Click on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Left and Right of Art

The left-right art cart.
Art should copy life. No! Life should copy art. Are you of the conservative Social Realist school, or a liberal Aestheticist from the same era? Art reflecting political persuasions? Perhaps, though it goes back a great deal further than American Democrats and Republicans or the Republican RINO/Tea Party split. In fact, if you study, not just politics, but human nature, such a divergence in thinking would seem to be hard-wired into the human psyche. There are pessimists and there are optimists. Some people seem predisposed to hope, others to fear. Often when we talk about ancient origins, we hearken back to the Egyptians, probably the first organized art civilization. I suppose if you dug down deep enough you might find such a dichotomy in Egyptian art and philosophy, but it's much easier to reflect up another nearby, though slightly later culture that, while not so well organized, is much better documented--the Greeks.

The School of Athens, 1511, Raphael--Plato and Aristotle discuss Socrotes
To cut to the chase, the Greeks had Socrates and his protege, Plato, on the left. On the right was Plato and his protege, Aristotle. It's a classic spectrum with Plato stuck somewhere in the moderate middle. To oversimplify somewhat, Socrates contended that reality should not rely on the senses, which can be easily deceived--that we learn by recalling and thinking rather than observing. On the other hand, Aristotle was something of a Greek redneck espousing scientific observation of the real world as the sole means of learning--what you couldn't see or touch simply didn't exist. Everything had to be logical. As history, if not philosophy, has proven again and again, extremes are both false and potentially dangerous. Extremes involve the theoretical and ideological wishful thinking.

The Cliff Dwellers, George Bellows. Who's to save these poor people?
Getting back to art (where I'm on much more solid ground) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries both these extremes confronted one another. There was no fisticuffs, no polls, no elections (as such) in the sense we would think of in politics. It was much more esoteric than that. In America, New York in particular, we had the Social Realists, sometimes better known as the Ashcan School, led by John Sloan followed by such gritty machos as George Luks, George Bellows, Robert Henri, William Glackens and Everett Shinn (among others). If they'd had pickup trucks back then, these guys would have set up their easels in the back and cruised the slums of Manhattan slapping and slopping paint to canvas depicting the worst of the worst society had to offer. Life was harsh and ugly. Art should portray life. If that meant art should be harsh and ugly--so be it. Though their art philosophy would have positioned them to the far right, ironically, their political and stylistic bent would, today, label them as liberals. Their art cried out: society, business, religion, government--someone should do something to improve the lot of these poor people.
Nocturne in Blue and Silver, 1871, James McNeill Whistler
--no social comment here, not even a time or place.
At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, in England, London in particular, we would have found a group called the Aestheticists. This group was something of an outgrowth of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, and as such, probably didn't have much in the way of a leader, but included such names as James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Oscar Wilde, John Keats, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Byron, and Aubrey Beardsley. Unlike the Social Realists we spoke of in the U.S., this group was much more broadly (and thinly) represented in virtually all the fine arts. They were, what we'd term today, "effetist." They equated art with beauty. Their chief antagonist was the British art critic, John Ruskin, who, like his counterparts in New York, insisted that art should be moral and useful--that it should have something to say about the human condition, and moreover, should say it, indeed shout it, as loudly and and oftenly as possible. The Aesthetic movement contended that art should simply decorate or beautify making life more pleasant, indeed, pleasurable in a sensual, even sexual sense. In the final analysis, they believed mankind should attempt to imitate the thoughtful, ordered, beauty of art.
Social comment left and right,
Michael Moore, 2004.
With art, as with politics, both ideals have validity. We are now long past making much compelling social comment on the condition of mankind through painting, but Michael Moore seems to be doing alright using film. The 24-7 news media bombards us with digitally painted images of much the same human sufferiing as did the Ashcan School over a hundred years ago. By the same token, we espouse the mantra, "appearances are everything." We strive, consciously or unconsciously, to attain the so-called "American dream," which is predicated upon a life of fulfillment, physical pleasure, ease, and beauty. We use art to cover up the ugly cracks in our walls. We buy only the most appealing apparrel. We insist our food look as good as it tastes. We choose our transportation based upon its streamline beauty or the appearance of power. As entertainment, we read, watch, and listen to only that which makes us "feel good" in one way or another. In other words, in lifestyle at least, we are moderates. Even in politics, despite the constant din from the left and right, it's the so-called "independents" who decide elections. So, speaking to the artists among us, and getting back to the original question: Does your art imitate life, or your life imitate art?

Left-right, blue and red.
Where are the moderate, independent, purple people who actually decide things?


No comments:

Post a Comment