On Art, and Being Human

The first time I saw this painting was from an ex taking a course on art, under the context of “what is considered art”. As an artist, she told me she didn’t consider this art at all, and honestly I don’t know why I defended it. But I argued that this was pure art. Since then this has remained my favorite art piece, one which I still defend to anyone whenever the topic comes up.

The piece is called Red Painting by Philip Guston, and was created in 1950. I’m going to be honest and say that visually, it’s no Mona Lisa or Starry Night, yet to me this piece is what being human is.

I preface this by saying I know nothing about this piece, so maybe the artist was having an attack by the voices; but to me I saw work go unnoticed. The amount of effort that was unnecessary for the piece. You can make out dried paint under the outermost layers, painted over almost fully covering it up. I think that you could have recreated a very similar painting with minimal effort, and it would look visually similar in many ways; yet to me that wouldn’t be even close as a piece. The amount of effort and care that went into something with no reward moved me when I saw it.

Furthermore, every person I’ve shown this piece to has unabashedly shit on it (maybe rightfully so). I can’t imagine Philip while making this piece expected people to revere him as a great painter, or let alone appreciate it. I want you to think about that for a second; if you knew that something you were doing had virtually no purpose, no one would like it, it would be mocked and ultimately give near no reward, would you continue to do it? And then furthermore, to put your time, sweat, reputation and yourself for critique to the public? Cost-benefit analysis makes it pretty clear that this is a no-go as far as decisions go.

Yet he still made it.

This was something that was not even a waste of time, but arguably worse than doing nothing; he still put so much effort and vulnerability into the piece. And judging by the fact the only time this painting is referenced is to harass him, it’s not like it even worked out as some miracle where people loved it. But if you were to somehow ask him post-mortem now, I don’t think he would regret it. Or at least I hope not. This to me is the essence of being human, of having free will. No rational being would decide to do things so violently net-negative, yet here we are. And he’s not alone, he’s surrounded by millions of other artists, spanning all of human history doing things that ultimately reward them nothing. The amazing thing to me is, we keep doing it.

I love the notion of a silent protest against the meaningless of everything, and our utter insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Even if we know that what we do has no point, we can still choose on our own free-will to do it. Isn’t that a beautiful thing? I think art is a unique way to express this innately human trait, along with being able to put so much message in a frame. In art you have the opportunity to hear a conversation between you and the artist, potentially one the artist never even meant to have. Art is completely subjective, meaning whatever conclusions you draw, whatever meaning you derive, whatever you gain out of it is fully up to you. And I think it’s beautiful artists decide to keep putting their thoughts out there as a catalyst for others, the same way this piece shaped how I see the world.

I can’t draw, paint, compose, or write well enough to really convey what I’d like to, so I guess this is my replacement. In some sense, this is my version of art; vulnerability, more effort than is worth it, and putting this out into the void for no benefit. Until I inevitably figure out a different way I want to go about it, this will be my testament to art.