Express Yourself. Or Not.
You see a lot of bad art when you teach in an art school. Students arrive with all sorts of preconceptions, which they try to make into art. I never felt it was my job to disabuse undergrad students of their stupid ideas; I saved that task for grad school. My purpose was to help students figure out who they were, so they could eventually make decisions that reflected their passions and interests. In the meantime, I had to look at mountains of really awful art.
I remember one student in particular. She was a painting grad at Kent State, not my student at all. She was something of a legend: supremely confident, violently hostile to criticism, ridiculously naïve, and stunningly inept. She was easily the worst painting grad student I have ever seen. I had no idea how she got into grad school, but the painting faculty did things like that. They wanted to beef up their numbers, so their standards for acceptance were pretty suspect.
We shared studios in a room in the attic of one of the older buildings on campus, so it was impossible to avoid her. Every once in a while, she’d invite me into her studio. I never said much, because I knew that any critical feedback would invite an outburst of anger. So I looked around, remained polite, and left as quickly as possible.
One of her paintings is permanently lodged in my memory. It was badly painted and poorly composed, with no color sense. A real piece of crap. She explained that it was a picture of her and her boss, who had been fucking her, happily lying in bed. She was thrilled that she was getting laid, and the painting was all about her excitement at getting lots of sex. All I remember is that it was rapidly painted, mostly red, and the figures were very badly drawn.
I knew what her problem was. She believed that art was about self-expression and nothing else. This idea was in general circulation at the time – this was the late 80s – and she bought in 100%. Self expression justified anything and everything she did. All other considerations – skill, drawing, color, composition, concept – fell by the wayside. She was boinking the boss, she was happy about it, and voilà! No more needed to be done. Or thought. To her, it was self-evident that the painting was brilliant. She was emoting, and that was all that was required in her dumb little world.
This is exactly why I came to dread “self-expression.” It is one of those conventional truths that are typically accepted without question. What is art? Self-expression, of course! Yay! You express your feelings, and then you can rest easy knowing that you have fulfilled the primary goal of art. This logic has been deployed to justify all kinds of garbage. Does it matter if nobody gives a shit about your feelings? Nope. Does it matter if your feelings might be utterly trivial? Nope. Does it matter if your artwork is likely to be a tired cliché, plowing the same ground that the German Expressionists first explored more than a century ago? Nosiree! All you need to do is emote.
As an idea that devolved from avant-garde to grotesque abuse, I keep hoping self-expression will just go away. But it hasn’t. I still read artist statements that talk about artists expressing themselves, generally with a reference to some strongly felt emotion. These artists show no evidence of knowing where the idea came from, how it has changed, and how it came under harsh scrutiny in the 1980s. Meanwhile, you almost never hear anybody familiar with art theory citing the idea of self-expression anymore. In the artworld, it’s a casualty of the theory wars, and, with only one exception, has no currency.
To understand what the idea means and how we got to the present state, it’s useful to look back on its story. It did not materialize out of thin air. For most of the history of art, the idea of art as self-expression was simply unthinkable. It took a basic change in how art was conceived to make it all happen.
How did self-expression show up in the first place? It originated as Romanticism in the 18th century. (The name referred to medieval story cycles called “romances.”) As literary theory, it focused on the feelings of the protagonists of those stories, but fairly quickly turned its attention to the authors and their feelings too. Soon enough, the theory was applied to visual art, and therefore artists. Think of Thédore Géricault (1791-1824), with his agitated brushwork and violent themes. This was Romanticism given visual form.
In art, Romanticism was contrasted with Neoclassicism. Romanticism was emotional and intuitive, imaginative and hot. Neoclassicism was rational and interested in naturalism, orderly and cool. Think of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), with his meticulously rendered scenes of ancient Roman heroism. At the time, the two schools of thought were held to be diametric opposites, and never the twain shall meet.
