Archive for the ‘Review: Who’s the idiot?’ Category

Who’s the idiot?

Posted: January 20, 2011 in Review: Who's the idiot?

« I don’t understand it. » is a common complaint when speaking of modern art. Often, having a little information on the art work in question would help in appreciating it. But just as often the information is faulty and/or, wouldn’t help in appreciating it anyway because the idea behind the work is the only thing of note, in other words, there isn’t anything physical/visual about it to appreciate. And afterall, isn’t the visual aspect the goal and final measure of success for any visual art?

One example of what I am talking about is the later work by Pierre Soulages, all the more noteworthy due to the fact that he is the most famous and celebrated of the living French artists. At the outset we should mention that he did much attractive work in his early years; the issue with his ‘oeuvre’ arises when we review his latest work: the « beyond black » paintings as they are referred to—even though the paintings are nothing more than black. In these paintings he claims to « bring to life » light, and « in the most vehement way. »

To begin with, any work of art should speak for itself but in order for a work of art to become prestigious as this work has, the work has to be spoken of by others, and positively at that. And as anyone aquainted with modern art can attest, his work has been. The aim of this article is to review the historical facts that gave birth to this work and judge whether all the attention is justified, and this, in view of the fact that it just may be a text book example of the spurious nature of art: the « What is art anyway? » cop-out, as it were.

So what gave rise to this work in question by Pierre Soulages? As the artist said himself: one day, by accident, he noticed light reflecting off the black paint of a canvas and immediately felt the interest in it. We must note here that the typical mind of an artist (whose work, a ‘creation’, must possess that lofty quality of originality in order to be viewed as Art) questions everything he sees, ‘interprets’ it, wonders how he can use it, how it can be done otherwise—and when an artist is a little, let’s say, toooo sensitive, it can even be that everything he sees is special in a spiritual sense, and much of it a ‘work of art’ as is, in and of itself. Not to say that Pierre Soulages was at this point—only to say that in his case and situation, his mind immediately registered this scene of light reflecting off black paint as a revelation, and set him off on the painting he is most famous for.

Now the analysis. What made light seem so important to him? The first thing to point out is that if it had been a canvas of any color other than black, the light reflecting off of it would not have seemed special to Soulages—for black is normally thought to be the contrary of light. Secondly, as you will see, light was already a magical word at the time, and especially in the minds of artist-painters. Consequently, given the importance of light, we can see why Soulages thought he was on to something; the question is whether or not his resulting work, or any originality seen therein, was important in respect to it.

The very first thing we must say/realize is that light had always been a household word for painters. Regardless of the subject or scene, light is always, obligatorily, present therein, therefore, rendering it correctly is fundamental to rendering any scene or subject correctly in general. And when used ‘artistically,’ light may provide the extra contrast or enhancement responsable for the striking effect that so many paintings are well known for. This is the basics of painting technic since the beginning of time, and it is basic, commonplace, as we assuredly see. Having to name any of the innumerable artists throughout history who passed the test in this respect would even seem silly. Where and when light truly stands out from the ordinary—becomes magical in the minds of people, and particularly in the art world—comes later in the work of a man that everybody knows.

The most famous of all French painters, Claude Monet, was referred to as the « painter of light ». There have been a lot of books, and even films to this effect. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of artwork knows of Monet’s work: painting the same scene over and over in the different light of the different times of day, giving an impression of the scene, and which, gave the name to this most famous of art styles: « impressionism ». On top of this, one might add that the magic of the term light in painting was due also to the simple fact that the impressionist painters moved their easles outside ‘in the light’ to work, and adopted a colorful style that has made it the most appreciated style of painting to this day. Before impressionism, the accepted notion was to work from sketches in a studio where the light and colors were more subdued, for natural reasons, but even more importantly, because of the ‘official’ view of art that dictated at the time and of the less than flamboyant tastes of the bourgeoisie who were buying these paintings. In any case, as we can see, light, the theme of Soulages’ « beyond black » paintings, is anything but an original concept in art.

