Dear Reader: This essay has become one of the most popular blogs in my other blog, The Navasota Current... but I have decided to move it here where it belongs... along with the entries of my artwork. It is the same, albeit slightly edited article from that blog.
You can call this "Russell's rant on Art History: A crash Course on Man and Art, based on one man's opinion."
Baroque was the ultimate and Bernini was the ultimate Baroque artist...
I have often referred to this age in America as our “Baroque” period. The Italian Renaissance was climaxed with the first Baroque period, a time of opulence and too-muchness. Everything was in the extreme, the quintessential, the ultimate. Artists and musicians had to be better than ever, more daring, their works over the top, just to keep up with and amuse their jaded audiences. The public had seen it all, done it all, had it all. The only thing left to experience… was… degeneration; and further decadence, narcissism, materialism, and liberality. The rich and powerful, and in some places the Church, became the perceived enemy and in some cases they were. The "Elites" frolicked in a contrived existence, enjoyed art and poetry and relative comfort and ease, while the working class worked 12 hour days in the fields.
Goya painted from his gut, and revealed his unforgiving world...
Then came a veritable chain of bloodbaths in Europe… the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution, etc., etc., and art became dark, primitive, escapist, bohemian, and cynical, or worse, perpetuated the lie that life was great and man's greatest ideals were in the process of being perfected.
Fraggonard and his work was the epitome of escapism for the elite class, who chose to turn their eyes away from the injustices of the class system.
By the late 1800's, many artists in Europe had embraced the new panacea, Socialism, and began once again to fan the fires of class warfare.
Embracing Socialist ideals, Courbet inadvertantly led the Impressionists into a safe zone... as he got into trouble for identifying with the working class, his associates retired to apolitical subjects.
But it should be made clear that there was not the kind of opportunity for upward moblity there that we enjoy in the United States, regardless of one's "class." There were literally people who were considered by some to be "Royalty' and other people were considered hopeless "peons" and even genetically inferior. There were people who were literally above the law, a priviledged class, and there was nothing one could do to change his stature, except move to America. And there was precious little art, music or poetry there.
France in the late 1800's, was now the leader in artistic expression, and offered up a new style, Impressionism, where the ugly things of life were ignored and life was depicted as a somewhat out-of-focus walk in the park. Ladies with parasols and babies sat stoicly on benches and smelled the roses.
Monet was the leader of an art movement in France where artists painted "plein air" (on location) and did intense studies of haystacks, water lilies, anything obviously innocent and devoid of content.
Art became a refuge in a harsh world. Artists focused on anything non-controversial; humidity, atmospheric haze, dusty roads and cloud formations. There was no political message, because there were folks that would throw you in jail for whatever you might be implying, if it challenged authority.
As revolutions and wars decimated Europe, the irate population harrassed, challenged and even demonized the captains of industry, and along with them the religious leaders and the very standards for right and wrong, and they killed the God of those systems, and they killed poetry, grace and gentility. There is a reason, in America that we speak of "Mom and apple pie." Americans held onto ideals about God, family and life that were lost to the rest of the world.
Pablo Picasso led the Cubists into breaking down forms into their geometric fragments. No longer was there any percieved "order in the Universe."
In Europe Churches went into decline and Socialism took over the mindset and soon art spawned its artistic imageries through “Expressionism,” Cubism, and conceptual affronts like Dadaism…
Duchamp carved out his niche in Art History when he contributed this "found object" to an art show... Perhaps anything could be art if seen as such. And nobody ran the artist out of town...
I’ll save you the trouble of looking them up... Art basically blew up the world, and with it most traditional paradigms that had inspired order in society for a thousand years. . The world was perceived to be in total chaos, life meaningless, God non-existent, and every man for himself. After Freud and Darwin, everyone accepted, without much of a whimper, that man was a mere ignoble biped, that life was an accident and that the human race and all other species the result of Spontaeous Generation. There went the miracle of creation and the human soul. Life was a random, sometimes cruel game of survival of the fittest, nothing more, and certainly not the preparation for immortality with a Divine Creator. Without a moral compass, Europe had fallen into the clutches of the Nazis and Fascists by the 1930's.
That is much where our American culture is going today. In fact the “Post Modern” wave seems to have been the pinnacle of American artistic cultural expression, like the high-fly baseball over center field, in that millisecond when it stops rising… and gravity changes the direction and pulls it down to oblivious earth.
Post-Modernists prove that artists have nothing uplifting to add to man's highest achievments... and only the exploration of the undone..
I became an artist just before the pendulum began to swing back into the opposite of all things “American,” (Mom, apple pie) a pivotal shift towards a free-for-all that led down to the slippery slope. I was persecuted in college by my art professors, probably Post-Modernists, with prejudice, as they sought to take art to a new frontier where I could never belong, but one for them that never materialized. Everything had seemingly been done, and artists had to find the new thing, even ruthlessly, or art was dead. I was rejected as old school, "an anachronism," not really an artist in the pure sense, and an impediment to the other classmates' progress. Bottom line, my talent, religion and world view was a threat to their new doctrine of relativity and of the ongoing slash and burn of art traditions. They strongly advised me to leave the art school at North Texas State, and actually suggested that I change my Major. And... I did.
