Beyond the technical aspects of making art, there is a language that allows us to truly see a work. All art exists within a structure of critical and historical knowledge that is constantly evolving and being reevaluated–just like language itself. For example, when I was teaching, I would make a drawing on the board and ask the class to identify it. It was very clear and precise, but no one ever guessed correctly that it was the Japanese character for rain.
David Ligare, “Realism and the New Ideal: A Dialogue between David Rush and David Ligare,” American Arts Quarterly, (Winter 2012)
Why would anyone write about an interview that happened in 2012? My fine artist husband pulled out a particular issue of American Arts Quarterly one morning and started reading aloud. He has stacks of these, most of which have been in his life longer than I have. The national lock downs had just begun and I wondered what resources I might draw on with the libraries closed.
The fact is, so many books, magazines, and journals have been printed in the world that, even if nothing was ever published again, we should not lack for stimulating reading. What marks postmodern production of everything is the lustful grasping for the “new”–though it’s hard to find anything truly new. And so it goes in the art world, as well. If you can’t produce something new, you must find original ways to distort it, and make your point so mysterious that no one can figure out whether you are a genius or a lunatic.
Well, I decided to make something new out of an old interview.
Though I am neither an artist nor an art historian, it didn’t take long to discern that artist David Ligare brought to that interview an exceptional understanding of competing art philosophies. Now in 2020 I have an opportunity to revisit this topic because the world has slowed down.
Art today is less about the output than the philosophies behind it. Much of it, frankly, repels me, because I find it jarring when beautiful spaces are marred with ugly artworks. I am not one who particularly likes being shaken up and made to see the “reality” of other people’s nightmares. I have enough of my own, thank you very much. What I want is to be comforted because the world has grown so damned ugly. I want hope, I want redemption and ideals to aspire to. I want art to make me a better person.
Although Ligare acknowledged that there is some brilliance of thought behind modern art, especially the early modernist movements, even he said:
“I . . . believe that the true purpose of art is to fulfill societal needs and, while modern art had much to teach us earlier on, like almost all art movements, it has become repetitive and superficial and has basically been feeding off of itself.”
In one way, I get where he is coming from. Art in our day comes from a maverick lineage that occupies itself with tumbling concepts around — often for their own sake — rather than for the purpose of ennobling society by calling its attention to high ideals or beauty. Yet both Ligare and his interviewer, David Rush, share the opinion that it is primarily the highly educated who visit modern art museums, not the “ignorant” (like me).
It is true that I am a novice at such discussions, therefore, I shall restrict myself to the narrowest slice of this formidable interview. But I ask, if the art does not speak on some basic level to ordinary people like myself, what is its value? Perhaps it comes down to the purpose for which it was created — maybe not always for public consumption, but for philosophical argument. Such is the shift from traditional art to modern and postmodern art. We must return to the concept of a learned language in that case, which Ligare addressed earlier with his Japanese rain character.
“My point was that art, all art from ancient to contemporary, is a language, and unless you understand the vocabulary you can’t really see it. Moreover, the language keeps shifting, inventing and then reinventing itself. That said, I am probably wrong in accepting as much of the contemporary art world as I do. Much of it is way too cliché at this point.”
Much of contemporary art is less of a two-way conversation than it is an interpersonal
dialogue within the artist. It is (often) a rather pushy message, if you ask me–one that makes people think things they don’t want to think about. It may be that Mondrian, for instance, was truly a genius at discerning an abstract structure behind natural reality. His works are harmless and sometimes even playful. Duchamp, on the other hand, strikes me as a highly intelligent idler with nothing constructive to do–someone whose father did not take him in hand and bring him up responsibly. I really don’t want to think about his Fountain latrine. It has no relevance for me.
The Ligare interview is wonderfully packed, nonetheless, and it is easy to see that Rush and Ligare, while sharing a similar knowledge base, come at it from completely different perspectives. Surely Rush knew the difference between a realist and a representationalist when he asked Ligare, “As a realist, don’t you sometimes feel like this has been done so often and for so long, why bother with it? Why bother to reinvent the wheel?”
“Well, strictly speaking, I’m not a realist, I’m a classicist,” said Ligare, “and the two are mutually exclusive, but I take your point about originality.”
Actually, I took Rush’s point, too, assuming he really was talking about realism rather than representationalism. Realism is basically an exact copy of the thing in hand. Representationalism is not, though it appears real enough to communicate something. Rush reminded Ligare of a quotation from T.S. Eliot, “it is exactly as wasteful for a poet to do what has been done already as it is for a biologist to rediscover Mendel’s discoveries.” But are we asking anyone to rediscover anything? Or are we asking artists not to erase all signs and symbols so that a semiotic inquiry becomes impossible? After all, every snowflake has six points, but their unique designs do not make them unrecognizable. It gets even better — Ligare’s comeback is beautiful.
“What is often called ‘traditional’ is often a form of (naive or uninformed) contemporary realism. Eliot’s form of tradition meant the full knowledge and use of history. Eliot was an ‘eternalist.’ He begins his poem Four Quartets by saying ‘Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future.’ More importantly for me, his poem ‘Burnt Norton,’ especially the part beginning with ‘At the still point of the turning world,’ exactly echoes the work of one of my greatest influences, the Greek sculptor Polykleitos.”
“The still point of the turning world.” Yes, that is it! I am only asking for the “still point” of human communication styles. Isn’t that what we call “timelessness”? The point where time past, present, and future seem to converge into universal experience even though everything is in constant flux? To the ancient Chinese monks, a mountain was still a mountain, a tree a tree, and it would have struck them similarly had they been Irish hermits instead. William Wordsworth wrote:
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
The Industrial Age has altered our physical environment such that houses, transportation, clothing, and social interactions look nothing like they did for centuries. To paint a modern person, believably, into a timeless environment is harder than it ever was. Modern clothing with its seams and hardware is utterly at odds with the unprocessed natural environment. To paint a modern environment around a timeless-looking person is nearly equally ridiculous. The art of the “timeless” is the art of appearing to stand still, and what is modern never feels at a standstill. That is the contradiction.
Ligare took note of Eliot’s statement and compared it with what he has been trying to achieve.
“Nearly everything I’ve done for the past thirty years or more has been aimed at finding the center or ‘the still point’ within the swirl of time and culture. Most contemporary artists are straining to be ‘edgy.’ . . . But we have to ask ourselves, what is originality? When there are thousands of neo-expressionists, thousands of conceptual and installation artists, thousands of eccentric-abstractionists and thousands of every category that you might find in the most current graduate school programs and in the pages of Artforum magazine, the so-called edge in the artworld is a very crowded place.”
Indeed, and the art world is so idiosyncratic as to render it impossible to apprehend every artist’s private “language” with the props kicked out from under language itself. That isn’t to say that I find most contemporary realists inspired, though. Unfortunately I find most of their work boring and banal. I applaud the technical skill by which they can truly claim mastery, but the missing ingredient is often nuance of expression or just good composition. Most have fallen into the trap of hyperrealism, predictable fantasy genres, or imitating photographs down to the last pixel — like everyone else. Yawn. Representationalism (or even classicism) is something different, though. It is capable of poetic expression. (See the work of Thimgan Hayden, for example.)
Of course, I am not an expert. (Is there such a thing in art?) But when all is said and done, I’m rather grateful for the opportunity to re-examine the topic while the world has gone to bed. Whether my conclusions are right or wrong, real conversations on such lofty topics deserve the kind of close reading and thoughtful musing that shut-downs allow. It is as close as we may ever come to that Wordsworthian ideal in our lifetimes — to make the industrial world go away for a little bit so we can better apply our intelligence to the American Arts Quarterly. No hurry, no rush.