Theory, Governing Organization, and Strategy
By Robert Zube
"The question is: what can an artist do with paint, and
how can all of the different options be correctly classified?"
I began my career as a student at UCLA in 1961. I enjoyed the 1960s and could tell you many stories. Eileen and I met in an Archeology study group when the university went on strike protesting the Vietnam War. We finally both graduated from UCLA in 1970 with degrees in Anthropology. We completed our graduate course work at CSULA where I was elected graduate class president in 1971. We decided to leave school in 1972 to get married and pursue other interests. We began with a six-month honeymoon traveling in Europe. We opened our own business in 1979 and never looked back.
It should be no surprise then that I love to travel, appreciate diversity and have long been naturally inclined to regard painted pictures from an Anthropologist's perspective. I have decided that there is no theoretical reason why a painting should not be considered as an artifact, as well as a work of art. Each such artifact simply consists of a flat surface covered with an arrangement of color. The arrangement varies from one painting to the next. It may take talent to arrange the paint, but it's still an artifact. I will, therefore, tend to use the terms "artifact" and "painting" more or less interchangeably.
This is where it starts to get interesting. Ernst Gombrich, one of the fathers of modern art history, is known for having first published these famous words in 1950: "There is really no such thing as Art. There are only artists." The professor's clear focus on the artist has since given rise to a professional art establishment that is committed to and preoccupied with the study of each individual artist, the cult of the genius painter, inspirations and interpretations.
In one sense, this is consistent with the Western tradition that individuals matter and make a difference. However, this has also made it practically impossible to develop a comprehensive system of classifying paintings; that is, a system that is similar to what we might find in the sciences such as archeology, biology or zoology.
Compare professor Gombrich's conclusions with that of the painter Maurice Denis who observed: “Remember that a picture before being a horse, a nude or some kind of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order." Now there is an objective statement. It gives me confidence to turn the good professor Gombrich's venerable quotation upside down by proposing: "There are no such things as Artists. There are only the surviving artifacts that they leave behind." In other words, artists are transitory. Artifacts are concrete. Artifacts may last for a long time and explain a great deal.
The differences between these two opposing points of view are important. They expose the chasm between "subjective" and "objective" analytic strategies. The subjective strategy examines the artist. The objective strategy examines the artifact.
I am familiar with the inevitable push back: "This is Art, not Science." Yes, but it could be Science; not necessarily for the purpose of deciphering inspirations, but at least for the purpose of classification and historical interpretation. Strip away the complicating fact that paintings were created by human beings, albeit some very special ones, and you are left with an organizational challenge that is not much different than classifying flora or fauna based on their respective physical characteristics.
What I am proposing is that the same Anthropologists' logic and methods used for the study of Comparative Religion, Cross-cultural Linguistics, Archeology, Cultures and Societies can also be used for the study of Comparative Art. Anthropologists have just as legitimate a place at the table for studying Art as do Art Historians.
I further believe that the grand changes in Art over time can only be correctly understood by considering changes that occurred outside of Art, not just the changes that came from within. This requires an interdisciplinary approach that Anthropology can provide. Therefore, employing the objective approach of the Anthropologist, not the subjective approach of the Art Historian, what might the Anthropologist have to say about the enormous number and diversity of paintings that have been produced over the years? The answer might surprise you.
There was a sudden explosion of paintings that began in Western Culture around the middle of the fifteenth century. The explosion ended up lasting for more than half a millennium. This is a period that can truly be called The Golden Age of Painted Pictures. This Golden Age is commonly divided into two major segments: The Era of the Old Masters, and the more recent Era of Modern Art. These, of course, are often then further divided into many more subsets.
The Era of the Old Masters
So the Era of the Old Masters began full throttle around the year 1450. But why then, and why there in Western Europe? The evidence clearly suggests that the Era of the Old Masters in Art was caused by the development of literacy throughout society, in particular by Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in Germany in the year 1450. Mark Twain called this the most important invention of the millennium.
The printing press produced books for the first time in large quantity. It gave everyone in every class of society access to books and the opportunity to read. However, in order to read, one must also first learn to focus. The ability to read, and the accompanying ability to focus, are both acquired skills.