But at least they had a mission. At least they knew their message. They were even willing to persecute for their cause, albeit misguided. Today’s American artists are pretty soft. Unmotivated. That is the last sign of a failing culture: The death of any kind of struggle. Yet everybody's passionately disgruntled... rebellious... insolent, outspoken, inconsolable, as they live a life of relative luxury and ease. It turns out being discontented is man's natural emotional equilibrium. What's missing is any worthy cause, other than SELF. It feels very similar, but raising hell through art or protest is not synonymous with social reformation. I’m not talking about the fringe nuts like the Occupy Wall Streeters, or Boston Celtics fans. I’m talking about the lack of intelligent, responsible people willing to fight about something they believe in, BIGGER THAN THEMSELVES. Esoteric passion has become foolishness.
In fact I have made a study of music and art all of my life and offer this observation, one that I think explains a lot; No great art was ever created that was not born from some kind of human struggle. Once a culture has peaked, and there are no great wrongs or challenges, no common struggles, the fire needed to inspire and motivate artists to fashion their products burns down to mere coals, unable to produce the flame of genius. Look at how the world art scene moved to the U. S. after WWII, because Europe went into a Post-War, peace-induced coma. The struggle was over and the culture spent. Plus all the best artists and scientists bailed and went to the new frontier... America.
But eventually, really pretty quickly, the Avant Garde in America of the ‘70’s capitulated just like every other extremist, intolerant whim. Enthusiasm for anarchy and destructionist philosophy is hard to maintain. The 60's war protesters are now sub-culture grannies taking their darling grandchildren to BEST BUY, to purchase war video games.
The pendulum of culture swings slowly. And in the meantime folks like me slithered back into the art scene in the wake of the Post-Modernist conquest, making art of all kinds in the vacuum. Art, or whatever you want to call it, is impossible to police.
I and my ilk (representational artists) were not part of a particular historic, groundbreaking art movement, and were only slightly nobler and democratic (and kinder, gentler?) than those intolerant art revolutionaries, and perhaps were just what they thought, mere rootless anachronisms, offering no solutions to the real problem: The pendulum was falling off and the cultural clock becoming irrelevant.
In the end, man has risen... to meaninglessness and emptyness. The art in museums and galleries pretty much backs me up. Galleries are either stocking up with the La La Land Fraggonardesque visual opiates, or anything shockingly deconstructed, more anarchic and hopeless than Picasso. And the crowds are staying away in hordes.
Who wants to go gallery-hopping to scan upon a sea of crude, depressing mind-farts? Who wants to own one in their home, our hang it over their desk and look at it every single day? (Most people today think that art is something for somebody else, who thinks they understand it.) American art, as BAROQUE and highly developed as it is, has become more irrelevant in our culture than it has ever been.
I manage an art gallery and when somebody actually stops and looks at any of the art, it is an unusual incident, worthy of comment. I usually show my own cynicism by asking "Are you an artist?" They often are. Art is dead to most of the general public. I host a live music jam every Friday night in the same store; Open to the public, and free to anyone who might enter, (we even give away pizza!) it is rare to see a dozen people show up, in a town of 8000. And a couple of those are nearly street bums who just want the pizza.
We will keep trying, but I have no idea what it would take, what I would have to PAY them, to get the average American out of his easy chair and out into the world of the arts. Into LIFE; Walking downtown in the evening, meeting new people, enjoying musicians enjoy themselves. Technology has swallowed up a whole race.
So art has been marginalized. And artistically talented people of the latest generation have found a ready career in digital art, advertising, animation, computer graphics etc... Art has become the domain of philosophers while talent has been reduced to some kind of marketing asset.
Back in the 70's many of my associates found refuge in the Southwest, where traditional art values were still an acceptable paradigm. I stayed in Texas and painted murals for schools and museums. They were and are glorified illustrations, but it has been an honorable craft with real personal rewards. Art or no art. It was a niche. I worked it. I have no regrets, it was better than driving a tractor. But I have known since my college days, since the dawn of the computer and all its powers, that artists and craftsmen are like dinosaurs, like in the Disney cartoon movie marching into oblivion. The next generations of my culture, if it exists at all, will not make things. It will consume, destroy or perhaps repurpose, but it will not create or invent. It's pretty much done... except for endless tweaking of cell phones. At best, all creative "art" endeavors will be specialized whims, the domain of computer programming, inside a plastic box with a screen, and enjoyed by a very few.
Creative, constructive, artistic skills will become (pretty much already is) the domain of the "underclass," (uneducated, skilled labor) who still work with their hands… but they or their ancestors never pioneered a Renaissance or a revival of one. Art in its highest sense will be irrelevant and have been forgotten like those cave paintings.
