Looking back to the late 1960s, while I was still an art student in Cuba, I met a young woman studying to become an actress. Her first improvisational exercise was to explain the meaning of freedom. That incident wounded the faith of those who still believed in the Cuban Revolution, which was depriving us of our most elemental freedoms. Her acting exercise was censored, and she was greatly admonished. Since then, freedom as concept has been a paradox for me.
Just what is freedom? How does it differ from country to country? What is it like to move about freely, to express one’s self without having to tow a particular ideology, to speak without fear of repression? Is that freedom? And when we begin work on an artistic project, can we count on freedom of expression?
Our cultural inheritances, social traditions, dominant ideologies, political perspectives, things we are intolerant of -all obstacles, just to name a few– don’t they also determine the boundaries of freedom? How are we to do away with a dominant culture under which we were raised, educated, inculcated with its values? And what of the opinions of art critics and curators, stewards of the art world: gallery owners, art dealers, collectors, etc.? How do we detach ourselves from our own aesthetic without separating ourselves from an idea of beauty or what we what we hope to represent as such?
Aesthetics are intimately connected with the concept of beauty, but during these times when the boundaries of beauty have disappeared and ugliness has reached new heights, it is quite difficult to distinguish one from the other. Having good taste in our modern times means being less than reactive in the art world. According to American essayist Susan Sontag, “Presently, good taste seems to be an idea even more retrograde than beauty.” In this volatile world of artists, whether authentic or of the improvisational kind, les enfants terrible, the interlopers and all sorts of art mediators, there is an absolute freedom in the creative process, a freedom that opens the artist up to new possibilities which, conversely, can also include a lack of possibilities. Clearly, liberty often carries with it certain limitations; in fact, one sustains the other. So, too, when discussing the plastic arts where there are two inescapable aesthetic rules: the understanding of the correlation between form and content and the knowledge and control of the materials one employs.
If we disconnect ourselves from these norms, we will either find ourselves making inroads under the best of circumstances or ultimately creating a pastiche of mud. When we begin to work on a project, regardless of its natural form, we must always keep in mind the idea to be represented and the materials to be utilized. These two basic conditions can become our greatest allies or our greatest obstacles in the creative process.
The idea of the masters working on a series has not been gratuitous, as continuity facilitates the exploration of an idea and provides fluidity. The systematic representation of a theme is conducive to generating rich and complex results. For instance, the idea of attaining perfection via repetition is quite prevalent in Zen. In Western culture, it has not been discarded, even if its use has not always been obvious. The masters, such as Picasso, rigorously repeated an object in his own style, generating a new course he was not even trying to establish. Each time, the subject was transformed into something new, something which maintained its own identity. The image, however, lived its own existence, much like its creator. Nonetheless, my point is that both the artist and the image are aligned, evolving within their own respective realms. The Series, such as Monet’s Water Lilies, served to announce a new form of representation, one much more innovative, and I am, of course, referring to abstraction.
When an artist submerges himself in the history of his subject, he discovers new paths, which not only enrich the work, but serve to take him to unexpected places. The successive repetition of a image serves to perfect the represented subject. The continuous use and exploration of an idea or theme will undoubtedly lead to its exhaustion, and, of course, the idea will have been fully explored. In the words of Faulkner, “It is the form that either enriches or belittles a theme.”
Interestingly, it’s the media which conditions the artist, which he or she recognizes and makes his or her own as a result of continual practice and repetition. It becomes a symbiotic relationship: the artist and his chosen media. Over time, the artist not only familiarizes himself with the media and how it responds, he works with it generating new ideas as he transforms it from an amorphous abstraction to a finished piece, behind which the media hides. Despite this, the artist’s chosen media is always the protagonist. Artists such as Tapies, Millares, Anselm Kiefer, Baselitz, just to name a few, have enabled their chosen media to speak to us, regardless of what it reveals. It is, say, the hand of Baselitz which tells us the story of his represented subject or Kiefer’s overwhelmed media which informs us of his tragedy. That which the French call métier is nothing more than an artist’s dominion over the media with which he works, how he makes it malleable, thereby claiming it, making it his own. The act becomes a kind of mental, if not physical conditioning, and inexorably connects the artist to an idea that sometimes seems to will itself into being. The process is that fluid.
