“Being modern means knowing what has been done” – Roland Barthes
I was reading something online today, by an artist trying to define himself against ‘modernism’ and he talked a bit about realism being a modernist movement, to be avoided. He went on to say he wanted nothing to do with Neo Realists, Photo-realists or new Academic Realists, “those hopeless romantics”.
This caught my attention.
All of art since the Enlightenment, i.e. modernism, romanticism and realism, is a lot to turn up your nose at, especially since all of 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th century art also was to do with visually representing nature, real events and fantastic stories from myth. Playing like we are discovering Greek statuary for the first time is a little, hmm… naive, if not impoverished, and very self-serving.
It seems to me that, in our tradition, art always has been a negotiation between reality and fantasy, history and fiction, the present moment and nostalgia.
Right now, our current awareness of our own history floods us, as a society. And though we, as single artists, might want to stand outside the terms used to describe this situation ( postmodern being one, historicism being another) we are by the effort of that struggle declaring ourselves historically self-conscious and over- informed, over-concerned with and over-defined by a historicizing consciousness.
And instead of admitting we are part of the present postmodern situation, some lapse into absurdities about eternal values, or create disempowering fictions about some bygone moment of our artistic tradition.
Paintings and the urge to make them do not spring from history or fleeing into history, but from human nature and from relating to human existence, even now, in these historicized times. Especially now.
Though often said, art does not come from art, if by that we mean it comes from an object-maker imitating the look of an object made before. Today, as before, artists come from artists, from object-makers imitating the actions and examining the subjects and questions of other object-makers.
This is not romantic or realist. It is counter to our post-cultural reality, maybe, to the philosophic shock resulting from two world wars and the blurring cultural effects of transnational capitalism. Art is a vast consumer product category, whatever else I may know it to be, and this makes it slippery, able to declare it’s presence in anything, from anywhere, at any time. To find traction, I pursue the humanity of a particular tradition. That means dwelling in and growing out from inside a particular history, flowering out from it — neither ignoring it, nor quoting it. No enfant terrible, and no pastiche, either.
What am I concluding? I had a master, who represented to me a living and evolving tradition that spans eighteen known generations of master artists, tracing a line from the Renaissance to Mannerism, the Baroque, Atticism, Royal Academism, the Rococo, Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, Realism, the Belle Epoque, les Neo-Grecs, Orientalism, Impressionism, Gilded Age Classicism, Fauvism, Cubism, Bauhaus Modernism and post-WWII Zen counterculture.
Whatever one calls it, or has labeled it, this series of waves is the western tradition of painting, and it is meant to be edifying, critical, entertaining, tough-minded, grieving, celebratory, beautiful, representative of our lives and beliefs (in all their paradox). This living form represents, necessarily, our best attitude toward history itself.
But painting needs no historical justification or placement, it only needs to give life to beautiful things, and give life to its viewers. Not joy or despair, mysteries or facts, ideals or realities, but life. The full picture.
Nature, tradition, reality, spirit, life: these are all words for the thing that painting presents, the thing being discussed, being transacted, and being sought, not what’s “old”, what’s “timeless”, or what’s “new”, but what’s going on.
– Timothy Stotz, Madrid, 2000