Saturday, May 14, 2011

"It's Been Done"

I was listening to stories from the landscape painter Albert Handell at the Salmagundi Club's "American Masters" exhibition.  In the 1950s Albert was considered to be a very odd walking anachronism indeed for painting realistic landscapes, in spite of his ability to capture the volume and movement of water with broad expressive brush strokes that would put his contemporary Mr. Pollock to shame. Albert often heard the following rebuke when he mentioned that he was a realist:

"Realism is a waste of time, it's already been done by the Old Masters.  Why bother with a stale format? Do something original!"

"Rocky Mountain Stream", 24 x 40 in. by Albert Handell

Fifty years later, and it's still difficult to have a discussion about this topic in the current culture, where novelty is given the place of honor, and the definition of Art is so broad that it is almost impossible to engage in a meaningful dialogue. Instead, I give up on "ArtSpeak" and look for insight by re-casting the argument in a musical context in order to see how it holds up.  

For example, take a mature artistic genre in the musical space, such as guitar-based Rock N' Roll.  I can imagine a conversation with Bono in the year 1982, as U2 was about to release the War album.  In this thought experiment, some fictional critic might have asked him:
"Hey Bono, why are you bothering with this Rock N' Roll format? Your primary instrument of expression, the guitar, dates from the 1600s!  The Rock N' Roll genre itself is 40+ years old already, and it's already been done by Chuck Berry and Elvis!  It's now 1982, do you actually think you're going to have a more unique sound than the Beatles, using that same old arrangement of lead guitar, bass, drums and  vocals? Do you really expect your silly U2 experiment to be more original in an artistic sense than the Velvet Underground, or David Bowie?  Forget it, Bono! Rock N' Roll is a dead horse, as done as Latin!  
Not to mention, in terms of the limitations of the medium, there are only 12 major chords on the guitar.  Furthermore, there is the issue of subject matter and relevance.  In popular Rock N' Roll  music, isn't it always about romantic heartbreak or about rebellion against authority?  So limiting!  And you Mr. Bono want to extend the genre by singing about politics for heaven's sake? Bob Dylan already did that 20 years ago!  You're going to be better at it than the poet radical?  Do something original!"
And so on...

Obviously, no-one would make such a ridiculous argument in a musical context, even concerning a 
well-worn  genre such as popular guitar-based Rock N Roll music, with its standardized AABA format and song structure of introduction-verse-build-chorus-bridge-solo-finale.  

Yet in spite of the fact that the guitar originated in the 1600s, has only 6 strings and 60 standard chords, it's been one of the primary sources of original modern popular music since Django Reinhardt in the 1930s.

By contrast let's get back to the subject of painting, and limit the sub-genre to naturalistic, representational oil painting on canvas.

  • The subject matter: All  of visible nature.  In contemporary figurative realism alone the range of expression varies from the floating outer space bodies of Odd Nerdrum to the hyper-realistic psychological intimacy of David Kassan to the lyrical poetry of Jeremy Lipking.
  • The mode of expression:  Millions of color combinations. The Munsell Color System corrals the oil paint color gamut into quantifiable chunks at regular intervals of hue, value and saturation and still ends up with 1500 pleasing visual chords. 
  • The medium: Oil paint, with its infinitely variable optical properties of transparency and texture is applied in thousands of brush strokes, each carrying a unique signature.  A painting is a layered physical object, a cast or mold preserving the thousands of movements of the painter's body over many hours.

Detail of a head study painting by David Kassan

The capacity of realistic oil painting for diversity and originality of expression is astonishing, and each generation points this infinitely versatile medium at its contemporary subject matter.  

As the undaunted Mr. Handell said to me at the end of our conversation, 
"So, it's been done, eh?
Well, it hasn't been done yet by ME!"