Ben Shahn — on Nonconformity


shahn 2


Artist: Ben Shahn


From The Shape of Content:

The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society. He seems a little unpredictable. Who knows but that he may arrive for dinner in a red shirt…appear unexpectedly bearded…offer, freely, unsolicited advice…or even ship off one of his ears to some unwilling recipient? However glorious the history of art, the history of artists is quite another matter. And in any well-ordered household the very thought that one of the young may turn out to be an artist can be a cause for general alarm. It may be a point of great pride to have a Van Gogh on the living room wall, but the prospect of having Van Gogh himself in the living room would put a good many devoted art lovers to rout.

…There was a great commotion aroused in Paris around 1925 when it was proposed by officials that one of the pavilions of the coming Exposition des Arts Decoratifs be housed in that space traditionally reserved for the Salon of the Independents. It was suggested that, in view of the new enlightenment, there was actually no further need of an Independents show in Paris. An indignant critic promptly offered to give 25 reasons why the Independents’ show ought to be continued.

The 25 reasons proved to be 25 names–those of the winners of the Prix de Rome over as many years, the Prix de Rome being the most exalted award that can be extended to talented artists by the French Government. But all these names, excepting that of Rouault, were totally unknown to art. The critic then called off 25 names, those of artists who had first exhibited with the Independents, who had not won a Prix de Rome, and who could not by any stretch of the imagination have won such an award. They were Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Degas, Derain, Daumier, Matisse, Utrillo, Picasso, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Braque, Gauguin, Léger, and so on and on.

This incident has great bearing upon the matter of conformity. For it was through the questionable virtue of conformity that the Prix de Rome winners had prevailed. That is to say, they had no quarrel with art as it stood. The accepted concepts of beauty, of appropriate subject matter, of design, the small conceits of style, and the whole conventional system of art and art teaching were perfectly agreeable to them. By fulfilling current standards drawn out of past art, the applicants had won the approval of officials whose standards also were based upon past art, and who could hardly be expected to have visions of the future. But it is always the in the future that the course of art lies, and so all the guesses of the officials were wrong guesses.

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5 Responses to Ben Shahn — on Nonconformity

  1. wewordsmiths says:

    Pretend, lucky stars, that the Warhol & Greenberg tropist-vacuum never occurred. There would have been a continuation of output for figurative art in the mainstream. And a comparative abundance of interpretation or style well known to the audience. The element of originality, rare at best, would seem even more constrained by a claustrophobia of plenty. (Yet, it seems to me, the opposite is more true: variety supports, nurtures variety as it does in the natural world.)

    Had I chosen to be an illustrator (a dubious notion with very sharp claws) I may have proceeded thus: Highly detailed figure(s) in ink or oil/acrylic, over a field of weak (misty, cloudy) yet subtle color(s) in pastel or watercolor.

    Hmmm… But what substrate could take both watercolor/pastel and oil/acrylic equally well? As I’m woefully ignorant here, I don’t know. Linen, as a fair but awkward compromise, would be my guess; although the watercolor purist would be both hard-pressed and offended. And the watercolors themselves might need stiffening… I guess – pastels, fixed. Sorry, I’m just wandering as usual.

    The weak colors of the field I would consider my “white”, and the foreground figure my “black/dark” (even if its line were a dark color other than black, although black remains a primary option). If there were a series, I’d simply call them “Series In White and Black”.

    In any case, the notion (not a grandly vacuous concept!) would be primarily, one of contrast, a chiaroscuro of detail rather than light. Of course, this was/is done all the time, I’ve just never seen it featured (highlighted, haha) in this way.

    What I’m getting at is – are you open to a commission?

  2. trueoutsider says:

    William, I appreciate you hitting posts where the images are dropped out. I’m trying to put at least something in their spots… also want to get back with a response to your comments, which I enjoy. I’m just crushed with demands on my time at the moment.

    I can always talk materials with you… have picked up a bit of knowledge after 50 years in the biz…I’ll get back to you on the question abt substrate as soon as I find a break in the (no fun) action.

    always open to commissions… but the time frame has to be loose as i’m snowed under right now getting stuff together for a show in brussels.


  3. trueoutsider says:

    OK,.. Watercolor won’t work on linen unless you’re going to perhaps glue it down over a panel and then gesso it with a Golden product that gives a watercolor ground… But this is a hell of a lot of not just bother cut also cost.

    What I’d recommend is a heavyweight Hot-Pressed (300 lb) piece of Watercolor paper. You could try Cold Pressed as well to see which is more responsive to your sensibility. 300 lb weight doesn’t buckle when you put various media on it., which lighter papers will do. They’re also going to be problematic if you want to build up media or scratch into (something Turner and others did do dig into the pure white underneath the pigmented watercolor/gouache on the surface… You can put down watercolors/pastels and run the paper under the faucet to wash them off leaving a subtle residue…. which you can then work back into. As far as fixing the pastel, it’s going to go into the paper somewhat with the water and if you’re putting acrylic/oil on top that’s going to fix some of the pastel also.

