Truth is Only Skin Deep
The following is taken from a paper presented at TRAC2014 (The Representational Art Conference 2014) in Ventura Beach, California, March 2–5, 2014.
Why, for some hundred thousand years, have we created symbolic artifacts? I can only conclude it is because they form part of the fabric that enshrouds humanity, revealing visions, to whosoever peers through its weave, of ideals both beautiful and true. Have we always sought beauty and truth? We have many aphorisms about these ideals: beauty is only skin deep; and, attributed to Proust, “Truth is a point of view about things”; Keats said that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Taking him literally, if we reverse these maxims, they make just as much sense as before. Beauty is a point of view about things. Truth is only skin deep. This interchangeability demonstrates the strong connection between these concepts. Both have long been the subject of philosophical inquiry. Are truth and beauty purely subjective, or are they objective?
Centuries ago, hoping to answer these questions, art was separated from life by the mishandled scalpel of the Enlightenment. Though the intentions were noble, taking art out of the human context negates it, and thus the social fabric that is art began to unravel. What was excised in our presumption of pure reason was humanity itself, the expression of emotion and, most important, empathy. For empathy is a flighty creature—hard to capture and impossible to weigh and measure. Empathy forms the foundation for communication and love. Whereas beauty delights us externally, empathy illuminates us internally.
On the clear morning of May 20, 1999, a fifteen-year-old boy arrived at his school in Conyers, Georgia, unveiled a rifle and opened fire. One month after the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, this tragic assault became the focus of a media frenzy of speculation. What the hyperbole missed were the truly human stories which played out that day.
Amid the turmoil, a senior on his last day before graduation stood motionless on the cusp of manhood. He was strangely calm—more perplexed than terrified. As others dashed for cover, he watched the scene in shock. Soon enough, the 35mm camera he held faced the barrel of a 22mm rifle. And though his story is more of naiveté than courage, it is the one I know best because it is my own. A split second before, I watched a girl fall, a rose petal of blood blooming from her leg in slow motion. Then I found the gun aimed at my own chest. I do not recall fear, though it struck me in full force afterward, but I do recall the shooter’s eyes. Looking deeply into them, I did not see the hatred that I expected. I saw confusion, pain and a multi-dimensional soul like mine. I wonder whether, if someone had seen him sooner, might he not have felt so alienated? Maybe he would not have had the impulse to shoot these others, whom he could see were like himself. Then, looking back into my eyes, he lowered his gun and walked away. I often ask myself what he saw in me then. Did I seem some strange apparition, my face blanched in sorrow?
It was that moment, as yet unarticulated in my mind, that my path became clear: to offer solace to the alienated, hope to the hopeless. To use my particular gifts to connect us in our common humanity, with the hope that somehow we can be transformed by understanding, by being understood.
Amid the dissonance of our technological culture, it is surprising to think that something as subtle as body language could pierce through the terror and cross the space of a room. Why did the shooter decide to stop at that instant? Why did not he shoot me first and then walk away? Whatever the reason, I drew his attention. Whether or not he felt empathy for me, I will never know. But perhaps my compassion, naive and irrational as it was, guided me to react differently from the crowd’s, breaking his pattern. I am not arguing that we all wait to be slaughtered, and in no way do I condone his actions. But perhaps my motionlessness stood out in relief against the chaos. Something was surely communicated between us, even in stillness. This is the power of the visual language. Of course, it will not eliminate violence from the world, but it can be an effective way of mitigating it.
In many ways, our work as representational artists embodies this contrast between velocity and stillness. Our lives are filled with a cacophony of distractions. We are expected to respond immediately to texts, emails and phone calls. We are so superficially connected with everyone in the digital world that we are losing our connection with those in the analogue world. We are becoming ethereal beings, transmitted by ones and zeroes through the ether. And because of how pervasive information is, misinformation plays an equal part in molding our assumptions.
Beauty is powerful and hopeful. It is necessary, but it is not enough. What lends us the ability to bridge the abyss between us, what gives our work significance, is the intent behind the beauty. It is not enough to accent the space above a sofa. Whether or not we intend it, our creations speak. Each formal choice we make subtly influences the perception of the viewer who encounters our work, and thereby influences their actions. Our cumulative potential can do no less than tip the balance of culture. Thus, it is imperative that we be conscious in our choices and not rely upon beauty as our savior.
