By Jordan Wolfson
Painting has no real context today. What I mean by that is that we have no larger story and meaningful myth within which to hold and nurture the activity of painting.
It’s always seemed strange to me that this activity that we call painting, that seems so clearly full of meaning to me and to others – at least some others — full of esteem as “Art”, has no place of stable purpose in our contemporary world. It’s sort of hit and miss and rather arbitrary whether what I am doing as a painter is going to be seen as important or not. And of course, I’m speaking personally. As the years have gone by it has become increasingly clear to me that whether the painting that one is doing is going to be seen as important or not, culturally, doesn’t seem to correlate with whether the actual painting is any good – quality is not a mark against it, just not necessarily for it either. It has much more to do with how well one is able to interface with the market forces; the galleries, curators, collectors, etc. That is, it has much more do with the context of the art world, and that has become a very odd context indeed. Further, it has seemed a lack and loss that given the growing secularization and fragmentation of our society we have no place of purpose and meaning for what we call art, for what we call painting, as might be found in a more traditional culture where the sense of an overarching story is still intact. One can still hope to find a niche of the art world that might appreciate what one has to offer, but in terms of really contributing to a larger story the only thing we seem to be able to count on today, the only story with common consensus and shared terms, is the story of financial amount: how much is it worth? And of course we all know that that doesn’t really measure the value of the thing.
So, I find myself left with a situation of doing an activity that feels brimming with meaning, but seems to have no real place of purpose in our culture that we can count on and dig into, that is given and stable, beyond what the work can be bought and sold for, and that depends not so much on the actual quality and power of the work, as much as how the market trajectory of the work has been handled and promoted. The situation isn’t just possibly personally frustrating, I have found it culturally bewildering and deeply saddening.
Then there are the questions that arise when I take the time to look around at the state of the world in general – where we seem to be headed. And I don’t know about you but so very often I find myself thinking, “Really? The world is burning and I’m sitting here making pictures?” One doesn’t need to be up on the latest climate change information or the details of human trafficking, or worldwide poverty to wonder “What the hell am I doing? The world is burning and I’m sitting in the corner coloring? What does it matter, one more picture? What does it matter, one more painter?” It turns out it does. And more directly than we might think. What I would like to present here is a case for the utmost relevance of painting. The house is burning. If painting isn’t coloring in the corner, then what is it? How does it matter? Is there a way for painting to actually contribute to help heal our world? One way or another, it seems that things are changing rather rapidly. Is that it, then? Is painting, this ancient human activity of image making, to be relegated to a quaint pastime, as we continue our technological march over the cliff?
What I have to say here isn’t wishful thinking. “If only painting actually mattered!” Painting actually does matter – it is ancient for a reason.
It turns out that the question of the meaning and purpose of painting has a history. The question of whether painting matters or not only came into existence when the fine arts as a cultural category was gradually invented and then solidified in the eighteenth century. Until then, painting and painters had a clear role and place. As Larry Shiner delineates so well in The Invention of Art, painting as an activity of image-making was always clearly imbedded in the cultural and economic needs of society, and here I’m talking about Europe. The category of fine art, as a distinct realm of creativity in which paintings were made for their own sake out of the inspiration of creative genius, didn’t become a cultural norm until the eighteenth century. Before that, although there were steps being made in this direction from the time of the Renaissance, and although concerns of form and beauty were considered and essential, the term “art” as we know and use it didn’t exist. The vast majority of painters performed tasks that they were assigned through their guilds and through commissions; there was always a purpose and use to the images being made. The terms of individual creativity and the notion of art for art’s sake didn’t arise until art became separated from craft, the artist separated from artisan, and pleasure separated from utility and then ultimately refined into aesthetics. The category of aesthetics called for a kind of disinterested contemplation, shorn of utility and functional purpose in order to more clearly provide for a purer aesthetic experience. And although the rise of fine arts as a cultural category was inextricably linked to the rise of a market economy, the process of commodification, and a growing middle class, by the nineteenth century the normative view was that fine art was a separate realm of spiritual sustenance, ostensibly serving no other purpose than its own existence. The genius painter painted because he or she did so – a spiritual, valorized category that was self-justifying. No more purpose was necessary beyond that.
