John Currin

Just finished to read "Mr. Bodacious" by DEBORAH SOLOMON, an article about the painter John Currin published by the NYT this November 16, 2003.

The thoughts of the painter are summarized in the following passage: ''Progressive ideas are just a machine for ruining art,'' Currin said late one fall afternoon, sitting in his living room. ''I believe in the old idea of technique. I believe you need it if you're going to have magic and genius and masterpieces. No one would question the value of technique in any other field. No one would say that a tennis player would be better if only he could stop hitting the ball.''

I guess that I agree with the technique stuff but as I wrote many times earlier, what about technique with no intellectual content? My conclusion remains the same today. Technique and art are two different things. You need indeed to master the technique in which you express yourself but this technique does not transform automatically what you express into art. Without technique what you express seems inachieved and without intellectual content it is as if what you express is shallow. Artistic achievement, I believe, consists of rich intellectual content packaged in strong and harmonious technical skills.

I could easlily add that if art were only this technique question, then all art today would be Chinese or Russian. For proof, suffice to visit a retrospective of the best Chinese painters organized annually by China's National Museum of Arts in Beijing. But leaving a Chinese annual retrospective, one is also left to wonder. All past styles are masterly represented, some works leave us with a snapshot into the thinking of their authors about the changes China is undergoing but nowhere is there one single piece really popping up with truth, with understanding of the world we are living in today. Nowhere can we see a trial to represent in form and in content the direction of our humanity's road. Their technical skills give Chinese and Russian painters a place in galleries around the world but this does not propel them into artistic path finders. At least not presently, but with further economic development, things could be vastly different 20 or 50 years down the road.

Coming back to John Currin's work, we see technique, for sure but where is the message? Where is the artistic path? The description "comedy of manners", taking "a satiric shot at all things American" as given by Deborah Salomon is right I believe. The same words, I'am afraid, could be used about many of the European middle age painter craftsmen. They had no freedom of message, they were as the advertisers of the church but they often had "a satiric shot at all things European" and let's not forget their technique. Having no freedom of message, they concentrated on technique as their only escape towards personal freedom. In John Currin's work, I see technique for sure, I see "a satiric shot at all things American" eventually but I don't see what is John Currin's message, his vision. I'am left to wonder what kind of an escape John Currin's technique is bringing him. Surely not freedom from what I could see in the slide show. But yes, I was forgetting that "Progressive ideas are just a machine for ruining art".

It seems to me that my earlier words are gaining in strength: "without technique what you express seems inachieved and without intellectual content it is as if what you express is shallow". I'am afraid that for John Currin "progressive ideas" equate with "intellectual content". As such I find that his work belongs to a passed time.


Subjectivity = creativity & objectivity = Change

Harmony is something objective, it is what all great religions and philosophies strived to illustrate. Harmony is also what the modern sciences of complexity are reaching as their ultimate conclusions.

Harmony can't be deranged.

Whatever happens in the cosmos, in our human societies or in our personal lives, harmony is always resulting... Disharmony is an impossibility, it is a creation of our egos. Our egos are driven by greed and want for possessions and glory. Those are the shapers of disharmony ...

As human creations, paintings are subjective renderings and in consequence they are not automatically harmonious. Our driven egos are indeed more often than not playing tricks on us. In a painting of whatever style, and by extension in whatever artistic form, some objective rules apply to reach harmony. The harmonization of the creator's subjectivity with the objective rules of beauty is what art is all about

THE HARMONIZATION OF THE CREATOR's SUBJECTIVITY, freed from his greed and glory driven ego, COMBINING WITH THE OBJECTIVE RULES OF BEAUTY, the principles of life at work throughout our cosmos, THIS IS WHAT ART IS ALL ABOUT.

In art, content and technique are blend into form. What I mean here is that whatever technique is being used to express whatever content, the resulting work must be harmonious. Harmony is the general state of our universe, of our cosmos. It is not something static, all the contrary, it is permanent change. It is transformation from one state to another state.

These last centuries, western artists and thinkers concentrated on the idea of an absolute truth. They lost themselves in this Sisyphean act of the snapshot FOR truth. We must now discover the sequences between the snapshots, or to put it in another way, we should now make the jump to a superior level and discover how to fabricate snapshots OF truth. I firmly believe that to keep in tune with the music of life, WITH THE OBJECTIVE RULES OF BEAUTY, the principles of life at work throughout our cosmos, we have to concentrate on the sequences between the snapshots while freeing our SUBJECTIVITY from our greed and glory driven ego.

For the observer, the sequencing of changes is what ultimately is making sense of each particular moment.
The same goes for the art observer. It is indeed the sequencing of changes between colors, between sounds or between ideas and words that ultimately makes sense of those same colors, sounds, ideas and words. I believe that we just discovered the Sacred Graal, what humans have been searching for ever through art, through religion, through philosophy and more recently through science. It seems to me that the Sacred Graal is how to apply the principles of the sequencing of changes to form and to content.

