After meeting and chatting online with Artist Steve Brudniak, he sent me a copy of this essay he wrote and asked me to possibly post it. He initially wrote it anonymously with the intention of anyone reprinting or using it. Needless to say, I strongly suggested to him that that's not how hard-working, published authors roll. And so, he agreed to put his name to his writing and I'm delighted to publish this lovely piece with a slight edit here and there. As I often do in my own writing, Steve gives the art world a pretty good dose of tough love here. If you love contemporary art and want the art world to improve, enjoy. If you're thin-skinned, brace yourself ...
SAVING BEAUTY: THE PAINFUL REBIRTHING OF VISUAL AESTHETIC IN CONTEMPORARY ART
By Steve Brudniak www.stevebrudniak.com
Beauty and craft are the two dirty words of the longest running trend in modern art history. Currently, the contemporary fine art market/criticism/ exhibition/education sphere has a dark cloud over it, coated in shiny glitter on the bottom.
The story of ‘The Emperor's New Clothes’ has become the standard and most accurate analogy for what has been happening for the last half-century in this realm. Simply put, while conceptual beauty seems to have remained quantifiable in contemporary circles, well-crafted, visually beautiful (yes beautiful) works of art are rarely being accepted today as serious and worthy of fine art status.
“But beauty can no longer be defined, there is no absolute!” some may say.
Bull hockey! Don’t let that old argument depress you any longer friends. It’s not true. You know beauty. There aren’t many ugly sunsets out there and we all know slop when we see it. Artists have been hitting the beauty button in our brains for millennia. Conceptually and visually. That’s what artists do.
Beauty was banned as an “absolute truth,” decades ago by a construct called postmodern. Truth can only be defined as what IS for certain and the only thing known for certain is what IS at this moment. Beauty is what brings us into the moment, where extraneous thought is silent because we are listening and enraptured.
The music of an artwork that makes one want to listen is visual aesthetic. It’s poetry … it’s conceptual.
When visual art isn’t visual
What happened at the end of the 19th century, when we began defining experiments in art history as movements every few years? Like adolescents, we drop anything fashionably outdated - however innovative or incredible, aborting enlightening work that could have been, yet isn’t considered timely.
Today, a skill, a technique, a form cannot remain relevant and contemporary, even when new mastery or ingenuity is shown. A movement used to be left to simmer, to soak up the spices in the pot, to refine … not even named until fully burning itself out.
We have run out of “isms” … Perpetuating the ‘new’ has become a game of trying to break all of the rules, generating the least art-like objects and certifying them with the most clever infusions. Add a few sticks to qualify it as an object and “Voila!” you have something new. The formula has become the norm; the easiest way to make visual art that is unlike any visual art before is to make non-visual, visual art.
The “Visual” has increasingly become secondary to witticism, pomp, ego, marketing and concept; converted into theoretical rhetoric, a mere means to make a statement, a proving ground for wit. The uninitiated are left wondering why, but afraid to ask for fear of being scorned as ignorant.
Noam Chomsky, referring to the over-intellectualization of art theorists, made this comparison to scientific theory in an interview:
“They have big words. We’ll have big words. They draw far-reaching conclusions. We’ll draw far-reaching conclusions. We’re just as prestigious as they are.”
The perpetual adolescent
Dada and Abstract Expressionism at their infancy (along with other movements) were indeed, wild experiments, a revolt and a slap in the face of the establishment. As curiosity and taste for these efforts grew, so did the need to rebel further and the notion that ‘new art’ must be just that: wild experimentation, revolt and a slap in the face of the establishment. This was indeed wonderful at first! It had to happen! We were freed to investigate as many new forms, media and styles as our hearts desired.
However … the well-intended postmodernist rejection of ‘absolute truth’ claims began as a reactionary move from the stage into the street like Dada, but seems to have ended up a stage dive into a drunken crowd.
The endless irony, purposefully careless splatter on anything other than canvas, the resolutely tacky assemblages, the oh-so-shocking penis depictions and the classic tongue-in-cheek, comical, pop-culture icon smears have all become ever so common, and even more boring than the verbose bullshit that claims it’s art.
Imagine if punk rock had evolved from its revolutionary genesis, into accepted norm, to ultimately become the standard musical genre of the century.
Problem is, the art department hasn’t moved on like the music and fashion departments, where the idea of cool has evolved into a healthier integration.