The ability to focus amounts to the ability to isolate one printed symbol or set of symbols on a printed page while ignoring all of the other surrounding symbols. The ability to do this is internalized through practice. Once internalized, the eye knows no other way to see. That is what you are doing right now as you look at this page. That is also how most people focus when they take a photograph.
So why is this important with respect to understanding Art? Because it is the ability to focus that provides the indispensable capacity for creating perspective in Art. Without the ability to focus, there is no perspective. And it is perspective that makes the illusion of depth possible.
This sets up a basic distinction between literate and non-literate art. Lacking perspective, non-literate art is predictably flat. Examples include Australian Aboriginal, Oceanic, Eskimo, Native American, and indigenous African. Armed with perspective and oil paint, Western European artists could begin to routinely create convincing illusions of depth, working in two dimensions to suggest the existence of three. This is the essential ingredient of the great leap forward, the magic, the shared ability to create and appreciate infinity in art that we now call the Renaissance.
The Era of the Old Masters was a literate, largely urban phenomenon. It originated in Western Europe because this is where the printing press was invented. The printing press provided the ability to read and focus on a large scale. Van Eyck provided premixed oil paint, and the Old Masters followed with perspective. There is a direct line connecting the printing press to books, the ability to read and focus, the creation of perspective, and on to the likes of Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci and all of those to follow.
The principal strategy employed by most artists during the entire existence of the Old Master Era was to precisely and convincingly replicate what an audience would expect to see in the flesh. This meant mastering that illusive third dimension. The great exceptions to this rule, Mythic and Religious Surrealism, are arguably attributed to man's fertile ability to imagine, not his ability to see.
Artists of this earlier era were, therefore, in effect, society's photographers who used paint and brushes as a technology to create compelling illusions or photographs. As time went by, different periods (such as the curvaceous baroque or the later stately neoclassical) brought forth ever new and progressive refinements of this capability to bedazzle and bewitch.
It is difficult to create a precise replication with paint and brushes. Even in the hands of the best artist, paint and brushes are a primitive, labor intensive, fussy, time consuming, image-creating technological system. The system remained dominant, in fact, only until a more efficient system, photography, was invented.
The Era of Modern Art
The Era of Modern Art was triggered by the development of the camera throughout the 1830s and 1840s, pioneered by Louis Daguerre, a Frenchman. Prior to the camera, artists used their mastery of illusion to attract lucrative subject-specific commissions. But photography's capacity to faithfully capture detail inevitably appropriated artists' principal markets and rendered traditional methods obsolete. This left many classically trained artists with an empty backlog of work.
At this same time, in 1841, John G. Rand developed and patented collapsible artist's paint tubes. This made artist's paint portable and painting "en plein air" practical. It freed artists from their studios. Renoir said that "without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism."
The new era of Modern Art did not begin with Picasso or Cezanne. It began much earlier, arising out of the intense competition between artists who continued to work with paint and brushes (for example, Delacroix, Turner, Millet, Courbet or Corot) and those who worked with cameras. The interplay between technology, art and the marketplace led to the inevitable question: how could artists compete with the camera? What could the artists do that the camera could not?
Artists responded by appealing to a broader middle class market with non-commissioned motifs, surface textures, interpretive methods, candid points of view, unexpected colors, affordable prices and improved use of time and motion. It is unlikely that any of this would have occurred without the camera's invention. One need only compare the paintings of 1840 with those of 1860 to bear witness to this clearly evolving trend.
This later Era of Modern Art is best understood as an era that valued imagination above all. It was an era where avant-garde artists explored alternatives to the old masters, to photo-realism, traditional motifs, perspective and illusion.
Beginning with Pissarro and Monet during the decade of the 1860s, some artists in France began to investigate what they might learn from the operation of the camera. They began by exploring possible areas of common ground or precedent. This made some sense, since photography was invented in their own backyard. The first lesson learned was to quickly respond to one's "first impression." This is exactly what the camera does.
