Near the end of my time in academia, I took a painting class where my work was universally panned. At the time, I was making large abstract paintings that didn’t require much insight from viewers. They were simply paintings that were pretty, and some would say, beautiful. Everyone in the painting class hated them.
Admittedly I was an easily-crosshaired outsider in this painting class. Back then, I was getting a master’s degree in literature. I had a few electives I could take, and this painting class happened at night, which allowed me to keep my day job of working at a software company. So, I showed up for the 6:30 pm painting class as someone who was mostly reading the Faerie Queen. Everyone else was getting an MFA in visual art. During one class, every student was wearing black except for me, and it became clear that I had no chance to survive.
Taking this elective class was all my fault, and it was a horrible mistake.
This was in 2010, where the American world was sort of recovering from economic crisis of 2008. You could talk about Real Issues with your art. But I didn’t want to do this at all. I just made large, abstract, colorful paintings that were torn down pretty horribly at critique.
“I think you should make paintings about the history of America and the Revolutionary war,” the teacher said one day during critique, looking at the vast expanse of my paintings, paintings which did not use the color black, gray, or brown. He was being nice. The students had already dismissed my work as decorative and boring, which they had a right to do. I could feel the hate of one of the students just rolling toward me like a hot mist. I think she would have punched me if I were not bigger than her.
To respond to the teacher, I think I said something agreeable and hopeful, something like “That is great advice! Yeah, the Revolutionary War… cool… ” But I never made paintings about the war. Something about this just didn’t feel genuine.
“Hasn’t anything interesting or bad happened in your life that you can put into your art?” people would ask. ”Don’t you want to make art about something important?”
“Not really…” I would say. Sure, I could make beautiful art about some tragedy, I could make art about the Revolutionary War, but It would never feel right. Not to me at least. Other artists are awesome at this, and they do it really well. Many manage to make beautiful work that covers a horrible thing. But not me.
Now, in 2017, as the political climate heats up, did I change my mind? Do I now want to discuss the unfairness of our world in painting?
Nothing has changed. I feel exactly the same in 2017 as I felt in 2010. I want to keep making beautiful paintings, I don’t want to make work that is ugly, or work that is exposing the ugliness of our world.
Everyone in the art world probably wants to punch me right now, but hear me out. People might think I am a insufferable optimist, that my life is perfect, and that I see the world through rose-colored glasses. Someone who only sees pretty things paints pretty things, right?
Artists love beauty not because it surrounds them, but because it is a break from the ugliness of the world. Artists value peace and like to create a sense of peace because the world is not peaceful.
The world is already ugly enough.
The storytelling of art creates order in our otherwise unorderly lives. Making beautiful artwork is ultimately a political statement of pessimism, because as soon as you aim for beauty, you are declaring that the world is not beautiful enough already. The glaciers of Alaska are not enough, the city at sunset is not enough, a beautiful wife is not enough. We must paint the glaciers, the city, the wife. We must bring these paintings into our homes and stare at them constantly in order to not have a total nihilist meltdown.
Is this cowardly? I'd venture to say it is practical, much in the way that pessimism is the handmaiden of practicality. Practicality is probably the real reason that most of the art world hates decorative art. A landscape painting doesn't give us an answer, it doesn't try to illustrate a parable or make a shocking statement, it just is. Isn't this the quietude that everyone is looking for in today's noisy world?
Ultimately, artists in 2017 don’t make a beautiful painting for some unknown person in the future in order to remember us by - artists make it for now, for right now, so that we have something beautiful on hand while the world crashes down around us. Only then will it be enough.