How does an artist achieve profundity in the current climate of Art-as-Fashion?
In describing the work of the Post-War German artist, Anselm Kiefer, a curator on the web site of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art uses the following descriptive phrases as keys to understanding the motivation of this extraordinary painter: "cultural myths, metaphors, personal symbolic vocabulary, addressing controversial and even taboo issues from recent history, invokes and processes history, engages with, and tries to understand history."
The painter, himself, describes his process as " [painting ] only when I have received an apparition, a shock, when I want to transform something... something that possesses me, and from which I have to deliver myself." He uses fugitive materials, earth materials, plant materials, paints on photographs, incorporates writing, quotations from literature, poetry, etc. into the painting.
What I don't see in the landscape of contemporary American artists is a similar engagement with our national myths and failures: the violence, the inequalities, the hubris of so-called "exceptionalism." American artists seem in their careerist quest for global recognition to have skipped over the experience of being an American artist; something with its own special qualities. They mostly seem to be striving for a Rauschenbergian engagement with multi-cultural themes, expropriating artifacts from other cultures while ignoring the very forces which underly differences in American life from that of foreign countries; those forces, which, since the first global war from 1914-1917, have influenced the cultural and economic development of the rest of the world.
It is true that we live in an interconnected world, but the insistence of American capitalist-totalitarianism, is spreading through economic globalization. What is our "culture" which we are sending out into the world? Is it all cola, pickup trucks and Hollywood? Or, is it a pastiche of everyone else's appropriated ideas?
Yes, there are examples in contemporary art of very obvious kinds of "political" agit-prop, transitory knee-jerk reactions to current events, but the underlying darkness in the American soul is not grappled with, as Kiefer has done with his native German history. His is an art that works to exorcise that brutality which has gripped the German soul for centuries, while also celebrating the spirit which has also driven the better aspects of its cultural destiny, particularly its philosophers, musicians, poets, counter-political personalities, and mythological archetypes.
What are our American cultural myths? What metaphors can an American artist create to describe, pictorially, what, and who we are, culturally? Who are our cultural heroes? Who has inspired us? How will we engage history to tell our story? What is the collective content of our artistic vocabulary? To what do we owe our cultural existence? And, what material will we American artists use to transform this into art?
Finally, the questions, for me: is our American culture, as it is, worth sending out into the rest of the world? Can we artists, honestly, identify and transform our culture so that it changes for the better? And, influence the world to be a healthier place?
Will future American art speak to a wider audience than the cognoscenti and the "galleristi?" Will thoughtful work replace sensationalism and fashion?