It is disturbingly like a religious conflict.

The majority of my image making has been representational and figurative. To me, exploration of the human form has been a logical and rewarding avenue for exploring human existence. And I can be quite conservative when it comes to issues of craftsmanship. A professional chef does not begin with ingredients and techniques cleaned from MacDonalds. Likewise as an artist who aspires towards professionalism, I seek to use materials and techniques which have either been proven by time or extensive scientific research to last as long as possible.
I can even be quite vocal in these opinions.

Perhaps that is why a friend recently sent me a link to rant against modern art. It is an intelligent, educated rant, to be sure. There are some valid points to it. But, as most rants do, it oversimplifies the situation, turns it into black and white, with the ranter solidly in the white. I replied to my friend with a link that discusses the CIA's role in the rise of the Abstract Expressionist movement. His reply was thus:

In my uber conservative world, we see this degradation of "true" art as a symptom of modern secular humanist philosophy, not a conspiracy by governmental forces. More specifically, I see this as part of the general trend that blurs all value and judgment of good and bad, valuing only the utterly nihilistic, cynical and "abstract". You see the CIA, I see the devil.

Wow... umm....
Art as holy war.
Propaganda, sure. But this seems a little extreme.
My buddy has a twisted sense of humor, so perhaps this was some Liberal baiting on his part. But I'm sure there are people who think this way.

And there is some humor to be found here. Abstract art is actually more biblical, if you want to look at it theologically. Representational art is the manufacture of graven images. It was also the preferred flavor of the Nazis and the Stalinists. That would be quite funny.
If it wasn't so sad.

Good Art versus Bad Art.
It doesn't bother me so much that my conservative Christian friend sees art this way. That's the way he sees the world. What bothers me is that other artists see the world this way.
Because they should know better than anyone, that while yes, there are the darkest of blacks and the purest of whites in this world, most of the world shows itself in a scintillating rainbow of hues.

Perhaps that is why I enjoy the film Basquiat so much. Because it isn't really about Basquiat as a black painter or Warhol as a white artist. It is about the symphony of colors that reality confronts us with, and how art can remind us of that.

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