The following article, published in the newsletter of the Canadian Aviation Artists Association( AerialViews, Vol 18, #1, Feb 2013) is a response to Eric Mitchells’ article What is Aviation Art?(AV,Vol 17,#3, Aug 2012). Eric is President of the CAAA, and he has courageously raised fundamental questions about aviation art, questions most of us must have had in the back of our throats at some time, but have never properly articulated. My article follows the format of his preceding piece to elucidate the issues.
In the present culture of instant celebrity, of unhinged relativism, unaccountability and impunity, where the prevailing paradigm for Art is often little more than getting away with what you can, aviation art, and kindred art like marine, wildlife, motoring art, must seem to be anachronisms, standing out for their continuing faithfulness to their subject matter, by their pursuit of honest skill and knowledge in the portrayal of that subject matter. The simple truth is that they simply could hardly do otherwise. The subject matter is objective and factual, and the constraint of fact is central to these genres. This has saved them from the more extreme depredations of contemporary art. Aviation painters may go as far as a few hazy speed effects around our beloved aeroplane images, and imagine ourselves as being trendy and “innovative” along with the rest of the arty crowd, but no way could we get away with extensive impositions of the fashionable stylistic tweaks and fixes which continue to pass for the “avant-garde”. It just would not work.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that this has made us intellectually lazy and supine, allowing us to just keep our heads down and beaver away in our own little corner without facing up to and challenging the anarchy of postmodern art. It is overdue that we should more openly define our own ground, its aims and guiding principles, acknowledge our heritage and consciously work to advance our art.
What is Aviation Art?
(A somewhat belated response to Eric Mitchell’s brave article in AerialViews, Aug 2012, the aims of which I am very much sympathetic to. I hope it will encourage further thought and debate.)
What is Art?
My preference here is definitely for a nitty-gritty biological/evolutionary approach to the question, which fits in with my science background and not least, nicely circumvents the circuitous and futile verbiage of contemporary ArtSpeak.
Art in its widest sense is play, as distinct from survival behaviour. In the wild, most adult animals do not play- they require all the time and energy they have to find food and drink, avoid predators and reproduce. Only very young animals , under the care and protection of their parents, have the surplus time and energy for bouts of playful behaviour which enable them to explore and develop reflexes and abilities important to their future growth and survival.
This was also true for our early ancestors. But when humans evolved more organised and efficient ways of living, this left them with excess time and energy on their hands, which allowed playful behaviour to extend beyond childhood and spill over into adult activities. Our active brains began to divert into activities not linked to immediate issues of survival, so the early evidence of art, including dance and music, emerge as forms of communal activity at the tribal level.
Urbanisation, the growth of population and the division of labour gave a further boost to these “surplus” activities so that specialisations begin to emerge: artists, poets, writers, actors, musicians, dancers and so forth. As the skills of these specialisations improved they became defining features of evolving local cultures. To appreciate how far we have come in the extension and elaboration of playful behaviour we only need to think how today in our own societies originally “serious” issues like food( cookery), fighting(sport)and reproduction( sex) are major forms of recreation and entertainment.
What is Genre Art?
For a long time the early forms of art were necessarily diffuse and crude, using the very limited materials and methods to hand, and the subject matter highly subjective and symbolic, often restricted to imaginary and mystical themes. But from the Renaissance ( 15th Century )on human interest and attention were progressively released from the inertia of traditional, subjective concerns and turned outwards to the study of Nature in all its intricacy and diversity. Introverted, magical ways of thinking gave way to a new idea of objective truth, of discovery and understanding, of embracing Nature on its own terms. Genre art is but a natural outcome of this trend away from the narrowly subjective and toward a new engagement with Reality, keeping apace with the emerging endeavour of Science, which is the parallel expression of the same trend. With the coming of the industrial age( 18th Century on) this genre art naturally went on to embrace the novel technological creations of industrial progress, foremost amongst which is flying machines. Which brings us to Aviation Art.
So What is Aviation/Aerospace Art?