A few years ago, my friend, the deceased Cuban artist Guido Llinás, was visiting Miami and was offered an exhibition. Since he did not have much at his disposal, he decided to create new work. To do so, he placed about twenty sheets of paper of the patio floor and began to work over them. He seemed to be dancing with his easel and his brushes as he labored. The oil was as fluid as a river. Then, he applied the media. He concluded by using the garden hose. When asked how it was possible to work that quickly, he replied, “I have been working for forty years. This is my trade.”
It is this age of technological advances that have frustrated us to the point of rendering us incapable of dedicating time to learning new innovative techniques. Nowadays, after a student spends five minutes attempting to draw naturally without getting the desired effect, he exclaims, this is not for me. I certainly do not scorn artists who yield results by utilizing innovative techniques provided they do not intend to utilize techniques, which they have not tenaciously studied.
But is good technique necessary to arrive at a certain level? No, but it is the most difficult aspect of being an artist. Having a good technique (métier
in French) doesn’t necessarily mean one is producing artwork. We know how to construct a structure, say, a wall, but there are many of those–how do we construct our own wall? One needs to experiment with different medias and tools, making careful note of the results that best reflect our desired effect as well as our way of interpreting form and style. Sometimes, we make certain choices and discard the results of the experimentation. We learned to walk the path, but suddenly, freedom changes everything. What does one do with the excess baggage? How does one do what one longs to do?
Freedom, no doubt, opens up doors of possibility, but that opening could also cause us to feel a certain sense of confusion, as it is possible to get lost in the midst of such vast possibilities. Thus, it is essential to focus on what we best feel is our own unique path.
It has been said that there is a time for everything. We should learn all that we can in our youth and live a fulfilling life. Generally speaking, by the time that we are more mature, we have made choices; have experienced losses, distances, joys and anguish. Perhaps, this is why a visual artist is considered young until he reaches his thirties. It is only human growth, which enables us to create something meaningful.
The creative process does not have a fixed time. People candidly ask, “How long did it take you to create this piece?” I always respond all the time. This is because creating is a cumulative process, one that begins with a first class, a first line or brush stroke, and it ends with the end of our days. Our experiences and influences, the visual collection of all that which we have seen and our artistic calling determine our labor. It may take hours, or days or even weeks, perhaps months–there are no set parameters for any given project when one adds personal circumstances, including an artist’s character, inspiration and the like. Some artists claim to enjoy working on a given project–it has become a commonplace response. Maybe even the most misguided. Of course, one should enjoy the creative process, but it is also true that it can cause us grief, tears, anguish, even joy. Indeed, the creative process is intense. The process of creative expression, complete with the effective use of the chosen media, enables us to transcend the self and, at the same time, yield art that comes only from us.
Another interesting aspect of the creative process is what has been famously referred to as the “accident.” In a famous interview by David Sylvester, Francis Bacon declared that he submitted himself to the accident. He even admitted that he considered accidents an important element of the creative process. To the question of whether he allowed the woman who cleaned his house to provoke the so-called accident, Bacon replied no. It was, he said, the artist’s hand that determined the accident and its utility. The direction of the accident had to be accompanied by talent and skill. He did not, however, discard pure chance as artistic possibility. Bacon also said that it was also possible “to be an expert in manipulating the line that is a product of chance, the lines that one has created completely independent of reason… and in my case, I think that all things that I have liked have been the result of an accident above which I was able to work.”