Some may respond, “What makes you think we need saving?” Perhaps in our sheltered lives, we can envision that all is acceptable. Do we agree with Pangloss, the king’s philosopher in Voltaire’s Candide, who states that “We live in the best of all possible worlds”?1
The idea that we cannot improve our culture is cynical and nihilist. It supports the philosophy behind the contemporary art market, which rewards branding, shock value and superficiality to the extent that empathy, sincerity and the concept of quality itself are derided. Underlying this is the obsolete idea of competition, that in order to have, you must take from others and accept that life is a war, if somewhat civilized, against others to win safety, resources and power.
But why should we care about anyone’s success but our own? Because our work is more than manufacturing widgets; it forms the keystone of civilization and bridges the gap among languages, cultures and epochs. Why do I care? Because I believe in my own potential to grow, and, moreover, I believe in yours. I want you to challenge me with your greatness to grow beyond my limited conceptions, but that requires that we share our knowledge freely. If we do this, we grow exponentially faster than we would otherwise. Collaborative competition is a powerful catalyst.
Holding us back are the false dichotomies we have accepted, such as classical vs. contemporary or abstract vs. representational. First, the work of living classical artists is definitively contemporary. Second, as we have learned while perfecting a drawing: the world does not exist in black and white, but in infinite shades of grey. The polarity of black and white is useful for contrast, but light deals in subtle truths.
Maintaining these battle lines has not advanced the representational art movement. There are distinctions of form, and these forms are not natural enemies; moreover, none should be judged by the criteria of another. As in the political spectrum, where authority can repress under the guise of a creed, authority has in the past repressed freedom of expression under the name of the academy, and now it represses under the name of the avant-garde.
A stumbling block that we representational artists create for ourselves is our definition of skill. We know that more detail is not necessarily conducive to better painting. The details should not overwhelm the overall form. Each of us practices degrees of abstraction and distillation already. We make editorial choices that lead the eye in order to convey emotions, concepts or beauty. These choices require more than draftsmanship, value and color accuracy: they require the skill of understanding the visual language, its syntax, grammar and poetry. They require understanding of human psychology, cultural symbolism and context.
To reject abstract qualities is to ignore a part of our vocabulary. Modernism was essentially the analysis and distillation of the visual language. The modernists did not invent something new. These qualities have existed since the origin of painting; the modernists merely deconstructed the visual language, exploring the nuances of fewer visual elements. This knowledge can be useful for reconstructing our own visual language.
Representational work represents nature, but there are two kinds of nature we share. We share the nature we inhabit, and we share the nature of our humanity. Faithfully reproducing reality is valuable only in its service to faithfully expressing our human nature. Thus, skill, in its many forms, is fundamentally necessary, yet it is not enough. Skill and beauty must have purpose. The best art fulfills its transformative purpose. In her 2010 performance/ exhibition “The Artist Is Present,” Marina Abramovic presided silently at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art for 750 hours. She sat opposite a single chair, where each visitor could take his or her place and then gaze into the artist’s eyes. What thoughts and emotions might have passed between them? Some broke into laughter. Some were brought to tears. Abramovic’s piece expresses the essence of the purpose I have described. Though her performance says little else with any precision, her singular statement is clear. Whether or not you call it art, it exemplifies the transformative power of human connection.
In The Myth of Sisyphus,2 Albert Camus outlines his philosophy of the absurd, which proposes that the search for meaning in a world devoid of God, and likewise devoid of eternal truth and values, is essentially futile. In his existentialist malaise, Camus presumes, like the academic avant-garde art world today, that human constructs are meaningless and do not sustain empirical scrutiny.
Representational art bears no bright packaging to ensnare the artworld shoppers wandering the WalMart-like aisles of Art Basel. We cannot out-spectacle the sarcastic one-liners writ in blinking neon, the sullied mattresses, the diamond-encrusted skulls. So, what shall we do when the very nature of our work is antithetical to the contemporary world? Fortunately, embracing what our work is and is not is the antidote to contemporary malaise: we can engage by embodying what is natural to our form: the searching dialogue. We can remind people of the breathtaking moments of catharsis and discovery they have lost amid the drone of modern life.
