Independent Intuitions- Art for Arts Sake
Updated: Feb 15
Recently I became acquainted with a wonderful little book of commentary on art that struck me as a text that could serve as a manifesto of sorts- painting for the sheer joy of the process. The process of course includes an array of aspects from intuitions, emotional responses, intellectual stimulation, the relevance and appeal of light and the the rewards associated with drawing and recording one's impressions.
The New York Review of Books, to which I subscribe, often has commentaries on the arts and book reviews of intriguing new art-related releases. A review by John Banville in the April 11, 2022 issue brought to light a pithy book by Jed Perl, titled "Authority and Freedom- A Defense of the Arts." From the get go, the title is appealing, as most artists would welcome support, if not literary confirmation of their pursuit- especially from such a reknown observer and critc as Perl.
The defense of the arts in Perl's book boils down to a credo that asserts that art need not have a social, political or other agenda. Here is what Perl notes;
" The idea of the work of art as an imaginative achievement to which the audience freely responds is often replaced by the assumption that a work of art should promote a particuar idea or ideology, or perform some clearly defined civic or community service."
The term headlining the article in the New York Review of Books was, "The Imaginative Imperative." This also has innate appeal as it implies that a creative impulse has a necessity to express the imagination. I said that the book could be a manifesto or a text to inform and validate art for arts sake. But the term manifesto itself has a certain political baggage to it - that may undermine the main thrust of not needing a political agenda. Suffice it to say, the book is supportive of creative endeavors for their own merits.
This idea of art being independent of ideology has a wonderful relevance and appeal to me as a painter. Part of this has to do with the precepts and aesthetics of high modernism prevalent in so many museums, especially university museums and museums of modern art. The curators seem to glom on to such novel comeuppances as fodder ripe for dissertations and fluff-filled exhibits. The Venice Biennale comes to mind as one such venue that only traffics in creations of this type. I've visited the Venice Biennale and I've been to many musuems of modern art. I find them entertaining and glad that they're part of the scene. One would certainly not want a white washed officialdom of art. In fact, these musuems offer a respite if not an antpode and by extension a validation of traditional art. The Peggy Gugeheim musem, also located in Venice is an example of how modern art can offer a breath of fresh air. Aftern visiting many fine repositories of renaissance art throughout Italy one can be over saturated with a plethora of Madonna and Child paintings.
There are more than a few ideas that Perl presents that are worth contemplating. Authority and Freedom, the book's title is a good starting place. It recalls the idea of tradtion and invention- we need both. As the saying goes, tradition supports invention and invention reinvigorates tradition. Perl simplifies the two potentially warring camps as those in the High Art group and those in the Laissez-faire crowd. The former, according to Perl is always triumphantly intolerant. The Laissez-faire folks are always tolerant to the point of indiffernce.
Here is one of the best observations and statements of intent from Perl,
" I want to release art from the stranglehold of relevance- from the insistence that works of art, whether classic or contemporary, are validated of invalidated by the extent to which they line up with, or fail to line up with, our current social and political concerns."
This book, helped justify the mission for myself as a painter of realistic subjects. The art of painting in other words is sufficient unto itself without the need of ideology. The authority of traditional painting is the lineage itself, which stretches back to antiquity and further. Each time we apply brush to canvas there is a history and structure to which we owe allegiance. Yet at the same time, to slavishly follow a credo is to not honor the tradtion. Each tradtion requires individual assertion and personal response.
Perl also brings in the Stoic philosophers to augment his theme-
"The well known Stoic argument that to understand and adapt oneself to nature is the truest form of freedom." Further, Perl asserts, " Only when artists have felt free enough to absorb the patterns ond purposes of a particual art form can they begin to assert their own freedom."
Another relevant passage from Perl's book that addresses the idea of freedom within the discipline is the following-
"The well-made work is the work that acknowledges the authority of a tradtion and does nothing more. The artist must engage with the freedom that's possible within that tradtion, so making becomes an exploration of how things have been made in the past and involves an element of remaking- not replecating or reproducing but evaluating what has already been done and making adjustments, whether large of small."
I like this idea of exploring and evaluating suggested above. When we paint, each canvas or drawing is in effect a tabula rassa that requires a fresh interaction with subject, our past and our interior responses require a fresh in a creative approach to each project. Of course there are good days and not so good. Still our intent to reveal ourselves, our subjects and to honor the struggle seems worthy enough on its own merits.
On the other hand we can think of great art that has in fact expressed just the type of social relevance decried here. Political cartoons come to mind with artist like Daumier or Thomas Nast being historical examples. Or, for example the wonderful painting by Norman Rockwell of the litlle black girl being escorted by Federal marshalls to protect her from racial violence is one such piece. Picasso's Guernica painting is mentioned in this text as prime example of art responding to current events with a moral imperative.The social realism of 20th century America also captures our imagination and admiration too with the work or artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and Diego Rivera. Probably the key point here is- that choice and selection, rather that having a viewpoint or aesthetic force fed to us is the desired posture.
There is a chapter on Vocation in the book, which is an etymological unpacking- and suggesting a calling, in a religious sense rather than a job. The connection to the divine is part of the implication here, which many will welcome. Connecting our individual efforts to a universal imperative allows for justification. Yet that of course has complications with authority- this time being God rather than the purveyors of official art aesthetics. Still, artists like Picasso who could be thought of as extemely secular if not harkening back to Pagan Gods can make the case for an art calling as vocation with a higher mandate.
Making rational and relevant the chaos of our lives is part of the challenge and appeal of painting or of any art. Perl gives us some ammunition to use in countering the high modernist camp. There is a breath of fresh air in this text. So if there were any polemics nagging at us from the aethetics of the so-called high art school of social relevance- we can now find solace in knowing that our art is sufficient in and of itestelf. While composing and drawing, creating harmony from chaos, articulating light on form we can now rest assured that there is an integral completeness to the process of painting. Art for art's sake still has pertinence.