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Art Review: Looking at art: A Guide for the (Understandably) Perplexed
Part II: Artists

By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES Fall 2013

OK…SO MUCH  for images — now let's look at the image-makers. Artists come in all sizes, shapes and varieties. There are Sunday afternoon artists, full-time artists, talkative artists, silent artists, happy artists, morose artists, light-hearted artists and humorless ones. There are those who take themselves seriously, and there are those who take only their art seriously. In short, artists pretty much come from the same tribe of cavepeople that we do—and, if for no other reason than this—art is varied, different, so we ought not expect artist Tom, Dick or Harry to turn out the same stuff. Consequently—and, I might add, inevitably—you might love Tom’s art, feel so-so about Dick’s art, and not be wild about Harry’s.

Artists also have a variety of reasons for making art. There are artists who make things to please others; there are those who make things to please only themselves. There are commercial artists who work mainly for money and there are artists who do not. Many artists have consciously chosen their professions while others haven’t, having become artists in spite of the wishes of others—of their parents, or their mates, or, at times, of even themselves. Some are compulsive artists, people who are born to make art, who become ill if they cease to make art. There are some who create with an eye on the marketplace while others keep their eyes trained inwardly, constantly searching for their own unique vision. There are even some “artists”—highly successful people (at least in making money)—that do not even hold a brush or wield a chisel but, instead, have a workforce of helpers that “make” the art that they sell as “original” art products of their own, content in having had an “idea” or “concept” and letting lesser mortals do the heavy work. This is not the place to discuss the ethics of such practices and I will only mention that such “artists” of today point out to the ateliers of a Rembrandt, Rubens or a Velázquez who also used apprentices in their time.

There are those who believe that there are artists who are charlatans, fakers who create “stuff” that they simply call “art,” and who try to foist it off on unsuspecting buyers—but, I’ve never met any. This doesn’t mean that the artworld is free of crooks or tricksters—but these tend more often to be the middlemen who either buy, sell or promote art and not the artists themselves. There is, for instance, a modern phenomenon commonly touted as “starving artist” shows that periodically crop up in hotel conference rooms around the country where “original” oil paintings are sold, ready-framed, for under $100. The sad fact is, that the “artists” who are turning out these “original” oils are indeed “starving” artists, third-world drudges who toil over never-ending rolls of canvas that pass before them as they put in their part of the picture—some painting in the clouds, others the birds, still others the houses, and so on, depending on the subject matter that is called for. A final worker will sign the work, usually a single name such as “Davis,” or “Williams,” or “Anderson.” The frames, ready to assemble, come from some other third-world country, put together in much the same manner—and usually for the same slave-labor wages. Both the frames and the rolls of “original” paintings—usually uncut, still on the roll—are sent to some agent in the U.S. who then hires some other drudges to cut the rolls into single canvases and place them inside the frames. Viola! An $89.50 “original oil” painting, signed by the “painter” and ready to hang over the sofa or on restaurant and hotel walls..

The only artists who might be called out-in-out cheats are the forgers, those people who paint pictures in the style of some master—usually some dead, high-priced master—and who attempt to pass them off as genuine articles. But again, I have never met any, and they, also, most often work through a middleman who is actually selling the work. A little thought will tell you that, if  these guys can make a passable forgery, they must be good artists in their own right. True. Except, they must have a little larceny in their hearts to go along with such schemes, whether they are doing it for the money or the excitement. On the up side, a forgery—good or bad—need not concern you. Even if it was hanging in a museum (where it was — or still isassumed to be "the real thing"), you need only like it or not. Usually, the ones who get “taken” by forgers are dealers or collectors—people who are more or less in it for the money and prestige and they have to take their risks as would anyone else in the marketplace. People who love art for its own sake, on the other hand, can enjoy a good fake without much harm to either their pocketbook or self-esteem.

The point is, artists ought to be seen as non-threatening individuals, people who are generally like you and me, struggling to get along in the world. By and large they are non-violent people and, when violence does enter the picture, it is usually directed against themselves. A famous example, of course, is Vincent van Gogh who not only cut off his own ear in a fit of rage, but, some claim, eventually took his own life by purposefully shooting himself. This, however, is an extreme example and the most passion you can usually expect from an artist is an occasionally wild brushstroke or liberal splash of red or yellow or blue across a canvas. So, again, artists are pretty much like us.

