Romanticism

A Boycott of Beauty by Chris Hall

Sisyphus with his boulder.

Sisyphus with his boulder.

"His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”  Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”  Those words were written by the Romantic poet John Keats.  I used to be a Romantic.  Today I am not.  Today I am feeling decidedly like a Punk Anarchist.  Fuck Beauty.  I've tried Beauty and it betrayed me.  I do not recommend it.  Beauty is a lie.  At times I want to strangle the stars for all they've promised me.  If truth is reality and reality is ugliness, it would follow, then, that truth is ugliness.  There are times when I want to be ugly in return, to exact revenge, to give back what has been given to me, only amplified.  Feedback fed back.  Today I feel the angst in me like I haven't felt since 1994.  Teenaged angst at 39, how strange is that?!  

Why?  I found out recently the real reason why I am being paid $? dollars an hour at my job.  I was told by my unnamed employer (unnamed because even in these circumstances I value my job) that the reason I am being paid $? dollars an hour selling art supplies is because it is essentially easy to find artists who would work for that wage.  So the teen angst is fitting, maybe, in that I am being paid like a teenager.  To put this in perspective, consider the following.  At my work we also sell other products, like furniture.  Furniture people make more an hour because it is harder to find people who will/can sell furniture.  What the Hell kind of economics is that?!  $? an hour!  We do the same job, but sell different products.  And I perform skilled labor.  I use the knowledge that I acquired in six years of college everyday.  Some might say not to take that sort of thing personal, that it is just business, supply and demand (of people, no less), but to the people whom it effects, it is really hard not to take that sort of thing personal.  People are not a commodity.  To put it bluntly, I work for an art supply store that discriminates against artists.  And this is but one more instance of the world discriminating against artists, as if artists don't have enough trouble surviving in society.  But just because this is “business as usual,” it doesn't mean that it is right, that I have to accept it and internalize it as inevitable.

We artists are shit upon so frequently by society, is it any wonder that we are so radical?  That we sometimes produce works that many in bourgeois society would consider ugly?  Yes, today I want to be ugly.  I wonder what would happen if all artists would unilaterally decide to boycott beauty, to produce only ugly works of art.  What, then, would become of society?  Would it rot and fall apart at the seams?  Every generation gets the art it deserves, and this generation is no exception.  We need more ugly art, not just art devoid of aesthetics (that might be considered coolly conceptual), but genuinely ugly art, and lots of it fast.  We need to bury this world in it, until they can't breathe anymore and they scream for mercy, rub its nose in it, like a bad dog who shits in the house, while yelling “you did this!”  We should do this until the world comes to its senses and realizes its mistakes.   

I get knocked down so many times, over and over again, and I still fight.  Sometimes, though, I get so tired of fighting and I wonder why I am still here.  It is a miracle, really.  I've thought about “it” a lot over the years . . . and maybe you know what I mean by “it.”  Art prejudice has effected all aspects of my life, from my income, to my health, to my love life.  Too often I am an angry pessimist, and when people tell me to cheer up and look at the bright side of life, I snarl like a wild wolf on the inside, wanting to lash out at them for their good fortune and their pampered sunshiny life.  I've worked so hard – and yet I'm told to be patient.  But when you are verging on middle age, it is really hard to be patient.  I feel like I have long since paid my dues.  It is so tempting to give up, to abandon art and find another trade.  But I can't; it is against my very nature.  It is who I am.  If the cycle continues, and it probably will, I will eventually find a new thread of optimism to hesitantly latch onto, and I will try again.  Like Sisyphus, I might be doomed to roll that boulder back up that Hell hill, to almost reach the top, and to be achingly hopeful, once again, of a final success . . .  I can not bring myself to write the words completing this myth . . . maybe one day I will find peace, I will find rest.  Maybe one day I will find all the answers to my questions, which usually start with . . . Why?  

It seems so strange to me, that those who most pursue life with passion - that is artists - are the ones most likely to be punished by it.

For Part Two of this blog, click here:  A Boycott of Beauty Part Two

Francisco Goya by Chris Hall

Francisco Goya,  Self Portrait , 1795.

Francisco Goya, Self Portrait, 1795.

Francisco Goya was a Spanish Romantic painter and printmaker, often regarded as the last of the Old Masters and the first of the Moderns.  He was a court painter to the Spanish aristocracy, all while secretly holding liberal, republican beliefs.  Of more interest, however, are the imaginative works he painted for himself, which, as Goya grew older, became more and more satirical, macabre, and grotesque.  