Much of Romanticism was supposed to be about spiritual aspiration or striving towards an unattainable ideal. This searching took place in the emotional realm, not through rational thought. It was all about feeling. Furthermore, it was held that only the most sensitive and ethereal individuals were capable of such pursuits. Very quickly, this turned into fetishization of the artist as a man (of course, it was usually a man) with an extraordinary personality and a profound sensitivity to “ultimate reality” or “absolute spirit” or some such nonsense. The artist had to be gifted in the emotional dimensions of experience. In short, they had to be a genius, rare and exalted, and their gift was to be expressed through their chosen medium.
This kind of language has been deployed about artists ever since. There’s Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827), with his access to the heights and depths of human emotion, bringing all that Sturm und Drang to the people with his brilliant symphonies. Of, more recently, think of Don McLean’s (1945) song about Van Gogh, Vincent, closing with the assertion that van Gogh was too beautiful to live. Always the same thing. Always a focus on the artist’s personality, always an insistence that the artist is a genius, always a matter of deep feeling being expressed. Here you find the root of expressionism.
By observing the genius artist’s expressions, less fortunate folk could come into an emotional contact with the artist. How this was done was much debated, but let’s say that ordinate people could participate vicariously in the artist’s genius. Art, then. became an instrument. Expressionist art is a device through which the audience connects to the artist, gaining access to a kind of super-reality, more profound and vivid than the ordinary world we normally experience.
It’s obvious that humans can express themselves with utterances and gestures like laughing or giving someone the finger. But it was thought that the profundity of the otherworldly feelings experienced by the genius needed a means of expression more meaningful and less prescribed by ordinary language and movements. Therefore, art was nominated as a suitable vehicle, along with poetry, literature, music and other forms.
Creativity and imagination were held to be necessary for the expression of the world beyond. At first, it was held that the artist gained access to these imaginative spheres by inspiration, almost the breath of the gods. In time, the idea changed from inspiration to access to the unconscious and subconscious. The source of inspiration moved from outside of the artist to inside his psyche. You might think of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) as the inventor of the unconscious, but the word was used much earlier by art critics trying to locate the source of imagination.
So the source of the experiences that demanded expression moved from outside the artist – “the wind of the universe,” as the philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) said – to inside the artist – their own feelings and thoughts. Divine inspiration was no longer required. The artist could look inward, or, for that matter, outward to society. Anything that stimulates emotion could become grist for the artist’s mill. This is a significant change, because expression was no longer linked to exaltation. The artists could express whatever they liked. In a sense, the self became magnified, and the artist’s inner life became the ultimate reference point.
By the early 20th century, all that romantic intensity and emotion was filtered through the artist’s personality, which became something of a final authority. Here’s Roger Bissière (1886-1964), a mediocre French painter who imitated Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Paul Klee (1879-1940), carrying on about the supremacy of the self:
“I have a terror of all that is systematic, of everything that tends to lock me in. My painting is the image of my life. The mirror of the man that I am, complete with my weaknesses. Before my canvas I do not think of masterpieces.” (As quoted in Harold Osborne, Aesthetics and Art Theory: An Historical Introduction, p. 234. E.P. Dutton paperback, 1970. Translated from French by Google Translate and the author.)
Notice how he doesn’t think of making masterpieces. What does he think about? Himself. Also notice how Bissière is replaying the old Romantic versus Classicist conflict. He trots out a familiar trope about the artist as a rebel against the tyranny of society, a lonely visionary who follows his own lights. There is a trace of frustration in his claim, an implicit dismay at not being able to express himself in the face of social conventions. And there is lots of self-indulgence and me-first egotism. You can practically hear the old duffer shouting, “My Painting Is About ME, and Nothing Else!”
This is what happened to narratives of artistic genius and divine inspiration in the 20th century. Art is now all about me. Expressing myself.
