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By Paul Henrickson, ©2002 Over the course of several decades and I varying geographical locations where unbeckoned illumination took place, it gradually occurred to me that my educational environment was faulty and that I had been, perhaps unintentionally, misled. Three decades had passed before the first breakthrough occurred. I was in Minneapolis. Minnesota, U.S.A., wandering through the rooms of The Minneapolis Art Institute which were hosting an impressive exhibition of six contemporary Italian artists. I no longer remember their names, besides, their names ceased to become significant at all once I had taken a quick glance at the walls where large two-meter canvases were hanging. There was one painting in particular which commanded my attention because of its energetic, nearly violent existence. The color range was relatively narrow beings madder up of ochres, siennas, and whites, but the way the artist had attached the paint to the surface, the record of his physical process of laying the pigment on in massive impasto levels and the varying rhythms by which this was accomplished was most striking. I tried, out of a sense of decorum, a talent I have finally shed, to pay courtesy visits to the other contributors to the exhibition. This sounds like a horrible put down of the other works but I do not mean it that way for there was not one incompetent work on exhibit, but this one, this particular one kept drawing me into its environment, and if I tried to leave, it would pull me back to draw more of my bewilderment out of me. Finally, I grew frustrated at being unable to make decisions on my own and subject to the pull of an inanimate object and tried to take matters into my own hands. After all, the responsibility, we have been told, of one having been born in Boston, Massachusetts , demands intelligently responsible behavior. After all, this is where the Lowells speak only to the Cabots, the Cabots only to the Lodges and the Lodges only to God, personal behavior is defined by nothing if not selfcontrol. The fact that my self was not in control of my behavior testified to the pull of aesthetic influence and that was an
important discovery. After having been compelled a dozen times to return to gaze upon this work which had captured my fancy, forced my admiration and demanded my adoration it suddenly revealed itself for what it was. It was not the powerful orchestration of non-objective forms it had, at first appeared to be, but the near faithful reproduction of a dirty public john. What had at first been attractive, appealing and treasured because of its exciting variations and subtle intonations had suddenly turned malevolent, disgusting and threatening and I thought I heard the devil laugh as he saw I had been deprived of my innocence. This was my first really memorable experience with what it meant to be aesthetically moved from at first one extreme to its opposite. The experience needed explanation. Words I had gown accustomed to and thought I understood suddenly had no meaning for me. My trust in my teachers was destroyed. Either I had been lied to and I had been a fool to believe my mentors or they, themselves, hadn’t known what they had been talking about, or, what they had been talking about had not been my experience. This is the area that appropriate language must bridge if it is to function as an intermediary between experience and communication. The important lesson for me from this experience was that, at the very least, my understanding of the meaning of the word “aesthetic” was broadened. No longer was it possible for me to use the word “aesthetic” and mean something attractive, desirable and pleasant. I must now be willing to include the ugly, the smelly, the dirty, crude and vulgar…in short, the expressive. There are new responsibilities attending this new awareness, responsibilities I’d not been aware of before O moved to southwest Virginia and was teaching a group of young women at Radford University about certain periods in the history of art. In this particular case I was using as a base line the ubiquitous image of the virgin and child and attempting to point out certain critical differences between the examples we had before us. Because I was so intent upon not focusing on the religious aspects of the works, but rather their formal qualities, the message I intended was not the message received. When one of these works I described as not really being “up to par” that it was “not really a good virgin and child the reaction was
quite strong from these self-approving “well-bred ladies from Virginia” but a strong reaction NOT for religious reasons but for reasons that among the Southern Baptist motherhood is sacred. They couldn’t have cared less about its being a good painting. What that experience eventually meant to me was that one’s private, sensual vision will be sacrificed if there develops a contest between what one thinks one sees and what one perceives the peer vision to be. I later put this new understanding to the test when I chose the names of ten well-known and respected artists and asked the class to rank them. For an experienced observer this exercise might have been near futile and senseless, but in order to demonstrate a point for the class I did it. Rembrandt was one of those names and his name appeared unanimously at the top of all the lists as being the very best artist of them all. Then I showed them slides of little-known drawings by each of these artists and asked them to rank order them. Rembrandt’s work was ranked at the very bottom of this list. From this, and other observations, I concluded that for the sake of social solidarity most will sacrifice their own personal observations and deny their sensual (aesthetic) experiences. The job of the teacher is very much more difficult than what one might suppose. I have now adopted the view that our society approves a form of suicide when it comes to an understanding of what a social unit is. I have also adopted the view that it is the thinker’s responsibility to redefine the individual’s proper function within a society. From southwest Virginia of the 20th century, which could never forget the colonial 18th century, where upper-class residences were still being constructed of brick, were white shuttered and where the walls of rooms where one received guests were painted a discrete pale green and trimmed in white, I left, like Gauguin, to luxuriate for four years in a tropical island paradise in the Pacific where, on some of the islands, the women are bare-breasted until they spot a white man when they then quickly grasp a square piece of white cloth they carry for the purpose and deftly suspend it by two of its corners from their compressed arm pits. I have wondered whether they fully realize the effect such a muscular response has on the position the breasts hold on the rib cage. Some men might consider these actions an example of mixed signals. It is
also here that the men of status display their proofs of importance by having their bodies covered with tattoos from neck to wrists to ankles with only their groins covered in a bright red cloth with along tail and where the language, literally, does not distinguish between “love”, “like” “want” and “desire” for such refined degree s of erotic attraction seem unimportant, or are non-existent. Here, in Micronesia, one does not commit a form of suicide by not acknowledging the sensual. This fact was on one occasion in full blossom and fully confirmed by one dear friend whom I asked to tell me how many children he had. “L have ten” he replied and then added “by my wife”. I persisted: “and how many altogether?” He thought about it for awhile and then gave another number. I then asked him if he remembered so and so or so and so and he hadn’t. So the final number we came up with between what he could remember and what others had told me, was thirty. “Gaius” I told him, “This has got to stop.” “Yes,” he replied.
