The curator of a major US art museum recently declined my work with apologies that their area of concentration is in collecting Contemporary Art.
It was an odd slight, filled with unstated assumptions. It is ultimately unclear to me how one actually avoids being contemporary. For one who’s not dead yet, such language sets in motion chains of thought, which have been incubating for decades. I make my living as an artist and address little else but
matters that are of my time. Is concern for the planet and its extinctions “so twentieth century
“ as to be passé?
A professor friend just told me that she’s losing interest in academic art and just wants to do woodcuts again—not just woodcuts, but pictures with birds and horses and things she actually loves. Not that she would dare show them to her colleagues.
I’d always hoped that fine art, as a calling, would take me to a way of life that is whole and nurturing. The intent to deal with important issues of the day is clearly a large part of the equation. So why then, am I not contemporary, with my recognizable imagery informed by environmental concerns, while documentary photographs of polluting oil wells or deformed babies have crossed over from photo-journalism and into the ranks of contemporary art?
I’ve long been on the wrong side of this “contemporary” look, with its increasingly rusty cutting edges and quaintly dated appeals to avant gardes, but I also understand its appeal to those entering the academies. Being part of a movement and redefining its edges is exciting and provides its own adrenaline source. There does, however, come a point at which one needs to outgrow this eternal fascination for the latest, newest thing and settle into doing something concrete with the depth of a mature individuated artist with something of one’s own to say.
The artists I respect tend to regard themselves as followers of a highly personal calling, even a spiritual journey. Staying the course of a personal vision isn’t easy under the best of circumstances and is, more often than not, a lonely life-long proposition. It’s harder still when the pressure to join up and be one of “us”
is ratcheted up. The Communists of the old east block were fond of offering party membership to artists, which everybody knew was a double-edged sword. Accept and sell out for a good price or decline and never be shown anywhere again. Now that’s a high price for following your own vision and maintaining integrity, but imagine the price to be paid on your death bed for not having stayed the course—especially for those of us who have no real Goebbels or Stalin breathing down our necks, but just a few art critics that nobody outside our world reads anyway.
There is without doubt a higher calling for high art and a legitimate expectation that it bring something new to the table. Blogs and glossies may be new source material for today’s imitator, but the phenomenon is hardly new. I recall a museum filled with works of the mid-nineteenth century Munich School, which like most of you, I too had never heard of. I whipped through the show, went back to several favorites, and only then read the museum’s didactica. Son of a gun if the several pieces I returned to weren’t by the founding members and the rest, by their followers. Genuine artists have their imitators and we, their colleagues, know the difference.
Today, I find myself less willing than I once was to accept that “contemporary”
label at face value—really questioning if there is such a thing beyond the celebration of strutting the fashion of the day. Art is an aspirant for the eyes of eternity and answers to higher gods—jealous gods at that.
What I do in the studio is a spiritual discipline akin to meditation or prayer and it is this quiet undercurrent in the history of art that I seek out and hope to find in museums. The spiritual content of art is something we talked about often in the art academies I attended in Europe. Yet, in my experience, this crucial aspect of why we make art is mostly dismissed in US art departments as the personal baggage of each student and thus not really open to discussion. That potentially controversial discussion tends to be displaced with less troublesome political talk—racism, feminism, polemics on aesthetics and generalized art-speak.
I know damned well when I am being a fraud and must go to the matt with my demons. This is what is required of the master artist alone and in the studio at the point when you accept your own authority and can no longer defer to teachers, manifestos or a movement.
I’m fortunate to have seen a lot of great art. Artists of the past will eventually become the colleagues upon whose shoulders you realize you stand and the peers with whom you carry on a quiet dialogue in the studio—one that spans the centuries—indeed, millennia. The subtle voices you’ll learn to hear, if you become humble and pay attention, will be those of very real colleagues. The internal compulsion I now feel is less driven by the need to see all the rest of the art out there than it is by the need to make use of my gifts and fully discover who I was born to be
That is the kind of profoundly human and deeply insightful artwork I hope to find in the museums. The most memorable words I have heard an artist pronounce on these matters came from the lips of Magdalena Abakanowitz when she spoke at the sculpture museum of Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids. She was old, but the fire still burned clearly in her eyes. She closed her talk by turning to us, the artists in her audience, and asking: “Consider carefully—are you here to be decorators, or shamans?”
Ladislav Hanka lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
You can learn more about this artist at his website:
Here are links to two earlier pieces we published by Ladislav: