Tuesday, May 27, 2014

“Arbiters of Relevance”

Why a simple question matters…

This thought-stream began as a question posed on social media, I got involved until, as social media so often goes, the white noise spilled over. But the topic remains important (hence my desire to continue it here as a soliloquy). Decisions made by the wrong people, those in positions to influence and affect change, can force a deterioration of art in all its forms and we are all the poorer for it. It’s called strangling creativity with the power of authority.

(I include my previous comments throughout as a means of contextualizing. I leave out the opposing voices because…well, frankly, I don’t respect them enough for inclusion as they are in fact deleterious to the definition of true art. If anyone is interested in an expansion of these opinions on art, I refer you to my earlier posts: "The Transference of Emotion" and "Art is Objective."

Here is the initial question:
“Because many contemporary representational painters emulate the art of the nineteenth century we repeatedly see nostalgic paintings of models in period costume. Is such nostalgia healthy for contemporary representational art? If it is, why? If it isn't, why not?”

The world is far too large and diverse for many people. Some feel the need to define what is in the world’s best interest, regardless of those who may disagree. Sad to say, many in the art world operate under those same misconceptions.

First, let me acknowledge that I have my own set of standards—naturally—likes and dislikes in the world of art and were it up to me, feces on a canvas would go nowhere other than a landfill far away from me. However I would never tell an artist (or a monkey) he is un-healthy for contemporary…well, perhaps in this case…and he should never shake my hand.

Moving forward, let’s examine the operative word to follow, “relevance.”

Pertinence. Practical and especially social applicability. “Artists and writers strive for relevance in their own time.” But should they and who decides? The words social applicability indicates that it might be the society that ultimately determines relevancy. And, whether pertinent to culture or society or art itself, can so large a segment achieve consensus on a single artist’s relevance before many years have passed?

Legacies are never felt before an artist’s passing.

This is an important issue to me, as it should be to artists everywhere, after growing up during the puritanical-like reign of the gallery power brokers of sixty years ago. I call them The Art’s Dark Ages, because it lasted nearly as long and destroyed many artists with their lord-like overreach. 

Much like the Pope chose to tell the population what art was acceptable in Michelangelo's time, the decision makers in NYC who, in order to become relevant themselves and define their own self-worth in the art world, chose to tell the world that a large amount of art being created was “irrelevant.” And they were to tell us which art was important enough for the rest of us. (Naturally, this drove up the prices of inferior work in their galleries making many who would otherwise have remained anonymous, noteworthy.)

Anything that came before, all of the struggles of artists and art schools everywhere, all of the teachings of the great masters, the work of tens of thousands perfecting their crafts to the best of their abilities, as well as the contemporary greats who rose to the top due to hard work and intuition and sparks of genius, they would all be denounced as dated, or kitsch, or lacking innovation and foresight. Unique was prized over ability, the outrageous replaced talent and knowledge.

Norman Rockwell spent much of his young life idolizing other great painters. He struggled to be as great as J.C. Leyendecker. Then as he became the most celebrated artist in the country, his name a household word, copies of his art in tens of thousands of homes across the US, along came the elite of the art world, most of whom would not know which end of the brush actually touched canvas, the decision makers, the king makers who declared to the press that representational art is passé. Norman Rockwell is a fine “illustrator,” but illustration is not “Art.” Not with a capital “A.”

Who was the first to decide this? Who would draw the original parameters of what constituted Art? Who was appointed to decide this for the rest of us?

And all the other illustrators fell into line behind him, shunned by the New York intelligentsia. Those who knew better than the rest of the country and were on a mission to keep us informed for our own good, for the good of Art. And they did for half a century.

And Norman Rockwell struggled to be recognized by the Fine Art world.

And here we find ourselves, all these decades later, and representational art has risen Phoenix-like from the ash-heap of contempt, Rockwell’s reputation, by the sheer virtuosity of his performance garnering top dollar at auctions around the globe. His name is once again spoken of with reverence by those who understand the work. Others through diligence to the form, hard and often heart-breaking work, have regained a modicum of stature amid the multitude of struggling wannabes as art schools and universities and colleges open their doors and pour forth streaming legions of new artists on an annual basis, all struggling to make their own individual marks. All wanting to be noticed. To be respected by their peers. To be important.