Goya was born in Fuendetodos, Aragón, Spain, on 30 March 1746.  As a young man, he moved to Madrid, and then to Italy to study art.  After some initial difficulty and a period of hard work, Goya managed to become a popular portrait painter, and in 1786, secured himself a salaried position as a court painter to Charles III of Spain.  Goya was retained when two years later, Charles the IV succeeded to the throne.  In 1789, the revolution erupted in France, and discussions of republicanism was in the air in Spain.  Goya was a liberal and was sympathetic toward republicanism, but he also needed his job as a portrait painter to support his family.  

Goya kept his opinions to himself, although he sometimes portrayed his subjects in an unflattering light.  His painting of Charles IV of Spain and His Family (1800), for instance, is thought to be something of a social satire.  Charles IV was generally thought to be weak and corrupt.  His wife, Louisa was thought to be the real power behind the throne.  Goya painted Louisa as the central focal point of the painting.  The family stands before a painting depicting Lot and his daughters, echoing the idea of aristocratic corruption and moral decay.  To the back and left, hidden in the shadow, Goya painted himself painting and silently judging his patrons.

Sometime late in 1792, Goya contracted a serious illness (the exact nature of which is unknown) which left Goya deaf.  He had a physical and mental breakdown as a result and became withdrawn and introspective.  A contemporary reported, "The noises in his head and deafness aren’t improving, yet his vision is much better and he is back in control of his balance." These symptoms are typical of Ménière's disease, although many also suspect the cumulative effects of lead poisoning.  Goya was known to have used a massive amount of lead white in his paintings, both as a primary color and as a canvas primer. 

During his convalescence, he undertook a series of experimental paintings.  These paintings are decidedly darker from his earlier work, the horrific stuff of nightmares.  Paintings such as The Yard of the Madhouse suggest themes of loneliness, fear, and social alienation, while other works are undisguised sharp social criticisms.  These works would culminate in his series of 80 aquatinted etchings, Los Caprichos, published in 1799.  Goya described the work as "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.”  Shortly after being published, Goya withdrew Los Caprichos, for fear of a backlash from the Inquisition, which was still active in Spain.

In 1800, Goya completed two of his most famous paintings, The Clothed Maja, and The Nude Maja.  These life-size paintings depict the same woman in the same pose, one clothed and one nude.  Nudity was tolerated when it referred to allegorical or mythological subjects, but without this pretense, Goya's painting was considered profane.  The Nude Maja is also considered the first painting in Western Art to show pubic hair.  The two paintings were never shown in public; they were owned by the Spanish Prime Minister Manuel Godoy.  When Godoy fell from power in 1808, he was exiled and all his property was seized.  The Inquisition confiscated the paintings, because of their “obscenity.”

In 1808, French forces under Napoleon invaded Spain, leading to the Peninsular War of 1808 – 1814.  Napoleon set up his brother, Joseph, as the new king.  Goya kept neutral during the fighting.  He was a Spanish patriot, but also a republican, hoping Napoleon would bring social and political reforms.  Goya took a loyalty oath and became the new court painter for Joseph I. 

During the 1810's Goya created a new set of 82 aquatinted etchings titled The Disasters of War.  These works, while politically ambivalent (they condemn atrocities committed by both Spanish rebels and the French), are thought to be a protest against all war and violence in general.  The prints document events from the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid, through the Peninsular War, and the setbacks to the liberal cause following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and the reintroduction of the Inquisition in 1814.  The prints are, at times, graphic and disturbing in their depiction of battlefield horrors, and represent Goya's outraged conscience in the face of death and destruction.  The Disasters of War was not published until 1863, 35 years after Goya's death.  It seems likely that Goya considered it politically unsafe to release them, as the prints criticizes both the French and the restored Bourbons.  

After the restoration of the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, in 1814, Goya denied any involvement with the French.  In 1819, Goya retired to a country house outside of Madrid.  The house was known as the Quinta del Sordo, which means “House of the Deaf Man.”  It was named after its previous owner, though it is something of a strange coincidence that Goya was also deaf.

Francisco Goya, Witches' Sabbath, c 1823

After the Napoleonic Wars and the even more repressive monarchy of Ferdinand VII, Goya became an embittered man and developed a bleak outlook toward mankind.  This attitude, and his growing fear of insanity, is reflected in his series of so called Black Paintings, created between 1819 and 1823.  These paintings, fourteen works in total, were painted directly onto the walls of the house.  Because these works are thought to portray Goya's growing sense of panic, terror, and hysteria, the Black Paintings are sometimes thought of as a precursor of the Expressionist movement in the early 20th century.

In 1824, Goya, disgusted with Spain, moved to France, where he would die of a stroke four years later in 1828, age 82.  He left Quinta del Sordo, and the Black Paintings contained within it, to the care of his grandson, Mariano Goya.  In 1874, the slow process of removing the Black Paintings and transferring them to canvas was started.  In 1881 they found a new home, in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

The Artist as Seer Shaman Healer Seeker Voyager Pioneer Visionary by Chris Hall

Many artists and art critics today have abandoned the notion that artists are somehow special.  Perhaps they are not special.  Instead, with art in the expanded field, we have artists taking on pedestrian pursuits – artist as scientist, artist as data collector, artist as food service, etc.  These artists do not soar . . . not like the old art heroes of old, anyways.  