Taking flight has liberated our artistic vision from the ancient bounds of Earth. Beyond the Flat Earth perspectives of traditional painters we have a new dimension of freedom which opens to us the endless vistas and moods of the skies, the traditional realm of the gods. Earthbound art naturally struggles to escape the familiar and obvious, to attain to new and greater vistas. Aviation art by its nature offers these freedoms on a plate, would that we painters embrace them! For us, there is little cause to resort to the familiar and jaded stylistic fixes in a vain pretence of seeking artistic "innovation" and “freedom”. To paint flight is to paint the aircraft in this new environment, doing what it is designed to do. Painting the infinitely variable moods of the skies should be second nature for us, as it is for marine artists to paint the seas. Yet what too often emerges in our artwork are shallow and grudging backdrops which contribute little to the feeling of aerial space and flight. The obverse side of this is the over-enhancement of the aircraft itself in the painting. This kind of imbalance comes down to a shortfall in the experience and ability of the painter. I emphatically do not agree that the specialised, rigorous features of flying machines offer any inherent obstacle to dynamic and wholesome aviation paintings. That we rarely see such paintings is not that there are any inherent incompatibilities in the way, but is rather a reflection on the level of our own artistic abilities. When have you heard wildlife painters complain that complex anatomies and exquisite colours and patterns of fur and feather were obstacles to painting them? As a sometime animal painter I can assure you these are inspirations and challenges, never contradictions.
Aviation/aerospace art is rightfully at the very cutting edge of truly modern art, not only because of the forward-looking, technical nature of its subject matter, but by virtue of its rational and scientific understanding of essential artistic tools like light, colour, the various principles of perspective, etc.crucial to the proper depiction of the aerial environment. For the contemporary art establishment to broadbrush all that aside and then to declare itself “modern/postmodern “ simply does not add up and is an oxymoron. It takes only a little widening of the attention span to see the fallacy of the current stance of contemporary art. We have had touchy-feely artwork forever, since the earliest crude daubings and scratchings on cave walls, bristling with ambiguities and incongruities. Highly stylised, semi-abstract brushwork has dominated painting for centuries in the Far East. Ancient man had little option, without the sophisticated materials, methods and above all scientific knowledge later generations had to hand. To simply turn our backs on these hardly amounts to being “modern” or “innovative”. It is a throwback, a reversal* of the post-Renaissance liberation of the human intellect which aviation and other similar genre arts represent, to a fractured, narrowly subjective, hypocritical disregard for our purported objects of art. How did we ever get sold this ancient mutton as nubile, “modern” lamb?
On the contrary, aviation art preserves the original unity of artistic and scientific interest first seen in the early Renaissance, expanding this original impulse towards discovery/revelation and understanding. In this, aviation art, along with similar genre arts like marine and wildlife painting, also preserves the ideal of beauty, that subtle and complex balance of disparate elements in a harmonious whole which resonates with the intellect as well as the senses and emotions of viewers. Beauty is something especially observable in forms fine-tuned to function within the tight requirements of very specific environments: birds, fish, athletes, sports cars, ships, and of course for us Spitfires, Mosquitos, Concordes, etc. Contemporary art, on the other hand, has long abandoned notions of beauty and rationality for what are often little more than the tactics of surprise and sensation, of bewilderment and even shock and outrage. Too often, it has become a celebration of the plainly bizarre and ugly( yes, the urinals and pickled animals), and in painting, of the lazy, pretentious and incompetent.
It follows that I in no way feel that aviation art is beholden to establishment art in its present form for any kind of condescension or “acceptance”, nor feel it meaningful to invite judging or criticism from aviation-illiterate “peers”. I feel that as aviation artists it is urgent that we should stop being so browbeaten by the empty posturings of establishment art, pull our collective head out of the sand, and reclaim our compass. We need to think through what we really stand for and work to live up to that. How can aviation art, or for that matter any serious or meaningful human pursuit, continue to function bereft of coherent and explicit overarching aims and principles? What does that say about the value of our judgings and all our precious show awards and prizes, if we can present no clear idea of what we’re about in the first place?
What we have lacked, and need, is a conceptual framework that can underpin our art and our thinking as aviation painters and carry us forward consciously. Without this basic intellectual armour, we have been defenceless against the depredations of the prevailing vacuum at the heart of art, not to mention incursions by opportunist charlatans. It is a sad fact that many of us have become so inured to operating in Safe Mode over the years that attempts to revive consciousness are often met with little more than cognitive dissonance, and even paradoxical resistance. But the task is not really so difficult: the Emperor is naked, but we have actually always had our clothes, if we would only open our eyes and look.
Hang on to your clothes.
* Some historians have identified this “inversion of values” in the West at around 1960. First evident in art, this ethos of pervasive relativism and impunity as a facsimile for a new freedom has now wrought its havoc through the institutions of whole continents.