Home > Art History, Painting, Uncategorized > Playing It Too Safe: The Opposite of Avante-garde

Playing It Too Safe: The Opposite of Avante-garde

May 21, 2011

If certain forms of graffiti and unsanctioned street art can get you arrested, the other extreme is art that is so tame it lives firmly in the realm of the hobbyist.  The best examples of these “safe” works are held up as examples for the hobbyist to aspire to.  In America, arts & crafts are a multimillion-to-billions of dollars industry.  Chain stores, magazines, books and websites galore cater to this market.   For me, the schism between “hobbyist” and “artist” has deeper roots in art history and is best illustrated in the difference in views between Georgia O’Keeffe and Pablo Picasso.

Georgia O’Keeffe felt that the purpose of art was to “make beautiful things.”  It’s a quote of hers that finds frequent publication. Making anything these days is a way to resist consumerism -i.e. to make something yourself rather than buy something to hang up.  To participate in making something hand crafted seems a bit unconventional in an age of mass machine manufacturing.  It is empowering to the person who is learning a new skill and provides health benefits in the form of stress relief.

In reality, Georgia O’Keeffe was daring to participate in a male dominated art world and innovate image making with her own style of abstraction.  These days, her work is safely in the art historical canon and comfortably situated on the coffee table in a large format book.  No one sees the political side of her work in a historical context, unless they go looking for it; her paintings are safe and pretty.  She is lauded as an American success story, when in her time much of her work was derided until late in life.  She was bullied and sexually harassed as a student at the School of the Art Institute Chicago.  She was told that her presence was a waste of a seat in classes that would be better suited for a man to occupy since she would at the most only be a grammar school art teacher and never an artist.  As beautiful as her paintings are, they contain an undercurrent of political meaning.  She resisted others and never gave up on being an artist.  O’Keeffe had dared to continue with work she believed in and felt a deep personal connection to; she dared to have the career of an artist.

Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1935

Artists in the Modern period were looking for the new, both visually and intellectually.  Considering the purpose of art was a big part of the various philosophies of art from 1900 forward.

From the Modern period, a frustrated Pablo Picasso declared:

“What do you think an artist is? …he is a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”

Painting needed a new identity in the age of photography.  Photography was spreading and was not going to go away.  Painting’s prior function as the dominant way to record an image -such as a portrait, still life, historical event or landscape- had passed.  Now the purpose of a painting, the meaning behind the art, why it was being made at all, had a new focus.

This plays out in today’s division between the idea of people doing art as a hobby versus the people that identify themselves as an artist.  Again, arts & crafts are a big commercial market.  Picasso’s dictate that art is not made to “decorate apartments”, that it must have purpose beyond the ornamental, is invoked to determine if someone’s work is just something pretty done as a diversion or if the art has any deeper meaning.

I get that people want to make something beautiful for reasons such as “there is already enough ugliness in the world”.  That is not enough to cut it for me with any adults that want the title of “artist”.  Your work does not have to be politically radical, weird or anti-aesthetic, but you do have a responsibility to consider why you are making art.  It does not have to be obvious.  The landscapes of Chicago artist Ted Czerkies are actually autobiographical.  He and his wife were both being treated for cancer; he survived and his wife did not.  Each painting is some place he has been, an affirmation that he is still alive, still working, and painting is what he wants to focus on in the time he has left in life.  An artwork can be as lovely or straightforward as you want it to be on the surface and still have layers of deeper meaning below the surface.

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