In terms of form it is quite obvious that in painting, or for that matter in graphic arts and design, the changes in and through lines, forms and colors are what makes a work harmonious or not. At this point I would like to suggest an hypothesis. The changes in and through lines, forms and colors are perfectly harmonious when the creator succeeds to forget his ego, that's when he stops to think, when his actions are not driven by want or wish, when his actions are for themselves and not for whatever outside reason anymore. Check this out in the actions of children before they have been constrained by the social rules. What do we discover in their plays with colors? Spontaneity and generally much beauty. But their natural ability to make or should I say to BE beauty seems to evaporate with socialization. Socialization brings the outside into our minds. Don't assume here an instant that I'm introducing another theory against socialization and that as the philosophers Rousseau and Walden, I should believe in the need for humans to remain under nature's exclusive guidance to remain "good". I think indeed that it is far more productive to accept the idea of socialization (by the way, not only humans, but the individuals of all species go through a process of learning and socialization) and to strive to understand how we can circumvent it's negativities. What happens with socialization is that it brings the outside into our minds and thus confronts us with the game of competition for goods and for sex. This game becomes central in our psyches, mostly unconsciously and thus our behavior starts somehow to be driven, in opposite thus of spontaneous. Religions and philosophies have since immemorial times tried to contain this drive and what is most remarkable is the total rejection of this kind of containment under capitalism, especially in its late global form. Here we are, atomized and driven... Our paintings have more often than not been driven by want and greed, eliminating our spontaneity and the result is unmistakably disharmony! Whatever our technical expertise, driven painting leads to disharmony. In a driven painting, the resulting work can be well done or less well done, it can be empty or contain an image, even sometimes an image with an interesting content but what is constant is that it does not pop, we are not left with an impression of "whoaw". Now how about "non driven" paintings? In nature's rule, in life, there are some general principles guiding the direction of change. Pleasure is a central motivation in our acting, it is also one of the fundamental factors at work in the principles of life itself. One can be totally absorbed and feel pleasure at the colors, lines and forms growing on the canvas, the paper or the display. On the other hand one can also be driven by the idea of pleasure that one would like to find in the confrontation of the result of the painting with the outside, customers, friends or others. Those are two very different notions of pleasure. One is the real thing, the real driver of life or to say this otherwise, the real driver of change in the cosmos as well at the macro or the micro levels. This general principles is also being explored by physicians, chemists and biologists in their quest for the driving force of change. The other, the idea of pleasure to come, is clearly not synonymous with pleasure in the execution of a work. It can only be seen as yearning for future pleasure that is expected to be generated at the contact of the work with some target that generally is fixed in our subconscious. This second notion of yearning for future pleasure makes us do things, we are then driven somehow out of ourselves. Pleasure in the sense that I call the real thing leads to harmony and pleasure in the sense of the yearning for it in the future leads to disharmony. Everything I'm stating here was already expressed by the Chinese sages in works dating back some 2500 years. The Tao Te Qing of Lao Tze is the best example of such literature. But with the acceleration of archeological research in China since the late nineties, it appears evident that this philosophical approach was already widespread well before that time. Philosophy and understanding are one thing but what about the practice derived from such knowledge. Let us look for a moment at Chinese painting, I mean traditional Chinese painting. To make things short we can say that Chinese painting divides into two very different approaches. One could be seen as the artistic form, or should I say the philosophical form, it is called "SHEYI". The other form is a kind of craft for interior decoration, it is called "QONGBI". SHEYI is what interests us here. The subjects of those paintings are landscapes, animals and sometimes but more rarely human figures. The target of SHEYI painters is not technical prowess but the essence of their subject. If a mountain for example is the subject, a SHEYI painter will first try to capture the TAO of this mountain or to say this otherwise, he will strive to feel how this mountain lives , its TAO, its WAY of being. This exercise in observation can take years and one day the painter starts to paint, this happens when he has interiorized the spirit of the mountain, its TAO. His paintings then are extremely fast. He can make thousands of essays at painting this mountain but he destroys them, in the end he will keep one. The one he feels, renders perfectly his vision of the being of this mountain. This is the stage where the SHEYI painter reaches pure pleasure for the sake of what he is doing, he reaches satisfaction. If he had been concerned only a little a bit about a future pleasure that he could gain from the contact of his painting with an outside target, he would have saved his thousands of essays but SHEYI painters were not concerned by this kind of yearnings. What is notable to see is that since China's "opening" many so called SHEYI painters are doing just that. They keep invariably all their essays that they hope will bring them riches.