A good painting is a combination of technical skill, craftsmanship and inspiration. But I think that the highest compliment that can be given to a painting is honesty. In my opinion, that elevates a painting, sculpture, even music and writing to the realm of Art.
I’m speaking of the kind of unfettered honesty that comes from direct, unpretentious human experience, is universal in its message and reconnects us to our own humanity and nature.
I’m currently teaching a class on “how to read a painting” in short, it’s an aesthetics/art literacy workshop to help people understand how the plastic means of light, line, color, value and design effectively combine to communicate the message an artist is trying to convey. It helps people understand and enjoy art without all the hyperbole and unnecessary, over-intellectualized mental gymnastics that are fed to us by some “experts” in certain elitist art circles so we can “understand” the art. Honesty in art is one of the topics we discuss in my class.
There are paintings of amazing technical skill. Every nuance of color and value so carefully and perfectly rendered and the drawing within these paintings so accurate that one might think it’s a photograph. But often I find many of these paintings sterile and devoid of any- thing that truly reflects the humanity of the painter, or the honesty of the subject beyond mere physical appearance. Technically they are mind blowing, but do they speak to our hearts or souls? There are precious few artists who can pull this off, they do exist, but they are very few. Artist David Jon Kassan comes to mind as one of the rare few who have this amazing ability.
Recently, I went to a website of a “daily painter” who I’ve admired for years, Julian Merrow Smith. He paints simple objects from his everyday life in Southern france: produce from the local market, glasses of wine, bread and cheese. In and of themselves, these items could be boring. He paints some items over and over again--clementines and pears in particular. He returns to the same locations many times for his small landscapes, lavender fields, dirt roads, and the like. What amazes me about this man’s work is that it is completely honest; you can see and feel each pear, dirt road and iris as a unique and individual item and the accompanying immediate experience the artist had with these objects or views. His work may not be to everyone’s taste, but I will argue that the honestly and humanity of his work is about as real as it gets.
I also turn to the drawing of Reuben’s son (seen here). The delicacy with which he handles the mediums of red chalk and charcoal so honestly express Reuben’s love for his son and the delicate yet solid nature of this toddler that it is a simply timeless work.
The other example of honesty in art I would like to give is that of the Japanese Sumi-e painters (as seen above). The artists distill a subject down to it’s bare essence, it’s soul, if you will and conveys a powerful, simple message with an economy of means that is unrivaled. The work shown is by Tensho Shubun, dated at 1446.
The hallmarks of these works and all honest art, regardless of style, is their seemingly effortless execution, direct yet restrained marks and powerful message. Honesty and truth are simple; lies and deception are complicated.
Genuine art is free of pretentious sleights of hand, unnecessary details and the obsession over things being perfect. Sometimes, there is a bit of a "mistake” or an unfinished area that gives the viewer the emotional room to “get into” the painting and begin to share the experience of the artist. Sometimes it’s the brushwork or some other elusive characteristic that is native to the painter that takes the work from being simply “technically proficient” to being an honest and real work of Art.
In looking at genuine Art, one feels a sense of union not just with the artist, but with the subject and if we are lucky, with our fellow human being or nature itself. It is completely free of saccharine overtones, unnecessary “noise” and is quietly powerful.
In this age of technology that isolates us more than it connects us, I look forward to these honest, shared moments of humanity through Art. It’s healthy and deeply comforting. It reminds me that we are human, we are connected more than we are separate and that nature is still a part of us, even if we forget.
Here’s to honesty in Art. We need more of it in today’s world.