    Personally, I’d avoid a pure black on top of a colored field as it can tend to “punch holes” in the field and become silhouettes… You can mix color into black… use various dark complementary colors like pthalo green and alizarin for various rich blacks if you play around with combinations. But if I were you I wouldn’t get so far along in the “concept” or planning, title of the series and so on. But that’s my own preference and it might be that the rough conceptualizing is a help to get you experimenting.

    If I were doing what you’re describing I’d have four or five sheets of the watercolor paper so no single one of them became precious. To me it’s always important not to get attached to anything, particularly at an early stage, as if you like one thing in particular you’ll go out of your way to protect it from being obliterated. And it’s important to feel free to wipe things in and wipe them out… Or paint over them (in the case of acrylics) with ease..

    If you begin to work on it let me know and I can field questions or not as the case may be. … I’ve always been really hermetic even as a student and preferred to muddle my way through things on my own to see what I could see. I wanted to see what was inside my head, just as Flaubert said he wrote to see what he thought.

    For me, that’s the truly marvelous thing about being an artist. Not a display of technical skill or great “concepts” or visual messages or “statements” as artists like to call them. It’s being able to manifest what is inside your head. “Nature viewed through a temperament” was Zola or Cézanne’s definition of art… I’ve heard it attributed to both of them in various places. Perhaps they arrived at it together as childhood friends before Zola trashed Cezanne in The Masterpiece.

    But that’s a pretty good definition. It can just as easily be one’s own internal nature as to view a landscape and translate it through ones vision. Klee said, Art doesn’t copy the visible; it makes visible… It’s a simple process if we strip it of all the pretense. Children understand it. It’s both a simple and a necessary human activity, which is why painting is not dead now, nor will it be dead in future. It’s only dead inside an art world that prizes nothing but money and egotistic display.

  4. wewordsmiths says:

    There is no urgency whatsoever in responses to comments. It is a pleasure to have an established place to express myself where my “venting” will be given a fair hearing.

    Likewise, as to any commission, the timeline is flexibly long even if your schedule wasn’t crowded. Please let me know when you return from Brussels, at which point we may discuss the possibility.

    As to images dropped on posts, I confess that as one of those horrid writer-artists, the omission doesn’t deter me so long as the remaining words have life!

    Lastly, I’m afraid I’ve been terribly unclear. I’m not any member of the manual/visual/fine arts community, except as an admirer. I jettisoned that possibility long ago. The inquiry into materials was wholly hypothetical, and a sadly typical example of wandering digression! Having said that, I thank you for your insights, and do apologize for consuming precious time…

    Brussels! Wonderful…

  5. trueoutsider says:

    Not at all, William, not at all. I enjoy writing about materials and chatting when I have the time. And if you won’t be able to use the advice perhaps someone else with stumble on it and have use for it. My blog is just for painters to take or leave whatever might be here for them. I think that so many readers take what I’m writing as some sort of Paris Spleen or electrified vitriol. I can get into that frame if I’m in a lousy mood, but most of the time I’m laughing myself off the chair writing about Koons and Marina and company. If I thought there was any remote chance my writing would have an effect on the sad state of affairs I might perhaps get mad. But since I know whatever I write will have no effect whatsoever on the sad state of affairs, I’m pretty detached when I’m writing. And it’s mostly either to amuse myself or explore my own thoughts about painting/painters or post works of artists I enjoy looking at and hope other artists/viewers will as well..

    I won’t be going to Brussels until Mid-March so what I’m doing now is preparatory. Whenever you feel like writing about a commission proposal you’re free to contact me ( Now or months from now, no matter. The other project I have going is a comic I’m collaborating on with a friend who’s written it. I’ve done a number of “alt-comics”, hand printed “artist’s books”… always keeping busy on one thing or another… Idle hands, you know, gotta avoid those. So I’m invariably busy on one thing or another and any commission/illustration work I just fit into whatever I’m doing at the time.

    I’m always interested in what you have to say as a “writer-artist” but a lot of the time I can just let your comments go as your own take on the artist/artists I’m looking at. Where I disagree with you about an artist I prefer not to get into anything that might be construed as an argument because while I may seem like I’m a dogmatist it’s more that I’m just trying to set straight for myself what work I like and what I don’t. I like it that the world of painting is diverse. And while I might greatly prefer Delacroix to Ingres I don’t get into arguments about which is the greater artist if I can avoid them.

    What I really try to do is deflate the works of artists that I find completely mediocre and far underserving of all the hype lavished on them. As a painter of long years, I can spot just what a lot of hooey almost all of “Contemporary Painting” amounts to (although not all of it by any means). What I look for in painting is authenticity, a pure expression of a unique self. It’s why I’m so saddened that painting has devolved into stale “styles” possessing little if any kind of a unique take on the world that we currently inhabit…. As was the Baudelaire of Paris Spleen, I’m dead set against “art for art’s sake” which is why I take steady aim at the Greenberg/Duchampian junkpile. They’ve certainly crushed my kind of painting and the other painters whose work I love. All I’m doing is fighting back for myself and for those who are no longer able to.

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