Moreover, as important as the heritage of Monet is in respect to light, we have another figure in another field, science, who had to be equally in the mind of Soulages: Albert Einstein. What was a ubiquitous fact of life, what everyone took for granted, that is to say, light, Einstein proved to be a physical pillar of Mother Nature herself—a universal mathematical constant and factor in a universal understanding of our universe and life, period. This must have been the icing on the cake for Soulages. In effect, art innovators would like to think they are doing something more than just aesthetic (especially when their work is not visually interesting); they would like to think they are doing something of  ‘technical’, ‘theoretical’ importance, with the same profound implications as a scientist whose discovery helps remove the veil of Mother Nature, as it were. Paintings that «bring light to life» from pure black (darkness) must certainly have seemed important to Pierre Soulages, if not to say miraculous.

And lastly, the scientific contribution having been stated above, let’s not forget the spiritual sense that the word light has inspired, and this, since the beginning of civilization: truth, goodness, and understanding. Come to think of it, it was the first creation by God for this world of ours according to our religions. Obviously then, with all that has been said, we see that light was anything but original when it came to mind for Pierre Soulages. The question is: did his treatment of it represent any important originality/contribution in the world of the visual arts?

To answer this, let’s recapitulate: he saw this light reflecting off of black paint and, with all that had been said about light in painting, and in our culture in general, exploited its popularity as a concept. The result: he did all black paintings, which could have no other interest other than the light he was talking about. But, to begin with, light is only one of many aspects in painting, and certainly not the goal of a painting in and of itself. And as for the creation of light, well, that would be the goal of a flashlight or candle, but certainly not a claim to be made for a painting. All the rest that has been said by him and others has been conjured up—as the human mind does so naturally. In other words, his work is far most a mental fabrication, and one that will remain intact nonetheless. Such is the human mind, as any psychologist will tell you. When it is set on rationalizing something that its host is personally attached to, there is no, absolutely no, counter argument that will not be able to be rebuked by that person. Consequently, best not to get into a discussion, where claims are proferred such as: « Soulages brought the subject of light in painting to a logical conclusion ».

Everybody’s got a job to do. It’s an artist’s job to make paintings. An important artist, as Soulages was considered—his job is to make paintings with a certain originality, which I think we can all understand to be rather difficult today with all that has been done. But still, when the result is contrived or even silly, then that’s what it is. Simply put, it is visual art that is in question here, and there is nothing visually interesting about this all-black art. If there was something else that was interesting about his idea, then he should have considered expressing it in another format other than visual. And as for the aberrant interest manifested by art afficionados in respect to this art: well, that may not only be interesting but may even be of great importance, however, that would be in the domain of psychology and sociology, perhaps on the subject of social disorders.

In conclusion, it is no wonder that people often say: « I don’t understand it », when viewing modern art. But who’s the idiot here? I talked to people who paid good money to see Paris’ museum showing of this work by Pierre Soulages—they said seeing all these all-black canvases was a « con ». Intentional or not, that’s the way it is. And unfortunately, a typical case in the world of ‘fine art’.

Contributing factors:

  • Pierre Soulages was already a famous artist before doing these all-black paintings—obviously, he would never have been able to get away with this as an aspiring painter fresh out of art school.
  • See the following article and its list of contributing factors: Like a Lawyer Looking for Loopholes in the Laws.

Important Complementary Information:

Pierre Soulages’ “all-black” paintings aren’t even original, which is a prerequisite to ‘important‘, avant-garde art—not original in any sense—not even for being what they are purportedly original for: for being all black. Far from it. Many other artists, and famous ones at that, had already done all-black paintings, beginning with Raushenberg in 1952. They all had the impression that such an image expressed something “deep”, to borrow a term from the popular vernacular. Other artists having done all-black canvases are: Malevich, Franz Kline, Motherwell, Yves Klein, and Ad Reinhardt.