The Zeitgeist

We’re all saying something with our paintings. Do we have the courage to buck the times and paint reverence, happiness, and kindness?

American Eagle in Drydock, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, sold. I’ll be down at the boatyard this morning to paint Heritage on the ways.

This month’s discussion of the picture plane in painting inevitably ended up including Philip Pearlstein, who wrote:

“Photographs do not break the picture plane, and so they parallel one of the great dictums of 20th century modernist art, which is that form follows function. The paper is flat, that is, the picture plane is flat, therefore the artist must keep his picture flat. Therefore the photograph is accepted as modernist art. Therefore one of my aims in painting is to break the picture plane.”

Striping, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed.

By which—practically speaking—he let heads, arms, etc. escape out of the picture, in much the same way as a child takes a snapshot.

“I was strictly interested in the way ordinary people looked.  And that became part of the kind of philosophy in a sense, to paint the ordinary, the everyday, not to go out of my way to make them tell some kind of story,” he saidin 2006.

Pearlstein is a lauded American painter, on the forefront of modern realism, and he deserves credit for that. But I cannot look at his huge canvases of naked people and not wince. They’re technically admirable, and yet they’re so unlikeable. Human beings, he seems to say, are just so much meat spread around the room. That’s especially true in canvases with more than one figure, pointedly not engaging with each other even when they’re buck naked in a small space. When their heads are cut off, their character, emotion and dignity are rendered inconsequential. We humans interact mostly through our faces, after all.

Captain Doug Lee (chasing the rats), 6X8, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed.

That is, of course, the Zeitgeist, the spirit of our age, so Pearlstein gets full marks for relevance. The German Romantics who coined that phrase had some strange ideas, and they were talking of a literal, invisible force that shaped the time and place. Today we think of it as our common ethos, but either way, we’ve been living in a demeaning culture for decades now.

I don’t watch TV, but my goddaughter tells me that the heroes of modern television are sarcastic and cynical. “Nasty” is the word she used. Certainly, you see that in our so-called leaders, and it’s in full bloom in popular music.

I occasionally reference the painter Tom Root, who my pal Eric Jacobsen calls “a national treasure.” His Holiday (Rest on the Flight to Egypt) is one of the few paintings that carries the western tradition of religious painting successfully into the modern era. Technically, he’s superlative—far more assured, in fact, than Pearlstein. And yet he labors in far greater obscurity than does Pearlstein, with all his honors.

Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1159 unframed.

Root paints the dignity of the human being, and that’s just contrary to the spirit of our age. Not that he can help it; he can no more embrace nihilism than I can. But it raises the question of how much we conform to our times, and why. People do that, of course, for reasons other than fame or fortune.

I don’t suggest that people should steer away from difficult subjects in paint. I spent several years painting on the subject of misogyny. They’ll be at the Rye Arts Center in 2022, by the way.

We’re not mere products of our times, we also shape them. The painter may hide behind the non-verbal nature of our art to deny responsibility for the culture, but we’re all saying something with our paintings. Do we have the courage to buck the times and paint reverence, happiness, and kindness?

Winnowing time

A visit to a virtual middle-school classroom is the perfect antidote to latent depression.