Today we find ourselves faced with voices within our own ranks, artists critiquing other artists with the sole purpose to drag the spotlight in their own direction. They have become the new arbiters. They have chosen themselves as deciders, we’ll refer to them as the “arbiters of relevance,” letting us all know what is or is not “Important Art.”

Perhaps it is the need to shrink their world down to manageable size. Control issues. Perhaps if they limit those around them, their own work will appear more important. They will become more relevant.

In a world of working for the love of art and competing with oneself in a never-ending effort to be better than we are, we now have many who have decided that the only way for them to appear to grow is to restrain others. Tell the world they are more important than the rest.

The death knell to evolution is complacency.

The natives have begun eating their own. What they fail to understand is the harder they try to look relevant, the more desperate they appear. The box they have drawn themselves into (pun intended) has opaque walls and they have lost the ability to see value in anything that does not resemble their own.

As to the initial question, a few of my aforementioned responses:

Criticizing an artist's work based on genre or subject matter alone is the true disservice to the art world. All art, whether it's dance or writing or painting, is about communication and emotion, as well as the expertise of the artist. The greater the emotional response for the viewer, the more successful the artist's intent is realized. There is room in the world for more than one approach and the narrowing of definitions is merely the fault of the critic.
Too many "artists" trying too hard to be relevant, rather than working to perfect their craft. Like a writer working at being "topical," or hammering the reader over the head with what they deem a popular theme or political opinion, artists working hard at being relevant, with the exception of very few, disappear from history as soon as their POV goes out of fashion. Compete with no one but yourself. Paint what you love and, if you're good enough, your audience will find you.
In 1885 Ilya Repin painted a scene from 1581. (Ivan the Terrible murdering his son.) To him, his history was important. Hardly kitsch or sentimentalized. Certainly emotional.

Alphonse Mucha painted history. Waterhouse painted mythology. N.C. Wyeth. Howard Pyle. Dean Cornwell. Frank Schoonover. Harvey Dunn. In 1400s da Vinci painted Christ. In 2014 Howard Terpning, whose fine art reputation rests on his skill at representing North American plains Indians—it could be said that he changed 20th C perceptions of the tribes and helped make the western art genre popular to gallery patrons—sold for a record 1.9 million. I rest my case.
"Representational art is dead." This is the same limited thinking that insisted sixty years ago that Rockwell was "not relevant," merely an illustrator and not as worthy as a flat depiction of a Campbell soup can or Lichtenstein stealing the work of other artists and enlarging their comic book panels onto canvas, pissing in a jar with a crucifix and throwing dung onto a canvas…

My point is that relevance is in the eye of the beholder, those who refuse to read the futurists or the historians have merely limited their own knowledge…
And I make no excuses for my work. Those who seek so desperately to limit the confines of creativity and draw stark borders around art's definitions, need to expand their own horizons a bit.

If another artist doesn’t share my love, it doesn’t make him wrong; it doesn’t make me right. My relevancy as an artist will not be determined by him. If I am good enough—and lucky enough—my audience will find my work. The larger the audience, the greater the legacy, and if my work disappears with time, then I have painted for myself and I’m quite okay with that.

I grew up with the gallery, boy’s club, ignorance of the 70s, so it's an important issue to those who felt creatively stifled by this sort of narrow vision. I had one prominent gallery owner tell me I should paint in pastel colors because wives usually chose paintings to go with their decor. I was told what subjects were popular. Follow the largest audience.

I made my early living drawing comic books. I was told whose style I should mimic, it was a job.

My first graphic novel was drawn without the standard word balloons. It was the translation of a poem and I wanted it to be read as such. I was asked to sit in on a panel discussion with a couple other artists and the question was posed: “Are word balloons an archaic artifice now that you’ve made these popular books using only captions, and should word balloons be done away with? I remained mostly silent because I could not understand limiting the art form with a new set of parameters. I had used it to my own particular ends for this particular piece of work. I didn’t understand throwing away volumes of content for what might be a passing style.

Then when I was first invited to a signing at a French university, I had no idea that comic book art was considered "Art" and displayed in actual art galleries all across Europe. American galleries thought of it as trash.

Over many years I’ve painted just about anything imaginable: science fiction and fantasy, wildlife and still life and studio models. When I matured, I decided to paint what I wanted and hell with what others said they wanted to see.