Applied quickly, however, paint does not provide a precise replication. It does something entirely different instead. A critic called it "Impressionism" and the name stuck. Another early French critic called the Impressionists "Five or six lunatics, one of which is a woman." The six would have to be Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, Sisley and Morisot, all of whom exhibited at the original Impressionist show in 1874.
Theory of Artifacts and Creative Strategies
By 1970, the major themes of the Era of Modern Art had all been explored and resolved. As a movement, the Era did not last much longer than a century. Thanks to Andy Warhol, it could finally be said without serious rebuttal that ANYTHING could be an artistic motif. And the extreme strategic alternatives to precise replication had all been revealed. This included Jackson Pollack's pure Drip Paintings achieved through the manipulation of PROCESS, pure Minimalism achieved through the manipulation of CONTENT and finally Abstract Expressionism achieved through the manipulation of BOTH process and content simultaneously.
We have inherited a litany of descriptive labels (largely a parade of "isms") that sprang up in many cases as a way of coping with fast evolving schools or styles. These "isms" do not amount to a sensible universal system of artistic classification.
In attempting to understand this sometimes challenging imagery, one should take care to note that inspirations, intentions, reactions, responses, emotions, value, and the meanings we attach to symbols and allegories all exist in the minds of the artist or the audience.
These are not qualities belonging to an artifact or the paint. An artifact can be evocative, entertaining, informative, or educational. But it cannot feel, think or pray. The feeling and the thinking and the praying are confined to the minds of the artist and the audience.
The many ways that artists can manipulate composition, texture and color on a flat surface are precisely the attributes that enable us to formulate a comprehensive classification system. The question is: what can an artist do with paint, and how can all of the different options be correctly classified?
The accumulated evidence suggests that the artist's multitude of options boils down to just four primary variables. It is simply this: an artist has the option of either manipulating 1) the PROCESS, 2) the CONTENT, 3) BOTH process and content simultaneously, or 4) NEITHER ONE. The way in which an artist makes these choices is what determines the group in which the finished painting is classified.
Each of these four groups is a continuum. Each continuum contains room for all of an artist's possible options that may fall within that continuum. Each continuum also forms the base line of a matrix. The matrix shows how the dominance of illusion in each group declines as the artist's exercise of manipulation increases. This is not about motifs, but rather how motifs are created.
Manipulation of Process Continuum
This group includes artifacts that display the process of applying paint to the painting surface. The artist may brush the paint on, drip or spill it, throw it, knife it, sponge it, finger it, roll it, blow it or spit it. It doesn’t matter which. When the process is left to show in any degree, then the painting belongs on this continuum.
Typical clusters or spikes in the ascending trend line include Virtual Realism, Interpretive Realism, Impressionism, drip paintings, and any other method that may fit the category.
Manipulation of Content Continuum
This group contains artifacts that display the exercise of imagination in choosing colors, and/or compositions that originate in the artist's brain. As with the process manipulation group, a matrix is necessary to demonstrate the decline of illusion as the dominance of content manipulation increases.
Common clusters or spikes in the ascending trend line include Surrealism, Late Cubism, Neo-Impressionism, Geometric Design, Pointillism, Pure Minimalism, and any other strategies that may fit the category.
Manipulation of Process and Content Continuum
The simultaneous manipulation of both process and content in the same painting yields a continuum that includes Post-Impressionism, Surrealism, Expressionism, much of Early and Middle era Cubism, most Abstract Expressionism, and a variety of multiple combinations that fit the category.
Manipulation of Neither Process nor Content Continuum
Artifacts that display no evidence of manipulation of any sort are essentially large color photographs. Theoretically, they have no style beyond the representation of the subject. They are artifacts that appear to have been untouched by human hands. The only thing that changes is the subject, which varies from one painting to the next. In the beginning, there was just one class of motifs, Religion, which was considered worthy of replication. The list of acceptable motifs grew over time. Each time the list grew, there was a battle. Today, the list of acceptable motifs includes ANYTHING that one can see.
