The Visual Arts  


"Everything is really fundamentally mysterious. In learning to recognize meaning and familiarize ourselves with our everyday world—to make sense of it all, and manage our lives—we tend to overlook this basic fact. Things become familiar, obvious, self-evident. For me, the practice of drawing and writing is an opportunity to consider what is otherwise, to look at certain objects, qualities, and situations at length and interrogate them to the point where you can appreciate their fundamental strangeness.

"In a way, [art is] about taking things out of context, particularly the 'context' of day-to-day passive recognition. . . . Take that step back and examine aspects of accepted reality critically and you approach an almost child-like state, one of original wonder and uncertainty, grappling for meaning, testing what you see with every instrument of your imagination."

—Shaun Tan

Ulysses and the Sirens, Herbert Draper

On the Visual Arts


We've suggested elsewhere, in our essay on modern art, that from the very beginning art of this nature was of dubious merit, and that it has since devolved into a farce.

As an alternative to the ethos of modern art, which is essentially without aim, beyond the creation of insignificant, self-referential artifacts, we've advanced the view of art as a key element of enlightenment.

The aims of art of this nature are essentially humanistic and spiritual. The humanistic artist requires vision, imagination and, yes, draughtsmanship, together with psychological insight and depth, and a broad understanding of the human condition. In short, achievement of such aims requires a fully developed sensibility.

And to be clear about this, it should be noted the process of developing such a sensibility is fundamentally not a commercial aim. The consequences of commercialism are nowhere so disastrous as when they come to dominate the wellsprings of value. Perhaps it's no accident that the most commercial century humanity has ever known, the 20th, was also the century of "modernism" and spiritual emptiness in the arts. It's not surprising that vapid and paltry abstract canvases harmonize well with the amoral marketplace. By contrast, humanistic art will invariably remind us that commerce is merely a means, not an end.

On the other hand, however, an austere refusal to communicate, or even entertain, won't advance the cause of the arts. A disengaged audience, or an audience that is bored, is an audience that will find itself unable to access the content of the work of art, no matter how good its intentions.

Thus, successful and authentic works of art must strike a difficult balance: they must be mindful and respectful of the emotional needs and attention span of the average individual even as they seek to enlarge them. Nevertheless, where the commercial arts, correctly described as "entertainment", will invariably aim at merely amusing their audience, and toward providing superficial emotional gratification—that is, toward pandering—genuine works of art will trend more toward being challenging, perhaps even disturbing their audience.

Thus, the arts do the work of civilization, and merit the support of civilization; and the humanistic and progressive individual will want to patronize especially those artists whose work will tend to fall through the cracks of commerciality through a failure to pander.

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The authentic arts tend to move in one of three directions: realism, magic realism, and visionary. Realists often present some aspect of the real world as captured at a transcendent moment linking the mundane world with greater depths of significance. The magic realist will tend to adopt the approach Tan alluded to above: maintaining a firm grounding in the real world, but tweaking it in unexpected directions so as to effect a sort of conceptual double-take. The visionary artist will take us a final step beyond this to an inner landscape. We think all three approaches are legitimate. All militate strongly against minimalism, and we think rightly so. Minimalism properly subsists at the very borders of legitimate art, if indeed it's legitimate at all.

In the field guide this essay links to, we'll provide on-line resources to those artists and works which we regard as most important. Our choices are generally at odds with those of the contemporary art establishment. While much of this art is extremely pleasing, some is disturbing in one way or another—not simply for the sake of being disturbing, but from honesty and from respect for the truth. The texture of human reality is complex. No corner of it should be exempt from examination.

So prepare yourself for an incredible odyssey.

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