Artbroken: What Art is and How We Stopped Making It

From a paper that was presented to the FATE conference in Milwaukee, March 2007. The conference theme was Shift-Connect-Evolve. "This conference will center on the ways to be relevant for the new generation of art/design students. The many conference opportunities are intended to help prepare foundations level educators for the shifts that are taking place because of the new student population, the increased use of technology, and the blurring boundaries between disciplines."



The theme of this conference is SHIFT, CONNECT and EVOLVE. These, so it is written, are meant to be "ways to be relevant" in the face of oncoming change.

What do they mean? Are they choices? I am guessing that SHIFT means "get out of the way", CONNECT means "surrender and get on board", and EVOLVE means "work up some sneaky way to do what you know is best in the first place."

An example of evolving could be changing a course description from "figure drawing" to "strategies for recontextualizing the archetypal male gaze to map external signifiers in a two-dimensional modality." And then, of course, you go ahead and teach figure drawing.

Art has evolved over thousands of years. It has become big time. It is our secular religion. We keep busy with it but we never talk about what it really is or why we do it. We talk around it. We spend huge amounts of time and money on art and shuffle everyday trivia while the big questions lie buried in the basement. That is what we are doing right here, right now.

We ought to settle these things.

Ellen Dissanayake, author of Homo Estheticus, argues convincingly that art-making began when human civilization began. She maintains that it is innate, has evolutionary utility and must be seen as behavior. I agree. Art is a social activity. What it "is" is what we do with it. I also agree with Semir Zeki that any intellectually rigorous analysis of art will be neurological, not philosophical or esthetic.

We humans have evolved in terms of the conditions of Earth since we were microbes in the primordial swamp. We are absolutely continuous with Earth and its conditions, conditions our brains have formed around, adapted to and learned to expect over millions of years. These expectations are consistently fulfilled in everyday life - up is up, down is down, air is soft, rock is hard, the sun is warm, things have weight. We use these learned assumptions to deal with new conditions that come up every day, and we learn from this in turn. This adaptive process is infinitely complex but we function within it by applying new particulars to our huge pre-existing matrix of learned and innate expectation, continually rejudging, relearning and readapting. It is a "living" process. It is how we live.

It is also how we make art. Art is condensed life. The artist works his materials against immediate circumstances and applies what he has in his head against what he has already done, reaching deep down to the extraordinary harmonic integrity of life itself to fashion something that is narrow, safe and permanent, and which deliberately circumvents transitory utility in order to create a dynamic equivalent of life itself. Art comes from a place that is way deeper than words and ideas and things. It goes out to the same deep place in the viewer. The work itself is the point of contact, the spark that jumps between the poles. It yields a special kind of recognition and pleasure, but it does not submit to rational explication.

Every artist tries to bring that core experience to the surface encoded in his or her art, but few succeed. After all, we are not talking about "art", we are talking about great art. Great art is what drives this enterprise. If it were not for great art we would not be sitting here. Mediocre art and bad art are something else, something manifestly different, another kind of thing. Much of it is merely what we choose to call art because art is expensive and prestigious. Most art is just surface noise. The world is jammed with this stuff.

Once we accept that there there is such a thing as good art and bad art and that good art has value for us then we are forced to conclude that the judgements we make about it are not individual exercises of taste but functions of how well we get what the art has. We are too neurologically similar to even suggest, as the word "subjective" does, that the judgement of this thing we love and agonize over and spend billions on can possibly be intrinsically capricious. We don't need to make a list of great art or even agree about what is good, although we do that anyway. All we need to do is agree that there is such a thing in the first place. Everything else follows from that. The artist puts something in; you take something out. There is value there or there isn't. You either get it or you don't. Art is for you, and getting it is up to you, nobody else.

Furthermore, art in the viewing comes acoss through the singular effect of the living whole, not the identifiable elements nor the intellectually derived implications of the recognizable parts. These are only materials, musical notes or words or oil paint or more complex configurations and embodiments. Art as such resides not in specifiable content but as a reflection of a series of judgements the artist made about content while consulting that core experience. There are a million paintings of the crucifixion, for example. They all have the same intense, meaningful familiar content. However, very few are great art, and the art experience provided by these has nothing to do - I repeat, nothing to do - with religion.

We all have life within us. Talent is the ability to get down to it and bring it out in the form of our chosen medium, materials and predilictions. What we call foundations - learning to draw and paint and design and, above all, to see - gives talent the instructions it needs to bring life to the surface and give it comprehendable form. Materials and procedures have evolved as art itself has evolved, and we have gradually developed exercises to synchronize the hand and the eye and the brain, exercises that can develop sensitive neurons making connections to facilitate the life force as it threads its way past the interfering static of everyday baggage out into the light of day.

But the stark, simple, unassuming old-fashioned utilitarian character of most traditional foundations works against them in the academic postmodernist marketplace because they cannot compete with the intimidating jargon, blustering self-importance and beguiling mystique of the theories and so called "issues" that are thrown, like so much trash, onto the path that art must take. When we, as artists, make our art dependent on ideas or things or theories or fashions or moral lessons or "truth", or any nonvisual external, we do not enrich it, we cut it off from the deep internal sources that nourish it. When we, as teachers, eliminate basic foundations to accomodate transient academic fads we willfully destroy tools that can lead students to art. And when we, as artists and teachers, betray the insistent small voice of inner necessity to gain the paltry rewards of the market or academia we trade our free souls for a joyless straitjacket. Why do we do it? It is a Faustian bargain, and it is a bad one.

Posted April 2, 2007

© Darby Bannard, 2007



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