The reason I’m briefly going over this bit of history is to try to explain that how we think about painting was and is extremely flexible. Our cultural attitude towards painting as an aesthetic object that must, first and foremost, exist for its own sake if it is to carry any real power, and that any use to which it is put threatens to harm its integrity, is an attitude with a history. It’s fluid, not inevitable. Perhaps the aesthetic power of a painting may be re-contextualized, revealing a larger purpose within a larger story.
Indeed, at the same time that this split in the eighteenth century was growing between craft and art, there was a pushback, a resistance to this stripping of art of purpose. There was an accompanying resistance to the split of art and life, this making of art into a distinct, separate realm with its own aesthetic jurisdiction. This pushback occurred from the beginning and continues down to our day. We see this resistance in the examples that Shiner brings: the works and writing of Hogarth, Rousseau, and Wollstonecraft. We can see it continuing in the work of Goya – giving testimony to the horrors of war and violence and injustice, with Manet and the other Impressionists, in their desire to eschew history painting and turn to the everyday life around them. We see it in the anti-art of Dada and Duchamp, in the 1960s with the developments of Fluxus and the Happenings of Allan Kaprow. We see it in the work and teaching of Joseph Beuys and the writings of Suzi Gablik, the work of Tim Rollins and the K.O.S., the community based works in Chicago curated by Mary Jane Jacob, the myriad of artists affiliated with the Green Museum, and the real estate development of Theaster Gates. Whether in the realm of social justice, community building, spirituality or environmental concerns, the claim of art as a pure domain of disinterested aesthetic contemplation has been relentlessly challenged for over two centuries. And yet the domain of art (with or without the accompanying adjective of “fine”) somehow remains a distinct realm, separate from the rest of life, perhaps making forays into the world where we mortals live, yet still maintaining its permanent residence in a privileged universe.
Surely there are enormous institutional and economic forces invested and committed to keeping this sub-world intact. Do we have more human and personal reasons for maintaining this separation of art and life? What is being served? Further, is it true that what defines art comes down to aesthetics? If not, then what? Perhaps the question itself is nonsensical because it is based on the idea of a distinct realm somehow separate from the rest of life. And how can that be? How is it that we have come to think of art as its own world with no purpose outside of itself? And if that makes no sense, than how does art function in our culture and civilization at this point? What are the various purposes for what we call art and which of them might we actually care about? The period of history in which painting had ostensibly no utility beyond the aesthetic is short. It’s been a gradual transitioning but we’re talking about two to three hundred years. Not a small amount of time as far as our lived days and years but in the larger scheme of civilization rather short. Painting served various purposes before the onset of the realm of fine arts and it will continue to serve various purposes after the end of art as well. When I speak of the end of art, I’m not speaking of the end of creative making, the end of painting, or anything similar. I’m speaking of the end of the story of art that we’ve been telling ourselves, this narrative of sequential style that has viewed the history of human making through the lens of the last two hundred years. Both Arthur Danto and Hans Belting have both written of this and come to similar conclusions independently: the story of art as we have known it is coming to a close. Larry Shiner, in his book, also speaks of this closure and asks what will be next. He asks this question with urgency. Why is he asking and why the urgency?
Before turning to try to answer that question I want to first look at the possible uses that art has been put to, even during the period of history in which art was defined as necessarily having no utility, and up through today. Indeed, art does function as an opportunity for refined contemplative experience, clearly — and that is part of why we love it. It also functions as entertainment and distraction. It functions as decoration. It functions as philosophical inquiry. It functions as social action, as environmental action, as an inquiry into, and protest against racism, sexism and inequality and injustice of all sorts. It functions as financial investment, as a badge of social and class status, as a badge of cultural hipness and cool. It functions as religious icon and symbol and as a focus of contemplative meditation – not so different perhaps from the disinterested contemplation discussed by Kant. Art functions politically, financially, socially, culturally, spiritually. Clearly, art functions. Clearly it has use and utility. We may not always agree to the uses to which an object is being put to use, but that it is done so is simply a fact of our world.