Theory In Action
All of the paintings ever created can be accommodated by this theory; or possibly better still, all of the paintings in a single large museum. This approach also allows for the analysis of the Era of the Old Masters in ways never before thought possible. For example, it is clear that there is virtually no process manipulation visible in the Era of the Old Masters. However, the manipulation of content is everywhere. There is Religious Surrealism, Mythic Surrealism, and even your everyday garden variety standard Surrealism (see, for example the portfolio by Archimboldo) hiding under every rock in the Gothic period, the Early Renaissance, the High Renaissance and all along up to the current day.
Here are some real life examples:
A picture of Mickey Mouse is an example of standard surrealism. It was something imagined by Walt Disney. The image belongs on the content manipulation continuum (group 2). In fact, the entire collection of Disney animated characters is an example of the surrealism that surrounds us every day. They all belong in group 2 (a manipulation of content). Here is an example where a world-famous Fortune 500 company has been based almost entirely on surrealism.
Another example: Any painting of angels or priests with wings hovering in flight is an example of Religious Surrealism. This is true even if the painting was created by Chagall, Giotto or Hieronymus Bosch. Major world-wide religions rely in large measure on surrealist imagery. The imagery has become so ingrained in our culture that it is hardly noticed.
There is also the matter of Mythology and its associated imagery. It is all surrealism. Anytime you see a figure with the upper torso of a man and the hind-quarters of a four-legged animal carrying off a presumed virgin in distress, you should know immediately that it is surrealism. Two good examples of Religious and Mythic Surrealism are "The Fall of the Rebel Angels" by Pieter Brueghel and "The Birth of Venus" by Botticelli. All of these belong in group 2 (manipulation of content).
Looking in a different direction, Jackson Pollack's Drip Paintings transform the paint from a medium into a subject. Since all of his paintings are accomplished through the manipulation of process, they belong at the far right-hand end of the Process Manipulation continuum (group 1).
Pure Minimalism also transforms the paint into a motif, but by a different means. It eliminates the composition of a painting altogether. This leaves the color to act as its own motif. These paintings all belong at the far right-hand end of the Content Manipulation continuum (group 2).
A number of Monet's Water Lillies belong in group 3 (the manipulation of both process and content). These were painted before Monet underwent surgery to remove his cataracts. He was very surprised by the color of what he had been painting once he could see clearly again. It is, therefore, possible to easily identify Monet paintings that are Pre-Impressionist, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist. These, of course, would all find their proper place on three different continua.
And then there is the very special case of Van Gogh. I make the point elsewhere (See "Van Gogh's Elusive Blueprint" at the beginning of Gallery 3 and "The Intriguing Mystery of the Mirror" text in Gallery 2) that Van Gogh's mature style was inspired by the distorted appearance of subjects visible at night through old window glass. The old window glass is what produces concentric circles around sources of light. It distorts and fractures straight lines and intensifies color. This produces a kind of Impressionism on steroids that is exactly what Van Gogh painted.
One can make what at first seems a bizarre argument that Van Gogh painted exactly what he was looking at, or what an image would look like if seen at night through old window glass. If you prefer, pretend that Van Gogh wore a special kind of night goggles outfitted with special lenses, and that he then painted what he saw.
I stand at a vantage point in the early 21st century. We now find ourselves in a so-called Post Modern period, in itself suggesting that "Modern Art" has become past tense. Even Still Photography has grudgingly become considered an art form and entered the museums, a sure sign that it too is becoming past tense. It has been replaced by a proliferation of electronic imagery that could at first move, then talk, then move and talk in living color. The Age of Electronic Art is yet another game-changing example of humanity's creative capacity and achievement. It is the NBT of Art (Next Best Thing).
The Static Arts have gravitated to new materials, functions and strategies. This can be seen today all around us on television, cable, cutting edge architecture, sculpture, mobiles and concept art. Glass, steel, light, wood, plastic, cardboard and a video screen have replaced canvas, paint and brushes as a new means of creative expression.
For my part, I have tried to identify and illustrate some of the many diverse options revealed by the Age of Painted Pictures. Using the classification system that I have outlined above, I have organized a sampling of my paintings into four different sections. Each section is a continuum, and together they fairly illustrate what I call my Theory of Artifacts and Creative Strategies.