A walk today through a record store will reveal a diversity of individuals of varying ages and cultures who are listening to any combination of musical genres and wearing anything from the last seven decades; finally realizing after a century, that the experimental can entail refining the classics.
There is good in all that had come before and worth a try on. Music and clothing are easily affordable, so brand popularity is ultimately dictated by the masses. Fine art trends, however, are manipulated by the few in power. More on that in a bit.
Craft? God forbid!
When Ai Weiwei pours 100-million, hand-painted sunflower seeds onto a museum floor, we are impressed, moved by the Herculean effort, prompted to ponder labor abuses in the third world. Primarily, we are conceptually challenged, whereas a painterly, surreal, Mark Ryden illustration may affect us on a different, primal level.
Neither artist should be overlooked. It’s the exclusion of any expression having merit that is depraved. But stroll through the late 20th Century wing of the art museum of the future; there’s little to marvel at other than a bit of history, worn jokes, the mystery of why penises and vaginas were so shocking and a profusion of experiments without conclusions.
This isn’t, of course, about negating the experimental, the novel, the political, conceptual or the ironic. This is about invalidating the intuitively known values of aesthetics. The astounding craft and undeniable picturesque beauty of a political Diego Rivera mural leaves us with something brilliant, though the depictions have played out and become history.
The knowledge that a bronze is not painted styrofoam is part of the value in experiencing a Rodin sculpture. The seamless construction of a Koonz piece, the complexities and material use in a Kienholz are all part of what make the work ‘work.’
Craftsmanship is the art of seducing materials into speaking ideas. This, few can pull off well.
Who is mucking this all up?
Collectors share some of the blame for following the queue of investment buyers or the advice of dealers as their main direction instead of listening to their own darkening hearts. But there’s little today for them to truly fall in love with or understand from an aesthetic or spirit-borne perspective that isn’t suffocated beneath hype.
Museums, our certifiers of historic significance, can also take a chunk of the fault. The contemporary curatorial position can often be a ladder-climbing exercise. To be at the top, one must be in the know of secrets, and in curator terms, that means finding and ‘interpreting’ something no one else comprehends. That work is getting easier and easier to find.
In addition, we have such a glut of lazy young artists today; the lure of easy fame and money seems accessible by merely manifesting clever ideas in the most economical way possible. This is what academia and the market are telling them sells!
Also, critics will commonly follow the trend of what looks ‘cutting edge.’ It’s the fulfillment of being in authority that has driven so many throughout history.
And dealers ... we come full circle here. They are the sellers of the emperor’s clothes, and like curators, convincing patrons of the value and exclusivity of their artist brands is paramount. Somewhere along the recent timeline of art history, the hard work of the individual craftsman/artist became perceived as middle class.
The shakers of the high art world are almost exclusively heavily-educated, wealthy and crave prestige and power. Rubbing elbows with the village maestro is less appealing than owning something coated in brilliant, theoretical honey and/or associated with the wealth it takes to employ a factory of workers to create!
But genius is not synonymous with education or success. Most visual, less verbally-disposed artists will avoid confrontation with those who could viciously stomp on their ideas or stunt their reputations. And too often, the technically-challenged, not so visual artist, leaning heavily on verbal concept, will have more time outside the studio to spend grant writing and is probably communicating better with ‘the man.’ Harsh generalizations yes, but generally the case.
This analysis is meant to convey an understanding; blame is not really where our action should be. The action comes from being brave enough to admit that we do not see the emperor’s new clothes.
Artists and true art lovers must stand up to those obsessed with left-brain speculation by using their highly-developed right brains. Don’t allow an argument filled with scientific sounding utterances and references to the abstruse back you into a corner. The emperor is naked, his balls are hanging in the wind and yet ‘they’ will go on describing his amazing robes with undeniable intellect.
The right curve, the perfect shadow, a flawless seam, an inscrutable expression, will tell a thousand words for every one word they can write about it!
If we don’t speak up about what is happening today, we risk de-evolution into atrophy of our ability and the memory (of what mastery is) needed to create things like joy, inspiration, inexplicable bliss and psychological and spiritual fulfillment through visual means.
Steven Brudniak, September 2014
(Slightly re-edited and published for the first time by ArtBookGuy on July 14, 2015. Artist Steve Brudniak is the author and owns the copyright to this essay. Like everything on ArtBookGuy.com, this essay may NOT be re-printed, re-published or copied anywhere without the written consent of the author and ArtBookGuy.com)