Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 11

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.

There are rumors of recurring issues affecting the arts community, including representational artists. Rumors such as:
–jurors who judge and award cash prizes to friends
–teachers who show up too impaired or unprepared to teach
–artists who use others’ photographs to create new works without credit
If rumors such as these are true, and issues such as these exist, are they moral or are they political issues? Should they be discussed or judged by the community? In the larger picture, does the community have any responsibility in issues such as these or are they solely issues for the individuals involved?
Some organizations created around representational art resemble an inverted pyramid: friends get together for self-promotion, and go wide to the public to announce opportunities for themselves, that others have paid for, or worse, are asked to help subsidize. In the process of inviting abstracts for submission, TRAC represents the better model: going wide to offer opportunities and winnowing from there.

School of Athens, from the Stanza della Segnatura, 1510-11, Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio of Urbino) (1483-1520), Vatican Museums and Galleries, Vatican City, Bridgeman Images

“Aesthetic experiences are tied to a community or a context, and if socially constructed, moral properties, such as truth and goodness, must be a component of the aesthetic,” philosopher Marcia Muelder Eaton argues in Merit, Aesthetic and Ethical (2001). In our own community, we can create the shining city on the hill. We have an opportunity by our own actions to strike a blow against cynicism, to create a renaissance in ethics at a time when the Gallup Organization and the Pew Research Center record the declining trust Americans hold in our society’s institutions. We can treat each other with the benevolence described by Mencius, and build the trust upon which systems of belief depend.
The confusion over copyright and fair use seems to be driving some visual artists, art historians, editors and publishers to abandon work in their fields, reports the College Art Association in “Copyright, Permissions and Fair Use among Visual Artists and the Academic and Museum Communities,” a PDF of which is available at the CAA website. I call for you to be an advocate for policy and laws that allow the moral and ethical use of images. As the report explains, “Fair use is a reliable right of free expression, and one that courts including the Supreme Court have celebrated as a tool to generate new culture.”

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