There is a difference, though, and one we should not lose track of. Whereas most of us are making or doing things that people need (or think they need)—you know, supply and demand, the formula that makes the world go around—artists are usually out there making things that nobody asked for. They are not making belt buckles, or bullets, or beads—stuff that people use. Artists are making things that they hope someone will “need” and “use.” Now I mentioned above that there were commercial artists and this means that they do produce on demand, creating products that someone else is paying them to make. These include not only those artists who are in the art departments of corporations or on the staff of magazines but some artists who work only on commission, say for example, professional portrait painters. For the moment, we’ll put these “employed” artists aside. Not that they aren’t bona fide “artists;” only that they are more like you and me since they fall into the conventional patterns of supply and demand economics.

Art, on the other hand, can liberate us from the supply and demand straitjacket of everyday living, and artists, those who do not attempt to fit their work into the prevailing pattern, can be liberators. There are artists, then, who break the mold which usually form the bulk of the tribe, so to speak, artists who march to a drum we all cannot or will not hear. These are those compulsive artists I mentioned above, people who are driven to create at all costs, people who flout convention—sometimes even common sense—to create their art, people whose souls die if they are prevented from creating. Because most of us do follow convention and do what we deem are the necessities of life, such artists can be a little off-putting, even a little intimidating. Who are they to let their wives (or husbands) work to support them, to let their children go hungry while they putter about in their studios? Well…they’re artists. Sometimes they are called “serious” artists, or “fine” artists. During the Renaissance, it was believed that artists—serious artists—were “inspired” in the literal sense of that word, i.e., “breathed into” by none other than the Divinity. Some today still feel that artists—serious artists—are special and that they have indeed some important things to “tell” us, to “communicate” to us, “things” that come from outside the “normal” experiences of everyday life. Whether or not you’ve ever been so moved by a painting, a concerto or a piece of sculpture, there are few who can stand in the center of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome without feeling that we have come a long way from the cave—and what man is capable of creating outside his usual world. Whatever these artists are called or how they are thought of, they are doing their “jobs” and simply because that job doesn’t fit most job descriptions we are familiar with, they are “jobs” nonetheless. In all likelihood, those “other” cavepeople looked askance at the wall scribblers, wondering why they didn’t go out and forage for roots or cook meat or spear animals or fight other tribes.

Over the years, in the course of my writing about artists and their work, I’ve visited them in their studios, chatted with them at their exhibitions—even visited museums with them to view the work of others—and, in doing so, have come to count many of them as friends. Of course, during our time together, I’ve talked to them about art, both their own and about art in general.

As I’ve said, artists come in all varieties—as does their art—and it stands to reason that our discussions would vary and, perhaps more importantly, so would their observations, opinions, beliefs and conclusions about art—about what constitutes art, what makes them produce it, what makes good from bad art, and such. I have never found two artists who completely agreed about any of this . Sure, there was considerable overlapping in some areas, but—and this is crucial to understand—they were never carbon copies of each other. Not even when one was the student of the other. Each had a unique viewpoint when it came to art. This unique viewpoint, in fact, is precisely what makes an artist an artist. This is true even of forgers, artists who can duplicate the work of another artist, usually a past master, and usually for monetary gain. The ability for exact duplication, however, is what makes a person a forger—not what makes him an artist. In all probablity, the forger is an artist—but his work would markedly differ from the one he is copying—and surely not be quite as saleable.

A unique viewpoint—artwriters like to refer to it as an “aesthetic vision”— incidentally, is also the hallmark of artists in other fields—musicians, playwrights, choreographers, poets, novelists, filmakers, and the like. Their purpose—as it is with the visual artist—is to present that viewpoint to you in whatever medium they have chosen to be their life’s work. The musician in his music, the composer in his score, the choreographer in his dance, and so forth.

Some artists have tried to speak to me about their viewpoint, about their art. I’ve sat in their studios, watched them in the comfort of their own familiar surroundings, and listened to them. Some are very articulate; some not. As they spoke, I would let my eyes wander over their work, sometimes seeing what they were saying obvious in their work, but, oftentimes, not. Being articulate does not always mean that artists can speak clearly about their own work. They may be knowledgeable about art in general, about its history, about the technicalities of its making—and not be able to say one coherent thing about their own work.

