By Fred Thomas 01/2006
No matter what one wants to make out of it, artists will always be the product of their cultural background and their time. They may be behind, on the same level with, or in advance of their time, but they remain a product of it just the same. The very fact that paintings are created to be seen, what the viewers or buyers want will always influence artists, unless they are mavericks or trail blazers who are ahead of the game and succeed in imposing their views. By the same token, one critic suggests that “Artists are either innovators or followers.” In the case that such a statement is true, it does not exclude the fact that the imitators can still be original in their own way, since, even while they are following an already established path, they do not systematically or slavishly copy someone else’s style. Besides, there is nothing wrong with being a follower since not everyone is called to be a leader, a theoretician, or revolutionary. The only problem is that, especially in art, one can lag so far behind that the resulting works are deprived of impetus and significance. This reminds me of some contemporary artists who call themselves cubists, impressionists, or surrealists so that they can operate under a certain umbrella without realizing what such labels imply and what are they actually mean in terms of artistic output and characteristics of a particular artistic movement or school. Most of the time it is a gimmick fabricated in order to boost sales or because it is fashionable to claim a style or because it just sounds cute, gives a certain cachet, or because someone else, an art critic or art dealer, had assigned such a label to the artist.
Unfortunately, a great majority of the people who are concerned with art, the public at large, and even the so called artists, do not oftentimes know anything about art. They may have no ideas of how to look at a work of art, what to look for, or how to evaluate it. They are usually so involved into the content, into the subject matter, that they pay little attention or no attention at all to the artist’s style, therefore missing the form and the artist’s feelings and emotions all together. They are conditioned most of the time by the prevailing trend favoring some painters. Therefore, they reason, if a painting is signed by so and so, it must be a masterpiece; it is something to acquire and to swoon over. No wonder that so many clichés are used when most individuals are referring to art.
In my opinion, anyone seriously interested in art must take the time to learn art history and study the major artists of the different art movements going from the old masters to the most controversial icons of our time. One must strive to determine the significance of those movements and what makes those artists so unique and important. One must also compare them with known artists, and, in the case of the Haitians, with Haitian artists whose works one is familiar with whether they are contemporary, live in the motherland, in the diaspora.
The Haitian art critics, like art critics from anywhere, on the other hand, also need to criticize properly by broadening their scope, keeping their minds open, and objectively analyzing works of art by stressing the artist’s strengths, shortcomings and weaknesses. It is also incumbent upon them to dissect the work involved, indicating the artists’ personality, upbringing, education, artistic background, and major influences. Further efforts must be made to explain the painters’ style and creativity. This way the non- initiated individual looking at an artwork can start to have a global understanding of art, comprehend what is going on, and know what to look for. Such a person would ultimately be able to discern between garbage and an actual work of art, between impostors and genuine artists.
It is also important that artists be well prepared, master their craft, and exhibit strong confidence for their talents. It is important, however, to explain that one does not have to draw perfectly in order to be a successful painter, even though it can never be stressed enough the importance of good draftsmanship, especially in figurative paintings, which allows the painter to exactly express the vision involved or to render reality. We also know of naive and primitive painters who are famous even though their drawing skills or their mastering of perspective is limited. But those artists are the exceptions rather than the rule. The danger involved is that those artists are limited in their artistic flexibility and sometimes fall into the pitfall of routine by repeating a conventional idiom or mannerism to the point of seeing one of their pictures is tantamount to seeing all of them.
