Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 18

The Call: Generate New Culture


Generating new culture presents a worthy challenge to representational artists, to work with great skill and insight towards generating new visions into what it means to be aware as human beings and to be benevolent towards each other.

Land Fall, 1st orientation, 2007, Mark Tansey (b. 1949), courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

In my abstract, I proposed that the serious artist performs a service that is essential to the functioning of society and that it is our vital obligation to help others take not just a look, but a deeper look–a look that sees what really matters. Then I started the paper with an assumption that power played a part in the selection of images over time. I have argued that the subjects we choose are more important than the way we paint them. In the absence of consensus, of established systems of belief, the opportunity for individual artists to create meaning has never been greater. It is hard work and the kind that earns the title “master.”

And then there’s metaphor. The ability to hold two conflicting concepts in mind at the same time is the essence of metaphor, and hence of allegory. It is the beginning of making meaning and showing one thing as a means of explicating something else. Painting has often concerned itself with the representation of subjects that mean something. What we value are not slavish, faithful syntheses or records of prevailing points of view, copies if you will, but visions mediated through skill and individual conscience, visions that address fundamental existential dilemmas: Who are we? Why are we here? Organized religion and statecraft once supplied convenient answers, and there were artists eager to convey them. The historical record contains countless images of artists serving ostensible, visible, obvious power. “He who has the power makes the rules,” might sum up these past days. In the 21st-century we are undergoing a rethinking of the power strategies of previous eras–now, conquering continents and peoples, proselytizing and converting are abjured. In a power vacuum how much more necessary are those meditations that reach deeper than mere appearance, that reflect intense contemplation of what genuine power is and how every human might avail himself of it.

Land Fall, 2nd orientation, 2007, Mark Tansey (b. 1949), courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Artists who use powers of observation and introspection can exemplify the best use of conscience. Just by changing his picture’s orientation, Mark Tansey takes us from a commonplace picture of people at the beach–to a joyous celebration of Cuban refugees reaching American shores, which he has based on newspaper accounts of Cubans re-purposing vintage vehicles as boats. He explains that he puts his drawing skills to work to create narratives that never were. “The problem for representation is to find the other functions beside capturing the real. In my work, I’m searching for pictorial functions that are based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformational, fictional.”1 Artists make a myriad of choices in the creation of each new work of art, and must believe that their choices have meaning, so that revelation and new life can occur.

In his Foreword to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Saul Bellow reminds us, “In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul. It may be difficult to find because by midlife it is overgrown, and some of the wildest thickets that surround it grow out of what we describe as our education. But the channel is always there, and it is our business to keep it open, to have access to the deepest part of ourselves.”