State of Wildlife Art

September 11, 2012

May 25, 2011
Is animal painting dead?  The answer needs to be put in the context of the history of art.  The idea of revolution and progress, which was very hot and lively at the beginning of the 20th century, is now dead.  The thinking that “if it has been done before, it is not worth doing again” brought forth a lot of clever “isms”.  Most of those “isms” have run their course but some are still around in one form or another.  As with many things in that century, the tempo of creation and subsequent rejection speeded up until Andy Warhol’s prediction came true, “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”  This “always new” motto ran out of steam decades ago – I’d say in the 1970s. 
Of course, following that philosophy has led to frustration and futility on the part of artists striving to make their mark.  This fact may be at the heart of the question addressed in this essay.
Is animal painting dead?  Forty years ago some were suggesting that all picture painting was dead.  One professor of Fine Arts at a Canadian university said, “Burn your brushes.  The future of art is with neon tubes.”  That was in the 70s.  I am always eager to see what is “au currant” and have found much less than meets the eye when looking for the latest thing.  Birgit and I visited MOMA when we were in NYC recently.  It is full of good stuff including the old masters of modern art such as Rothko, Kline, Warhol and those other artists
of the great New York School of the mid-century.  The MOMA contemporary room of permanent acquisitions was, however, another matter.  One piece was a bit of broken Venetian blind on the floor.  Another was a spot the size of a dinner plate sprayed on the cement of the museum floor with a label on the nearby wall saying, “Gloss white lacquer, sprayed for 2 minutes at 40 lbs pressure directly on the floor 1968.  Purchased 2010.”  Does animal painting want to move forward in this direction?
Evidently talent has had its day, in the view of some influential members of the Art Priesthood.  So, it seems, has beauty.  British philosopher Roger Scruton describes post modernism as portraying the human world as unbeautiful and unlovable.  Art historian Simon Schama speaks of modern art’s curses of cleverness and novelty.
In my view, progress in many areas of culture is over.  Modern classical music died before World War II.  Stravinsky composed his Rite of Spring in 1910.  Violet Archer is one of the most important Canadian modern classical composers.  How many people have heard of her?  How many have heard of Vivaldi?  Who is more popular, Phillip Glass or Edvard Grieg?  If progress was like a river you needed the 18th century scientific revolution before the 19th century industrial revolution followed along by the 20th century technological revolution.  There was a direction.  Now we are in the delta.  There is no main stream.  The only thing that is not in is to say that something is in except maybe for a brief season.  With technology and instant communication it is very difficult for new styles to incubate in isolation.  Therefore, in the field of culture, rehash and revival have replaced real innovation.
I read an article by the art critic of the New York Times in the early 80s.  His theme was his frustration with a vexing question people asked him everywhere he went.  The question was “Who’s new?”  His answer amounted to “Don’t ask me.  I’m just the art critic of the New York Times.  How would I know?”  So let us just enjoy the delta.  It is a complex, lively and varied place without any direction.  Since there is no direction, any style is as advanced as any other.
In order to be noticed by the media and the critics in the blizzard of attention-grabbing art, one must be more and more outrageous.  A shark in formaldehyde is wildlife art, clearly, but too expensive for the average collector, especially if it rots.  By the way, Damien Hirst said, “We are here for a good time, not for a long time.” which fits well in the delta.  Then you get childish silliness like Keith Haring’s art or darling of the art establishment Jeff Koons’ famous, large, blue, plastic poodle resembling a balloon toy.  Since it is a dog, I presume one could call it postmodern animal art.  There is evidently a pink one in Venice.  I am afraid that I put Walton Ford’s work in the same category.  It is skillfully done, but is it a joke?  And by the way, there is nothing wrong with a good joke.  Hirst, Haring and Koons are worthy of a look but they are not an avante garde to follow.
Desperation to be different has its parallel in the New York fashion world.  Look at half of Vogue magazine or the fashion designs of Galliano.  The same
principles and principals are often the elite of New York in art and fashion.  That is just fine if that is your taste but it is too bad if they make the other 99% feel excluded.  Or perhaps the other 99% doesn’t care. 
The image I have is of the old Soviet Politburo.  The Art Priesthood is standing on its platform or Ivory Tower saying, “I have in my hand a manifesto which says that THIS is progress in Art.”  It is not just wildlife art they look down upon.  It is any popular art from Norman Rockwell to western art.  A vast range of subject matter including most contemporary abstractions receives their disdain.  Meanwhile the rest of the world ignores them and marches on by.  Modernism was a fascinating period that has been over for decades.  It is a part of history like Baroque.  Abstract art was wonderful and it is still being done as décor for Holiday Inn.  Bucolic, realistic landscapes have a place in the post modern world as do surrealist designs on album covers, as well as every other style that has ever been tried.  It is all just fine in the delta where quality does not depend on style and style often depends on taste. 
