Posted by: Bruce Proctor | June 24, 2015

Kit Gentry’s hit on Joseph Campbell’s aesthetic theory in regard to Kit’s own art

To Represent or Not to Represent

As a representational painter, the subject is very present in my work. Many of my pictures could be termed “regional” or “provincial,” which is to say that they depict places or things that are of sentimental interest to people who may not know or care anything about painting as a craft. And sentimental interest has very little to do with the function of proper art. For instance, lots of people enter my Hawaii galleries looking for paintings of places that they’ve visited during their Hawaiian vacation, and they may buy a painting for that reason alone. What they’re looking for may be little more than an expensive postcard or souvenir.

Professor Campbell has said that this circumstance is really problematic if the painting’s primary function is to refer to something outside of itself, rather than to stand independently as a treasure all its own. If so, the value of the work is likely to be judged solely by its ability to evoke the thing that it refers to – it’s constantly pointing away from itself and toward some subject in the external world.

Ideally, though, the painting should function as an independent art object, with its own unique power derived from the qualities that exist within the bounds of its picture plane – it’s all about how the various parts of the picture relate harmoniously to one another, and how the parts relate to the whole and the whole to the parts. If the sole significance of the work exists outside of the picture plane, beyond the frame that separates it from the outside world, then this can diminish the power of the work.

Portraiture is especially troublesome in this regard; Campbell has said, “It’s very hard to do that in a portrait” – meaning, to achieve what he envisions as the purpose of proper art – because the client who commissions a portrait wants that painting for sentimental reasons, and looks to the painting not so much as a work of art, but as a reference to the sitter, to something other than the painting itself.

I believe that Campbell did see abstract work as the purest example of proper art, since it obviously has no attachment to any external associations. But this is not to say that pictures of recognizable things are automatically impermissible. He only said that it’s more difficult, not impossible. For instance, who would argue that the “Mona Lisa” is a failure as an example of high art? No modern viewer of that work can personally associate with the sitter as an external entity, because she’s been dead for centuries – but millions of people still want to see the Mona Lisa because it’s a powerful picture.

With that said, however, there are lots and lots of portraits – the vast majority, really – that only serve the sentimental needs of those who commission them. This is not to say that those pictures shouldn’t be painted, because there is a real need for work that serves that purpose alone, and there’s a perfectly valid market for it. But we’re simply making a distinction between different levels of achievement in painting. There’s a complex hierarchy of achievement, where some things are higher than others, and some of them reach so high that they really transcend the ordinary. But everyone argues about which work belongs on which level, and they cite different values to defend those subjective decisions. We’re all obliged to determine what values we will cite to support our own assessments.

I would also point out that some subjects have such inspirational power of themselves, as experienced in real life, that a faithful depiction of them in art is likely to contribute to the desired function of the work as an awe-inspiring, elevating experience. So I think that a subject, if well-observed and represented, may have the potential to contribute to the strength of the work in the “proper” way, rather than to automatically detract from it.

But in my own work, I do try to make my landscape pictures transcend mere provincial status by paying lots of attention to purely abstract elements of visual art: composition, color relationship, etc. If the work is strong on an abstract level, then it has something special that I can build on. No matter how faithfully I represent the subject, the picture will never be special as an art object if it lacks a strong abstract foundation. That’s a prerequisite. If I were to simplify the work to the point where the subject becomes unrecognizable, I should still find that there’s a set of visual relationships occurring there which is able to survive the simplification and retain its own unique strength. So subject must always be secondary or even tertiary to the artist, although the public viewer typically regards it as primary because they have not yet been initiated into this way of thinking about art. I guess it’s our job to try to initiate them.

And I’ve also tried to invest my pictures with a certain ring of truth that applies to larger considerations of nature, to aspects of creation that apply to the whole package, rather than just to this place or that. So each picture attempts to function as a metaphorical representation of life as a whole – it’s not so much “a picture of this subject,” but rather “a picture of the universe, as seen through this subject.” Whether I’ve ever really succeeded in doing this is questionable, I admit – it is a tall order, after all – but, in theory, it should make a picture more significant than the sum of its subject alone. The picture becomes a window affording a view of something greater than itself.

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