From here, it took only one more step to firmly implant the idea of art must be self-expression into the popular imagination. The idea needed a huckster, a writer to provide language dramatic enough to capture the public’s attention and finally convert idea into myth. The huckster who stepped forward was Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978); his article “The American Action Painters” was published in Art News in December 1952. Rosenberg’s essay consists of a great deal of romantic mumbo-jumbo, but occasionally he reiterates the primacy of the artist’s personality:
“A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the artist. The painting itself is a “moment” in the unadulterated mixture of his life […] The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence.” (Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” Art News, December 1952, p. 23.)
Even though Rosenberg never mentions feeling or emotion, this is the same language that Bissière deploys. Rosenberg is simply repeating the notion that art is an expression of the artist’s self. After all, an abstract expressionist painting looks that way, right? All those slashes of paint, those drips, that wild color! Which is why it’s called Abstract Expressionism! All that self, all that emotion, all that expression.
Except it wasn’t true. If you study the way those early Ab-X paintings were made, there was not much emotion involved. Think of the movie of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) spattering paint on his canvas. He flicks some paint, he stands back and considers, he takes a drag on his cigarette, he flicks some more paint. This is not a painter seized by white-hot emotion, compulsively channeling his feelings. No. It’s a painter constructing a composition carefully, bit by bit, with the intention of inventing a brand-new way to make a painting. Pollock was calculating, not emoting. There may have been a struggle there, but it was an effort to get it right, not to splash his inner feelings across the canvas.
Franz Kline (1910-1962) would spend hours making gestural marks in phone books, in a riff on Surrealist automatic writing. When the paint was dry, he’d go back and choose the compositions that seemed the most powerful and carefully enlarge them on a canvas. No personal expression at all, but rather careful execution. Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) would work and rework a single painting for months, scraping off passages and painting them anew, only to scrape them off again at the end of the day. This is work. Hard work, in fact. Not emoting.
But it made a better story to pretend it was all about emotion. Rosenberg carried the day. The public tended to like the fiction that painters are seized with searing emotion as they paint. Look at Pollock and Mark Rothko (1903-1970): they killed themselves! Wow! Despair in the extreme! So much feeling.
It was a little harder to believe that sculptors were vessels of turmoil and anguish. After all, you can’t throw bronze and steel around with abandon. But that didn’t stop the myth from metastasizing. In time, the idea that art is the expression of emotion was applied to everything. Craft was infected too. Think of Peter Voulkos (1924-2002), with his toothy snarl, manhandling huge lumps of clay for an audience of hundreds. He knew how to take advantage of popular myths. Eventually there was Ab-X fibers, Ab-X jewelry, Ab-X glass, and even a few stabs at Ab-X woodworking. And, of course, tons of Ab-X painting.
In time, fiction became fact. After the hard work of inventing Ab-X painting was done, lesser artists took the movement as a style, misunderstanding it in the process. Zillions of wannabees thought their primary goal was to emote, to dump their inner emotions, their unconscious and subconscious impulses, their likes and dislikes, their mommy issues, all of it, into their art.
Which gets us to that grad student at Kent State, and her awful paintings. She was not alone, that’s for sure.
Meanwhile, art went through its changes. Pop artists challenged Ab-X with commercial imagery and slick, mechanical surfaces. Minimalists challenged both by distilling painting and sculpture down to its zero degree. Conceptual artists decided you didn’t even need an object, just an idea. There was photo-realism, pattern and decoration, bad painting, feminist art, high tech. And finally, in the early 80s, Expressionism was revived as Neo-expressionism, which trumpeted the impossibility of sincere painting by splashing paint about in a way that looked sincere, but probably wasn’t. Or maybe it was. Either way, Neo-X provoked a highly critical response from the Marxoid critic Hal Foster (1955), who wanted to set the record straight regarding the expressionist impulse. His essay was titled “The Expressionist Fallacy,” and it was published in Art in America in 1983.
