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My Place in Art History

Inscription, "art"

Recently I was listening to a podcast by John T. Unger where he was interviewing Mary Anne Davis with the theme of understanding your own art in terms of art history. The first thing I got out of it was mostly thinking in terms of what the artists before you have developed, and building on that. The second thing for me was to not retread what other artists have already done. A comparison was made to the world of physics: a physicist would already have an understanding of what, say, Galileo and Einstein have already done. And you either build upon your predecessors’ work, or you do something to prove them completely wrong. Either path is acceptable.

It got me thinking about my own art and the evolution of it (which I’ll post about once I get some college paintings photographed), and how my own paintings play into the broader scheme of art history. I suppose our tendency is to view art history as something that is essentially “dead,” since you don’t really think of history as happening right now. But history is happening right now. It helps to think of art as an ever-continuing conversation (although our forebears can’t directly talk back to us).

I know, it seems rather presumptuous to think of yourself in the same category as the giants that have gone before you. (On one hand, such thinking may be in fact what has gotten some artists to perform on that level.) But again I bring up the conversation idea.

To put Art History 101 really simply, most art movements, organized or not, are essentially reactions to or continuations of what came before. For example, Impressionism was a reaction against rigid Neoclassicism and the French Academy, and it evolved into Pointilism which later developed into Cubism. From there art went further progression toward abstraction and non-representation. From the 1970s on, art slowly and weakly returned to representation in a crazy mashup called postmodernism, and nobody can agree on what postmodernism is. That’s a gross oversimplification of 100 years of Modern art, but you get the general idea.

Painting has kind of floundered since Modernism essentially killed painting. Once you reduce painting to just a canvas covered in a solid, even coat of paint, how much more abstract can you get? Yet artists still paint, floundering and confused.

I have floundered and been confused, too. I’ve been influenced by Dalì, Van Gogh in the past and Hopper most recently, but I don’t want to retread what they’ve done. It looks like the YBA [Young British Artists} “movement” (if it ever was one) is pretty much over, too. (They aren’t “young” anymore, and the “artist” part is somewhat debatable.)

I guess we’re pretty much all floundering here. (Here’s an essay about the crisis in aesthetics as we’ve moved from modernism to postmodernism to whatever is next.)

If you’re an artist, what are you doing in terms of where art has been? Are you trying to reinvent or resurrect or otherwise revive an older tradition, or are you trying to do something that’s never been done before? Either one is OK in my book as long as it is interesting and well-made.

  • Brad Blackman

    Here’s an interesting article from a few months back that relates to a similar issue: Thinking Like A Realist which addresses somewhat the Modern (20th century) idea of “painting as object” and sets forth the idea that Realist painting is about the illusion of depth and the imagination required to look into the artist’s world, to see it as the artist saw it, to breathe the air that the artist breathed when creating the painting.