January 31, 2019

Painters Talking Theory, Practice, Birds and Things

“I hope that my work can be seen and understood on a universal basis, that is that the language is of a nature that it doesn’t have the necessity for its American labels. But all these issues in the end, whether it’s American, or whether it’s painterly...are false issues raised by aesthetes. I’ve expressed myself on this issue many, many years ago, when at a conference between aesthetes and artists, I said to these aesthetes, that even if they’re right, and even if they can build an aesthetic analysis, or an aesthetic system that will explain art or painting, or whatever it is, it’s of no value really, because aesthetics is for me like ornithology must be for the birds.”

— Barnett Newman

Distinguishing between the theory and the practice of art may afford artists a conceptual break, a creative opening through which the boldest of them take the risks necessary to find original ways to obtain images yet to be grasped. Throughout art history we can trace the linear narratives of progress as art historians sanction new visual discoveries, very often to support their own perceived “new art” movements. Later still, academics and theorists can focus their attentions on organizing and incorporating these new practices in visual art into palatable theories of art history.

Needless to say, not all artists are happy with this arrangement. When Barnett Newman spoke the above words about his art in Emile de Antonio’s documentary film, Painters Painting,(1) he was adamant that aesthetics, and those “aesthetes” he obviously disdained, were of no use to him in his art practice. Referencing their analyses of style or labels as “false issues” the aesthetes pursue as a matter of course, Barney made it clear that the practical creation of art is distinct from any systematic analysis, and then marvelously illustrates his point in a now famous statement conflating aesthetics with ornithology.

Barnett Newman‘s brilliant analogy and his sardonic delivery of it on film caused me to reflect upon the relationship between theory and practice in art. And Barney wasn’t the only artist appearing in the documentary whose words incited my thinking about how artists may have to forget, or cognitively bracket, theory altogether in order to arrive at unique practices to create original art.          

Let us first address some distinctions within art, how the “study of” differs from the pursuit of art. Far from a simple theory versus practice dichotomy, Barney’s dictum suggested that art is pursued in a rarified vacuum, with the artist as pioneer in the art wilderness. Those artists who are able to access that wilderness are seeking the new and they face the unknown as they walk a tightrope with no net. In that space there are no rules certainly, because there are no theories. Indeed, this is truly the avant-garde, as these are “vanguard” practitioners out ahead of the regular troops, with little protection under cover of theory or history.

Art is not a science, but we can draw comparisons between the two fields of knowledge. Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa has written: “All scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, and nothing is final. There is no such thing as final proven knowledge in science. The currently accepted theory of a phenomenon is simply the best explanation for it among all available alternatives. Its status as the accepted theory is contingent on what other theories are available and might suddenly change tomorrow if there appears a better theory or new evidence that might challenge the accepted theory. No knowledge or theory (which embodies scientific knowledge) is final.”(2) 

As in science, knowledge and theory in art is unquestionably provisional, especially given its place in today’s robust art market. Art theories often are challenged dramatically, and were especially challenged in the 19th and 20th Centuries because of significant breakthroughs of the boldest artists, which is why art theory remains contingent on new discoveries. Moreover, the privileging of any one particular theory over the others is unwise because any theory’s dominance has always been at the mercy of contemporary art practice.

“The things which have interested me in painting, and in thinking, are the things which can’t be located, or are the things which turn into something else while you locate them, or are things which are located so nicely that you know they can’t survive. But it’s never interested me, just the idea of forming a territory, or a, a thought and defending it. So my idea of what Pop Art is, is somewhere in that area of...I don’t like the idea that things are...that you’re sure what they are, and it seems to me that Pop Art suggests the...the term “Pop Art” suggests that, that everything is certain.”

— Jasper Johns

One of America’s boldest 20th Century artists, Jasper Johns later delivers his own deeply personal and frank assessment of art making in Painters Painting. His presence in this documentary is magnetic, his speech thoughtful, and yet peppered with humor and self-effacement. Nakedly honest, he describes his reverence in seeking out the unknown, acknowledging how an unobtainable image might be stumbled upon, and Jasper’s words perfectly depict painting as a solitary exercise in a near-romantic seduction of art.

His words about the “things which can’t be located,” or “turn into something else while you locate them,” or “are located so nicely that you know they can’t survive” were a revelation for me to hear, indicative as they seem of Jasper’s apparent lack of intentionality in his art practice. “Things that can’t be located” might be yet-to-be-discovered breakthroughs; his desire to “locate” might express a desire for new discoveries. Perhaps the “things that turn into something else while you locate them” conceivably may explain the flux of materiality as a painter works his media. Further still, do the “things which are located so nicely that you know they can’t survive” refer to Jasper removing, or painting over, something arrived at too easily, revealing his subjective taste decisions?

Possibly as well, Jasper’s disinterest in “forming a territory” might allude to the putative intention of staking one’s claim in art history, a path he seems disinclined to take. Indeed, his distrust of the “certainty” of an art critic label like “Pop Art” itself may also clarify his doubts about the then current perceptions of his work.

I do not propose that artists should completely disavow the importance of art theories, or the relevance of art history obviously, in order to pursue their new practices or modalities to enable them to create original art. On the contrary, I do support art education and want artists to understand their own position with respect to history. Moreover, I emphatically believe that artists must comprehend the art that has come before, to be cognizant of theories, art movements, and those radical breakthroughs that have brought art to this moment in time, the time in which they embark on their own art practice. But then setting to work in the studio, each artist makes their own decisions on what ideas to bring to bear, and/or reject in their own practice.                                                                                                                                                                                                           If Barney and Jasper taught us nothing else it was that all artists approach their practice differently, that methodologies and actions taken by any artist to pursue their visions are infinitely variable. Clearly, Barnett Newman and Jasper Johns were fortified by boldness to advance their individual practices beyond then known parameters of art, working in relative isolation in the now mythologized, mid-20th Century painting studios. Barney bypassed theory and aesthetics, avoiding the “episodic” to create work that “declares the space”(3) while Jasper ignored even the conventions of Beauty, seizing greatness seemingly by accident and made work that taunted mass culture yet remained uncertain of it.