At the time, Foster was reading Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and the deconstructionist philosopher Paul de Man (1919-1983), who were interested in the instability of language and the nature of mediation. It seems Foster was dismayed by the vast market successes of Neo-X painting, so he performed a kind of hatchet job, intended to cut Neo-X off at the knees, while simultaneously discrediting the whole idea of expression.
Foster started by noting that in German Expressionism, the “viewer is compelled by the inner necessity of the artist,” (p. 80) and paintings are designed to communicate a “content beyond convention, a reality beyond representation.” (p. 81) The viewer apprehends this indescribable compulsion through an imaginative act of empathy. This is the standard theory attached to German Expressionism, and nothing new.
But then Foster goes on to claim that painting is necessarily a form of mediation. Painting is not the underlying intention, emotional or otherwise, but an altogether different thing. Painting is always a type of translation. Marks on the canvas stand for the “content beyond convention,” but must change the original. That distortion renders the original message unreliable: a type of falsification. Furthermore, painting is a system of conventional signs that can be read by the audience, and thus constitutes a language. Which is to say, it is completely conventional. The formulaic quality of the language – painting – undermines the authenticity and originality of the original emotion.
Foster goes on to comment about the corrosive effects of mediation. He says that “language invades the natural, mediates the real, decenters the self.” (p. 82) Placing the process of mediation within the world of commerce, he notes that people are “exhorted to express yourself, but only via the type, only via the commodity.” Everything is mediated, everything is for sale. Eventually, we must all confront life in a “society in which the self is reflected everywhere and nowhere” (p. 82), which leads to the conclusion that the self, as mediated in contemporary culture, is a fiction. And if the mediated self is fiction, all mediated self-expression must be a form of fiction too, an inauthentic fabrication.
To Foster, this is the Expressionist fallacy. In art, any “expression” is bogus because it’s mediated.
All this was fairly standard quasi-Deconstruction from the 80s. Foster assumes a world in which experience is mediated, filtered through TV, news media, movies and the internet. The real is always fleeting, lost in a forest of representations. Of course, that is not always true. A swift kick in the balls would remind any of those guys that not all experience is mediated. But Foster is talking about art here. And he is correct that all art is, to some degree, mediated.
The question is: does mediation necessarily render its source false? Foster said, “as we know, the real cannot be apprehended directly, we only have (mis)representations of it.” (Harold Foster, “Between Modernism and the Media,” Art in America, Summer 1982, p. 17) Barthes agreed, writing that “sincerity is merely a second-degree image-repertoire.” (ibid, p. 83) And Paul de Man wrote that Neo-expressionism is “a false image that mimics the presumed attributes of authenticity when it is just the hollow mask which a frustrated, defeated consciousness tries to cover up its own negativity.” (ibid, p. 173) In sum, the idea is that the contemporary experience is so mediated, so filtered by various systems of power and with distortions of language that any authentic expression is impossible.
I disagree. Let’s say that you are hammering a nail, and you smash your finger, causing a sharp jolt of pain. You yell “Fuck” at the top of your lungs. This is both real and authentic because it’s an immediate experience of pain. Then let’s say you have a video of the whole thing. The video is a form of mediation, but the representation remains fully authentic. It’s an accurate record (or trace, if you like technical language) of your pain and your highly emotional expression of it. And then, to go one step further, you draw a cartoon of the video, adding another layer of mediation. Did it suddenly become inauthentic, by virtue of being at two levels of remove from the real event? Again, I think not. The cartoon is clearly a representation, and thus a distortion, but the core emotion being expressed – pain – is still accurate. And thus authentic. Which puts the lie to Foster, Barthes, and De Man.
It’s a primitive example, but true. I think the Deconstructionists overreached, failing to grasp that some level of reality can remain inside representations. I believe that felt experience can sometimes make its way through the filter of mediation. Foster presents the phenomenon as if it were entirely black and white – authentic or not. But it’s always a matter of gradations, isn’t it? Inauthenticity can creep into representations, but does not necessarily contaminate them with falsehood. To my mind, authentic expression remains possible, even in a society as mediated as ours.
