Previous blogs have talked about writers who use painters has protagonists in order to illustrate their own struggles with writing. In his novel Orfeo, Richard Powers uses a musician and composer as protagonist to explore not just the role of writing but of the arts in general.
The novel is a wealth of information about music and describes a world of understanding, sensation and experience that most of us don’t share. In his youth Powers’ protagonist had accepted the challenge of his professors and peers to create music that thumbed its nose at accepted mores. This was in the ’60s when all art must e’pater les bourgeoisie. The musician is at the heart of a no-holds-barred musical/theatrical happening over the course of a decade in which he creates work that pushes boundaries and is on the outer fringes of the edge. The risks, successes and highs describes are enviable and the reader feels earth-bound while these others flew.
Not that I didn’t also enjoy a period of youthful artistic exuberance in the 60’s & ’70’s. In Vancouver it was like the time he describes in Illinois: artists had funding to carry out crazy experiments without the marketing imperative. I had a grant to photograph costumed fellow artists in various scenarios on the streets of Vancouver. With another grant, I collected a sample of work from all the artists I knew of in Vancouver, the good, the bad and the ugly, and collated them into a published book. The dance company I worked with, a tortured and anarchic artists’ collective , produced cutting edge work that toured the province on a shoe-string. There was even a hodge-podge artists’ band that gathered at the New Era Social Club with found instruments and created dissonant, unstructured sound.
But as the protagonist found out, non-paying gigs and widely-spaced grants are fine for the childless. But the moral question arises – is it OK to sacrifice one’s children to one’s art? Male artists are usually careful to equip themselves with an adoring, admiring mate to support their brilliant work. And if the child-rearing thing doesn’t work out, they leave it to the spouse to manage on her own. Of course, as the Gorilla Girls pointed out, especially at the time, male artists were 98% more likely to become successful and able to find paying work. But I was not blessed with either scenario.
Now, many years later, the imperative for art to be outrageous still stands, but how relevant is it to e’pater les bourgeoisie anymore? The bourgeoisie have happily lapped up bold artistic experiments designed to shock them out of their complacency and have cannily turned them into marketing approaches. And the international bourgeoisie have transformed the art market into the world’s most effective and rewarding money laundering vehicle.
Looking back, Powers’ protagonist says “ …rebelling is itself a passing fashion, as fragile as any. The manifestos of Peters 20s – the movements and lawless experiments, the crazy climbs up onto the barricades – feel like a tantrum now, like his daughter refusing to take her nap. Who can say what the Academy champions these days? … but he knows that cool will give way too warm, form to feeling, as surely as a leading tone tilt forever toward the tonic.”
This is the same message from an overview of Western art movements in the last couple of centuries. Whatever Academy of Art has the funding and commissioning leverage that makes or breaks artists also decides that either form or feeling is the necessary ingredient for the times. The Classical period demanded form; the Baroque and Romantic periods fetishized feeling,; the Neo-Classicists yearned for lost formality; the Impressionists ramped up feeling; the Modernists progressively reduced form to its essence, and the Post-Modernists pushed this until art itself was almost eliminated.
Are we at the point where “cool will give way to warm, form to feeling”? Is it an inevitable pendulum swing or does it swing back because those denied recognition, funding and acceptance by the current Academy push back through dedicated hard work? We shall see. Or likely not “us” but commentators far in the future who will be able to look back over the last 100 years and describe how Western civilization finally emerged from a dark age of anti-art to an age of …what?
Powers hints at the possible next phase as his protagonist hears one of his contemporaries, “a rigid serialist”, serve up “…a bouquet reeking of lyric consonants…a serious composer surrendering, turning his back on the last hundred years, and sinking into prettiness. And yet what courage in this backsliding. Els shakes his head at the loveliness of the florid finale. it makes him remember old pleasures condemned for reasons he can’t now retrieve.” (p270)
Lyricism, loveliness, “Old pleasures condemned for reasons he can’t now retrieve”; could this be the new rebelliousness? I am now re-visiting past work because I can’t remember why I stopped doing it. Why not do landscapes? Why not stick people in compositions? Why not go for beauty? It feels like a repudiation of everything we artists have been forced to accept. But let’s face it, art is not going to solve the climate crisis, mass species extinction or mass human migration. It is not going to shock the middle-classes and 100 years of attempting to do so has done nothing to resolve any of the aforementioned crisis. So artists may as well return to our original job of facilitating reverence: for nature, for stillness, for God however understood. Artworks made with and for reverence may not appeal to the Academy, but will speak to “the usual hearty few …hungry for some transcendent thing that the human mind may never produce.” (Page 276)
Powers suggests a way forward: “a middle path between romantic indulgence and sterile algorithms, between the grip of the past and the cult of progress”.(p274) No need to return to Rubenesque pink bottoms floating on Cumulus clouds or pastoral scenes of vanished country life. Also no need to eschew nature , only work with recycled waste or communicate that hopeless despair is the only sane attitude possible.
He also suggests that ”… the key to re-enchantment still lay in walking backwards into the future”, and this is my current approach. I’m revisiting traditional drawing techniques of the past, from the 15th C. woodcuts and engravings of Albrecht Dürer to the 19th C wood engravings of Thomas Bewick and of Paul Nash in the 20th C. I studied and used these techniques as an illustrator and they became my trademark style. Now I am re-discovering the potential for these techniques when brought into the present via photoshop. The melding of these old techniques with the current technical hardware opens up an unlimited potential for exploration and discovery.