The Substance of Art

By Armand Cabrera

Can anything be more tragic than to feel the infinite beauty of your surroundings, to read natures innermost secrets and, conscious of your own helplessness, to be incapable of expressing those powerful emotions? —– Isaac Levitan

Art is not just what we know; it is also what we feel but for it to succeed as art it must provide a shared experience to the viewer. There are many names for this idea heart, authenticity, honesty, genuineness, truthfulness, substance. Whatever your definition, good art reveals some insight about the author. There is a false dichotomy set up about this idea in the visual arts that goes something like this; facility is the enemy of substance. The more you know the less you feel.
Many times finish is confused with skill. I would say this happens as much if not more than confusing inability with insight. Real skill is ability and judgment in directing and designing all aspects of a work. Color, composition, brush calligraphy, edges, design, and subject choice.
While I would agree that adding as much detail and finish as possible to a painting doesn’t add any insight, I would also argue that having no understanding about what you paint or how you do it will not add emotional content to a painting either. Accident is not intent and while randomness or even inability may be taken as intended brilliance that is a lack of keen observation from the viewer not cleverness from the maker.
In both of my examples what is lacking is intent by the originator. The inclusion of everything without an orchestrated purpose, hoping for meaning, is just as devoid of substance as the lack of skill in hope of understanding. To convey emotion and genuine sincerity it must first be understood as a goal by the creator of the work. It must then be attainable through the skill of the painter.  A painting succeeds or fails to the degree the painter lacks a specific goal or they lack the skill to attain that goal.
To convey honesty requires effort, it cannot be steeped in fad or fakery. Honesty is helped by technical ability but it isn’t created by it.
There are ten thousand people in the United States who can paint and draw to beat the band. You have never heard of them and you never will. They have thoroughly mastered their craft and that is all they have—their craft… Merely knowing your craft will never be enough to make a picture… If you ever amount to anything at all, it will be because you are true to that deep desire or ideal which made you seek artistic expression in pictures. —– Harvey Dunn

2 thoughts on “The Substance of Art

  1. Always worth crediting the artist! Those alligators are a beautiful Sargent…Worcester Art Museum.

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