This has been the oft repeated cycle of mankind. The oldest cultures unearthed by archaeologists were vastly superior societies that flowered and then … seemingly evaporated, as they used up the underclass and natural resources, and then got out of Dodge and moved west to a new frontier... But this time there is no place to go.
If you wonder about the future of America, look at Rome. Look at Greece, (two thousand years ago and now!) look at the forgotten world dominators covered in sand in Persia, or Egypt, or India. Same story every time. When the Germanic tribes invaded Rome, when Rome had invaded Jerusalem, the "conquerors" found weak, decadent societies, too sorry to defend themselves. Great world powers were rarely actually conquered, but usually flowered and died on their own. They died first from within, (Yes, even Israel!) became weak and then were replaced by lesser cultures that failed to emulate their success with the very same resources and geography. It has always been a cycle of struggle, victory, renaissance, indulgence and sudden impotence. Then desolation.
Places like Egypt and the Sahara were once the home of powerful cultures, green and full of life. Wealth and success led to brief eras of genius and then POOF, the high standard of living led to narcissism and swift reversals as the elites become too busy having fun to mind the store, tend to the fields, train the armies or bear children. Today the sands cover the dynasties of arrogant conquerors all over the globe who could not handle success.
And gradually the rich and powerful use up the earth, down to the quick. America is on the same path and has perhaps one more generation before we see this ancient cycle repeated once again. Right now our water and food resources are in serious decline, while we argue over idiotic, unprovable crises like "Global Warming" ( something that has happend repeatedly for centuries) or apocolyptic interpretations of the Mayan calendar. We are a foolish, frivolous culture that would rather play than work, borrow and spend, and live for today rather than leave a legacy to those that follow. In fact we would rather pursue happiness than bear children, and we love ourselves so much we somehow fail to even replace ourselves. Many of us are the genealogical end of our line. Many choose homosexuality, the ultimate in answering personal desire over obligations to our race. If enough follow that path, and it appears they are, our end as a culture can only quicken.
With no pendulum, now the clock seems to have sped up like crazy, and these days I see art buyers almost desperately scrambling after art that fits the popular hysterias, the wild and unexplainable, the anarchic, the ugly and uncomfortable; Neo-Baroque. Multicultural, hyper-sexual, irreverent, dark and bizarre. Sometimes the art can be fun and stimulating, but this is also the artistic expression of class warfare, where all norms and standards become suspect and their proponents perceived as enemies. Art buyers are rootless, hungry for the sensational, the unique, anything different. I see what they are buying every day, and it is outrageous if not downright scary. Popular Art in America no longer affirms life, home or hope. It insults, upsets and confuses, under the banner of multi-culturism.
My good friend and neighbor Leon Collins does such art and cannot keep his work in stock. In art school, we studied how "true" art is invariably the reflection of the pervasive philosophy of the times. In fact, I was taught that art is merely an extension of philosophy. If that is the case, from where I sit, it appears that the new national philosophy is one of random cynicism, and pretty cheap, transient entertainment. There are no longer higher things to reach for, only our most base instincts… the big-mouthed bass goes for the shiny lure... as the fly ball hits and bounces on the ground with a thud.
So I am well aware that I am yesterday’s boring establishment. I was told that when I began my career, by my art professors. At age 21, I was already old news. My style and message were seen as a threat, even the enemy of art. I argued (unsuccessfully) that surely, my representational technique was at least as legitimate as the pottery or weaving taught in the same building. But my art had something much more sinister to them: IDEAS behind them. Conservative ones. That was intolerable. But it was something deeper, really. It was spiritual warfare. A clash of World Views. Now I look back on those days as the most essential in shaping my fiesty artistic character. They gave me the esoteric passion to continue my art in some fashion, damn them.
But now, as in the Baroque period, the country is teeming with talented people with nothing left to say and no effective outlet to say it in. The Internet has evolved into the most complex, comprehensive quagmire of Baroque expression mankind will ever construct. Everybody has a relative that is an artist or a songwriter or a technological genius. And so a multitude of great artists of every medium and genre languish, as everyone who has a thought broadcasts themselves to the Universe. We self-publish, we self-record, we put it on itunes or whatever. Everybody is special, everybody is gifted, but there can be no Stars in so crowded a galaxy. We have it all, we have seen it all, we are restless and bored and there is no place left with mystery or wonder to … feed our souls.
Meanwhile the artists render, the writers write, the techno-nerds design the next gadget that will leave the thing you just bought in the dust… and everybody knows somebody that is struggling to get his invention, songs, art, or book produced for an ever apathetic culture. When I was a kid, it was a big deal to meet a real artist or a published author. I know scores of them today… right here in my area. It must not, could not mean what it used to. Maybe it is good, that a larger slice of our population has found a voice. But it is doubtful that so many creative minds have important things to say, or that the world has time to process it all.
But maybe it means that it will be impossible for any great work to emerge through the quagmire. And that is why Baroque means b-roke.
The light out here is blinding... I'm headed back to my cave...
Dear reader; This blog has received a lot of attention... it would be very instructive if some of you left a comment on your reaction to this blog... Anyway, thanks for giving time to my rant!