Gaius: thinking about taking it easy
After these four years when I returned to the civilization as it was practiced in the state of Iowa and turned my attention to the discovery of the source of creative activity I learned that there were some who had accepted the Aldous Huxley notion that the “Brave New World” he had foreseen 1958 was to
come about methodically and that one of that state’s influential educators who, reapplying the statistical results obtained by others, was advocating the use of drugs to control hyperactive, divergent, and independent loners among both the pupil and teacher populations. By way of contrast to that I had learned from my studies that about 4% of the more and 4% of the less creative among the population were exhibiting important differences among which was that the least creative of the student population consistently received one grade-point higher in their course work than did the creative students and I wondered why until, using other psychological measures, I learned that those who got the higher grades and were the less creative also told more manipulative and misleading lies than the other group. This confirmed for me what I had already started to learn which was that society, probably any society, functions like most organisms in survival mode and that it reacts defensively when challenged. In other words, the less creative and the less honest among the students recognized what their mothers may have always told them was true, that if you want to get ahead you must do what superiors tell you to do and tell them what they want to hear. This advice, however, as caringly meant as it may have been, stands in direct opposition to what the individual may feel the need to respond to in his own evaluations of reality and the requirements of his own evolving moral structure. It is precisely this process the creative artist goes through when he, responding to his own collection of sense data, decides what his next move will be. The implications for mental health in this structure must have been obvious to R.D.Laing when he did a study of adolescent girls in England and found that there seemed to be a relationship between the modes of verbal sexual instruction as controlled by their mothers, subsequent adaptation to social constructs , and the information that the girls were receiving from their own bodies. The euphemistic phrasing used by the mothers was found to be the source for misinterpretation and a consequent borderline psychosis. So there may be a virtue in calling a spade a spade. This brings me to the point where my comments may seem to border on sophistry, when I might test the readers flexibility in thinking about the contemporary art scene. Even among an
audience of sophisticates I have tried frequently to get them to accept, understand and use the concepts that what they had thought was “abstract” was really “real” and what they had called “realistic” was really “abstract”. Very few can stand with those ideas foremost in their minds for any period of time. But I am going to give it another try. With the examples included here, one a 19th century painting atttributed to Albert Bierstadt and a 20th century painting by Hans Hoffmann. I would wager that 90-odd % of contemporary commentators would agree that the Bierstadt painting was a realistic work and that the same percentage would agree that the Hoffman was abstract. I shall attempt to point out that their conclusions are inconsistent with the facts. In both these instances, the Bierstadt and the Hoffman, the artist had been working with “real” materials, the paint, the brushes, the canvas the solvents were all “real”. To this extent, at least, the two artists’ approaches to panting do not differ. Both artists manipulated the medium to bring about certain visual results. These results differ significantly, but the kinetic behaviors do not. These still involve muscular coordination, an understanding of the appropriate mixes of paint and thinner, but the mental governance differs and this is related to the eidetic ideal in the mind of the individual. Bierstadt, whether or not he completed this landscape while still confronted with the original in the objective world, was obviously concerned with how that world appeared and he adjusted his behaviors to achieve, as closely as possible, a visual resemblance to that world. However, it is only appropriate to point out that the realty of that painting does not offer the viewer a replicable scale, temperature of air or odor of pine. To that extent, then, this landscape is a fraudulent work. On the other hand, Hoffman offers us colors, shapes arrangements which do not mislead the viewer who may, however, due to the still prevalent expectations of his social environment expects art to represent the outside world, discount Hoffman’s achievement to the extent that his work falls short of that expectation. This prejudice has interfered seriously with our comprehension, in spite of efforts of artists like Pollack, de Kooning and Kline. These observations should exalt the statement by the 18th century hostess, Mme.de Stael-Holstein to the effect that
those who demand that painting have a subject matter were missing the point. Her observation is enhanced when we remember that for the most part her contemporary art world may still have been dominated by the work of Fragonard, Boucher and Watteau. She did not, at least, have the works of Pollack, de Kooning and Kline to instruct her. Our ability, at the elementary level of observation, to understand what we see, has been warped by the pressures of various peer-groups to have all see the way the majority have agreed everything should be seen and that, consequently, we too, like Laing’s adolescent girls continue to deny our perceptions.