It seems to me that given all of that there is a particular use to which art is put – no, let me change that – it’s not a use, but a function. Painting, and art in general, does something: it carries presence. But then actually all objects, everything – if we pay attention we may find that everything carries presence. We certainly experience presence in nature. And it can be very simple, not necessarily the overwhelming awesomeness of a Grand Canyon – even going for a quiet walk outdoors brings with it a sense of presence. We might experience presence in a place, a building with history, where people have gathered for hundreds of years. We might experience presence with a person who seems particularly impressive, and this occurs not only with the charismatic and outwardly powerful, but with the inward person as well. Then there is the category of things made – some of those things we call art, most we don’t. Is there a difference in presence between art and non-art? How do we understand this difference between the things we call art and the things we don’t call art? Today, it seems that the quality of presence is not a determining factor of whether something is defined as art or not – the difference is simply the decision to name and claim that this given object is art. It can be anything. We have seen since the time of Duchamp that any object, even one that is factory made, can be turned into art by a switch of the mind. And although the looseness of the boundary of the land of Art hasn’t done all that much to raise the status of the rest of the world in terms of cultural value – the categories and ranks of what is permitted into the land of Art and given status and financial value has exploded tremendously in the last fifty years.
While strong presence is not the defining attribute of art today, we do find throughout history objects that carry strong presence, and no matter the categories of those cultures, we have come to call these objects “Art”. That is, one of the functions of what we call art throughout time and place, has been this imbuing of objects with presence. And whether the cultural category of fine art will continue or not, the practice of wielding and imbuing presence will carry on. It is an integral part of what people do. I believe this aspect of human making, to take raw material and somehow charge it with presence, is one of critical importance and I would like to now look at it more closely.
What is presence? What are we talking about when we talk about presence? And how does it get associated with an object? What is the process with which material gets charged or imbued with it? How is it that a human being can take colored mud, smear it around on a piece of fabric and end up charging the materials so greatly that it resonates with vitality hundreds of years after the person is long gone? How is it that a human being can take raw material and form it in such a way that it moves our hearts and quiets our minds? And what does this have to do with saving the world?
First, the question of the nature of presence: The experience of presence is consciousness becoming aware of itself. Eckhart Tolle writes about presence beautifully in his book The Power of Now:
Have you ever gazed up into the infinity of space on a clear night, awestruck by the absolute stillness and inconceivable vastness of it? Have you listened, truly listened, to the sound of a mountain stream in the forest? Or to the song of a blackbird at dusk on a quiet summer evening? To become aware of such things, the mind needs to be still. You have to put down for a moment your personal baggage of problems, of past and future, as well as all your knowledge; otherwise, you will see but not see, hear but not hear. Your total presence is required.
Beyond the beauty of the external forms, there is more here: something that cannot be named, something ineffable, some deep, inner, holy essence. Whenever and wherever there is beauty, this inner essence shines through somehow. It only reveals itself to you when you are present. Could it be that this nameless essence and your presence are one and the same? Would it be there without your presence?
(Tolle, 1999, 96)
A little further on in the book Tolle defines presence:
When you become conscious of Being, what is really happening is that Being becomes conscious of itself. When Being becomes conscious of itself – that’s presence. Since Being, consciousness, and life are synonymous, we could say that presence means consciousness becoming conscious of itself, or life attaining self-consciousness. But don’t get attached to the words, and don’t make an effort to understand this. There is nothing that you need to understand before you can become present.
(Tolle, 1999, 98)
These words of Tolle may sound too esoteric, or too new-agey. Then like he said, don’t get caught up in the words – stay with the actual experience of being present. It’s very grounded and very real. We don’t need to get philosophical and heady with it. This is one of the gifts of making work, drawing and painting: it contains the possibility of becoming present — in fact, it’s a key ingredient to making strong, living work. And one of the gifts of viewing objects of beauty and strong presence is that they stop us still and invite us to become present with them, to meet their presence with our presence. This is a particular gift of all art forms, and perhaps the most important gift. This is how art awakens us, rekindles, reminds, re-hearts. We remember that we are alive, that things matter, that life matters. In this sense, beauty serves as a gateway to presence and sheer meaning. The experience of presence reaffirms the innate worth of our existence and brings a sense of wholeness.
