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I paint, make collages and mixed media work. I write poetry. I reflect on the Tao.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Against intellect and therapy, art as a dance

The dominant art trend since Impressionism has been towards what I would term intellectual art. This is art in which
  • value judgements cannot be based on the quality of the execution, canons of beauty or taste, or personal response
  • art cannot be judged as good or bad, only as successful or unsuccessful; either in terms of its marketability as a commodity or in terms of approved ideological positioning (e.g. promoting community, promoting social inclusion, critiquing sexism & discrimination)
  • images become mere signifiers to be decoded
  • approved socio-political issues can be “read” into the work
  • the art work is to be interpreted as text
  • all meanings are equal and therefore meaningless
  • the writing about the art work (by the artists and academicians) becomes more relevant than the work itself.
This trend in the art world is, as would be expected, a mere side-stream in the massive flow of change. We are moving inexorably towards a state in which the physical and social worlds are merely analogues of a logically consistent virtual world and therefore subject to even greater control, manipulation and exploitation. Part of this flow is the neutralisation of human activities (art, religion, psychology, philosophy) which could challenge this hegemony.  

One response to this development has been the emergence of a counter-culture of what I would term therapeutic art outside the approved mainstream. This is art whose creed is
  • follow(only) your instincts and  your heart,
  • let the creative genius within you out
  • silence your internal critic, let go of self-criticism, overcome the fear, doubt and insecurity that discourage artmaking
  • let it all flow and amazing things happen
  • there is no right or wrong way as long as it comes from within the inner self
  • be authentic, expressive  and spontaneous
  • don’t concern yourself with the outcome or the product; it’s the process of creating that is the important thing.
Christopher Allen, writing about the Australian artist David Boyd (Review, The Australian September 8-9, 2012), makes a critical point, which I think should be taken to heart by every intuitive artist. He contrasts David’s more highly regarded brother, Arthur ( who

...was an almost purely intuitive artist with very little capacity for intellectual analysis or self-criticism, and an often defective level of quality control. But he did possess a poetic mind that expressed itself in subjects that arose from the imagination rather than from any ideological preconception; and he regularly sought renewal in landscape, which forced him to attend to a world outside his own thoughts.

Arthur Boyd: Bride Running Away
Arthur Boyd: Rocks and Trees at the Shoalhaven River

On the other hand, David Boyd (
did not apply himself to looking carefully and patiently at the world, that he did not try to stretch himself, as Arthur instinctively knew he needed to do, beyond the orbit of his own inner life.
David Boyd: from the Murrembeena series

I believe that art must be rescued from the dead end of intellectual art. Art making needs to be revitalised to serve the human spirit —it is literally a matter of life or death for us all. (see My Art Credo). We need to restore the intuitive, holistic, relational side of our natures to artmaking, without, however, wallowing in the self-indulgent excess of art as therapy. As Christopher Allen points out, there are two aspects to this dance which are overlooked by the art-as-therapy practitioners: self-critical reflection and looking long and closely at the world.

In both the contemporary intellectual and therapeutic art there is a fundamental turning inwards and a turning away from the world as experienced. In rejecting the inner aspects of human experience, the intellectual impulse ends in the current reductio ad absurdum, where meaning exists only within a self-contained virtual system.  Such art lacks the depth arising from human experience. In rejecting the value of intellectual detachment, the therapeutic impulse ends in art which has depth and meaning only for the maker. Such art lacks the depth that arises from relationship between self and other.

In both movements, there is also a turning away from the craft of artmaking—a rejection, not merely of technique, but of attaching any importance at all to the manipulation of materials

Art making requires a sacred relationship between self and other, which often comes from that long, slow, patient and careful looking at the world and from wrestling with the materials of artmaking. It is in the dance between the two aspects of our natures— the intellectual, critical and manipulative—the intuitive, relational and holistic— that creativity and poetry flowers. 


  1. very much like what you say here can i put it on my website , with links and credits, the site is

  2. I think you are referring to the genre known as "Conceptual Art" ...It includes text based works as well as just ideas...

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      Yes, conceptual art is one of the best exemplars of what I have termed intellectual art, However, I think that the trend towards intellectualism in art is more pervasive and not confined to any particular genre or set of genres.

      It comes out, for example, in the way that students are taught at universities to set up a "research hypothesis" for investigation through art or the process of art-making in which the idea is foremost. A dead give-away is the explanation/art statement for art works which uses terms like "referencing", "investigation", "exploration", "negotiation" "signifying" ...

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Will Gompertz, the BBC's arts editor:

    "Money and celebrity has cast a shadow over the art world which is prohibiting ideas and debate from coming to the fore," he said yesterday, adding that the current system of collectors, galleries, museums and art dealers colluding to maintain the value and status of artists quashed open debate on art.

    "I hope this is the start of something that breaks the system. At the moment it feels like the Paris salon of the 19th century, where bureaucrats and conservatives combined to stifle the field of work. It was the Impressionists who forced a new system, led by the artists themselves. It created modern art and a whole new way of looking at things.

    "Lord knows we need that now more than anything. We need artists to work outside the establishment and start looking at the world in a different way – to start challenging preconceptions instead of reinforcing them."

    From The Guardian ~ Doyen of American critics turns his back on the 'nasty, stupid' world of modern art.
    Dave Hickey condemns world he says has become calcified by too much money, celebrity and self-reverence. by Edward Helmore and Paul Gallagher
    The Observer, Sunday 28 October 2012