Paul Cadmus, for example, was an extremely well-read and cultured man, able to speak confidently and intelligently on the subject of art. I spent an afternoon at his home/studio, gathering material for his profile for ART TIMES. We spoke of many things, but not once did any of his utterances ever “explain” one of his pictures, not one word conveyed the delicate line with which he outlines a human form. His words said one thing; his art quite another.

On another day, I spent an afternoon with Liza Todd Tivey, the daughter of the actress Liz Taylor, to speak about her bronze sculptures of horses. Unlike Cadmus, Tivey was extremely sparing with words, so much so, in fact, that at the end of my interview she feared that she had “wasted” my time.  (This was certainly not so since an artist’s workspace can speak volumes to the observant person).

When you stop to think about this, it’s not really very surprising. After all, if they could have used words to express what they wanted to say, they would not have resorted to making images in paint, or wood, or stone. They would have been writers, not visual artists.

And this is the next crucial thing you have to understand. As I pointed out in the last Chapter, image-making is a language in and of itself. Indeed, it has its own syntax, its own grammar, its own vocabulary. Just like you cannot translate one language into another without some distortion, you also cannot translate a picture or a statue into a word essay. And, if you ponder this truth a little longer, you’ll come to see that you cannot translate any thing into words. Poets strain their utmost to describe what they mean by love, but no one believes for one instant that the words he or she uses have any real connection to loving. Even though I am a writer, no amount of words I use nor no matter how clever I string them together can ever bring a painting (or anything else for that matter) to "life" for another. Words can only approximate, never define. A definition of love can never convey what it means to hunger for another’s presence, or embrace, or kiss.

Socrates used to have great fun bringing this truth home to his listeners. So much fun, in fact, that they finally made him drink hemlock to shut him up. Someone would begin talking about some idea—say patriotism—and he’d say, “Yes, that sounds good—but just what is patriotism anyway?” “Why you know, Socrates,” they’d answer. “Like fighting for one’s nation.” “Oh, yes,” Socrates would answer. “That’s an example of patriotism. But just what is patriotism?” “Well, respecting the flag—dying for one’s country. You know!” And Socrates would grin and say, “No…no, I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking. Just what do you mean by patriotism?” Eventually, the speaker would stop talking, the crowd would disperse, and no one would feel very smart (except maybe Socrates) after one of these exchanges. Certainly not the speaker who threw around words he couldn’t define, nor the people who stood around listening. Socrates, of course, was trying to show that abstractions like patriotism or love could never be defined and that we should simply be careful about how we use them or guide our lives by them. Naturally, they eventually killed him. Why would they accept such nonsense as that?

The fact is, however, that Socrates was correct. Not only was he right in pointing out that we can’t really pin down abstractions, but, although he didn’t push the matter, we can’t actually define any objective fact—abstract or not—except only in some kind of general way. No definition of a child will fully convey the sense of your child. Or mother. Or father. Or dog and cat, for that matter. Or home. Or car. Or room. I know what the word “home” connotes—but, unless I’m acquainted with yours, I don’t get any visual “sense” of it as you do. And even if I am acquainted with it and spend some time there, I probably don’t really know it.

Part of the problem here is a universal condition of man—our five senses are imperfect gatherers of information. Dogs have greater senses of smell, eagles have keener eyesight and most wild turkeys have exquisite hearing capacities. A table may seem solid enough to place things on, yet we know that, in actuality, it is a swarming mass of molecules. We have all looked up at the sun, but how many know that we can never see it as it is right now but only as it was eight minutes ago because that’s how long it took for its light to travel to us?

And, of course, the artist—in all his myriad manifestations—is also subject to this “universal condition” of man. Like us, he is as good or as bad as he chooses to be. You need not love him like you do Tom, be indifferent to him like you are with Dick, or be wildly negative about him as you are with Harry. All you have to do is look at his art and see if he “communicates” anything to you. If you like what is being “said”— if it feeds your 'spirit' — then enjoy; if not, then move on to the next picture.    

All right — enough about image-makers, or "artists". In our next (Winter) Issue, let's turn our attention to the artwriters.

(To be continued)

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