the otherness of art

Though I never analysed my response to postmodern art when first faced with it in the ’80s, most of it didn’t speak to me in the language of feelings. Instead, it forced me up into my head – where I’d spent more time than I cared to already, which was why I’d dodged the HSC and gone to art school at fifteen.

Art making can do certain things that writing can’t. For starters, it engages my senses directly. The sumptuous smell of oils, the roughness or smoothness of canvas and paper, the sound of the palette knife mixing and scraping, involve the whole body, not just the mind. Making marks – with brushes, pencils, nibs, twigs, erasers, fingers – takes me to a more primal place, inducing a trance state possibly experienced by distant ancestors, unlocking an alternately ecstatic and dangerous, because irrational, space. Not that thoughts don’t intrude, but they soon vanish, as the impulse moving my hand obeys its own logic at its own pace.

In contrast, postmodern art seemed cerebral and self-conscious. But I learned from peers at college, having left the haven of tech, that my expressionist instincts were suspect: regressive, maybe elitist, and undoubtedly outdated. In turn, I found their work derivative (which of course was the point), shallow and aesthetically void. And while that now looks more like mediocrity than postmodernism per se, much of such work, however sophisticated, needed a theoretical framework to justify its existence.

To compel me, any work of art – painting, poem, novel, performance, dance, music, video, installation etc. – must speak for itself. Not that I’m naïve enough to deny that the eye/I of the beholder conditions, if not controls, what that work says. But to the extent that an artist can venture beyond the bounds of their ego and surrender to the unknown, creative products or processes seem to me to possess their own life. Mystification? Or just my brain’s right-hemisphere bias? Either way, I don’t see success as fulfilment of my intentions, but rather as the extent to which my work feels unfamiliar; the best of it excites me because I don’t know where it came from. So it’s not solely mine, not subject to my will. The notion of a muse sounds romantic. Anachronistic. Yet it alludes to the unexpected otherness of what comes through.

Not that I learned this from parents or teachers. My mother’s recognition, during my teens, that I was ‘different’ – her tone geared to shame and belittle – evoked no curiosity as to who I was, only an urge to suppress my emerging independence. Rather than speak for myself, I was meant to validate her identity. And when the identity of Artist or Mother (or anyone else) matters more than the creative act, nothing profound, let alone original, can develop. Which is typical of our capitalist culture today: we fetishise identity. Self-promotion, self-invention, identity politics, identity theft… as if to deny the growing body of evidence that tells us there’s no such thing as a self, only relationships between shifting assemblages of neurons, genes, microbes, hormones, beliefs, memories, dreams and impressions…

So maybe psychology, not just politics (pivotal to the postmodernists), accounts for my aversion to photorealist art: all of it, not just the bad examples. Even at its best it repels me. The paint is slick and flat, not sensuous. Which doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of surrealists like de Chirico, Magritte and Dali, or realist Jeffrey Smart. So what’s my problem? Envy? After all, paintings copied from photos are so popular; landscapes and still life, not just portraits. And, even if I liked the trend, I lack the patience for such anality. Yet photorealists lack something more vital: imagination.

Part of the appeal of the hyper-real for your average gallery-goer can be the rigor with which the work portrays imperfections: scars, bad tats, cellulite, liver spots, broken veins etc.; a topographic map of mortality that fascinates like blood spilt in a car crash. But even a subtler approach (say, the schmaltz of Vincent Fantauzzo) – aiming to portray the subject’s beauty, grace or dignity – still conforms to a norm of prizing superficial likeness. And that’s what makes such so-called art redundant. It shows the viewer nothing a camera can’t show better – so, despite the most eloquent artist’s statement, it merely reflects, irrespective of subject, the grotesque decadence of an age in which anything we can buy is soon destined, like us, for obsolescence. Art is reduced to the status of entertainment, devalued regardless of its monetisation, which is based on the logic of an unstable market, not any inherent qualities of the increasingly empty art object. Look at these pores, hairs, beads of sweat, the photorealist says. Wow, the viewer thinks if the work is sufficiently skilful. The subject is objectified, its outer surface captured graphically enough to distract from its inner reality. Which makes sense in a culture where taking a selfie matters far more than any awareness of the setting. In fact, lack of the latter has caused many premature deaths, typically by drowning or falling off cliffs – because obsession with a projected self-image is akin to an out-of-body experience.

And this phenomenon isn’t just common; it dominates our culture. The generic, disposable image has stolen the soul of the subject – though the image is simply a function of the system from which the imperative comes. As most humans, thanks to neuroplasticity – putty in Big Tech’s clutches – mould their consciousness to the scentless, tasteless (in more ways than one), non-sensuous flatness of digital platforms, their capacity to register subtle energies atrophies. Terminally plugged in to the spectacle, dumbed-down, numbed out and captive, we can forget auras, chakras, meridians, ley lines and sacred sites (or, if those sound too woo-woo, good old intuition) – data-sapping, autonomy-zapping apps will bridge the gap. And then when faced with the art of, say, Brueghel, El Greco, Goya or the expressionists, visions rooted in distortion that frees a deeper truth, like babies with unformed egos, we won’t recognise our own reflection.

Art in former eras often served a religious purpose – which isn’t to deny political motives – but the point of painting deities and saints, or even monarchs and fat-cat patrons, was to inspire awe and reverence. And whatever such works arouse in us now (amusement? bemusement? aesthetic pleasure?), we know that art has been emptied of substance. After a fleeting flowering of individual genius, which inspired the worship of the artist more than any subject (e.g., Frida Kahlo, high priestess of the selfie), technology has enabled the proliferation of  ‘art’ that caters to a demand for novelty, so the focus of awe has become the technology itself. (Take the 2017 film Loving Vincent, most notable for its stunning animation of part of Van Gogh’s oeuvre reproduced, with variations, by an international team of anonymous painters.)

Technology has replaced God, eliciting mortal dread or fantasies of immortality. And so today, what we call art, if it has real virtuosity, is akin to continuing cell growth in a body after the heart has stopped and the brain’s neurons have ceased firing. Which makes photorealism a zombie.

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