But what does presence as a function of art have to do with saving the world? And further, we seem to be talking about art in general, the power of presence that can be found in all making. Does painting in particular have something to offer that goes beyond the general category of art? After all, the title of the talk mentions “painting” not “art”.
In an article on Richard Diebenkorn in the New Republic from the September 2013 issue Jed Perl wrote, “Ever since the Renaissance, painting has been the grandest intellectual adventure in the visual arts, a titanic effort to encompass the glorious instability and variability of experience within the stability of a sharply delimited two-dimensional space.” This is so beautifully put! What Perl is describing here points towards something very specific and profound about the nature of painting. When he writes of the twin aspects of painting, the stability and instability that paintings exhibit, he is getting to the crux of the matter and may help lead us to the unique contribution and gateway that painting provides. Painting offers two contradictory experiences. On the one hand, a painting is a flat two-dimensional object, with its surface texture and color shapes. On the other hand, a painting offers the possibility of a three-dimensional experience, the illusion of moving into space and discovering form. Stability and instability. Fact and imagination. Actual and fictive. It is this twin role, and its simultaneity, that gives painting such power. Real and unreal. Real and more real. In a curious way, paintings function for adults not dissimilar to the way Winnicott’s transitional object serves infants and toddlers, although perhaps in the opposite direction. The transitional object helps the child develop from an undifferentiated world into a clearer sense of individuation and a distinct identity. Painting, through the coexistence of two seemingly opposite experiences, interwoven into an actual unity, may provide the receptive adult the possibility of moving from an experience of fragmentation into an experience of wholeness and integration, not only within oneself but with the world at large. Boundaries between me and other, between inside and outside, prove to be not quite as firm as previously thought. This occurs not only because our minds are teased into non-discursive awareness by the shimmering interchange between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional experience; “I see a flat colored surface, no wait, I see a sky and valley below, no wait – will you look at those marks!” The experience of wholeness also occurs because the respective completeness of the two-dimensional and three-dimensional is each dependent on the other. That is, in order for a painting to maintain a consistent three-dimensional arena for the viewer to inhabit, in order for me to visually remain looking at and in the painting as a spatial situation, its two-dimensional composition must be complete – it must hold me visually, and then figuratively. Conversely, in order for the two-dimensional composition to be complete the marks and design, transitions and edges, must appropriately accommodate the parameters of the given three-dimensional experience, whether that is deep and far-reaching space like a Turner or more shallow as in a Braque, whether full bodied as in a Titian or subtly expansive as in a Matisse. Clement Greenberg got painting’s essence exactly wrong. It isn’t the stability of painting’s flatness – its “ineluctable flatness”; it is the inextricable unity of painting’s impossible flatness/fullness, stability/instability, stillness/movement. This is life. And this is why painting carries such an extraordinary metaphoric force.
Again, this may kindle an extraordinary aliveness and wholeness, but what does it have to do with saving the world? There is one more component that I would like to add to the mix and then I’ll try to start putting all the pieces together. Recently I came across a book that I’ve been mentioning fairly often, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible by Charles Eisenstein. The book is part of a series called Sacred Activism. The basic premise is that the world we live in is truly unsustainable. It isn’t just a mess, it’s on the verge of truly collapsing. If we are not only going to survive, but also thrive, how are we going to get from here to there? What does that entail? Looking at all of the various problems, economic, environmental, social and political, it is simply overwhelming. Eisenstein attempts to find the roots of our situation, what has brought us to this point, and what must change, and it has to do with our story. That is, we tell ourselves a story about who we are, what is important, how the world works – important questions the answers of which lead us to create our world in a particular way. He describes our current story and offers an alternative one to help us transition into the more beautiful world we know is possible.
Please understand that what I am trying to give an account of here is a poor substitute for the book. I highly recommend it and of course, it is much more thorough than what I can possibly provide during this talk.
