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ART TIMES Sept, 2003

IT’S BEEN said that we are condemned to repeat history if we do not make ourselves aware of it. Sounds reasonable, but the trick, I suppose, is to get people to take the time and effort necessary to make the journey into the past. How, if they do not choose to extend themselves beyond their own experience, can we make them see the truth of the statement? More to the point, how can we make them aware of their own repetitions? All too many, unfortunately, are among what Edith Wharton once called the "mentally unemployed," too self-centered and unconcerned to care. In my own limited sphere, I am often assailed by artists wishing to gain my attention by assuring me that what they are doing is "different." I‘ve discovered, however, that to many artists, art history begins with – and is limited to – their first creative efforts. They imagine themselves sui generis, full-blown geniuses with no lineage worth the trouble to acknowledge. They may certainly feel that their work is unique – must feel so if they intend to survive as artists – but it might help if they were to expand their horizons somewhat by taking the time to note their place in a continuum that goes back far beyond recorded history. The making of symbolic or representational images, after all, predates language, predates religion, predates (for all we know) the first inklings of rational thought. Surely anyone following in the footsteps of the cave painters (and those stone-age creators are already far along on the image-making continuum) must assume that someone, somewhere along the way, has turned his (or her) hand at whatever means of artistic expression they are attempting today. In light of that history, to try to get my attention by telling me that they are doing something "different" is not a very fruitful path for artists to take since it almost always betrays their ignorance of what came before they arrived on the scene. (Some, in fact, appear equally ignorant of what is happening in their own time!) Whatever they are doing might be "different" for and to them, but the odds are fairly strong that I have either seen or read about someone, somewhere, who had already attempted – and more than likely abandoned – the very same thing. "Different," then, is not as pertinent (to me) as is "Durable." By this I do not mean merely impervious – such as stone, or marble, or steel, or concrete may be to the vicissitudes of time and wear. Indeed, I’ve seen all too much of massy bits of sculpture or architecture that, as far as I am concerned, deserve neither the appellation of "art" nor the sufferance of cultural longevity. Heaped-up waves of aluminum or steel in the guise of "architecture" or conglomerations of constructional steel and concrete posing as "art" may indeed be durable but this is not the kind of permanence I have in mind. Instead, by "durable," I mean aesthetically valid for a period of time that at the very least exceeds the lifetime of the maker. Genuine, i.e., "durable," art stands the test of time over generations – and cultures. It speaks to a more essential (or primitive) self that transcends politics, gender, race, geography, and era. It speaks to that same self, in fact, whose hands formed the very first as well as the very last image – and it does so not because it is "different" but because it is inherently related to the first and last creative urge that motivated and continues to motivate mankind. It would not take a very intensive study of history to discover this. Edward Gibbon, certainly no slouch when it came to an appreciation and knowledge of history, notes in his closing chapters of The History of the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire: "Genius may anticipate the season of maturity; but in the education of a people, as in that of an individual, memory must be exercised, before the powers of reason and fancy can be expanded; nor may the artist hope to equal or surpass, till he has learned to imitate, the works of his predecessors."* A hard lesson, perhaps, but one that can only help us to attain a fuller knowledge of who and what we are – which for artists means, at the very least, comprehending the past out of which they have issued.

*Chapter LXVI, final sentence of concluding paragraph.


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