There’s an interesting article on the Huff Post by John Seed about the situation facing, well, mainly, painting, and by extension, the now non-existent avant-garde. One of his conclusions that seems right on the money is:
“The problem is that the definition of avant-garde needs to be revised to encompass and include art and artists that are brave enough the reach backwards and forwards at the same time. The avant-garde of the future needs to feed itself with hybridization, consolidation and assimilation.
I think that painting has to look back over its shoulder to realist and academic painting before the Salon des Refusés; in fact, it can and should go all the way back to Lascaux if it needs to. I see the history of painting as a very long line with no beginning and no end.”
A Brief Rant on the Exhaustion of the Avant-Garde, Zombie Formalism and What Contemporary Painting Needs to Move Forward, John Seed, HuffPost, June 27, 2015.
I do not agree with all of the premises he suggests in the piece. Seed seems to think that representational work can offer us a way out. Though I love figurative art, I believe there needs to be a really different engagement with that history. “Representation” has to find some other kind of visual basis, some real visual urgency if it’s to have any relevance and innovation FOR us. The problem is that “representation” is ubiquitous. We are too enthralled with our lenses, too limited by the representation of reality that we see in our programs, too busy with our selfie sticks. Look, there is more contemporary “representation” stashed in my iPhone than I can take some days, and I certainly don’t want any of those images translated directly in paint! Especially not by an academic realist. And please, spare me the nude in the studio business. If you want a new kind of urgent Realism check out Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake.
Additionally, technique and process are great, but that’s not going to move us forward! Perfecting a skill does not make for progressive art. Vision does. What pushed the early Modernists to innovate was the urge to understand new and different ways of seeing and understanding the times in which they lived. What they found was that they had to adapt old techniques in order to do it – laying differing colors side by side to create optical illusions was nothing new – Michelangelo did it on the Sistine ceiling centuries before, and the more contemporary Delacroix demanded a weird mottled color in his own Romantic visions. Maybe it’s all been done, but that’s no excuse. We must hone to our vision, to seeing, and do what that demands of us. Simple questions – how do we see the world, what do we actually see, and how does that define our lives? This will drive innovation backwards or forwards – it always has.
If we as artists do look back along the long history of art it must be in order to find something that can make sense of this moment, of our life in this time. And if we do find something that can work, this kind of “hybridized” work will look strange, clunky and uncomfortable to those schooled in the Postmodern academies. I agree with John. This should be a risk we painters should take – especially at this time!