A Painter for Our Time

In John Berger’s novel, A Painter for Our Time, His protagonist, Janos Lavin, says,

“Deeper than everything else in his mind is his conviction that he must in the future work – paint – unceasingly.  But for a painter to work, he needs – probably more than any other kind of artist – a sense of permanence.”

In a conversation with a collector he asks,

“Why do you never commission anything?”

“I believe the artist works better if he has complete freedom.  We have learnt that now.”

“You think so?  You do not think it is because you know you cannot inspire him?  Because you know you do not share ideas with him?  Except ideas about form.  You do not commission him because you have no subjects.  The artist is unemployable – that is why he is free.  No one really knows what he should be used for.  And so he makes exercises,… until it is decided what he can do.  But do the collectors help to decide?  They cannot.  I will tell you.  Once the patron was like a man with a hawk on his wrist to hunt the truth for him.  Now he is like an old lady who keeps canaries.”

These sentiments are as timely now as they were in 1958.  While written from a Marxist perspective, a wrestling with Marxism that was unavoidable at the time, they appear to me to transcend the particulars of that time. This book – all of Berger’s writing – points to a wider critique of our predicament today.  Artists, maybe particularly visual artists working with physical media, have been the receptacles and conduits of a practice, a stance from which to approach the world that grew out our deepest prehistory and has become dormant or even moribund outside the narrow province of Fine Art throughout the modern period.  When we examine the questions faced by artists, we see the same questions we all must confront if we are to carve meaning for ourselves in a collapsing world.

The first point has to do with having a place.  To find traction in the world requires a space in that world in which we can act as agents not react as subjects.  Like the painter, who must have materials and a place to keep them and a place to work, we need all these things to get on with life.

The second point gets to our need to have purpose, a usefulness, to be “employable,” not in the sense of being exploitable as a resource for the mining of wealth; but to trade usefulness for a living in all that this transaction implies.

An old friend always joked, “Lie to me! Everyone else does!”  It was funny, but….

In this age coming to a close, the lie, the condescension, the propping up of each others false naiveté have been highly valued.  Accept these roles and the meal tickets were punched, the perks grew and the living got large.

The more, as Illich points out, the professions took over the roles of authority, with all of what that implies: the power to advise and the power to command; the less anyone was interested in having a hawk on his wrist or hunting the truth.  The artist lost a livelihood, the patron lost the artist’s respect and made them pay by luring them into the roles of clowns for money.  One didn’t get paid for what they could do, but for what they must put up with to show they obeyed the rules. This appears widespread now, another case of the avant-garde living up to its name as a precursor of where others would soon tread.

It’s too easy and superficial to see this as simply some historical Marxist viewpoint and bury it in the old Marxist-Capitalist bugaboo.  All ideologies suffered from the disease of preconception, but if you look at the yearnings behind any ideology you might find a kernel of truth.  In this case the desire to have a wider respect for human truth than would fit into a burgher’s balance sheets.  In that, the yearnings behind it, not the twisted corruption of those yearnings, we find something that has only gained in resonance as the age of ideology dies away.


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