Thoughts on art today, and what kind of art I should make.

Earlier in the year we were encouraged to write a brief “artist’s statement” that encapsulated what we wanted out of our practice. Here’s my attempt.

When I try to grasp at what I want to achieve in art, I often return to the art theorist Alexander Voronsky who juxtaposed art against science as a method for understanding the world – “Like science, art cognises life. Both art and science have the same subject: life, reality. But science analyzes, art synthesizes; science is abstract, art is concrete; science turns to the mind of man, art to his sensual nature.” Voronsky’s idea of “art as the cognition of life” appeals to me because it avoids the traps of socialist realism (Voronsky was a contemporary opponent) and bourgeois formalism, while still leaving plentiful room for abstraction and surrealism. It also commits me to an untrendy position of wanting to convey universal truths within an industry steeped in an anti-humanist subjectivism which insists, using very vulgar epistemology, that truths can only exist relative to a specific cultural discourse, and seldom universally.

In terms of my practice right now: I want to look at disasters, natural or otherwise. I want to look at why we are not prepared for them, the economics that prohibit that preparation. In Tonga, for example, the MV Princess Ashika transported passengers over deep ocean, and everyone involved in putting the vessel into Tonga’s transport system knew it was unseaworthy. When it sank in 2009, killing 74 people, the same mileau that put the vessel to sea were suddenly charged with holding people accountable for that, with predictable results – a little scapegoating, nothing more. This pattern of cost-cutting, neglect, disaster, with minimal accountability, it holds true for far too many tragedies. We are not prepared for anything as serious as a global pandemic, it serves no capitalist’s private interests to prepare for something like that, nor to pick up the pieces afterwards.

In terms of my chosen media: I find myself attracted to traditional Western media – clay, oil and watercolour paints, muralism – not because these have any essential superiority over any other media (performance art, ready-mades, relational art, and so much else), but because in my direct social sphere so many people take these media for granted. People who have encountered me painting on the sidewalk have questioned the way I use traditional media, but never why I am using them. I think that is a great conceptual power of traditional media and of representational art: Its “invisibility” or more charitably its “familiarity”. So much modern art seems dependent on dense tissues of pseudo-philosphical jargon, and so many people believe they don’t “get” art, that art is for the elites, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong about art that is full-bodied and didactic – it is just incredibly hard to do well.

What is the point of mystery for the sake of mystery, of “preserving possibilities” for the viewer, if it leads to such shallow and muted art? At its worst, these attitudes allow artists to bluff their audience, concealing shallowness by bearing it with a brazen, ironic grin – the art becoming little more than a safe investment for a collector’s portfolio. It is the accessibility of traditional media, the way it slinks back behind the content it carries, like a page and its ink slinks back behind a story, that allows representational art to be so much more politically radical than the formerly avant-garde which now dominates, and which too often feels to me as bourgeois, stately and pompous as any Victorian oil painting ever was.

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