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?