I’m not giving away much when I assert that my paintings derive from an aesthetic that was fairly prevalent in the first half of the 20th century. I’m heavily influenced by the schools that trace their origin back to Cezanne and subsequently evolved into Cubism, Constructivism, the Bauhaus, Geometric Abstraction and other related offshoots. (I’d also include Paul Klee in this group, although he stood somewhat off to the side and is sometimes lumped in with the Surrealists, which is the other major current in early/mid 20th century painting.)
The whole cubism/constructivism thing really waned after about 1950 or so. There were a couple of reasons for that I think. It had become stylistically pervasive to the point where it started to influence the look of just about everything: advertising, architecture, public sculpture, furniture, magazine illustration, Saturday morning cartoons, etc, often in a somewhat mannered form, and people got a bit tired of it. It also carried European associations and that didn’t fit well with the post war shift of the centre of avant garde painting from Paris to New York.
But that’s all ancient history now, which I guess might prompt the question why I persist in painting in a style that was well on the way out before I was born. I have several reasons, but the one I want to write about today has to do with something I’ve never seen explicitly mentioned in connection with painting from the period in question: a lot of it has a do-it-yourself (aka DIY) quality you don’t see much in the painting from earlier or later eras. By which I mean that much of it looks like it was painted in someone’s garage.
Now, I suppose it would be easy enough to spin that negatively, but let’s not rush to judgement just yet. Let me elaborate a bit first.
It’s no secret that painting, and “fine art” in general, are fairly bound up with money and social position. All the famous artists got that way not so much due to the quality of their work (which is a pretty nebulous concept anyhow) but because of who bought it. In the distant past it was the really powerful institutions (church and state) performing that function; for the past couple of hundred years increasingly it has been wealthy and powerful individuals who have greased the artistic wheels.
And of course these individuals aren’t always or even often completely altruistic or completely focussed on the art. Of course, lots of people buy art just because they like it, but when you get into the higher end other motivations come into play, like the desire to advertise one’s social status. And there are several ways art can address that requirement:
1. It can be very, very well made. High levels of craft skill take a lot of time and resources to develop, and well crafted works can take a long time to create. They don’t typically come cheap, in other words.
2. It can be large. Large works require lots of space to store and exhibit, and space usually comes at a premium.
3. It can be hard to maintain. Works made from perishable materials, such as rotting shark carcasses, require bevies of expensive experts to keep them from disintegrating. Or you can just let them rot and depreciate; that works too as long as they were expensive enough to start with. A form of conspicuous consumption, if you will.
4. It can be made from expensive materials, jewels and gold and suchlike.
5. It can be fashionable.
OK, all the historical artworks you’ve ever heard about were to some extent, at some time or another, fashionable with some group or other. But as for the rest:
In the 19th century, painting and sculpture particularly of the Academic variety tended to be very well-made and often quite large. In the latter half of the 20th century up to the present, art has tended to be large, hard to maintain, and/or made from expensive materials. Craft has started to make a comeback as well, although with the caveat that the artist now is often not the maker, the craft is typically subcontracted out.
In the first half of the 20th century though, most paintings were not particularly well-made, or large, though there are some exceptions. And expensive materials were anathema.
The paradigmatic works here were probably the paintings of Paul Klee. Most were very small easel paintings and watercolours. The level of craft skill they exhibit is not negligible, but it is nowhere near the level of, say, Bouguereau. Their frames were typically plain and handmade; often just four strips of wood protecting the edge of the canvas. And while Klee did experiment with his materials resulting sometimes in pictures that were hard to maintain, that condition developed over time, it wasn’t overt. In other words, I’d like to argue, one of the things these pictures say is, “You can do it too.” And that’s definitely not a message I get either from the 19th century Academiciens or from our contemporary Late-and-Post-Modern art stars. Their works tend to say “Those without substantial resources need not apply.”
Of course, the DIY message probably also could use a bit of clarification. If like many art students you take “You can do it too” to mean “You can sell your napkin doodles for piles of money too,” you’re likely to wind up a bit disappointed. On the other hand, if you take it to mean, “You can paint even if you can’t devote every waking moment to it and don’t have the support of wealthy patrons,” it can be quite a positive thing.
Again, it’s easy to criticize work that looks too easy. “My twelve year old could paint better than that” is pretty standard in this vein, or one thinks of forger Van Meegeren’s dismissal of modern art as “The art of leaving out what you can’t do.” But it’s probably better to leave out what you can’t do than try to put it in, and one could also note that just because something is hard to do doesn’t make it worth doing. The other thing I should probably clarify is that I’m still talking about work that strives for excellence. It’s just that striving in this case doesn’t mean you have to traverse a lot of economic barriers before you can even begin.
Having not that long ago finished Thomas Piketty’s “Capitalism in the 21st Century”, it seems to me that the brief ascendancy of the DIY aesthetic in mid 20th century might have had something to do with the rise of the middle classes back then. For a time, it looked like the future might be far more economically egalitarian than the past, and that might mean art itself would be democratized. Rather than having a class of very wealthy patrons served by a small number of highly subsidized professional artists, the spread of general prosperity and leisure would cause the production of art to become more diffused throughout the general population, and new economic conditions would necessitate new kinds of painting.
An idealistic dream, and sadly one not borne out by developments after 1970 or thereabouts. But its barrier to entry is low enough that one can perpetuate the aesthetic even now that it’s completely out of fashion. In doing so, I like to think I tip my hat toward an ideal whose time has not yet come, but may someday.