As I was researching my previous blog (“No Audience, No Art?”) I came across a comment Adolph Gottlieb offered while on a panel discussion at NYU, “I don’t paint for the masses,” he said. “I paint for the elite. The masses are not interested in what I do. They won’t understand this kind of painting that I do, and it wouldn’t come through to them.”
As reported, this (obviously?) set off a bit of a fire storm from those who object to anything smacking of “elitism” … and I understand that. As commonly understood, I’m a bit in that firestorm myself. But the fact is that nearly any art that pushes the boundaries, leaves the arena of the familiar and comfortable, challenges convention, or resists commodification is not art created for a proletariat. And I suspect that Gottlieb was not referring to ‘The Art World’ of monied elites or underwriters from the National Endowment or some other foundation. I imagine rather that he was simply acknowledging that the kind of painting he does isn’t easy and isn’t for everyone. One might say that he appeals to those who are concerned and interested in work that is sophisticated, challenging, and meaningful in the deepest of ways. That kind of ‘elite’.
As a principal in ‘the New York School’ Gottlieb was likely deliberate about ignoring proletariat interests and may even have been a snob about it — I don’t know. But what I find appealing about his remark, snobbish or not, is that it rings true for me. Here’s how: I know that my own work is ‘elitist’ in the sense that its appeal is limited to the few who are not only willing but interested in seeing more deeply than most decorative art requires. I’m not disparaging decorative art, I simply realize that what I do doesn’t qualify as ‘decorative’. It’s just not ordinary, common or at all obvious however simple it may appear. There just isn’t anything ‘there’ for most people even if they can appreciate the craft and what I hope might be the polish and beauty of a painting. That’s OK by me but it doesn’t excite the many. So for the few I hope the beauty is deep and wide. I want it to reward the effort it requires to see what’s there and think meaningfully.
I don’t paint the way I do to be purposely arcane or esoteric or ‘difficult.’ It’s just the way I paint, the way things come out and find expression. I think of painting as the language of things seen — experiences and moments — for which words fail. When I’m put on the spot and asked to say what I’m doing, what I’m showing or why … however close I come with words just dances around the outside without ever achieving the presence only a painting can realize. It reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Secret Sits.” Or Chuang-tzu: When we understand, we are at the center of the circle, and there we sit while Yes and No chase each other around the circumference. It may come as a surprise to some who are not artists that a painting reveals at least as much to me as the painter as it does to anyone else. And if it doesn’t … if it doesn’t speak it doesn’t work and probably never makes it out of the studio.
So, do I “paint for the elite”? No more than I paint for the masses. I don’t “paint for” … I just paint.