Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 16

The Practice of Representational Art


To this point I have addressed morality and politics in the content of representational art, and I turn now to morality and politics in the practice of representational art. Alia al Bermani responded to a question of ethics that I posed in The Representational Art Group on Facebook encouraging me to propose a paper on this topic. The figure of the representational artist today might exemplify the dilemma of being human today–as insignificant in the culture of celebrity and success as man in the universe; as pitiful or worse, contemptible as so many attributes of tradition, begging for scraps.

Beggars on the Doorstep, 1648, Rembrandt Harmensz.Van Riijn, Musee de la Ville de Paris, Musee de Petit-Palais, France, Bridgeman Images

In the decades since the Armory Art Show, the brief ascendance of Abstract Expressionism, followed by the rapidly passing movements of Minimalism, Pop art, Neo-expressionism, etc, etc, some representational artists have manifested bitterness and resentment in the face of indifference. Steven Assael recalled to John Seed that in his teen years, he and his “artist friends would sometimes frequent the Figurative Alliance in New York. And most of the time arguments boldly ensued… Figurative artists then were the most oppositional people you could ever meet.”1 He chose to embrace the spirit of rebellion, and his work argues for the importance of exploring what it means to be human in vivid terms.

A School for Boys and Girls, c. 1670, Jan Havicksz. Steen (1625/26-79), © Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Bridgeman Images

As artists, we bear the responsibility to exercise good judgments about art. Judgment rests on wisdom, and good judgment based on wisdom is the antithesis of the social media network ritual of statement-reaction. Wisdom is gained from experience, as are the other qualifications for judgment: a working knowledge of art history, and skill. Judgment by others is critical to so many decisions affecting an artist’s career, such as the selection for scholarships, residencies, awards, grants, exhibitions, prizes, reviewing, recommending. Artists need these for visibility and resources to continue to make art.


  1. John Seed, “Steven Assael at Forum Gallery, New York,” The Huffington Post, December 2, 2015, accessed December 2, 2015,