Apropos the avant-garde

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Apropos the avant-garde


Published on before 2005

Iian Neill wrote:
I'd be very interested to hear what everyone - particularly [Evan], Greg, and Jeffery - think that the concept of the avant-garde itself historically entails, and whether it is even strategically wise to argue for the return of academic realism on some basis of being avant-garde. What do we buy into if we accept their terminology without examining its premises? Paradigm shifts occur when an entire co-ordinate system is reevaluated. Rejecting both the avant-garde and rejecting the rejection of the avant-garde strikes me as a paradigm shift in modern aesthetics. It throws historicism and ahistoricism out the window, along with the political theories that were smuggled in with them.

Since I work very closely sometimes with some of the hottest 'contemporary art' and artists in the world, I have a thing or two to say about this set of ideas. The first is that the better contemporary artists who are making today's experimental work long ago abandoned the ideas of Modernism, and for the most part, abandoned the ideals of Postmodern deconstructivism and other fanciful philosophies that reached their apex in the 1990's. For most artists those approaches to art are no longer relevant. I don't encounter many who buy into the idea of the avant garde. There are a lot of contemporary artists who are still deeply involved with those mid and late 20th century ideals, of course, but I find that they are fewer than ever and championed only by a small group of curators. This is sort of a relief, although it's unclear to me what exactly is replacing these outdated ideals -- it seems like contemporary art has a way that contemporary art looks, and that that set of appearances (found object, installation, video, collage/assemblage, etc.) is today a cliche.

What really bugs me is that so often the curators and collectors have no idea what makes an oil painting subtle, well-crafted, etc. Some curators write long treatises that go with whatever exhibit they create, and too often I think the curator has only considered the ideas and philosophies and politics of the art and never even looked at the work for its visual content. Many curators were so heavily trained in postmodern theory that their writing is obtuse and unintelligible. They did not receive training in how to make paintings, and so, have little or no experience assessing the technical qualities of paintings except through vague formalist language that they learned in books. Some of the curators are business managers, and excellent though they are, may have little or no experience with art history. Thus I think that connoisseurship is long gone, and that as regards oil painting, most curators don't know what to look at or why -- and this applies to poorly crafted abstract painting as much as any other kind of painting.

So, artists need to teach audiences what's important, what good craft and good skill is, and what it means. Even incredibly good contemporary realist painting won't speak for itself. It's not made relevant because so much 20th century work was bad or so much art philosophy of the past was so idiotic. Realist painting is made relevant because the imagery, symbolism, and process of art-making are meaningful to people -- relevant when people can connect with the artwork. If they don't know how to read the imagery, or what goes into the process, etc., then we need to carefully teach and reveal what these things mean.

On that point, I've generally found that people find truth and reality to be far more meaningful (and far more threatening) than imagery they can't connect with. When in painting they can quickly recognize what they are looking at, they find an immediate connection that they don't get with highly abstract or non-visual approaches to painting. People like to look at a good representational painting, to be held still for a moment to watch and to discover the illusions, and then to consider the meanings of the art. A great painting really is a big relief and great astonishment for most people -- a chance to enjoy stillness and quiet of a painting, a great contrast with the helter-skelter, mercurial pace of the contemporary world.

But we're not going to be rid of new media that artists can use for expressive purposes: computers, robots, acrylic paint, etc. What the 20th Century did, I think, is blast the doors open for all sorts of media and many totally new approaches to art to be considered as worthy of use as art. Nor can we be rid of all the superficial differences between our century and other time periods.

So what can artists who use traditional oil painting speak to?

I'd like to see more who speak to what people have in common with each other, what we share, what is our common ground. That common ground is reality itself, is what humans are made of and how we work, is our concerns and experiences. How exactly we articulate all of that in our art is the big problem. Whether the artist has great skill as a classical realist or in some other art venue or tradition -- finding ways to help the art and the audiences connect with each other is very difficult. I think two factors that really matter are good craft and beauty, the craftwork because that's how everything gets communicated and beauty -- in the way that nature is beautiful -- because it is more far persuasive than ugliness, because our eyes and brains are through millions of years of evolution primed to seek out useful visual information.

All that sounds smart. I wish I could say that I made artwork that lived up to all of these ideas! Darn it! The ideas are the easy part!

Greg Scheckler