Camus employs the story of Sisyphus as a metaphor for man’s pointless struggle, pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll down again. Like Sisyphus in his endless labor, if we had spent our recent efforts build ing our own legacy, rather than criticizing Damien Hirst and the art dealer Gagosian, we would already have succeeded.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
—“The Tables Turned,” William Wordsworth, 1798
Poetry, like the chrysalis, loses its mysterious and transformative power when shoved under the microscope. Poetry exists within the universe of human perception and functions according to different principles than the empirical world does.
Like poetry, art does not exist, according to science. Rather, it exists in the collective cultural mind, yet the collective mind of our culture largely no longer believes in it. Paradoxically, for those who do believe, art has become a secular substitute for religion—a religion which does not question its living saints, yet perpetually challenges its unanswering gods. It follows the edict of its own holy trinity: the father concept, the son context and the Holy Spirit zeitgeist. (I do not intend this as a critique of religion, simply a metaphor.)
Consequently, contemporary art seeks to be detached, cool and superior. It has aligned itself with the objective dogma of science. Thus, art has been forced into the position of armchair philosophy, and philosophy itself has been proclaimed postmortem as a means of seeking truth. But does the scientific view hold a monopoly on truth?
A photon, like empathy, is an elusive, flighty creature. It is hard to capture, weigh and measure. In fact, it changes depending upon whether it is observed. We cannot simultaneously measure its exact position or velocity. We are told it is both a wave and a particle. Without complex tools, which are not at my disposal, I cannot verify the existence of the photon. Why should I believe it exists?
I must trust science. I see no reason to mistrust scientists’ assertions concerning photons, nor the scientific method. It performs its purpose quite well. But, given that popular scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens belittle and cajole us to abandon the fallacies of religion, art and philosophy, and to bow without question to the idol of science,3 I hope you will forgive me for taking a critical view of their assumptions. What I am criticizing are the propositions of dogmatically influenced scientists, fighting for limited funding from the government and the private sector—funding which is contingent upon the desires of those providing it. We slash funding for arts education and are surprised when academic performance declines. We mistakenly think that different subjects are mutually exclusive. Reductivist thinking like this does not account for the big picture—the interrelations between systems.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,4 Robert Pirsig separates our culture into two paradigms: the scientific, or “classical,” is concerned with the material properties of objects, and the “romantic” or holistic, sees the overall gestalt, the relationships between all things and their aesthetic quality.
Each reveals a kind of truth, but the bridge between these worlds is fragile. Yet it is imperative to strengthen this bridge, as this is precisely where the humanities lie.
I am not arguing that art or the realm of human perception is purely subjective. The shared human perspective forms the common ground for language and art, and is relatively objective within the confines of our collective human perception—a context within which the laws of physics break down. Perhaps this realm of human perception is the point where the quantum and the cosmic meet, the stumbling block for creating the unified theory, which Einstein was so eager to forge between quantum physics and astrophysics, which operate according to different laws.
The fatal flaw with our cultural manifestation of the scientific ethos is the assumption that we mortal creatures can be purely objective. This presumption is hubris, and projecting scientific laws onto the platonic realm of human experience is like applying Newtonian laws of physics to the interactions of subatomic particles. But we forget this flaw, and when we establish something as scientific fact, our culture largely assumes it as an absolute truth, rather than the best guess we have, given incomplete data.
The result of this hubris is a dogmatic cynicism: a cultural atheism, a leap of nihilistic faith which surpasses the agnostic position that if we lack information, the question must remain open. Scientific atheism presumes that nothing exists until proven to exist: it forgets that nothing can be absolutely proven, it forgets human error, it forgets the limitations of our tools and knowledge.
Popular scientific figures ascribe aesthetic qualities to the awesome wonder of the crab nebula, yet do not recognize value, quality, purpose or meaning. These ideas lie outside the realm of science, but does it mean that they do not exist? Are not our values equally as true as our insignificance in the cosmic scale of the universe?
The creation of representation from direct observation indicates that our work is intentional, not accidental; it is human, not mechanical. It is closer to nature than to artifice. And when we envision something other than what we observe, it follows the principles observed in nature. It is an interaction with nature, not a separation from it. This reveals respect for the cosmos we inhabit rather than the presumption of a detached observer dictating our folly upon it.