I studied for a time with a world class portrait artist. He found joy in the colors, values and landscape of the faces he painted. He asked if I had those same desires. I did not. I came from an illustration background and I wanted to tell stories with my art. To paint the history I spent fifty-some years studying, the personal, the drama, the pain and the beauty, and occasionally, the ugly, and I realized how little the average person knows about history. I felt I had a job to do.

Do not define yourself by what others think you should paint, but ONLY what you choose to paint.

I don’t tell others what should drive them. I don't pat myself on the back in public, and I don’t criticize other artists’ work (unless they prove to be unworthy of their own ego.) C=EMS ²  (Criticism=Ego x Mouth-Size ²)

—And I tell my students to do the same, find their own niche, enjoy the work and the learning, because true Art is very personal. Tell your story your way, even if it’s just a story of paint. An artist’s life is about learning and giving of what he/she has learned. "Legacy" (relevance) is what is passed down to the next generation and the next. If the heart is not there, there is no Art.

And creativity is, and should always be, un-limiting and unlimited.


*With apologies to Ilya Repin for using his paintings of historic import to make a 21st Century point.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Beowulf: a lot of mileage since 1984.

(A lot of mileage since 700A.D.—before most Brits knew there was an A. or a D.).

(But I kid.)
A fan sent a couple of recent articles that I thought I’d share with friends (see below). I know many who’ve been with me since the beginning will mutter, “He’s still plugging that old dog-eared thing?” But no, the book has been out of print for over twenty-five years so I’m not hawking a thing here. I just thought it was fun. Besides, the dog-eared books are the best. It means they’ve been enjoyed. (My own ears are way too perky still.)

And it is still the most rewarding book I’ve ever been involved with—if not monetarily—as every year or two, even all these decades later, I still get letters from teachers across the country thanking me and telling how they used my book in their classrooms. All ages.

The first time I said, “Wow! Neat-o!” (or whatever the slang of that era might’ve been) was about a year after publication when a high school teacher wrote me a great letter saying he bought a whole case of my books for his classroom. This is something I never imagined when I was originally trolling through my head in search of ideas to work on. There were other letters.

I was further amazed, at the San Diego Comic Con, being told I had just won the first Jack Kirby Comics Industry Award for Best Graphic Album. Much of that amazement came when I learned there was such a thing as a Jack Kirby Comics Industry Award, then that some of the industry big shots who voted for me were the same guys who rejected the book when I was shopping it.

Then in 1994—I remember the L.A. Valley had just had the big earthquake, I had just undergone my first hip surgery, so I was flat on my back in bed, unable to even roll over, wondering if we’d get an aftershock that would level the house on top of said bed—when the phone rang. I used my long, hospital approved, grabby-stick to drag the receiver to the bed.

It was a conference call from Rutgers University—huh? I couldn’t have owed them anything; I’d only taken a smattering of college courses over the years and I was sure none of them spelled Rutgers. The callers claimed to be the two preeminent professors of ye olde English languages in the US (see, I knew the lingo). They said they wanted to create an original language version of my book for university studies. “Holy crap! (I didn’t say.)” Sadly that never came to pass, but I was gob-smacked that after ten years, and being out of print for much of that, the book was still getting that kind of attention.

The letters continued over the years.

About four years ago came the best. The mailman knocked on the door and handed me a large, padded package...

...it wasn’t explosive. I opened it to find school projects, many of them. An elementary teacher had used my book in her classes and she had all the students create a project around my graphic novel. Cards and letters of "thank you, Mr. Bingham," from each of the kids. Dozens of drawings, some in crayon, poems, several had created whole kits where they included, strips of cloth, chain, clippings and pictures of early Celtic and Viking dress and ornaments. I gotta admit, it nearly brought tears to this olde guy.

I started on sketches, intending to send them to all the kids—sadly, life and living expenses interfered and I realized by the time I finished answering all of those kids they’d have graduated college. So I sent the teacher my best thank you email.

RE: “…when I was originally trolling through my head in search of ideas to work on—“

What has worked for me in my life (and I admit, that may be a short list) has always come unexpectedly. I can plan grandiose schemes and projects to match Citizen Kane (well, that might be a slight exaggeration) but these projects pile up, fill cabinets and accordion folders, drawers and cardboard boxes and only end up rewarding me with remorse for all the trees I’ve felled in my life.

