Why do you have so many contemporary painters who pose with brush and pallet in their hands while most of their work consists of digitally created canvas prints?

Previous generations were proud to pose with the latest tools of their craft that offered them more possibilities to increase the quality and quantity of their output. I don’t have any recollection of 20th century writers proudly posing with a goose feather, parchment, and an inkwell instead of with their typewriter.

The machine is the single most defining entity of the twentieth century. Its role at the turn of the century was a central one: it was the dawn of the modern age facilitated by the energy and productivity of the machine and its impact of mass production also influenced the visual arts. Few 20th-century visual artists accepted the Industrial Revolution with as much enthusiasm as Andy Warhol.

A pivotal event was the 1964 exhibit The American Supermarket, a show held in Paul Bianchini’s Upper East Side gallery. The show was presented as a typical small supermarket environment, except that everything in it—from the produce, canned goods, meat, posters on the wall, etc.—was created by prominent pop artists of the time. The exhibit was one of the first mass events that directly confronted the public with both pop art and the perennial question of what art is, slowly eliminating the handmade from the artistic process. Warhol frequently used silk-screening: his later drawings were traced from slide projections. At the height of his fame as a painter, Warhol had several assistants who produced his silk-screen multiples, following his directions to make different versions and variations.

Some critics have come to view Warhol’s superficiality and commerciality as the most brilliant mirror of our times, contending that Warhol had captured something irresistible about the zeitgeist of American culture in the 20th century. From thereon we can see a reverse into the culture of making art more accessible for society in general towards a refocus upon its exclusivity.

Where the artists of the sixties claimed that their works should be available for the public in general, I detect the resurgence of the tendency to make art for the happy few who can afford it. Hence you get artists who want to emphasize the uniqueness and artisanal aspects of their creations by posing with the traditional tools of their craft. Most artists have sooner or later to make a choice if they want to create art for the happy few or make their work available for a broader specter of society. My personal hero in this aspect is Alexander Rodin. Rodin’s most inspiring works are rarely for sale, but the artist gladly sells signed posters with reproductions of his works or puts them up for expositions. That’s how he distillates a living from his art.

I believe that The Middle Way of Aristotle can reconcile the need of the artists to make a decent living while still reaching with their works a substantial part of society. Aristotle is not defending mediocrity.  He is advocating for a life most fully lived. Laugh at life, said Nietzsche.  Aristotle would agree.  But he would also say to be careful that that laughter does not turn to mockery.

2 thoughts on “Artists and the Middle Way.

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