Saturday, July 16, 2011

Art: Dead or Alive?

When it comes to art, many have wondered over time if there is anything new to say. The painter Delaroche is said to have looked at a Daguerreotype (the first successful photographic process) in the early 1800s and said, “From this day forward, painting is dead.” It’s a sentiment that has been repeated through every generation and art movement since. Actually “there’s nothing new under the sun” is a comment made in Ecclesiastes over 2000 years ago. So this quest to explore and find the "new" of life and the lament that it’s all been done before goes back pretty far.

Now 2000+ years later, history clearly shows that there continues to be new things to discover even when it appears as if its all been done. But what history also teaches us is that none of these "discoveries" and achievements satisfy that essential need that causes us to hunger for the “new” and we still are in a lament for it.

It’s this seemingly insatiable quest for the “new” that makes us wonder if painting and maybe even art itself has run its course and is lying on its own death bed. Today one of the louder, more notorious voices in art is Damien Hirst. Although not as dead as the critics may currently suggest, still he challenges us to wonder if art just might be. He took the “ready-made” and upped the ante by putting the “God-made” in the gallery for our viewing pleasure and shock. But even a butchered shark in formaldehyde is not enough to shock us into a new state of thinking for long and we remain dissatisfied. Maybe he is too. His most recent work is a series of paintings that have left the art critics confused and yawning with a “been there, done that” attitude to it all.

One artist friend recently commented…
"everything today is the same thing over and over but the sting is gone.... we can participate, but it’s as if we already know the outcome."

But I wonder if “the outcome” has ever been the point...we have always known the outcome. In the end, its death. Death is a given even for those of us who believe in life after death. We are born into a life where we always, already know the outcome. Art can’t simply be about getting to a new punchline because there is no new punchline to get to.

So what is it that we are hungering for? Maybe it’s not the question of our death that plagues us as much as why are we alive to begin with.

There are always new things to "discover" and "rediscover" about who we are as human beings. The universe as it's laid out today, as we have made it with all our technology, our mistakes, our triumphs, our global warming and cloning, our debt ceilings, fallen towers, heroic rescues, space missions and child soldiers...these are not our quests but rather the context in which we search for answers to questions we have always asked.

If art appears dead to us today maybe it’s because we’ve given up searching for real answers to possibly unanswerable questions. It turns out that the most relevant, shocking, transformative art happens when an artist expresses something real about the journey they are on. Somehow it affirms the journey we are on as well. Art that serves up some version of an answer may tickle our brain cells for a few minutes. But we quickly move on. But the piece that moves us into a deeper, wider exploration…that piece we come back to over and over...that’s the art that will never be dead.

I recently went to Monet's room at MoMA. There sits an expanse of color moving across the wall on three huge panels of canvas. It’s one of his last works done when he had mostly lost his eyesight. This is not a painting of the world as we know it, its a painting of the world as it could be known by an old man whose sight only grew deeper as he closed in on death.

Here before this oil painting, hung on a wall, many sat or stood, few spoke. By Monet living out his world of inner sight on canvas, he invites us into our own world of seeing. It was not an understanding of gardens we were seeking, nor a contemplation on oil technique. He beckons me to join him on this pilgrim journey through a mystery…his mystery...our mystery…

Art that invites us into the act of seeking our own answers will always feel fresh to us. Monet’s work always captures my spirit no matter how often I see it, because when I stand in front of it, I am reminded again of just how curious life is…waiting for me to explore. That kind of art will only die when I stop choosing to live.