As a graduate student, I enrolled in the only art class I have ever taken as an adult. I had given up on art in high school, when it became clear that my teachers considered me talentless and it had grown too hard on me to be judged for the final execution of something I simply loved doing. I may never have been very good at art but I adored the meditative effect creating it had on me: the zone I fell into while squishing my hands into damp clay, the creatures I could shape by making a fist or pressing my palms together, the worlds I could build on a linen sketchpad with just a flick of the pencil.
This is the central dilemma of teaching art, I think. Though not everyone is equally gifted and some who are gifted are not exceptionally creative, there are criteria to fulfill and value to be assigned in the classroom. To draw as a student should be to expand your abilities, extend your awareness of what is possible; though that may be a central tenet of education, when education becomes a system which prizes hierarchies and doles out judgments accordingly, your teachers grow less concerned with what you are attempting to do or if you are enjoying yourself while doing it than with ensuring the end product has resulted in something tangible, viable within the current context denoting what is "good."
In this adult art class, where our objective was fun and growth, we were tasked with one of the most basic art assignments of all: sketching a self-portrait. I demurred. "I'd like to do something more abstract," I told the teacher, herself a student and younger than me. I had hoped that perhaps my age would spare me from this banal, troublesome task. And if not my age, then my use of the word abstract, a concept I myself had not yet fully grasped, thanks to my limited art education. I did not want to draw myself, could not bear the exercise of realistically envisioning myself in another's eyes. I already knew that these self-portraits were used to make claims about an artist's state of mind—as we have seen with interpretations of Van Gogh's dramatic portrait of himself with a still-bandaged ear. How could somehow who had painted such a *normal* self-portrait have been insane? But the abstract variations on these portraits are also under the microscope, as the notes recently uncovered on Edvard Munch's Scream attest. No matter how you depict yourself, some portraits can only have been created by a madman, as Munch himself wrote. Never mind that this portrayal of madness is the most infamous, relatable of the Norwegian's oeuvre, it is nevertheless judged harshly, indicative of his failings as a person.
Even though he was a person plagued his whole life by grief, the scream a legitimate reaction to the state he found himself living in.
"Before you can be an abstract artist," the teacher said. "You first have to learn the formal rules you'll be breaking." She referred to the works of Picasso, whose style shifted as he aged. The inventor of Cubism, whose mural of death and destruction used new techniques to recreate the surreality of war, could still find himself sketching true-to-life nudes in his old age as a means of expressing his own virility. Of course, it is easier for an artist who has made his name using the skills and tools of the master to deconstruct the canon once he's become a part of it.
I think about that a lot—about learning the formal tenets of an art form before breaking it apart. About the ways in which abstraction arises out of reality, the privilege of being able to create according to your own imagination without worrying over the value judgments others place on those fantasies. I have thought about it even more over the last year as our lives have felt simultaneously less imaginative from being stuck indoors and more fantastical than any dystopian would have us believe.
Gaga for Dada
But this notion that we first need to learn formality seems to be in opposition to the "Manifesto of Surrealism" as described by Andre Breton in 1924, who writes of the longing for a return to childhood as fodder for creativity. In childhood, he writes, "The absence of any known restrictions allows him the perspective of several lives lived at once; this illusion becomes firmly rooted within him; now he is only interested in the fleeting, the extreme facility of everything. Children set off each day without a worry in the world." We are born without formality; our instincts are not to follow the rules laid out for us or concern ourselves with what others think. This shifts as we age, until, "Threat is piled upon threat, one yields, abandons a portion of the terrain to be conquered. This imagination which knows no bounds is henceforth allowed to be exercised only in strict accordance with the laws of an arbitrary utility."
As French Dadaist poet Robert Desnos writes, "As they age, all things grow rigid and bright."
The more that I learn about art and its value, the easier it is for me to understand why the surrealists broke with convention, why the Dadaists were so obsessed with making nonsense. Their work, in its return to child-like informalities, stands in direct contradiction to an industrialized society's demands for conformity and stricture. That doesn't make it "good," per se, but rather it makes it a statement of rebellion against the rules that cage us.