Success inevitably comes when I am too busy working, trying to just do something good, noticeable. Something to get the eye of enough people that it might help to prolong my career so I wouldn’t have to “…join the fire department…” as my dad used to tell me.

It was early days. I was married, had bills, I had been a working professional (I use that term guardedly—I was getting paid for my comics), for about six years. The quality of my work was still “developing” and I was bouncing around a lot, company-to-company, comic-to-comic, mainly because, I believe, I wasn’t very good. (You can only fool an editor so far.) I had apprenticed under veteran Dan Adkins for my first two years, and with his insightful, never-ending voice of encouragement he’d always said, “Bing-haam,” (he always pronounced it that way) “Bing-haam, you’re never going to make it. You either have It, or you don’t, and you don’t. Look at Frazetta, look at Buscema, they always had It. They were good from the start. You’ll never get there.” And he’d follow it up with, “Besides, you have beady eyes. Nobody trusts someone with beady eyes.” Well, I could hardly fault him on that one.

But I was determined, if I couldn’t alter my own genetics, I could at least work on my drawing.

So after the first six years of finding direction, I decided I needed to prove something to the comic book world…as well as myself. But how to do it? Up ‘til then, all of my print work was rushed, and I was seldom paired with an inker who inked my pencils “the way I penciled them,” if the inker was competent at all.

(Photos intentionally omitted.)

I had gotten a smattering of paperback covers, but I wasn’t much of a painter in those days either. So, digging through my stack of Playboy magazines (I swear they were there for reference photos) I started playing with ink wash (I bet you thought I was going somewhere else with that). As the maidens were sans clothing, how to make them work for me? (Figuratively.)

Okay, yeah, I was a big fan of Sword & Sorcery and there ya go…some chain mail, a sword here, a spear there, a little sponge cake…

Thus spending the next few years wondering when I'd receive that lawsuit from Playboy...

I painted seven of them and finally found a publisher to put my portfolio together. Malevolent Maidens it would be called. (As good a title as any.) But this would not further my career as a comic book illustrator. I knew it.

Then it hit me. My next project. I was in the middle of my second reading of Tolkien’s trilogy. I, like many virile young men back then, loved the Conan movie (the first one), I’d read all the Howard books so I was starved for anything Conan, and my favorite artist was drawing most of the Conan comics. I had also had a life-long love of English Lit (thanks again to mom). So…

…I decided to show the young Tolkien and S&S and comic book fans where all these stories originated. I clawed through my library and found my copy of Beowulf. Tolkien was the Beowulf expert, after all, and spoke on the subject often. He’d admitted much of The Hobbit, especially the conversation with the fire-drake, Smaug, the thief in the night, came from there.

So ta-daa! It took a bit of doing, trips to the library, every translation was different—most were difficult to understand for those who would rather read Stan Lee’s Shakespeare-isms. But I managed to cobble together something I considered readable and began with my page layouts. Fun stuff. No pay, I was living off piece-money, but fun to do my own thing.

In extreme retrospect, I wish I had done more research on the visuals, tried to incorporate more of the historical accoutrements of the time, but I was deliberately trying to keep the “Conan” look hoping familiarity would help get exposure. Imaginary tradeoffs? The inking was the most difficult for me. I had never really inked with a quill, apart from butchering a number of panels Adkins was working on in my earlier days. But I studied as quickly as I could from some of my favorites. Took my cues everywhere, from Dick Giordano to Hal Foster to Jean Giraud and Victor De leFuente. And after a couple years of extreme poverty, and much rejection by the major companies, I found a buyer. Yeah, I had to bargain like a Casablanca street peddler, agree to work on one of their comic book series for six months or so, but my Beowulf would see print. It got my struggling career off the ground (in a Kittyhawk sort of analogy—the Wright Brothers didn’t fly far either).

The rest, as they say, is…all the great stuff aforementioned on this page.

My sincere thanks to all the fans and everyone who has kept my translation alive. And passed it on. And to the wonderful students who so enthusiastically shared their lovely work with this humble scribbler, you kids made my year.




"I think I understand what military fame is; to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers."
—William Tecumseh Sherman