Inherent in our form are the principles of Romanticism. As Leonardo da Vinci called upon us to create anew, based upon the principles of nature, the Romantic ideal envisions this process enacted upon ourselves. The alchemist purifies and transforms his materials and, through the process of his lifelong study, purifies and transforms himself.
The German Romantic poet J.C. Friedrich von Schiller proposed that individuals, as well as societies, encounter three stages of transformation on the path to spiritual maturity.5 Beginning with the harmonious power of nature, the first stage is distorted and destroyed by the progress of civilization. The second stage is a contradiction within or to that culture, usually embodied and expressed by the arts. The third and final is the new state of harmony, or the second nature. This transformation is our goal.
Romanticism was a revolutionary response to the rationalization of nature proposed during the Enlightenment. Revolting against the Industrial Revolution, Romanticism was the first outcry against the destruction of natural beauty and the dehumanizing alienation of the machine-driven pace of life.
Why are we here? What is my purpose? Am I alone? These are questions we have all asked. Today, it is easy to feel that each of us is alone, that few understand our perspective; in response, many people fill the void with material objects.
Underlying materialism is the desire to be close to someone. To touch their skin, to feel their warmth, to trust, to be loved. To be a lover, to be a son, to be a mother, to be a friend. To understand and to be understood. What is true wealth, but to have free time to spend with them? Time is already free. Perhaps what we wish is to be free from time.
Freeing ourselves from our misconceptions about competition frees us from time. If we freely share our knowledge, of course, we will still compete, but we will compete as brethren. I would rather win a silver medal, fulfilling my greatest potential but superseded by the best, than a gold medal simply because the competition did not meet its fullest potential. If we share the riches of our experience, we can push the limits of our potential. This philosophy has transformed my life, and it has already rippled to enrich the lives of those around me. We no longer chase the false idol. We choose to live surrounded by beauty, tending a garden, telling stories into the dusk. This does not mean we live a life of sloth. Of course, we continue to seek, but we have given up the chase. Maybe the chasing is what causes us to overlook the very thing we seek? Ours is not just an art movement, it is a worldview, where we live life with meaning. The act of creation is an act of communion; it is a sacred expression of life, like breaking bread.
Last summer, my dear friend Deborah Feldman visited Bruno, a French friend of ours who lives in Paris. While sharing a meal, they discussed the Kosher laws of Orthodox Judaism, comparing them to the laws of Halal in Islam. Bruno declared, controversially, that such laws are a form of “passive violence.” He explained that “la table” is a sacred space, and “la cuisine” a ritual sacred to every religion and culture. To segregate others from your table is to violate our common humanity.
His statement embodies the epicurean roots of French food culture. Epicurus believed that happiness was to take pleasure in the fruits of a self-sufficient life. The epicurean life is embodied in no greater place than the pleasures of a fine meal, for food is the foundation of life, and those we invite to our table, and those who bring forth the fruits of nature’s bounty with love and labor, are the foundation of community. The fine meal is a most profound metaphor for a fine life.
The art of a meal is much like the art of painting. Each escapes time in its way. We take respite from the race of life and gather our friends around the table. We delight in the pleasure of nature’s beauty. We taste stories and wine, and pause to savor the moments between us. This communion binds us together. We find insight into one another’s life, and the meal brings mankind into contact with the land.
To experience a painting is to experience the same poignant connection. The creator prepares a fine feast: the balance of each element and texture acts upon our senses, and we are moved by the vision. It is made with the finest ingredients: with skill, passion and poetry. It is made with the deepest love and is experienced with the deepest love. The painting slows time, gives us beauty and stories, and connects us. For this reason, a great painting, like a great meal, is eternally new.
In the epicurean moment, there is only the symphony of genesis—the harmonic, captured moment of creation, and the silent meditation of the experience. Nature is my sacred text. Wine is the blood of life. The act of cooking is my meditation. The kitchen is my temple. The table is my altar. My painting is my prayer. You are my religion. We are gathered around the table, so let us share a meal.
- Voltaire, Candide, trans., Robert M. Adams (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991).
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans., Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage, 1991).
- Curtis White, The Science Delusion (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2013).
- Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: Bantam, 1974).
- J.C. Friedrich von Schiller, Essays, trans. and ed., Walter Hinderer and Daniel O’Dahlstrom (New York: Continuum, 1995).