Letter to a Gallery Owner on Artistic Consistency
Feb 17, 2017
This is Allen Hirsh, a digital artist. I recently read your blog on artistic consistency with great interest, and I hope you don't mind if I offer some thoughts I have in response to that essay. I am a mathematical artist. I create my art by manipulating digital images exclusively through controlling a large collection of equations in software I have written. This unusual approach on my part stems from my primary occupation as a biophysicist. I have "feet" in both the world of fine art and the world of physical science, which gives me a somewhat iconoclastic perspective.
You have always struck me as an astute thinker, so I think you are undoubtedly aware that the, perhaps excessive, emphasis gallery owners and collectors place on consistency is a source of much disdain among artists. It is such an important irritant in artistic culture that it fuels the large number of artists' cooperative galleries, and in the minds of a very large number of artists is a devilish oppressor of artistic freedom and creativity. Despite all of that, my perception is that the vast majority of serious artists naturally gravitate towards a distinctive style as they mature for a number of reasons. They prefer certain colors, forms and themes that define their personal muse, and with time they usually develop a passion for pursuing that muse ever deeper into wonderland. Especially if they begin to enjoy success, their objection to a strait jacket of consistency often sloughs away. Nevertheless, as you said in your essay, artists also have a natural tendency to branch out and explore new territory and they usually want to do this at their own pace, unconstrained by strictly mercantile concerns. So far I have told you nothing you don't know in your sleep, so I hope you will not take umbrage at my preamble.
My real difficulty with the traditional view of consistency stems from a more subtle skepticism tied to my lifelong career as a scientist. In the sciences the question of what a researcher is trying to do is always elegantly definable to those with sufficient training and talent to understand it. One has an hypothesis and the attempt is to rigorously falsify it. Failing that, it is taken as true. In mathematics the effort is to rigorously prove a theorem true, false or, sometimes, undecidable. Not so in the arts. In this contrasting sphere of human intellectual endeavor there are no absolute measures of intent or the veracity of analysis. Since the demise of painting at the hands of photography as the unique representational tool of humanity, the manual creation of images has had to rise phoenix like as the chronicler of the internal scenery of the human mind. This has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. The freedom of the last century and a half has been glorious and heady, but it has produced an ongoing crisis of rigorous assessment of artistic merit. When I make this point in casual conversation, I like to begin with an anecdote of my late (pun intended) youth. When I first moved to Washington in 1977 to go back to grad school, I had a lot of time on my hands. One day I went to The Hirshhorn, renowned sculpture museum of The Smithsonian. In the basement was a curious painting by a famous minimalist artist. My best guess is that it was painted by Blinky Palermo, but it might have been Kazimir Malevich (The museum has since confirmed it was neither). In any case, it was about 4' x 8', hung in portrait mode. It consisted of a pure alabaster white surface with one perfect red solid circle maybe the size of a soccer ball in the lower right corner. Frankly, I was disgusted. This merits placement in a major museum? Not only could it be executed by any half competent drafting student, but it had no subtlety of structure or color, no message of any discernible nature other than maybe a kind of smarmy gotcha. I am sure you would agree that the vast majority of your represented artists, customers, and might I guess, you yourself, given the sort of art you sell, would have reacted similarly. But we can ask whether such stark simplicity is truly damning. Let me refer in this context to one of the most famous proofs in all of mathematics: Euclid's proof that the number of prime numbers is infinite. It is totally rigorous by modern standards, but both the theorem and its proof are trivial to state and understand. Consider all of the first n primes, n an arbitrary integer, e.g. 100. Multiply them together, then add 1. Is the resulting number a prime? If so then it is larger than any of the first n primes and the nth prime cannot be the greatest prime. What if it isn't. Well, if you divide by any of the first n primes you get a remainder of 1, so there must be at least 2 primes larger than the nth prime such that when they are multiplied together the product is your target number. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this proof for mathematics, yet it is childishly simple. How does this creation of a human mind, so simple yet so profound, differ from the painting of a red dot on a white background? My answer would be that Euclid's proof is foundational for a huge, ever growing body of vital mathematical knowledge. It is very hard to make that claim for the painting at the Hirshhorn.
What of the opposite situation? Once again I begin by invoking mathematics, in this case considering the most famous proof of modern times, Andrew Wile's proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. Here the theorem, like that of Euclid, is trivial to understand:
Fermat's Last Theorem, formulated in 1637, states that no three distinct positive integers x, y, and z can satisfy the equation
if n is an integer greater than two (n > 2).
It took 358 years to prove. The proof is about 150 pages long, monstrously complex and can be understood by only a handful of humans on this planet, but it has far reaching implications for mathematics, and, by historic inference, science more broadly. What does this have to do with art? Quite a lot I think.
The key connection here is abstract meaning. Very abstract art, as you well know as a purveyor, is viewed with great suspicion by a large majority of the public: " My 5 year old could do that!", "A chimp could do that", etc ad nauseum. Of course, in reality when you view the body of work of a serious abstractionist, you inevitably see a consistency of color, brush work, image structure and balance that immediately tells you that this was done under the control of a particular focused adult. But, generally, the paintings themselves suggest neither the content nor the gravitas of the inner meaning the artist was pursuing. While in physical science and mathematics external factors such as ability to predict physically measureable parameters or logical consistency provide a powerful framework of validation, no such prop exists in fine art. Here I will try to be as precise as I can. The usual test of consistency in fine art, the one you so forcefully advocate in your essay, is coherence of style and form. What if the artist needs a range of styles and forms to explore that inner vision? Let's revisit Fermat's Last Theorem. The earliest proof by Fermat himself of the special case of n=4 relied on fairly simple properties of numbers and right triangles using the method of infinite descent. This approach is utterly incapable of addressing the general case. To do that required centuries of new mathematics centered around very esoteric properties of mathematical entities such as elliptic curves. In other words the same goal required an enormous integration of many different styles, forms, angles of approach, etc. At this point I think it is useful to segue into another major art form to underscore this concept. I am referring to literature. It is generally acknowledged that James Joyce is one of the greatest writers ever to pick up a pen. Until his quasi endless safari into the literary wilderness of Finnegan's Wake he was considered the epitome of early twentieth century writers. Yet, with Finnegan's Wake a fierce struggle began, not entirely abated today, to ascertain whether this a great work of extraordinary depth, or a huge practical joke played on the literary world. Rest assured that, not only did Joyce depart from his previous style of writing, he more or less departed from English itself, creating a language all his own with roots in English. Many world class critics, as well as many friends, abandoned him over his monumentally incomprehensible novel. So, how would the fine arts community judge him?? Wanting, I am sure: lack of consistency, impossible to grasp- a loser in the marketplace. On the other hand, quite possibly it will ultimately be seen, though generations from now, as a work extremely far ahead of its time, full of deep artistic insight.
So here are the distilled questions: can you bring yourself to believe that an artist might legitimately have philosophical goals to pursue that require a multiplicity of styles to explore? What if that exploration is coherent, yet sufficiently complex that few viewers can grasp it a priori? Can you see a way to honor that within the commercial art world?
The Abstract Gardener