All artists at some point take a stance regarding their intent for making art. Whether they take the traditional "High" or "Low" road will decide the value they place on either "form" and or "content" in their work as well as its ties with art history. The argument that the institution of "High" art has disappeared in an age of "Post," "Postmodern" art and free markets is simply untrue. More than ever the art world has commercialised itself for the purpose of controlling art and commoditising it as a high value product of desire for the rich and famous. The big problem is that the big claims for a serious content in this very commercial art are simply false. In effect, much "High" art is in fact "Low" art thereby nullifying art criticism and any standard by which art can be judged. Evaluation has been reduced to "surface appearance," personal taste and "novelty" value; quite simply, it's all good but here's the hypocrisy, some is better so we charge more for that.
In order to achieve the prices that distinguish the art of "value" from the "ordinary," certain artists and art styles are packaged and promoted to the exclusion of others. Make no mistake; in a supposedly global egalitarian marketplace "High" and "Low" is alive and well and marketed aggressively by the supposed "cultural elites" consisting of an exclusive cabal of galleries, museums and art fair organisations. This largely depends on the skilful manipulation of styles and the creation of "trends" and now mirrors the fashion world to an alarming degree! At this point you're probably asking what this has to do with the art of Sean Scully and i will attempt to tie things together as coherently as possible in this limited space.
Clement Greenburg took this idea further by championing an art that almost single handedly declared its "form" and "purity," eliminating the discourse of "meaning" in the work itself. The "look" or surface aesthetics became the prime concern and this was further championed by Susan Sontag in her surprisingly anti academic essay, "Against Interpretation" PDF an appeal to leave the work alone and appreciate it for its surface aesthetics alone. From this point on, any artwork, which entertained with its peculiar appearance or surface properties and in particular the "monumental installation" became "oeuvres du jour" promoted by the art establishment for mega bucks as the new museum aesthetic and was often based on puns, jokes and riddles.
It is important to understand that during this "conceptual frisson" of the early sixties art world, Sean Scully was quietly launching his practice as an abstract painter in the UK. In a way he was already out of date with the then current art world trend of favouring and embracing ironic, post modern, minimalist, conceptual art. He has been wonderfully out dated for some time but at the same time paradoxically dating nicely like a mature wine.
Scully's painting has held up against the "Tsunami" of what is largely repetitious, copy cat establishment art that has been paraded prominently in galleries and now museums over the last fifty years. The art world has been promoting ever more bizarre exhibitions, pushing grungy biography, banal objects and monumental installations to higher and higher levels of theatricality. Much of this work, regardless of the "highbrow" claims of its authors and promoters is conceptually hollow and perilously close to decoration.
This is in stark contrast to Scully, an unrepentant serial painter who appears as one painting anomaly in a sea of art made to mostly amuse and titillate the undiscerning public. Scully has skirted the land mines and pitfalls of appropriation, low-brow, text based and intermedia strategies inherent in Postmodern art. He has done so not in order to avoid contemporary issues but because he understands the trap in making art that panders to "the crowd" or attempts to expound some form of social or political ideology which "real" art is simply unable to do! Instead he has held fast to his aims and produced innovative, visually powerful exhibitions of timeless art.
Scully states, "I hold to a very Romantic ideal of what's possible in art, and I hold to the idea of the 'personal universal.' This is a complex agenda. My project is complicated in this way, and in that sense I'm out of fashion. I'm going against the current trend towards bizarreness, oddness; as you just called it, the 'esoteric', which of course was around in the 1930s. That's what is being revisited now."
Scully who mines the "personal universal" uses his signature, "stripes" to create images that in reality may be analogous to doors, wall or windows but in fact strongly point to the "noumenon" or "thing in itself" thingness that overrides the minds ability to form meaning. This function in itself sets up a scenario where difficulty in understanding what is perceived opens a door for dialogue with the "sublime," an effect/idea that Lyotard writing after Emmanuel Kant, was convinced, was the only hope for an art that was being emptied of its transforming power by overt and covert compliance to and complicity with art world agendas for control.
Let's face it; if you can control it and package it and empty it of its power, it becomes in fact just another object to be exchanged/collected for a value dictated by its scarcity and demand. So then, the homogenous nature of a product in effect ensures its market as long as belief in its "unique" facade of preciousness and rarity can be maintained. What we have then are great claims being made for an art form that mimics, parodies and mocks original invention. The value of this art is contingent on "faith" but in effect parades as the "Emperors New Clothes" effectively maintaining the "status quo" while hiding its vacuous "factory" quality behind the "valuable" brand name of the artist.
This brings us back to Scully's art for which the same claims could be made, especially now that he has achieved some prominence in the art world. This would ring true if in fact Scully was guilty of mimicking mainstream art styles. In fact he has done the opposite and returned to the core questions inherent in the making of art and in particular "abstract" art, a difficult kind of art to sell. Scully has gone back and studied art history in order to find the "locus for a new beginning in his painting project. Scully's paintings have that trademark appearance of simplicity but given time they radiate an aura that is tangible and complex. His working methodology turns blank canvas into portals of "essence" that exude a palpable "presence" and this sets him apart from much of the rest. Scully's paintings challenge us to keep looking and when we do, we find ourselves looking into another world that's hard to comprehend. These paintings are not only intuitive but highly intelligent as form drives content, only to reverse creating a panoply of conditions conducive to the "sublime."
Sean Scully has earned his stripes working his way through multiple variations of his theme finding originality in the simple "stripe" motif. To say his paintings are simple though, would be an insult to a painter that has weathered many of the art world storms/cycles and come out the other end neither cynical nor perturbed. Scully believes in the efficacy of the painting project and has engaged in it with the faith of a saint if such a comparison were possible. No doubt, "luck," as Dave Hickey would assert, has had some part to play in Scully's ascent to the "canon" but to my mind there is also a uniquely beautiful quality in his work that is readily discernible to all and this quality sets his work apart from that of many others in the art herd.
I have been inspired for some time by Sean Scully's direct and intelligent approach to art and can say that my understanding and art have been both stimulated and enlarged because of his persistence.
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