For me the problem is not the presumed inauthenticity of mediation. It’s more in the uncertainty that surrounds any representation of one’s inner life. How can we know if the artist is telling the truth? The fact is: we cannot. They might be lying, and we can never know for sure. That cartoon of you hammering your finger and yelling “Fuck!” could be a complete fabrication, and the audience will never know for sure whether was real or not. While Foster is wrong to call expression a fallacy, he could reasonably call it ambiguous.
This radical uncertainty casts a shadow over all expressions. They might be authentic, yes. But they might be a complete fiction, and the audience can never know. Fakery runs deep in some places, and in some individuals. We recently had a perfect demonstration of the fact in Donald Trump (1946). He is a pathological liar, the ideal purveyor of Foster’s expressionist fallacy. But that did not deter his millions of followers. To them, every lie is truth, every fake fact is real. In the end, we tend to believe what we want to believe.
Every time you find yourself believing in the emotings of some artist who appears to be just unbearably sincere, remember the Donald. He offers a useful lesson in art interpretation. All we can do in the face of self-expression is admit that we cannot know for sure whether it’s authentic or not.
For me, an additional problem remains. There has been so much heavy breathing about art and self-expression that the whole idea has become utterly conventional. In this, I agree with Foster. People tend to think and speak in conventions, in other people’s words. Artists are no different. We repeat the myths of which we are most fond. When we speak of self-expression, we are almost always parroting a schema that was invented by someone else. Awk! Self-expression! Awk! Polly wants a cracker!
For all these reasons, I am cautious about any claims to authentic self-expression in art. Such claims are filtered through a vast cloud of claims and counter-claims. Yes. They could be authentic. But we cannot know for sure. I have no choice but to put such artworks into a box labelled “Maybe. Or maybe Not.”
Our only recourse is to interview the artist and make a determination about their sincerity. I remember the two ceramics professors at my graduate school, both of whom made claims about Zen-inspired spirituality. One of them, Rudolf Staffel (1911-2002), gave a lecture to the students about his porcelain pots, which were known as “light gatherers.” At the beginning of the lecture, Rudy passed around a tray of bean sprouts, telling the students that it was important to take care of themselves, since you cannot work if you are sick. Then he showed his work, offering very little in the way of interpretation. During the Q&A, a student asked if the light in his pots was an equivalent for the spiritual. Rudy’s response was something along the lines of “I suppose so,” and he said no more. No boasting, no hard assertions. All of which convinced me that Staffel was the real deal, and I could trust the authenticity of his spiritual quest.
The other teacher, whom I will not name, was a noisy and assertive fellow. He once did a series of overlarge teapots that struck me mostly as exercises in how to apply geometric decoration to big chunks of ceramics. Big. Chunks. Blunt instruments, so to speak. He called them “Zen Teapots.” Right. From everything I know about Zen, I have concluded that if somebody loudly proclaims that they are all about Zen, they’re not. This guy was bullshitting, because that’s what he did. The titles were idle posturing, and nothing more. In the end, I put Staffel in my “True” box, and the other guy into my “False” box. Where they have stayed ever since.
Unfortunately, we rarely get to interview artists to determine their sincerity. And even if we could, people dissemble, and often obscure their true natures. (Ask me about my first wife.) Generally, we can’t know for sure. Which, again, leaves us in a state of indeterminacy.
In the end, every claim to self-expression can only be met with doubt. Not a declaration of falsehood, like Foster, but an awareness of uncertainty. I think that’s the best we can do. As an artist, I decided long ago to avoid any pretext of expression. I have no desire to invite that kind of suspicion. Still, no observer can dismiss every example of self-expressive art. Logically, you can’t. Sincerity and authenticity are always possible. Still, the long history of overwrought self-expression, like that dumb grad student’s wretched paintings, dictates that any informed viewer should be very cautious. That’s all: cautious.
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