Jean-Anroine Watteau: painting
Jean-Honore Fragonard: painting
Francois Boucher: painting
Although I am loath to give the man credit, Breshnjev was correct when he explained to the American painter Jaime Wyeth that one should not underestimate the power of an image.
We might ask ourselves, just what it is that these artists, all of them are doing. To begin with Boucher, Fragonard and Watteau are telling us stories about people. Kline, de Kooning and Pollack are not doing that, except by implication, and a lot of observer possible reconstruction as to the genesis of such images. What both groups of artists have done, however, is to manipulate the materials and the main differences in the way they have done that is that Kline, de Kooning and Pollack have done so without misleading (or fooling) the observer’s eye into accepting a false reality. The reality of the pigment is there to be measured and assessed. The visual events which take place on the canva have been attested to by our neural constructs. Our eyes, our own eyes verify the events on canvas which is a response we cannot attribute to the works by the three 18th century Frenchmen. Now, the difference between those three artists and some other contemporary artistss is the degree of success they have achieved in teaching the observer something new about the neurology of vision and the psychology of perception. It is in this respect that the work of Kline, de Kooning and Pollack is far superior to the work of the 18th century painters and it was that socialite woman Mme de Stael-Holstein who gave us the clue when she pointed out the naivety of the belief that the value of painting was in what the subject illustrated.
Vigee Lebrun: Mme deStael
Friederich Tiehl: Mme deStael
This power can be illustrated by yet another expression of peer pressure when an organization as influential as DaimlerChrysler features the works of the American Andy Warhol and furthers his undeserved reputation as a genius with the undisguised self-aggrandizing motivation o profit, monetary and reputational with little regard for the effect upon a thoughtless population in so far as their aesthetic perceptions may be enhanced…or discounted. When I was eight years old, or seven I would cut out the images of Cadillacs, Buicks, and Pontiacs from sales brochures and drive them at exorbitant speeds with great motor sounds coming from my childish mouth. I knew what the reality was and that I was allowed to do what I was doing without a driver’s license. However, the Warhol-Daimler-Chrysler association isn’t as honest in its imaginative relationship as is the child with his paper cutouts.
To sum up, if that is possible, disengaging the artistic process from its historic attachment to “another reality” be it political, religious, or product centered, is essential to an understanding of an aesthetic response. The tendency to measure artistic excellence by technical good behavior misses the point and would encouraging preferring the “divine” Raphael to Michelangelo, Jacques Louis David to Rembrandt and, in sculpture, Houdin to Rodin. Language appropriately used to clarify perceptions can affect an important change in our cultural development. “Using the material of language, people make new –symbolic— models of reality (scientific theories in particular) such as never existed as neural models given us by nature. Language is, as it were, an extension of the human brain. Moreover it is a unitary common extension of the brains of all members of society. It is a collective model of reality that all members of society labor to improve, and one that preserves the experience of previous generations.” ---C.Joslyn, V. Turchin, F. Heylighten; “Social Evolution” in/at: http://pespmc.vub.ac.be/SOCEVOL.html
Albert Bierstadt: landscape
Hans Hoffman: untitled painting
Jackson Pollack: painting
Willem de Kooning: painting
Franz Kline: painting
Raphael Santi: Madonna and Child
Michelangelo Buonarrotti: Sistine Chapel
Jacques Louis David: painting
Rembrandt van Rijn: painting
Jaime Wyeth: Wolf fish
Jean-Antoine Houdin: portrait sculpture
August Rodin: portrait sculpture
To sum up this essay I decided to show two of my own works which, actually, are results of putting these observations into practice.
Paul Henrickson: Rape of Europa (Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico)
Paul Henrickson.assemblage,2002, Gozo, Malta
Titian: painting: Rape of Europa
Were I in a position to hand out assignments to the intellectually curious I would suggest their making an in-depth analysis of the two rapes, the Titian and the Henrickson. The Henrickson one which is now in the collection of the Fine Arts Museum at Santa Fe, New Mexico was produced as a result of a conversation the artist had had with another artist, Kenneth Burge, on the merits of the Titian in maintaining a sense of the intact, un-violated canvas, while others , such as Caravaggio, for example showed no interest whatever in that quality. Henrickson, evidently, decided to take quite the opposite approach to that of Titian.
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