What made these old artists special?  They were professional Shaman, Seers, Healers, and Seekers of ecstatic truths.  They were Voyagers, Pioneers, and Visionaries . . . Artists with a capital “A,” in service to the mystery.  The notion of the artist as Seer, in modern Western Art, dates back to the early German Romantics.  Before that it was championed by the Greeks who would use poetry, song, and art for magical and prophetic purposes.  Yes, artists are different from most people, at least that is the way it use to be.

Gordon Onslow-Ford:

The Unknown manifests itself through the open mind.

The closed mind is personal.
The open mind is impersonal.

When the mind opens, something original can come
In.  The open mind is not something that can be
Learned or switched on at will.  It happens naturally.

The Visionary Artist can access what some shamans call the Dreamtime, that is they can access realities where the past, present, and future co-exist simultaneously.   I often see this kind of vision manifested in work of the abstract expressionists.  Many lay people ridicule abstract expressionist work, claiming they can do the work themselves.  This is definitely not so.  It requires a certain type of vision that can not be taught, nor can the artist force the vision onto their work.  It is a gift and it happens, or doesn’t happen, naturally.  

“I say that the true artist seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own human conscience.” J.D. Salinger

If there is a problem with abstract expressionist work, it is that it doesn't always translate to the audience.  Some people are just more sensitive than others.  Painting abstract expressionist work is the recording of an event, of a vision, more than it is a final product.  The modern artist uses the art making process to heal themselves, and if the end result, the finished painting, also heals an audience, so much the better.  The shaman, however, must use their art to heal their community.  Their work must translate their vision to a lay audience.  

The Seer by Alex Grey

From the caves of Altimira
To a New York studio,
The Seer has inspired the artist
With Vision’s unceasing flow.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Magus through ages untold,
Transmuting the lead of matter
Into bullets of spiritual gold.

The ego picks up the weapon of art,
Childlike, it plays with the trigger.
Blowing the head off it’s contracted self,
Awareness is suddenly bigger.
By slaying the ego and stunning
The chatter of thoughts as they rise,
Great art shuts out distractions
Delighting the heart through the eyes.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Revealing the Mystery as form,
Advancing our civilization
By inventing and destroying the norm.
The redemptive Sorceress, Art
Can heal the nausea of being,
Opening vistas of hope and beauty,
Revealing deep patterns of meaning.

The function of art is to stop us
And take us out of our skin,
Unveiling the spirit’s pure nakedness
Without beginning or end.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Gaze fixed on primordial perfection.
Radiance emerges from emptiness,
Each point of light etched with affection.

The boundless Void, open and formless
Is the basis of all creation.
Visions appear and then dissolve
Reinforcing this realization.

From beyond the vision descends
From within the vision arises
Coalescing in the divine imagination,
Source of continual surprises.

The Seer is the soul of the artist
The Maker is the artist’s hand
In the studio their conversations
Translate a timeless command.

These dialogues of Maker and Seer
Weave together matter with soul,
Consecrating the practice of art
As speech of the ineffable.

Art making transforms the artist,
And to any hearts truly under
Creation’s intoxicating spell
The Seer transmits holy wonder.

Friedrich, Constable, and Turner by Chris Hall

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

The Romantic artists were my first love.  In them I found spiritual nourishment and a companion to my own turbulent soul.  I first discovered them as a high school student, in a book I found in my public library.  It was a great place to begin my artistic journey of self-discovery.  

Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich – Friedrich’s work produces in me a sense of wonder.  Nature becomes a source of contemplation and a portal to notions of the sublime.  And by portal, I mean that literally.  Many of his works show a figure standing with their backs toward us as if in a doorway.  We are invited to follow.

John Constable

John Constable – Constable’s work is hit or miss for me.  He produces such wonders as Hadleigh Castle, 1829 which is a nice meditation upon ruins, but he also makes such unintentially comical pieces as Portrait of Master Crosby, 1808, from which I was inspired to create my drawing Backwards Butt Boy.  However, something happened around 1822, when Constable began making cloud studies.  Constables cloud studies are a profound meditation on the transient nature of life, as symbolized by changeable nature of the skies.  Each cloud study has an emotive character of its own, little personalities and temperaments.  Divorced of the ground, necessary for landscapes, these skyscapes almost become little abstractions on their own.

J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W. Turner – Turner was a profound master of the sublime.  Like Constable’s cloud studies, the compositions in his works are almost proto-abstraction, all over swirls of weather, fire, and natural phenomenon.