Eisenstein begins by describing a narrative that he calls The Story of the People. It is the story of our civilization’s progress and technological success. It is a story that many of us grew up with but soon found in our teens or early adulthood that the story was falling apart – that the larger system of our society and culture couldn’t be counted on, technology proved to be deeply problematic, environmental degradation was on the rise. He writes:
We live today at a moment of transition between worlds. The institutions that have borne us through the centuries have lost their vitality; only with increasing self-delusion can we pretend they are sustainable. Our systems of money, politics, energy, medicine, education, and more are no longer delivering the benefits they once did (or seemed to). Their Utopian promise, so inspiring a century ago, recedes further every year. Millions of us know this; more and more, we hardly bother to pretend otherwise. Yet we seem helpless to change, helpless even to stop participating in industrial civilization’s rush over the cliff.
I have in my earlier work offered a reframing of this process, seeing human cultural evolution as a story of growth, followed by crisis, followed by breakdown, followed by a renaissance: the emergence of a new kind of civilization, an Age of Reunion to follow the Age of Separation. Perhaps profound change happens only through collapse.
(Eisenstein, 2013, 3)
He goes on:
What do I mean by a “transition between worlds”? At bottom of our civilization lies a story, a mythology. I call it the Story of the World or the Story of the People – a matrix of narratives, agreements, and symbolic systems that comprises the answers our culture offers to life’s most basic questions: Who am I? Why do things happen? What is the purpose of life? What is human nature? What is sacred? Who are we as a people? Where did we come from and where are we going?
(Eisenstein, 2013, 3)
Eisenstein then describes for a few pages what he believes are our civilization’s answers to those questions and then precedes to offer alternative possibilities, an alternative story, a story of “interbeing”. As Eisenstein writes:
Here are some of the principles of the new story. That my being partakes of your being and that of all beings. This goes beyond interdependency – our very existence is relational. That, therefore, what we do to another, we do to ourselves. That each of us has a unique and necessary gift to give the world. That the purpose of life is to express our gifts. That every act is significant and has an effect on the cosmos. That we are fundamentally unseparate from each other, from all beings, and from the universe. That every person we encounter and every experience we have mirrors something in ourselves. That humanity is meant to join fully the tribe of all life on Earth, offering our uniquely human gifts toward the well-being and development of the whole. That purpose, consciousness, and intelligence are innate properties of matter and the universe.
(Eisenstein, 2013, 16)
Quite a vision! Eisenstein explains, “The fundamental precept of the new story is that we are inseparate from the universe, and our being partakes in the being of everyone and everything else. Why should we believe this? Let’s start with the obvious: This interbeing is something we can feel” (2013, 16). We painters know this, and experience this all of the time – it’s why we look at great painting! Painting directly participates in, enacts and furthers this story of interbeing. Painting is one way, surely among a myriad of ways, to further this story. But it is a particularly powerful way that I will try to describe. And for those of us that paint – it is our way, not just to make pictures — that actually may be hardly relevant in the end. Painting is our way to lend ourselves to, and help facilitate, the Great Turning, because that is indeed what is happening.
In Eisenstein’s book, he moves through a series of short chapters, exploring various aspects of the situation we are facing. He has titled the chapters according to their focus, such as Separation, Breakdown, Cynicism, Force, Hope, Naiveté. Near the end of the book he has a chapter on Story and writes:
We have seen already how so much of what we consider to be real, true, and possible is a consequence of the story that embeds us. We have seen how the logic of Separation leads ineluctably to despair. We have seen how evil is a consequence of the perception of separation. We have seen how the entire edifice of civilization is built upon a myth. We have seen how civilization has been trapped, indeed, in its “own postulates”, its ideology of intensifying control to remedy the failure of control. We have seen how so many of our efforts to change the world embody the habits of separation, leaving us helpless to avoid replicating the same in endless elaboration.
[T]o exit this trap we must operate from a larger context, a more comprehensive mode of consciousness. This means not only inhabiting a new story, but also working in the consciousness of story. If, after all, our civilization is built on a myth, to change our civilization we must change the myth.
By now it should be clear that this is no recipe for inaction or for mere words. Any action that is open to symbolic interpretation can be part of the telling of a story. And that is every action.