Hiking boots and toilet paper, by Carol L. Douglas. This still life could be my current self-portrait.
After a Zoom conversation that mentioned birding, my Facebook feed was filled with birding suggestions. Several people insisted that I was experiencing confirmation bias, the tendency we all have to interpret situations in a way that confirms our own beliefs, experiences, and ideas. In other words, I was just noticing ads that had been there all the time.
One area in which we all suffer confirmation bias is the area of stress and grief. A recently-bereaved person feels other, smaller shocks acutely. A depressed person is hypersensitive to the ‘heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.
Tin foil hat, by Carol L. Douglas. Or perhaps this is my current self-portrait.
Right now, western culture is in a state of heightened stress and grief. Much has been lost, even by those who have not directly experienced illness or death in the current pandemic. Our jobs, our activities, and our economic and social freedom are curtailed. We’re all keenly feeling the ‘slings and arrow of outrageous fortune.’ Is this just confirmation bias, or are there in fact a lot of things going wrong right now?
As a natural introvert, I’m not finding the isolation difficult. Instead, I’m cycling through my own problem: the as-yet-undiagnosed gastric ailment I brought home from Argentina. It incapacitates me for periods of about 48 hours and then disappears for several days. When I’m in its grip, I’m reminded of the black dog that lurks just outside my tent. My father and his mother both died of depression, and my mother attempted suicide at the end of her life. I escape depression, in part, by keeping myself frenetically busy.
This is a real self-portrait, drawn twenty years ago when I was in the midst of my cancer treatment.
That’s learned behavior. Hard work was how my parents kept depression at bay until they were too old to outrun it. However, we all get tired eventually, and I’ll be no exception. Addressing this question has been on my to-do list for a number of years, but it’s only when illness knocks me down that I remember it. The problem is, of course, that there’s no easy answer. Nor does faith provide insulation against pain and decline. As Hebrews 9:27 cheerfully notes, we’re all appointed once to die.
Meanwhile and more immediately, there’s the question of how to revitalize my current business practice. Yesterday I taught my first Zoom class. My usual practice is to move from student to student, contemplate each painting, talk with the artist about what he’s doing, and then make suggestions. This is difficult on video, because people can either look at their phones or have them pointed at their canvases, but not both.
Buffalo Grain Mills, by Carol L. Douglas. Like my home town, I’m worn.
On the other hand, in the classroom, the dialogue is mainly between me and each individual student. Because my Zoom students had to turn their work to the screen to show it to me, it made class more of a streaming critique session. That was surprisingly more helpful than a ten-minute critique at the end of each class. It gives me something to build on for next week.
I made a guest appearance in Chrissy Pahucki’s virtual middle school art class at Goshen Central School in New York. Initially, I had trouble finding my way around Google Meet, but kids are not only naturally adept at technology, they’re courteous in guiding adults.
But kids can always make me smile. Photo courtesy of Chrissy Spoor Pahucki.
Chrissy expected they would ask questions for twenty minutes. It went on for twice that long, and I’m not sure they were finished when we finally pulled the plug. Pre-teens and teenagers are among my favorite people on the planet: they’re cheerful, innocent, inquisitive—the perfect antidote to creeping nihilism.

Painting with blood and guts

Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant is a beautiful, difficult work that would not have been possible before the modern era.
One of my children works with severely handicapped adults. His duties include stopping clients from smearing feces on the walls. These non-verbal, intellectually-broken adults share a means of communication with some of the more rarified intellects in the art world.
From left: Lucas, 2001, by Marc Quinn, sculpted of human placenta and umbilical cord. Self, 1991, by Marc Quinn, sculpted from the artist’s own frozen blood.
Last night my kids and I were discussing the worst trends in millennial art. We came up with the following list:

·         Bodily fluids and excretions
·         Abortions
·         Nail clippings
·         Placental anything
·         Tumors
·         Body parts
·         Things in formaldehyde
What struck me was how self-referential this art is. They aren’t just Vagina Monologues, they’re My Vagina Monologues. It’s not just a bullwhip in an anus; it’s a bullwhip in Robert Mapplethorpe’s own anus. It’s not just art about abortion, it’s a project where Aliza Shvarts impregnates herself and then induces as many abortions as possible.
Piss Christ, 1987, by Andres Serrano, outraged the American public because it received public funding. It seems almost quaint in comparison with more contemporary bodily fluid art, much of which offends even my sensibilities and can’t be posted here.
This is the final step in Cartesian dualism: when you get to the point of ultimately rejecting the non-material, all you’re left with is your own body fluids. Can such art have any lasting meaning or value? I’m afraid it can; if we are the age of self-centered nihilism, such art perfectly represents us.
This is not to say that modern sensibilities cannot inform art beautifully. Alison Lapper Pregnantis a beautiful, difficult work that would not have been possible before the modern era, when our ideas of disability have undergone such a profound shift. But even this is a one-off in the oeuvre of its creator, Marc Quinn. He diddles endlessly with a work called “Self,” which is a frozen sculpture of his own head made from 4.5 liters of his own blood, and has been known to sculpt in feces.
But some of us are repulsed by this, which tells us that nihilism hasn’t completely triumphed. To counter it, we should ask ourselves why we are not nihilists—and then paint the answer.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!