Personally, I agree with Diego Rivera when he stated that most significant painters are propagandists, because, in my opinion, being an artist suggests also certain responsibilities on the part of the artists toward the community they live in, their country, and mankind in general. One cannot witness injustice, repression, brutality, genocide against a certain ethnic group, or humanity, and remain indifferent about it. Some would say that they are artists and therefore their job is to paint beautiful artwork and not to be involved in politics, to be freedom fighters, or activists. They believe that their main concerns are to remain safely in their ivory tower and deal with aesthetic pursuits. This way they can make the bourgeoisie happy by providing them nice little art pieces to decorate their living rooms and boudoirs, enrich some art dealers, or contribute to keep some institution in place while entire people may be hovering on the brink of self- destruction due to genocide or ecological disasters. It is incumbent, I believe, to anyone who can reach a certain number of people whether through literature, visual arts, speech, or any other means, to use such opportunities to open up their viewers or listeners’
“eyes” to realities and inspire them to take actions. The way things are going right now with Haiti, no one, whether s/he is a pastor, a radio announcer, a teacher, a musician, a singer, or a painter, can claim that politics is not his/her business, can say that his/her job is uniquely to talk about God, to teach math, to sing songs, to play music, to build houses, to draw, or to paint. Everyone needs to give his/her contributions one way or the other and painters, particularly, since art is a universal language that everyone who has eyes to see can see, since art can also denounce social injustice and brutality and show their ugliness, no matter how uncomfortable, how uneasy they can make people feel. Art history is replete with painters who have done just that. As illustration we can list artists like Giotto, Gericault (The Raft of Medusa), Goya (The shooting of May 3, 1808), Picasso (Guernica and Massacre in Korea), Millet (The Gleaners), Diego Rivera ( Murals), Sisquieros, Philome Obin ( Charlemagne Peralt’s Assasination), and many others.
I concede that, in practice, such art pieces, because of their disturbing nature, may not belong to a living room or a bedroom but it certainly can be in books, magazines, CD jackets, video covers, newspapers, public places, museums, lobbies, airports, stadiums, city squares, parks, and the list goes on. Such artists will have to select a meaningful piece and, thanks to progress in reproductive technologies, gets it faithfully reproduced in thousands of copies. Millions of people would see it as opposed to a few people who, because they can afford to buy it, have ipso facto the rights to selfishly confine it to they entourage. The idea is to create significant masterpieces in which people can recognize themselves, like for instance art pieces depicting peasants toiling in their field to extract a meager pittance not enough to survive but stoically keep going because of their unflinching optimism. The artists can certainly use all their talent to show the peasant’s optimism or despair, stoicism, dignity, belief, life style, wisdom, or integrity, even while doing a hard job with little financial reward or social recognition. I gave the example of peasants, but it can also be our factory workers here in the US, our field laborers in Homestead or Immokalee or the hordes of Haitian housekeepers in the hotels along the Florida Keys or Miami Beach. One can just look around, in every part of the mega cities, in the ghettoes, and see the overflowing of loneliness, estrangement and despair. The idea is to paint pictures that reflect our day to day struggles here, in the United States, back in Haiti, or anywhere else on earth, to depict something that mirrors our hope, despair, fears, aspirations, and dreams, in other words, something that is connected to us as people, as an ethnic group sharing the same cultural background. Such paintings can be reproduced by the thousands and be available to everyone, like I mentioned earlier. Therefore, those in the lower class can afford to buy a copy whether framed or not, and display it at home as it is the case for the catholic chromolithographs of St. Jacques representing Ogou Ferraille , Mater Dolores for Erzulie Freda, and many others, which are seen everywhere. Albrech Durer and Rambrant did the same for their work which was known by millions using etching and prints. The originals can still remain within the reach of the riches, the bourgeois, but the work would not be confined uniquely to their houses or cellars. Among other advantages, the masses would have access to the artwork and the artists’ popularity would increase as a result. Through sound management, entrepreneurs, artists, and retailers will make huge profit.
The artists, then, can free themselves from the unscrupulous art dealers who think more about their profits than promoting the artists and, at the same time, remove art from the hands of the bourgeoisie, while informing and educating the masses through visual experiences. Again those art pieces can be reproduced in books, posters, gicle, billboards, newspapers, magazines, brochures, postcards, and t-shirts, etc. to the point of becoming ubiquitous. As a consequence, it will be quite difficult for one to take a step in any direction without being reminded of the issues at hand. That action, I believe, will put pressure wherever pressures need to be put, in order to bring about public consciousness and foster changes.
By Fred Thomas 01/2006