I am a painter. I am also a professor in an MFA program where I hold seminars in which I talk to students about their work. I have done this for many years, and like many artists who teach, I sometimes rage against my role, frustrated by having to repeat the same theoretical, formal, and cultural issues each year. I am not a cynic. I want art to be important, and I want to talk about things that matter. Plato made the artist out to be a cheap forger of the real as well as the ideal, and perhaps there are too many contemporary instances that prove this to be true. Lately, however, I have noticed a shift.
I first became aware of it while watching the recent Batman film, The Dark Knight, and found myself struggling to follow a scene in which Batman uses sonar to track the Joker through an empty, multistory office building. The camera’s rapidly alternating movements—up and down, back and forth, micro and macro, aerial and perspectival—employed a manner of spatial navigation more akin to video games than to cinema. It was not the kind of action I had grown up on, yet the effect of this scene convinced me that something about the visual world had shifted. Even though I was ill equipped to navigate the change, I understood that it employed a new logic of form and space.
In 1914, the Austrian critic Hermann Bahr wrote, “The history of painting is nothing but the history of vision—or seeing. Technique changes only when the mode of seeing has changed.” Bahr’s insight is certainly apparent in The Dark Knight’s formal relationship to technology, but what I was noticing further revealed a more complicated shift in the ideas behind my students’ work—work that has become startlingly sincere, searching, soulful, and devoid of irony.
The students in my classes are busily doing performances of invented rituals, making staged photographs of their everyday lives, and painting abstract forms in, as one of them wrote, a “non heroic/low-tech way in order to take away perfectionism to get to the truth.” They are struggling to embrace history, the visionary, and above all, the romantic. Their work appears as an epic drama, rendered in personal, cinematic detail, completely lacking in the irony, appropriation, and banality that formed the core of the contemporary art world I have known. They write about being “aggressively concerned with things that I don’t fully understand: my mom, whales, the ocean…vocal harmony in a song, love objects. I’m concerned with how these clichés give me a genuine, indescribable, palpable, feeling.”
At first, all I could think was, are they kidding? I worried that my students were becoming unrigorous, sappy, and provincial in their artistic ideas. But after getting over my own artistic biases, I began to accept that perhaps the term “Romantic” could assume a role that would have renewed meaning for today.
One student’s video seemed to sum up this new Neo-Romanticism. Rebecca has never seen a Bernini in the flesh. She knows that Bernini is important. She knows Bernini is beautiful, and that contemplating his sculpture would be a moving experience—one she wants to have. Rebecca’s feelings of “ being overwhelmed by the powerfulness of things that I have never or will never truly experience” produced a tediously long video of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. You know the one: a life-size marble sculpture depicting the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which the beautiful nymph Daphne escapes the unwanted love of Apollo by turning into a tree.
Rebecca’s video was not of the sculpture itself, but rather of a bad photograph in an art history book, placed near a window so that the image grows ever so slowly lighter and darker with the fluctuations of the natural light illuminating the page. In the end, the video remains greatly removed from direct experience and devoid of any hint of the love and seduction of Ovid or the emotional ecstasy and intense imagination of the Baroque.
Despite its flaws, Rebecca’s video exemplifies how much my students are craving emotion and yearning for a real experience. They have been entrenched in Modernist self-consciousness and Postmodernist pastiche, with its hefty doses of parody, appropriation, and irony. They have studied and mimicked Conceptualism, but they don’t really understand why anyone would want to argue and debate about art and the function of artists.
Still, Rebecca’s problem with her desire for a direct, moving experience is that she does not know the first thing about having one. It is not just her—it is her generation. Let’s face it, she could get on a plane and go to Rome to see a Bernini, but she doesn’t. Instead, she and her contemporaries go through their days by texting instead of talking, posting to the masses instead of seeking out an individual; they update instead of contemplate.
In 1799 Novalis declared that “The world must be romanticized, that the original meaning may be rediscovered.” In 2009 my student Raphael states, “Everything begins with a conviction of mine, about how the world functions and exists (we know now that in such matters, convictions are wholly necessary).” The world may have shifted for me, but for my students, this is all it’s ever been: non-stop, disconnected, disjointed, very public, chaotic, mediated, and ultimately confusing. Their reaction has been to move away from narcissism, impatience, and iconoclasm towards patience, conformism, and good deeds. They are trying to make art that is firmly connected to the associative as opposed to the formal or conceptual, while postulating possible, probable, and preferable futures, wondrous worldviews and myths. They exist in a world where expansive information flows freely and consistently, removing their connection to any specific place or experience. Perhaps because of this they have intuited the value of transferring thoughts and feelings directly between individuals as a truly meaningful relationship: one that may give rise to an art that is not about art, but an authentic and individualized art about life, beauty, and experience. The desire could not be stronger, but the results remain to be seen. As another one of my students wrote: The current landscape of art is now confronted with what to do with all this overstock of irony, banality, and dumbness. How do we find meaning, and what do we do when we find it?