(Eisenstein, 2013, 213)
If indeed what is needed to shift our world is a new story, how specifically can painting contribute to a new myth and help tell this new story? Let us look more closely at the idea of interbeing and how it may relate to painting. Interbeing is a term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and teacher, in the mid-1960s, when he created a sangha called the Order of Interbeing, which worked to heal the war, hatred and divisiveness enveloping his home country of Vietnam. “Interbeing” is a translation of the words tiep hien. The word tiep means “being in touch with” and “continuing”. Hien means “realizing” and “making it here and now.” In his book Interbeing, Thich Nhat Hanh asks the question, “What are we to be in touch with? The answer is reality, the reality of the world and the reality of the mind” (1997, 3). Painting, in its nature, carries very precisely the possibility of this “being in touch with” and “making it here and now”. When we paint, whether from observation or memory or non-representationally, we have a situation which invites us to “be in touch with”, with what we see, with our inside – ourselves, with our outside – the world in which we live, with the places that slip back and forth between what is inside and what is outside – and to bring these places into our marking, our touch, and put into concrete form these sensations, in paint, “realizing” them, and further — providing others the opportunity to have these sensations slip into their selves. Painting seems to magically allow one subjectivity to slip into another, one person’s experience to be felt and embodied by another, from the inside! How can it be that one person may have a sense of another’s experience, somehow made available through dumb, raw material?
Earlier, I spoke of the twin nature of painting as both a two-dimensional reality and a three-dimensional experience. I would like to add to that and relate that twinning to interbeing. Our interbeing begins not with our relations with another person, but with ourselves, for we human beings are twin in our apparent nature. We are constantly and impossibly twinning and splitting in our experience. We are body and soul – or if you prefer, body and mind. And our identification with either leaves us incomplete because we are both (and, in our deepest truth, neither). Here the two-dimensional surface of the painting functions as the fact of our body and the three dimensional experience performs as our soul. The achievement of great painting, the exquisite integration of the two-dimensional and three-dimensional, gives us not just hope that wholeness is possible – Herbert Marcuse is right! More than that – great painting serves as a reminder, a rekindling, that such is the truth. Reality is whole. We are whole; it is only our minds that have slipped and reconstructed away from this awareness.
The degree of availability that a painting presents, the availability of its trans-subjectivity, of our being able to enter into its space, its reality and being, depends on the degree of presence it embodies. The degree of presence a work embodies depends on how engaged we are when we paint, how much life force goes into the material, the sheer marking and making. This isn’t stylistic. It isn’t about closed marking or open marking, realist or abstract. It’s about life opening. It doesn’t depend, as Matisse noted, on faces flush with emotion. It isn’t about emotional intensity, or velocity of marking. Marks can be slow or fast. It has to do with the amount of inner involvement, life-force, heat, the maker carries in the moment of the making. That is, the more we as painters bring ourselves into the work, the more open and vulnerable we allow ourselves, the stronger the presence and the more resonant the work, the more the work weaves the world.
Telling a new story isn’t a small thing. It is the thing. Painting does have a necessary and ancient function; it isn’t to depict the world – it is to weave the world; or rather, it is to reveal and make visible the actual weave of the world, the weave that already exists, always has and always will. What does this mean? When we paint we have the possibility of bringing our selves into the work – bringing our life force into the mark, the material, bringing our actual being, in this very moment, as it is, into our touch and setting free that vibration and energy. To do this is not easy, although it is simple. But it means daring to bring our actual selves, as we are, without judgment, into the work. It is also a risk and challenge to receive work, to open ourselves up to painting as a force from another person, another life, to feel safe enough to receive that force and allow it in. This also is not easy, although this too is simple. And we find that when we do open to the given surface that there may be a sense of aesthetic force, perhaps beauty, perhaps sheer presence, a kind of transmission from one person to another through the material. When we paint we are not simply making images, we are weaving the world, we are weaving our subjectivities, we are restating again and again, that we are interconnected, interrelated, as Eisenstein puts it, “our very existence is relational” – and we are doing this through the medium of colored mud on a flat surface – dumb material participating in the exchange and heightening of awareness. Painting is not simply an activity of self expression. It is much more than that – it is an activity of interbeing, of our intersubjectivity, of our actual interconnectedness. Painting reveals this, gives proof to it in its very nature. We are not who we think we are. Painting carries the possibility of reminding us of this through its very nature, to get us out of our minds and into an awareness of our being. That is what occurs when we receive a painting, whether from another’s hands or from our own. The reality of our experience facing great painting, the power and force of transmission remains a mystery as long as we remain in the story of Separation. As we dare to allow our minds to enter into the story of Interbeing, painting affirms the larger truth of this new story. Its essential nature re-storys the world, retelling, reimagining who we are and where we are going. As we paint we have the possibility to not only make an object to look at, but to re-imagine and retell our story.
