Saturday, December 08, 2007

Abstractionism, Realism, and Honesty

A very good friend of mine is an abstract painter. We’ve been friends for 12 years now, and I’ve had the privilege of visiting her studio many times.

I know very little about abstract painting, but my friend seems to value my opinion, so she tells me a lot about her thought process, her technique, what she is attempting, whether she feels she fails or succeeds. I am always impressed by both the work itself, and what she puts herself through to make it.

She is as rigorous and self-disciplined as any traditional atelier-trained painter. She continually challenges herself, continuously refines her technique, and never allows herself to rely on cheap flourishes. Nothing is accidental, everything is deeply intentional, and not a mark is made without questioning her own intentions, conscious and unconscious. She has the deepest integrity an artist can have – she is brutally honest with herself. Her paintings are gorgeous and moving on every level.

However, as we talk about art, we sometimes come up against a wall, the divide between realists and abstractionists. Our visual goals as artists are quite different.

There is a huge division between the world of abstract painters, who are concerned with surface, and the world of realist painters, who are concerned with illusion. Interestingly, both sides would probably use the word “decorative”, with a sneer, to describe the other.

When I hear realist artists deride abstract artists, or vice versa, I wonder why each threatens the other so much. Both sides tend to cite the worst or most extreme examples of the other to characterize these two large and varied movements.

Many artists on both sides are doing the hard work of excavating truth. On the other hand, in both realist and abstract art, there are dishonest artists. Dishonest artists make paintings with the main goal of shoring up their ego, instead of the goal of revealing truth, connecting with the universal.

When evaluating art, whether realist or abstract, I ask myself "is the artist being honest with herself?" Everything comes into focus when this question is asked.

Derision tells us nothing about the art and everything about the critic.

Whether abstract or realist, only honesty counts.