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Community and Disunity

The idea of artist communities is popular in social media space. Cyber spaces where the individual often resorts to affectation and anonymity to conform to expectations. There is comfort in such conformity, and an ease of understanding through common interests and shared experiences. This is equally true in offline social groups. We are social by nature, and our very language is the product of socializing. Art is, in some sense, an augmented language of color and form. Like hieroglyphics, emojis, or poetic metaphor, art is a means of expressing the individual impression to the collective reception. So, how can an artist stand outside of the collective in order to impress their individuality?

There is a marked division between popular art and academic art, and that is due in large part to the influence of higher education on fostering individualism and free thought. The working class are discouraged from questioning their perceptions, because that leads to reduced efficiency and social cohesion. Art is dangerous. One need only consider the stereotype of the artist as an eccentric, as a neurotic isolated individual. Art is a concept by which we measure our pain, I’ll say it again.

When viewing art on the world’s new gallery known as Instagram, I’m struck by the dichotomy between truly great artists with a few hundred followers, and truly mediocre artists with tens of thousands. The mediocre artists are usually conventionally employed or independently wealthy, and consequently adroit at marketing on social media. The great artists, if they use social media at all, are more concerned with their work than with advertising it. This represents a great challenge and should be the purview of gallerists, but gallerists are often drawn from the former class and loyal to their own.

Much has been written about the relation between so-called mental illness and artists, with poor old Vincent Van Gogh always being the example used. Social isolation is often seen as a symptom of mental illness, though it’s worth noting that many psychological professionals are inherently socially isolated by their profession. Many great artists have been married, engaged readily with the public, yet maintained a degree of isolation for their personal work. This is why our houses have interior doors.

There are two directions for our cognitive life, outward and inward. Artists spend more time with introspection than most do, but we still have to stay connected to the phenomena world. A lot of my work involves transforming the material world into a sort of transmuted form that dovetails into my psyche. But I also paint for a living, and that means maintaining a connection to the public. Being a sort of civilized barbarian. Retreating into my dreams, like going into the forest and returning to the world of grocery stores and HGTV.

The inner world of isolation is a vortex, a whirlwind. We can easily become blown away, or drawn into the eddy of others. We often lose faith in our own direction, because the spinning celestial vortex of the microcosmos seems chaotic, and maybe it is chaotic. But when we look to others for guidance it’s easy to forget that their inner currents are just as wild as ours. I’m reminded of the story of Odysseus asleep in the ship while his trusted crew opened the bag and released the west wind that was keeping their course true. When we look to others for advice, or for validation, we are surrendering our own agency to their keeping, at least in part. It is important to stay grounded without being buried; to sleep with one eye open.

I’ve begun looking through abstract paintings in local galleries lately (online of course). I’ve been noticing a commonality in that all abstract painters develop a style and seldom stray from it. Presumably they find a marketable formula, like a baker who sells a hotcake and makes more hotcakes. I think it’s partly a consequence of the academic art system. Artists go to art school to experiment, find their style, and be disciplined enough not to experiment any further. Just as we study in school in order to pass examinations, but once we’ve finished it’s time to work and the learning is finished.

I think the best artists don’t rest on their laurels. Picasso’s work went through at least four distinct phases, and he never settled on a particular style because it was popular. Dali had a rhinoceros gore his paintings, and some of the contemporary artists I admire the most paint on cardboard or frequently obliterate their old paintings for new styles. We have to rope the whirlwind like Pecos Bill, and harness the unconscious animal libido. The yoke of the eastern mystics. Otherwise we’re simply mooring ourselves to a melting glacier, the comforting carousel of sensation, slowly rotating predictably. An amusement for children, with pretty decorations, but such is not the way of art.

Artists are dangerous, social critics, clowns and court jesters who dare to defy the very gods of the marketplace. We are the gargoyles above the ashlar walls. But, we’re not detached and if the walls fall, so do we. No artist is an island, no matter how peninsular. Even artists in Florida! We have to continue to work for the market, to produce social media content. To experiment without alienating our audience completely. There are many parallels between artists and the sages of old. Even the mandarins had to laugh sometimes. But in our laughter we should never forget how to cry.

The pandemic years showed us that socializing can be done just as effectively at a distance. In a way, our interactions with others, and with the world, are only interactions with our internal consciousness. Like the germ of the interaction is only waiting to be activated by a convergence of awarenesses. Lights shining in darkness. Alone together or together apart. The artist and the observer, and the artist as the observer. I’ve been criticized for years for thinking too much about how my work is perceived, but that’s the reason I paint at all. If I paint only for myself, there’s no need to paint at all, because the images are inscribed in the stone of my heart.

Artists are solitary people in a collective world, and it’s our duty to show that world the trees of its forest.

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