When I was in Germany I was invited by an Austrian friend to drink wine with him and a German at his apartment. We smoked Lucky Strikes in the small, one room studio near Offenbach. My friend showed us the scans on his computer of a book of portraits he had found in his Viennese art school. The faces of the people being represented were rendered in a post Picasso, gestural, expressionistic way, deformed by the accidents of paint. They stood on familiar ground between what is beauty and not beauty in the accidental, the representative, the abstract – old, familiar conflicts making old, familiar pictures.
“I don’t know if you can really paint like this these days,” he said. His German friend, who was a painter and who was very quiet, smiled and didn’t make a comment. I couldn’t find one either and we took the moment to let the awkwardness fade by.
This was the awkwardness of art education in which we are all well versed in what looks like art and that we keep on making things that look like art. A few months later, another friend comments on how at every art school there is somebody who shows at the end of the year a sculpture of randomly put together pieces of wood.
“Who Wore It Better is an ongoing visual research project presenting associations and
common practices in contemporary art. This platform was created to promote formal
and conceptual dialogue over originality.”
There is the story by Umberto Eco of the “man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her ‘I love you madly,’ because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, ‘as Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly’.
The question I feel my Austrian friend was asking about the paintings was whether we as artists belong to a time and community in which it is more effective to say “I love you madly” or to reference Barbara Cartland. We, as art students, are like the man in the Eco tale who feels, in repeating a popular, learned sentiment known to both narrator and audience, he could not possibly be believed and that, more importantly, the expression of a one could prove to be less than genuine to himself. We wonder how to make objects more radical than whatever looks like the definitive avant garde. And, of course, we imagine ourselves as people who are less cultivated than the woman in the Eco story, who would not understand the reference and to whom it would be more meaningful to simply say, “I love you madly”.