Painting is currently trapped within the category of fine art. Even if you drop the “fine” and call it “art” – there’s just no way out of the conventions of our system as long as we see painting within those given conventions. But what if painting isn’t about a picture, isn’t even about an object. What if painting, actually, is about the interaction between two minds, two hearts, two beings – the painter and the viewer? What if painting is about a way of coming to the world, a kind of communion? What if painting as an object is a mere by-product? How did John Dewey put it in the beginning of his book Art as Experience? The very first page, “In common conception, the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting, or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding” (1934, 1). In other words, there is no work of art outside of our experience; that is where the reality of art is located. It is an interaction, an interaction that reveals an inherent interconnectedness, an interbeing that reveals the illusion of separation. If that were our cultural story of painting what would that look like? What would an exhibition look like? Would that change the way we paint? What happens to the fetish of the object? The possibility of an interlacing communion through the lending of colored earth to human sensation: mud and oil embodying human consciousness. Rembrandt understood this.
Painting isn’t about beauty. Beauty is about consciousness. Beauty is a gateway, an adornment and invitation to space. The space within the painting. And space is consciousness. Space is being. When we paint we are exploring being. That is why we need the three dimensional illusion – it isn’t an illusion, it is a gateway – to being. We are experimenting with different ways of being. See Rembrandt. Cezanne. Monet. Morandi. Matisse. Titian. Piero. Chardin. Soutine. Martin. De Kooning. Diebenkorn. Auerbach. Kossoff. Giacometti. Resnick. This is what painting has to offer. It isn’t the object, for God’s sake. It is being.
I want to be clear that what I am suggesting is not, in my understanding, a new way of looking at painting. I believe that what I am trying to describe here is actually an ancient way of looking at painting. Images carry power. It is only with the rise and development of our secular culture with its accompanying market economy that painting has found itself delegated to a luxury commodity that is devoid of any real use and value in our society beyond sophisticated decoration, investment and chic. This is not particularly the plight of painting – so much in our culture has been radically reduced to a flattened materialist, financial definition – the logical endpoint in the Story of Separation. But the act of painting carries much greater power than that. And we need to re-describe this activity, re-imagine it, in order to sharpen its power and focus; in order for painting to more fully participate and take its place in our global regeneration.
For many years now, thinking about the great painters of the 19th and 20th century, I’ve deeply envied them. It’s seemed to me that they, Monet, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, de Kooning – they lived at a time when a painter could still believe in painting. Painting really mattered. We certainly weren’t inundated with images like we are today, and painting, along with any stylistic changes within the arena of painting, held huge cultural import. All that changed. With the introduction of television, the development of the movie industry, with the exponential growth of the internet and the constant deluge of images from our mobile devices – how could images of paintings compete? What does painting matter actually, beyond a rarified taste? I doubt that painting will ever carry again the kind of privileged position that it once had up through the middle of the twentieth century. But painting does carry enormous importance as a hand-made object, revealing one person’s being to another, and in that revelation furthering the blossoming awareness of our irreducible interconnection and indeed, our interbeing. The earlier artists and painters of the 19th and 20th centuries had a great, eloquent and noble story called Art. I’m not sure we really have that narrative anymore – certainly not like we did in the past. But we might just have something greater – called the survival of our planet, the Awakening of Humanity and the Age of Reunion.
We do not, of course, have to believe this. We may choose to continue to think of painting as a wonderful activity of depiction. It is! And there is nothing wrong with that. But I am suggesting that there is a much larger story taking place and painting has a central, ancient place in the unfolding of that story.
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