Which is what makes it so odd, to me—to know that those who can afford this art, are in possession of it, are those who benefit most from industry and its rigid conformity. These are people who can consume abstraction, and pay a lot to do so, because they followed the prescribed tenets laid out before them. Their existences have been shaped by the laws of an arbitrary utility that they likely helped to create and reinforce as they benefited from the feelings befalling others who, "(H)enceforth belongs body and soul to an imperative practical necessity which demands his constant attention." Whose earnings stem from other people, those who are afflicted by a loss of imagination, until they arrive at what Breton calls, "The madness that locks one up."
It is the ultimate absurdity to know that a work by Banksy that sold for millions at auction before shredding itself was bought by a member of one of the wealthiest industrialist families in Stuttgart and displayed, temporarily, at the Frieda Burda Museum, a tax-deductible homage to one of the country's wealthiest media moguls in Baden-Baden, a town known for attracting oligarchs and destitute travelers alike (and where Dostoyevsky was said to have written, "The Gambler").
Yet that is the state of the contemporary art scene, a billion-dollar industry marred in intransparency and falsity. Billionaires paying what to them is pocket change and to others is an entire livelihood on works that serve as a means of posturing their dismay and disgust at the current system of things, which, often, they control or have at least helped to shape. It is conformism disguised as rebelliousness, this acquisition of statement abstracts, and a nod to their fellow class members who prize individual sameness that comes at the expense of others' lives and sanity. To hold these people's views in esteem (as one does in the art world) is to reaffirm the class hierarchies that oppress the artists and workers alike.
As much as I'm speaking here about art, I am speaking about the state of the western world today. A state in which the childish imaginations are diminishing, the education of art is stifling, the unequal structures prize exploitative hierarchies at all costs. A world in which a work of art's value is artificially inflated, determined by the whims of those invested in its commissioning and whose whims demand subjugation to stringent rules they themselves have created if, for no other reason, than that that was the way things had always been. A nose has always been drawn not at the center point of a person's face but rather just below, closer to two-thirds of the way down the shape of the egg. The eyes are always slightly asymmetrical, one perhaps slightly larger than the other; unless, of course, you are Picasso in his later years and then the eyes can be anywhere, your face can look like anything.
In the end, my first and only self-portrait was one that followed the traditional rules of art, my face divided into quadrants and filled out according to what I saw in the mirror. My eyes were painted with blue irises and black pupils, my hair tucked behind my ears. If I were my own art teacher, I would have awarded myself a C+ for following all instructions without showing signs of talent or creativity. And although that’s ok, I don’t judge myself for doing something I love, I also no longer conflate true artistry with the value assigned to it. Because in a world where values are inflated and collectors’ money is superfluous, it is more the message of the work and the feelings that it creates that is what has others deem it worthy. Which is, perhaps, why I am most interested in this conversation now. What will we want to see reflected in the art that comes out of this moment in time? What messages are those we will deem worthy?
If I were to draw a portrait of the world today, would it resemble a pastoral Impressionist landscape like those that I see on my walks through the nearby parks? Or a Hieronymous Bosch that highlights the way I feel after reading the news of the day? We are living in a time where those with money have created such strictures and demand such conformity that all of the joy has been sucked out of our days and that is reflected in our art—or inability to perform it. Even the children are shrinking within these constraints. Perhaps that is why this dystopian seems to be dragging on forever, the clocks of time melting. Contemporary life, as in western art, is experiencing the ultimate response to previous generations’ surrealist tendencies: a capitulation to what Breton calls, “the realistic attitude, inspired by positivism, … hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. … made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit.”
If you like this, join me and other culture writers from Study Hall on April 2 at 10 p.m. CET (4 p.m. EST, 1 p.m. PST) for a Zoom panel on surviving the culture industry.