Painting and dumb ideas

“Soon I am engaged in a ritual of communion with the ETERNAL and the outcome is the work of ART.” – Alan Davie, 1966

Intellectual fashions are funny things. You’d think ideas would be more permanent than the width of your collar, but often it’s not so. The quote above is a case in point. It’s hard to imagine any painter, nowadays, describing what they do as a ritual of communion with the eternal, at least not with a straight face. Yet it was a widespread meme in the 50s and 60s and motivated whole schools of painting, particularly the abstract expressionists, who regularly claimed to be channelling cosmic forces in their work. Even into the 80s you could still find people who bought into to the “artist as shaman” idea. Often they were the same ones still wearing bell-bottoms.

But I’m not writing just to mock an idea whose time has passed, no matter how richly it might deserve it. And in quoting Alan Davie in a negative way, I hope I’m not being disrespectful of a man whose work I greatly admire. Because that’s the thing: his paintings are terrific, even if the ideas that motivated them have become a bit shopworn.

And that, to me, is interesting. How can the paintings be any good, if the ideas behind them were silly (or seem so, to us)?

It makes me wonder we put so much effort into developing the theories and ideas that inform our practice. Ultimately, when we no longer believe that the artist is some kind of shaman, or that the work will point the way to some kind of grand and ill-defined utopia, all that’s left is are the paintings. And some of them, like Davie’s, don’t seem to need the prop of ideas to hold them up, and can stand on their own when the scaffolding of theory has been kicked away. Why is that?


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