Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I Second That Emotion

For years I've had an ongoing debate about the role of emotion in art with George Hofmann, an excellent painter and former professor of mine from the MFA program at Hunter. I recently e-mailed him and wrote that after all this time, he was winning the argument.

George, whose earliest role models were the Abstract Expressionists, is insistent on feeling as the central component in artmaking. He makes room for the many other facets that come in to play, but in his estimation, all run a distant second to the communication of emotional content. In his own work, this emphasis on a purely expressive method and a rejection of the deliberate and analytical leads him through long periods of frustration culminating in works of rare beauty.

My own working method generally sums up what has always been my side of the argument. When conceiving new works, I literally spend no time thinking about emotional content. I think about color relationships, and the kind of space and atmosphere they will create. I think about different types of figuration and their external referents, and whether or not I can live with those references. I think about scale.

This doesn't meant that I set out to make unemotional paintings. My contention has always been that artmaking is an intrinsically emotional and expressive activity (unlike, say, accounting), and as such, taking steps to install emotional content is redundant at best and theatrical at worst. It's like breathing or the beating of the heart; you don't need to think about these things, they just happen by themselves.

My conception is beginning to change. The subscription department at Artforum got wind of the fact that I'm teaching now, an offered me the "professional's discount" for a subscription (the cover price is a stunning $10, by the way). I haven't read it with any regularity since grad school, so I took them up on their offer.

Flipping the pages is very much like a walk through Chelsea. There are a relatively small number of themes, but a very large number of approaches, and there is a disquieting aura that hangs around so much of the work, a phenomena I first saw pointed out by Roberta Smith in the Times: a weird sense of emotional deadness. And then I started to entertain the idea that it was in fact possible to make artworks that were actually devoid of emotion. I informed George of my realization, and he was kind enough not to gloat.

I find that eerie emotional void very upsetting and a little frightening (and imagine that it's supposed to be). I brought this up with Pierre Obando, another marvelous painter and a classmate of mine, and he made a smart analogy: that it's sort of like having an encounter with someone who has autism; someone not aware of the social cues and expected emotional responses which are the oil in the gears of so much human interaction.

I also tried to make provision for the distinct possibility that I simply can't read a great deal of contemporary art. Over and over again, people accused Mondrian of making cold and unemotional paintings. This couldn't have been further from the truth (Mondrian dreamed that his paintings would hang on the walls of a Utopian society), and the people making the accusation were often the ones who should have known better. They simply could not read the emotional content that was in the work.

Greenberg pointed out that people have a tendency to personalize their limitations. Instead of understanding that they don't understand a given artwork, they'll instead characterize that misunderstanding as a hallmark of their personal taste: "It's not my kind of thing." I hate this even though I do it myself, and enlisted the input of Richard Garrison on the subject, a good friend of George and myself, and an artist of a very different stripe. With permission, I quote his response in block:

"When I am starting on new work, I take stock in what it is that interests me... what drives me to make work. Feeling is one of those important elements. Even with my work, feeling is a huge factor. One of those "feelings" it seems I am compelled to work with and communicate over and over again is emptiness. Yet, the emptiness is not the end for me. I try to relate to emptiness, to make it personal. For the sensibility of emptiness is overwhelming to me... I see it in all of my subjects... some are more obvious than others. The pervasiveness of emptiness is essentially what I am fighting against... and I usually don't expect to win, and that is OK. It is the ACT of fighting that matters.

So I can totally understand what Paul is talking about. It seems he is addressing what I like to think of "conceptual feeling," if that makes any sense. The deadness he describes is just another way of expressing feelings. However, and I have discussed this point with [George] before... it can be limited and difficult to read... and simply put, not all that good."

Richard's contention is that the emotional void I sense is in fact not a lack of feeling, but a kind of mourning or lament, which is in fact emotion of the most poetic sort. It's a very compelling argument stated in this way, and the quality of Richard's work gives it further validation.

But, but, but... I can't help but feel that this emptiness is most often a kind of "look" which is popular right now. Richard makes provision for this in the end of his missive, pointing out something that has been true about art since its very beginnings (and it's a point Professor Hofmann is fond of as well): most is bad, some is good, the tiniest sliver is possessing of real greatness.

I would like nothing better than to close this essay with an exclamation point, stamping my feet about all that has been lost. But I'm afraid that I have to choose a question mark instead, leaving a space for the fact that my personal preferences are not being addressed on a large scale, and I am simply searching for a mode of criticism that doesn't smack of sour grapes of the most egotistical kind.

But there is one bit of data that is more than circumstantial: Contemporary art is made more than ever before by highly educated artists. Since the end of the 60's, the overwhelming majority of artists that have been exhibited in high-profile galleries have BFA's, and more recently, the vast majority have MFA's. Artists with advanced academic degrees were the distinct minority prior to the earliest incarnation of post-modernism. Because of this fact, the gap between aesthetes and artists has narrowed considerably. A couple of quotes come to mind:

Barnett Newman: "Aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds."

John Cage: "Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes."

I am certainly not advocating for a return to a kind of naivete, which at this point in history would almost necessarily be faux-naivete. But I will say this: I'm all for the visual (they still call it visual art, after all), and I'm also feeling the need for greater emotional frankness. Idea-driven art is for the most part not primarily visual, and critique-driven art, which has been so central to art since the late 60's, is negative in its conception; it defines itself more from what it's not than what it is. Further, a large portion of critique-driven art is characterized by the use of irony, which creates yet another level of emotional remove. I believe that these two features, especially the latter, result in that disturbing emotional numbness that I feel so often while marching through Chelsea, and also contribute to the overarching sense of vagueness and randomness that I see in the aesthetic(s) of contemporary art as a whole.