There seems to be a myth in some circles that if the art is enigmatic and puzzling it must be more spiritual and transcendental.  Who of us has the right to cast a stone at an artist, that his or her work lacks inner feelings and emotion because it is too obvious?  Putting psychological motives on another person is dangerous territory.  If some people prefer the music of Elvis to that of Miles Davis who are we to accuse them of shallowness?  It is a question of taste more than it is a question of depth or soul.  Most people who paint Elvis on black velvet are blatantly stooping to the lowest common denominator of the market.  However, there may be an artist out there who is deeply moved by doing such a painting.  It is not to my taste but I am not qualified to judge another person’s motives.  My urge, however, is to say that such “mall art” looks and smells like a commercial potboiler.  Those of more sophisticated taste have contempt for art that is sentimental or cute.  We may call it “schmaltzy” or “kitschy”.  And most often the artist uses schmaltz in an effort to increase sales.  However, the artist may genuinely love cute or sentimental subjects.  Some people are moved to deep feelings or even tears by the work of Mark Rothko.  Other people of equal intelligence and sensitivity but different taste see blank rectangles, that is all.  “Chacun a son gout,” as the French say.  If you belong to the Miles Davis or Mark Rothko fan clubs you
probably feel that you are more elite than the general mass of Philistines.   Among your peers you are more elite and are likely more elite in absolute terms.
Sadly, some wildlife artists worry about the disdain from the Ivory Tower.  We should get over it.  First of all, the Priesthood is fickle and by no means has a consensus.  It is impossible to keep up with the style “du jour”.  Secondly, the critics are evolving so let us be patient.  Remember, the art establishment of the 19th century refused the Impressionists and now they are treasured.  Most art museums rejected the popular realist Andrew Wyeth.  Then, in 1976, he had a landmark show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (even though Thomas Hoving was criticized vociferously by many of the Modernist priests).   Recently art museums have even had exhibitions by the formerly dreaded Norman Rockwell.  To keep the turnstiles turning, museums are holding shows from comics to classic cars.  Who knew?  Let’s face it, the fact that many big city art critics do not like the depiction of animals shown in their habitat eye to eye with respect, is one of the least important issues facing the planet.  This bellyaching like some rejected suitor is demeaning.
So where is wildlife art?  First of all, even though I use the term for the sake of argument, I reject it because it classifies art by subject rather than style.  You might as well say “Wine Bottle and Guitar Art” or “Female Boobs Art” both of which have been popular subject matter for centuries.  Through the ages artists depicted animals from Paleolithic caves, through Egyptian wall art to Picasso’s bulls and horses and so on.  From the time of Christianity in Europe, western art only rarely showed wildlife unless it was quarry at the end of a spear or pheasants and rabbits hung up by their feet with a bunch of grapes ready for the table.  However, domestic animals were accepted as subject matter.  The late 19th century saw the beginning of an interest in wildlife treated with respect in its own domain.  This was wonderfully shown in the work of Bruno Liljefors or Carl Rungius.  It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that the great flowering of nature art and its popularity got into full swing.  The demographic reasons could have been the advent of television with stories of vanishing wilderness and endangered species.  Also it was perhaps the post World War II boom in prosperity and housing and walls to decorate.  A Californian art scholar drew a parallel with religion.  In past
centuries you put a picture of Christ or Buddha on your wall or a crucifix on your chest to show your virtue.  Perhaps this has been replaced by a wolf or an orca picture on your wall and a panda on your t-shirt.  Whatever the reason there was a boom especially during the 80s and 90s. 
When I was a teenager there were only 3 bird artists in all of Canada.  Now there are hundreds.  In the early 20th century most artists, including the Group of Seven had day jobs, as teachers, commercial artists, fishing guides etc.  In the 21st century there are plenty of artists making a living at animal painting. Perhaps the problem some of the detractors of the state of wildlife art have is that there is too darned much of it.  There was a bandwagon effect in the late 20th century when very many artists of varying talent jumped on board.  Wildlife art shows proliferated and soon the flooded field resulted in a déjà vu feeling that became mind-numbing.  However this same boring glut applies to western art, landscape art and in fact all genres including abstract.  Having said this, there are two or three world class exhibitions featuring birds and other wildlife that show works of freshness, surprise and experimentation.
During the 1980s and 1990s some of the animal artists as well as artists of other genres such as Western supplemented their income with reproductions of their work.  I could never see a legitimate excuse for this unless the artist could not keep up with the demand for originals.
