Over a very long brunch this weekend with friends, there was some discussion as to one of the fundamental problems with contemporary art, which is mirrored in contemporary society, as well. It is increasingly the case over the past several decades that many of our most celebrated contemporary artists do not actually have any talent, or skill. Instead, there has been an abandonment of the concept of technical study and celebration of the gifted, in favor of promoting the sensational, the emotional, and the juvenile.
While the art world is clearly dominated by the left, this in and of itself is not an answer to the question of why things have reached this point. It is as if the literary world which, as it happens, is also dominated by the left, suddenly stopped selling novels that held a structure, told a compelling story, and were generally free from grammatical and spelling errors. Imagine what would happen to the book trade if Simon & Schuster put out nothing but random collections of pages covered in gibberish, or the poorly written, overwrought diaries of teenagers – though I repeat myself.
Why is it that the art world has abandoned sense for nonsense, and the publishing world has not? I think the answer lies in how the art world has come to look on the creation of art, and the appreciation of talent. Too often over the past 40 or 50 years the contemporary art world has looked at the expression of modern artists – i.e. loosely speaking, artists of the first half of the 20th century – in works which defied academic tradition, and assumed that the abandonment of form and technique could, without proper training, lead to meaningful and lasting works of art. Yet this admitted over-simplification often betrays a lack of understanding of where these modern artists came from, and a denial of the fact that these people studied both artistic techniques and the world around them in order to become better artists, even if they chose to depart from the strictly representational and realistic.
For example, I spotted in the news this morning that Artisphere, the mixed-use arts complex in Rosslyn, just across the Potomac River from Georgetown, is the only U.S. venue for a new exhibition of the photographs of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). The simply-titled, “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos” runs through Sunday, March 25th, and features 250 photographs from Frida Kalho’s archive of thousands in her collection, which was sealed after her death and only opened for scholars to study in 2007. Kahlo is probably best known to those not familiar with art history through the bio-pic “Frida”, starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina, which was nominated for numerous Oscars back in 2002.
During her lifetime Kahlo was often eclipsed in the press by her philandering husband, Diego Rivera (1886-1957), who painted gigantic leftist frescoes not only in his native Mexico, but also across the United States in major cities like New York, Detroit, and San Francisco. Much of his overrated work looks dated today, characterized by crowds of cartoonish, jostling figures in various shades of beige and puce, looking like something out of a claustrophobic nightmare: it is a kind of Soviet realism without the handsome faces or art deco details. Kahlo’s work, on the other hand, always seems new and fresh, and indeed often quite literally visceral.
In many of Kahlo’s works there is a joy of color that is emblematic of the vibrant colors of Mexico, which she loved and which she surrounded herself with in the places she lived, the clothes she wore, and in what she painted. However she also suffered from a number of medical and personal problems during her lifetime, including polio, a horrendous traffic accident in which she not only broke multiple bones but was impaled, and had to undergo dozens of operations for various ailments. She became pregnant at least three times, with her first pregnancy ending in abortion because it was physically impossible for her to carry the child to term; the second lost through miscarriage; and the third through another abortion as a result of an appendectomy, during which she also had to have three of her toes amputated. In short, from a physical standpoint, her life was pretty much one endless sea of pain and misery.
Because of this, many of her paintings are visually disturbing explorations of the deeply personal nature of suffering. Kahlo was able to fuse the various influences on Mexican art, including the often painfully grotesque sculptures and paintings of the Pre-Colombian indians, and the disturbingly detailed scenes of Christian martyrdom and suffering inherited through colonization by the Spanish, with her own experiences as someone who lived with both pain and the memories of injury and loss every day of her life. It is a pity that she was an atheist who periodically engaged in blasphemy in her work, for had she turned to God in her pain, rather than making Diego Rivera her god – and one with enormous feet of clay, at that – perhaps she might have found more solace than she enjoyed during her short lifetime.
Regardless of whether one likes her work or not, Kahlo was a painter who knew how to paint. She may have gone in the direction of abstraction, primitive simplification, and surrealism, but not because she was incapable of producing realistic art: she simply chose not to do so. Those who doubt this assertion need only look at her “Flower Basket” (1941), to see that this is the case. It is so not what one thinks of when one thinks of Kahlo’s work, that one would be forgiven for not being able to identify it as being by her hand.
The point here is that Kahlo, as disturbing as some of her pictures may be, was an artist who had studied art – not just history, but also technique. That she was able to do so in an academic, realist fashion is obvious; that she chose not to follow that path made her art very much her own. What seems to have happened in the half-century or so since her death is that the values which she and Rivera accepted as artists – study, practice, and observation in order to successfully render emotion – have been thrown out the window in favor of emotion over all. And unfortunately, a great deal of both private and public money since their day has been spent on the promotion and collection of art which comes from the hands of those who have no talent at all, other than for making a spectacle of themselves.
There is no question that Kahlo made a spectacle of herself in her work, and you may choose not to witness that spectacle. Yet as an artist, she also knew how to pay homage to her culture, to other artists whose work she wished to reference such as Rivera, Gauguin and Rousseau, and to bring about a personal expression of emotion based on her assimilation of all of these factors. It is a pity that her achievements may appear to many as being diminished, in the face of such an onslaught of mediocrity from the present-day art establishment.
Detail of “Me and My Parrots” by Frida Kahlo (1941)