Today, I’d like to return to the idea of content in painting. I’ve touched on this topic in some of my previous articles but I’d like to share a few more of my thoughts. Again, don’t expect an objective study of any kind. Whereas in the articles on Idea and Expression I have tried to put these issues in context of the creative process, in this article I let go and present purely my subjective opinion, my personal thoughts on content and painting.
Personally, I would like to think that there has got to be more to art than just a study of appearances. If we look into art history (at least in our western world), we will be met with a great array of ideas. The idea may be Christ preaching as in the Rembrandt I have shown as an example in the previous articles. It may be a depiction of battlefield. It may be the nine hells of Dante’s Inferno. Or it may be a study of character. When we look back in time, artists used to be concerned with higher causes, with religious portraits and scenes depicting the divine. With metaphors that speak of the human condition, of the individual in the world and the world in the individual, with emphasis on the former. But as cultural and ethical norms change, so does art. Their Inspiration may have been the church or a patron who had a point of view which was eventually reflected in the final picture. But most profoundly, art served as a way to give form to mythological images. And rightly so. One of the functions of art is to capture the mythology of our times in pictures and symbols. My using the word “mythology” here is just a fancy way of saying that art reflects the character of our times. The way we think, what we do, how we live is very much documented in the way we approach art as a society.
To us, in our free world, painting our little country scenes and beaches, trees with reflections in the water, chairs, rooms and vases with flowers, is as natural a subject as the complex mythological symbols and religious scenes were to the artists of the old. We are self absorbed and concerned with the appearances today probably more than ever before. Yet I don’t think it means that we have to fill every one of our paintings with “larger than life” meaning. The art of 20th century shifted the emphasis from Idea towards Expression and Design. Whereas impressionistic idea of painting the effects of light is superficial from the content point of view, the Expressionists attempted to paint one’s emotional interior, thus giving their works an additional layer of content. And this is where the shift happened again, where the emphasis shifted from depicting the individual in the world to exploring the world in the individual.
These shifts happened throughout the history several times. As an example, consider how in a way modern art kept returning to primitive art, borrowing from it and drawing parallels with it, at least in certain aspects. It is because of the depth into which primitive art explored the human condition and captured its essence through symbolism. I don’t propose that we make every one of our works count and instill it with heaps of symbols. The Symbolists tried to do that already. And it takes a genius to create masterpiece after masterpiece. What I think would be ideal is to strive to educate ourselves, to better ourselves, to better our work and consequently the world. Ideally we would be able to balance both perspectives of the individual in the world and the world in the individual in any one artwork. Because as it is, the way we approach art making is failing to provide not only us with more profound form of expression but the viewers, the public with a meaningful content.
And so the question that concerns me is where the line begins and where it ends? I wonder. What place does the artwork where the idea is too infantile to be even recognized have in the world? Are we getting spammed by pretty decorative pictures of little country scenes and beaches, trees with reflections in the water, chairs, rooms and vases with flowers, or do these ordinary scenes give us anything of value? “Each to his own,” is the saying that comes to mind as a result of my thinking about the subject. There’s market for everything. Just look at the fast food chains and how many people are willing to consider their products to be food. And so there’s no direct solution in changing what the world wants. Hard core consumers will consume the easiest and fastest kind of food available.
Now with all this said, I want to say that every style, every ism has its place, even every picture has its place. Using decorative items in our lives is all well and good, but recognizing its value as art is very much counterproductive. What I propose and try to do is educate, not necessarily the masses of consumers, but the painters, aspiring artist, each other. For each of us artists, creators, makers, has the responsibility for that which we create. We are making the world what it is. The responsibility is ours and ours only. For every piece we put out there in the world demonstrates our intentions, our convictions and the future we want to see. It leaves a visible, tangible trace that adds to the mosaic of which we’ll be part of when we’re gone.