As I describe in the essay that follows, I believe one way art represents truth is by an artist expressing their own truth while, at the same time, seeking out other truths.To that end, while writing this essay, I asked my colleague, Myronn Hardy, with whom I’ve collaborated in the past, to add his take on my paintings.He chose to react to two of the paintings with poems.
I spent time with Anita’s paintings, images. They became part of my dailiness. I kept the images on my phone and took notes as to what I saw and what they were saying. All of this, as I thought about Trayvon Martin’s and Elijah McClain’s lives and how they were taken. Notes and waiting and then being open to the language which slowly, arduously became these poems.
by Myronn Hardy
What grew along his way?
What did he see in the ground?
What did he recall?
A grove in his mind where
he walked barefoot ran
in the red he saw felt
Never afraid of gardens or forests.
Never afraid of an oak with eyes.
From where does fear grow?
by Myronn Hardy
I don’t want to know the song.
The way it curled about the room through
the window through a cat’s ear. How
she purred. Give me branches of forsythia
for a dead violinist. The one choked in summer.
Streams flow into the reservoir
brutally blue. They can’t
unknow what they
know the pattered flow
of waves mountains. But we unknow
relentlessly. Call it survival
but don’t survive. Pulmonary veins
yanked exposed. We’re exposed
in field after field. What do we feel?
Truth, Lies, and Painting
Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.
After George Floyd was murdered, I was wanting—like many artists—to react from the pain I felt. I saw artists painting portraits of Floyd, portraits of his mother, depictions of his death, etc. However, that kind of “suffering porn” felt both disrespectful and inappropriate for a privileged, white artist to make—and also reduced Floyd’s whole life to his murder. What is an appropriate response? I hit on the funereal response of sending flowers. In this Flowers for series, I tried to create flowers that riffed on each person’s life, before being murdered by racist violence. Finally, after more than a dozen of these, feeling disheartened, I made a “bouquet of stones,” emulating our Jewish custom of leaving a stone on the grave of a deceased person. (Jews don’t have flowers at funerals). The stones for me also acknowledged the heaviness of thinking that flowers will ever be enough.
How does an artist figure out appropriate ways to address their “truths” without self-editing? The common “Keats-based” correlation of truth and beauty is at least a broad framework for figuring this out (i.e., if you can convey your truth, it will be beautiful). But in an era when everything, from quantum physics to Balkanized internet communities, creates multiple truths, I believe it’s important to ask how we, as artists, influence “truth.” I see three main things we bring to our work that create our relationship to truth: our identity, how we frame our observations (intent), and our moral code/moment in history.
What is real is multilayered; whether conscious of the reality they create or not, artists reveal and choose with every mark they make:
- What is one’s identity? (gender, religion, nationality, age, race, etc.)
- What is one’s intent? (to copy what you see, to express what is not seen, to enhance a feeling, to make what you think people will buy, to explore a medium, to communicate, etc.)
- What is one’s moral, social/historical context? (community-based expression, liberated anarchy, apathy, limitations of what art has come before you, or the times in which one lives, etc.)
In this time of emerging artificial intelligence, when artists themselves can be faked, each artist will come to terms with not only what is true in her/his/their art, but what is real. Of course, the artist’s role in creating reality has been in question for a long time, only sped-up in the modern era. Photography first begged the question of the artist’s attempts to represent reality when cameras could do it with a click. Once Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in a gallery, the idea that art is whatever you call art was fully realized. Pivoting to abstraction and minimalism, artists found themselves confronted with the my-kid-could-do-that response from the public. And now, the my-computer-could-do-that emerges.
When Mao said “you can only know a pear by biting into it,” he may have been saying reality has to be experienced (for him, a call to experience revolution)—but now we are all too aware that we change that reality with our bites. These days, I see relative reality everywhere; film, literature, music, fine art, even “news” often pivot away from the previously agreed-upon objectivity. I used to long for this subjective world because objective reality plays into art as commodity. In an objective world, a capitalist “truth” of quantifiable value is assigned to art “products.” However, with everyone shouting in their echo-chamber silos, these subjective truths lose their luminance, and I find myself searching for something to shine eternal among the debris.
As an expressionist, I still mostly find truth in internal realities, maybe inexpressible, but the process of approaching expression is what I find both beautiful and meaningful. I think this embrace of one’s own reality—and even cultivation of quirks in one’s world–creates a personal truth. I don’t just say the process is more important than the product, but those three areas of influence on our truths that I mentioned earlier (identity, intent, and socio-historical awareness) are the signposts I can use to evaluate my own work. Audiences don’t have to decide truth for me any more in my painting than in my life. At the same time, consciousness of those influences is the very thing that asks me to search for ways to connect my truth with others’ truths.
In this coming-to-terms with a Rashomon, multiplex framing of truth, artificial intelligence fits right in. Again, the idea that the computer can replace me may be true to the audience that perceives my art, but not for me. Like my life that only I can live, only I can make my art. In fact, I asked the Dall-e AI app to create an artwork for this article. I gave it the parameters of my Flowers for series: “make a painting of abstracted flowers as a tribute to someone killed by racist police violence in the style of Anita Clearfield.”
This is the “best” one I got out of eight tries that had any kind of resonance for me:
Of course, it’s one answer. But I don’t wish I’d painted it because what I want from my art is to explore my questions.
Image at top: Anita Clearfield, Bouquet of Stones, oil and ink on canvas, 16 x 20 in., 2020.
Myronn Hardy is the author of four volumes of poetry, Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award, The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Prize for Poetry, and most recently, Kingdom.