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Saturday, July 29, 2017


Painting, Art, and Politics

Jerry Fresia

 “Look Jerry, I think what you have to say about painting is very good, but drop the politics.” This was a common refrain when I first began teaching painting. But painting and politics, for me, has always been inexorably linked. Things are better these days, however. I have learned to frame my points in ways that are, shall we say, more congenial. In fact, I have even been called “warm and fuzzy” of late. But my mantra hasn’t changed: learning to paint is learning new ways to be free. And the point of it all is to become who you are most.

I began my study of painting, as a teenager, in the studio of William Schultz whose teachers before him led back to Paris of the 1880s. One key teacher-painter in this lineage who brought 19th century Parisian art theory back to the U.S. was Robert Henri.[1] Henri was recruited by Emma Goldman to teach in her Modern School of the Ferrer Society in Greenwhich Village that she and Alexander Berkman had founded in honor of the Spanish educator, Francisco Ferrer. Many of Henri’s students[2] went on to enjoy successful painting careers. Another of Henri’s notable students, however, experienced a degree of success in a field not unrelated to art. His name was Leon Trotsky. So the admonitions and caveats passed down from teacher to student within the studio, in my case, was steeped in a strong regard for individual autonomy and self-direction.

A recurrent theme of Henri’s[3] was quite simple: paintings ought to be the by-product of a mood that one might achieve by crossing into a competing realm of perception. “The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture,” taught Henri. Rather, “The picture is a by-product….[of] the attainment of a state of being…a more than ordinary moment of existence.” With this particular approach to painting, then, we find that emotions are cherished as is the sense of wonder. The understanding is that all external measures of the work, market value for example, must be pushed aside entirely as one works. We don’t look for results during the process. The notion of finish is a category mistake. It is imperative to stay in the moment. The measure of thing are the feelings that arise as we move along and that we can’t possibly know until our brush touches the canvas because the making of marks is not just an act of expression, but an act of making determinant, of realizing, who we are.

The reader will recognize this story: human life is seen as an activity of expression; moreover, the self-realization that occurs is something that unfolds from herself. Therefore, the activity of painting (for the painter) when properly understood[4] is the privileged medium through which her potential or who she is most, unfolds.

Heady stuff. But this is precisely the point at which Eeyore makes his appearance. If the above is true, then the question arises, do our institutions cohere to enable this type of freedom? Is our way of life authentic in this regard? Does everyone rightfully have the need to access this expressive activity and self-realization? Regretfully the answer is no. As brilliant entrepreneurs, we move in a different direction: we wish to master and objectify nature (and people as nature as well). We believe the world to be inherently calculable. As painter-entrepreneurs, it is not necessary that we fulfill ourselves in the process because the point of the exercise is to have the work get us through the door. Results are everything. Reason is separate from feeling and thought from senses. And as Charles Taylor points out, from the point of view of someone like Henri (or a Monet who reports that no one gets what is important to him, namely that it is necessary to stand before nature in “total self-surrender”), “These false views [are] more than just intellectual errors…but an obstacle to human fulfillment….”[5]

I have found a way, however, to have Tigger enter the discussion and relieve the anxiety of my students without disengaging from the larger critique: in this world of disenchantment and alienation, there remain “sites of Enchantment” replete with “affective attachments,” “passages” to realms of experience where we “give greater expression to play,” where nature is “lively,” where “wonder” is key, where there can be “fleeting returns to a childlike excitement about life,” and where we can “hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things.” [6]

Now, I’m a painter and I’m not entirely sure how much of this generalizes to other disciplines of art. But I do think that what I have said here and the type of painting that I do while not “carrying a revolutionary message performs a revolutionary function.”[7] For those of you who wish to watch me paint for a minute or two while sermonizing a bit, go here:

[1] See Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (Harper & Row, 1984).
[2] For example, there were George Bellows, Robert Brackman, Stuart Davis,  Edward Hopper, and Rockwell Kent among many others.
[3] This theme has been articulated in varying degrees, as well, by such painters as Manet, Cèzanne, Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, Rothko and a number of contemporary painters such as Wolf Kahn.
[4] The notion here is that while I may be looking at the house, I don’t see the house as such, but rather the sensations that the house triggers within me as a visual artist. My work does not refer to something outside of myself. The feelings that I express and the description that happens along the way (in so doing) are one.
[5] Charles Taylor, Hegel (Cambridge University Press,1975), 25.
[6] See Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton University Press, 2001). What was marvelous about this book for me was that Bennett provided a framework for what countless painters have been saying for decades. For example, not only have painters emphasized “feeling larger” over and over again, but some painters like Cèzanne actually converse with their subject matter.
[7] Joachim Pissarro speaking of the work of his great-grandfather Camille.


s. wallerstein said...

I agree that good art (among which I include your paintings, Jerry Fresia) liberates us, from the rat race and the herd mentality, but is it revolutionary in the sense that Marxism is?

I've known a lot of poets and musicians (in fact, my wife was a musician as is our son), and they are all liberated from the rat race and the herd mentality, but in general, they are not political revolutionaries.

Eric Hobsbawm, the great British Marxist historian (now deceased), criticizes May 1968, commenting that revolutions are puritanical. The famous May 1968 slogan, "sous les pavés, la plage", does not have much to do with political transformations.

Marcuse and others believe that good art produces not only personal liberation (about which I agree), but also revolutionary political transformations, but it seems to me that good art may also produce Nietzsche's higher men (or higher people), people with independent, creative mentality, with a sane attitude towards their bodies, with a free and critical spirit, but who have no particular interest in liberating the working class from exploitation.

Anonymous said...

s. wallerstein,

The revolutionary aspect to work like mine has nothing to do with the work itself except to say that the "the product," as Marx notes, "is, indeed, only the rèsumè of activity, of production...." So the concern is with what happens to the worker/painter during the production process; if she is becoming, in wonder, and fulfilled, the work may be a rèsumè of those feelings. But the point I was trying to make is, I believe Marxian. Quoting Marx: "Work, when properly organized, is the most important medium through which our potential as a species unfolds." -JF (my own computer is kaput!)

s. wallerstein said...


Sorry about your computer.

It depends on what you mean by "work". If by "work", we refer to a work of art or a personal project, I agree that our potential as a species (?) or at least as a person unfolds through doing it.

However, work work is a drag, however it's organized. No one likes to wash the dishes, no one likes to take out the garbage, no one likes to clean up the mess that the dog made, no one likes to balance their check book, etc., etc. There are just some forms of work which are unpleasant or boring or nauseating, and someone has to do them. Yes, there will be no more check-books in a socialist society, but inevitably there will be some book-keeping to do, and book keeping is a drag. You can rotate unpleasant chores, but sooner or later, it's going to be my turn, and I'd rather take a siesta or read a book.