From a Marxist standpoint, each art piece has a useful value as well as a value of exchange. You cannot subtract the artist nor his work from the social nor commercial dynamic. Everything is assigned a price and as such, has mercantile value. It is affected by the principle of supply and demand. A work of art is no exception. That is, this same treatise governs it. Its use runs from personal decoration to corporate use to public use until it is recognized by museums and exhibited. For each use/display, there are particular guidelines that regulate its acquisition, exhibition and even its enjoyment. The development of collecting among the elite and the resale of art has turned art ownership into a dividend whose value accrues over time, becoming an investment in the long run. Thus, all types of proxies and brokers in the capitalist market have misused art production. It has become a part of the business of art, prevalent in varying degrees throughout the art world, from the anointing of new artists to their post-consecration. Yearly, the hunters of talent exhibit a plethora of emerging artists as if they were trophies or gold mines. According to Damien Hirst, presently one of the richest artists: “When you suddenly make a lot of money, it is very difficult to produce good art. When you do not have money, you go to great lengths to do creative things, like Van Gogh did.” On the other hand, he also says that “Art should not be afraid of money.” Although I am with the poet who said, “A fool is he who confuses value with price,” an artist need not lose his integrity or credibility when he sells his work nor should he ever doubt the artistic value of his art
Assessing Contemporary Art
It is not public recognition or commercial success that renders our work as Art. These are many distinctly separate things ascribed to completely different circumstances from the excellence of the artist, his ability to express himself, the subject matter he has selected, his chosen method of representation to the designs of the collectors, the ability to maintain the value of the piece to the humor of curators and other such variables. The real value of an artwork comes from its originality, its social and spiritual reach, and of course, its ability to be transcendent. It is difficult to define a work by an artist’s contemporaries because they have essentially been implicated by the conventions of the historical period in which they exist. However, this is not preventing critics and journalists from expressing their own assessment of the value of artistic production. The truth is that only in the long run can we obtain objective validation without the limitation of our time.
According to Gilles Lipovetsky, in our society of the disappointment, art is particularly representative of this deception. People think that what is displayed is not art, and adds, that “At present we are already so sick of deconstruction, minimalism and conceptual installations, [and] video art in which nothing happens.”
More and more galleries and museums display proposals that appeal less to artists and more to bricklayers, electricians or builders. The new proposals have more to do with the ingenuity of the common man that we have as a traditional artist. “Art” is more accessible than before, more democratic. In terms of approach, participation and understanding, it paradoxically creates repulsion among the public accustomed to enjoy the cultural institutions of a product we call spiritually superior. Lipovettsky agrees that this retracing of our artistic institutions only contributes to the exacerbation of disenchantment.
In this cybernetic age, many have rushed to declare the art of painting dead even though more than 80% of acquisitions have been paintings. The thriving Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming declared that he believed that painting would always exist. Others, such as the Cecily Brown has been able to generate from new pigments and mediums a picturesque quality that appears fresh, wet. It serves to accentuate the theme of penetration and orgasms from varying points of view.
The appearance of a new form of painting can be observed in the work of various contemporary artists of various latitudes. For instance, we have Wilhelm Samal, the Polish artist who remakes his figure drawings with watercolors, blurring the limits of representation. There is also the innovative use of color of the German artist Daniel Richter. His images are perceived as if through mirrors that tell us of the failed utopias of Neo Rauch as well as the North American Elizabeth Peyton, with her curious paintings of portraits, borrowed from commercial art. I would also like to add the portrait artists Jiang Yu and Philippe Pasqua with two very distinct approaches to the art of portraiture on a very contemporary way. These and many more visual artists have illustrated that art survives the times, that subjects maintain their validity during any era, that we will continue to see portraits as well as epic and erotic scenes, as well as the everyday, with a contemporary emphasis.
Galleries, like Barbara Gladstone in New York and the Gasgosian, London-New York, have revealed a transformation of the traditional expressions in painting, sculpture and drawing from the end of the last century and the beginning of the twenty-first. In Miami, the collections of both the Rubell Family as well as Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz’ suggest that classical media, as well as painting, drawing and sculpture has been invigorated independently of other new ones.
To cite Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa “literature [and I a would add art] creates a fraternity within human diversity and eclipses obstacles between men and women, ignorance, ideologies, religions, language and stupidity.” There is no such thing as dated art; art is the measure that maintains its value within the aesthetic of its time. The rest is not art.