This leads to the issue of prints.  The fact that an artist chooses to do multiples has nothing to do with art.  It has everything to do with market.  Painting for the market goes back centuries to the time when artists started to sign their own work.  Renaissance artists struggled to make a living and competed for patrons.  With the advent of print making artists such as Durer with his wood blocks and Rembrandt with his etchings saw an opportunity for increased profits.  Doing multiples with a lower price point was easier money and also spread the artist’s name and fame.  The boom in reproduction prints in the 1980s and 1990s was the same thing but on an industrial scale.  If an artist market-targets his work he runs the risk of cranking out potboilers to please the public.  This, of course, is the end of creativity, even though craftsmanship may be present.  Artists regularly find a successful formula and produce endless imitations of their own work without exploring fresh ideas.  This
happens in landscape art, wildlife art, people art and abstract art.  In Hong Kong you can buy an abstract painting in pink and chartreuse to go with your drapes, for $40 framed.  I have seen vast art emporiums in southeast Asia selling original art copies of everything from da Vinci to van Gogh to Mondrian and Warhol … all pretty good attempts and all really cheap.  Now you can buy high quality giclee reproductions on canvas that are not that cheap but look very much like the originals.  Maybe the artist makes some money or maybe not but in the great scheme of art history does that really matter?  The art is the thought.  Perhaps it is a good idea, perhaps it is a silly idea.  The reproduction simply disseminates that particular artistic thought, such as it is.
The advent of mass production of all forms of art has been a blessing to the public, not just in prints but in books and posters.  During the 1970s into the 80s the boom in reproduction of art work in books and on posters spread the popularity of Carl Larsson, Aubrey Beardsley, Rien Poortvliet and others, including van Gogh and Picasso.  Then came the boom in limited edition reproductions.  All of these things brought visual joy to countless people and profits to publishers, as well as to some, but not all, artists.  Times have changed, markets are flooded and the economy is different.  Now most publishers are struggling.  There is a clear parallel in the music industry.  During the late 20th century reproductions of the work of musicians from Glenn Gould to the Beatles brought wide popularity and profits.  Who would say that reproduction of music is not a good idea?  Now proliferation and competition has brought commercial confusion to say the least.  Nevertheless there is more activity in musical and visual art in the 21st century than ever before in history.  Animal art is part of this vigorous activity.
Although reproduction print programmes are past their heyday they did contribute millions of dollars to nature conservation 20 years ago.  Some organizations such as Ducks Unlimited still find it worthwhile to run print programmes for their particular worthy work.
Is animal painting dead?  Keeping animal art alive by swinging in the winds of change or the whims of some temporary art critic has nothing to do with the question.  Of course animal painting is not dead.  Painters will explore the possibilities of nature as long as there is art, just as writers will continue to
write about it and photographers photograph it.  Nature is almost infinitely large and varied.  Artists will be influenced by the style of the period in which they live.  Franz Marc and the “Blue Rider Group” were pioneers of Cubism.  The great illustrators of the early 20th century, Charles Livingston Bull and Paul Branson produced strong “designy” compositions influenced by the recent art nouveau movement.  These were mostly done as book or magazine illustrations.  The present crop of nature artist is for the most part influenced by photography.  This used to be controversial but now photography is completely accepted by the art world, as shown in the work of Warhol, Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter.  The photographic look does not destroy the poetry, or deeper meaning of a piece.  Vermeer used a camera obscura to depict his haunting images, among the most poetic ever created.  Many photographs are more creative and poetic than most paintings.   It is the thought that separates poetry from prosaic.  I know a number of abstract artists whose work is inspired by photographs. 
Photographic influence is especially appropriate for nature artists because it deals in particularity.  Literal detail is not a synonym for “illustration”. Illustration is art that is prompted by someone else’s story … such as N. C. Wyeth’s illustration of Robert Louis Stevenson’s books or Tenniel’s drawings for Alice in Wonderland.  The style may be detailed and accurate, but not necessarily.  Perhaps Walton Ford’s pictures are done to illustrate some fantastical story yet untold.  Some of the great illustrations show looseness and exaggeration.  Who is to say that Rembrandt’s “Man With a Golden Helmet” looked exactly like that?  If it is an accurate depiction, does that make it a “mere” illustration?  Is the term illustration meant to be a put down?  Is the equation mere illustration or fine art?  If this is the case, then N. C. Wyeth is less worthy than a cranked out abstract decorator piece.  That logic sheds no light at all on art criticism.  The rising importance of biodiversity in our thinking depends upon identifying species and characterizing ecosystems.  This cannot be rendered with thoughtless, clumsy strokes.  The wonderful looseness of the brushwork of John Singer Sargent conveys uncanny realism.  But loose brushwork in the hands of some lesser artists may convey lack of observation and even laziness.  Truth to the real world is much more interesting than cooked up fiction.  Nature is not only more complicated than we know, it is more complicated than we can know.  All through history,
artists who are worth their salt have depicted what is in their heart.  If the particularity of nature is in your heart, then photorealism is an appropriate style.  Carl Brenders loves the textures of the natural world.  He is a Flemish painter and just like his ancestors who did details of a goblet or a dead pheasant he depicts the detail of moss and feather because it pleases him.  Say no more.
We need to pay attention to the particularity of the planet.  This is not just to save it.  Paying attention to nature is a joy in itself and has measurable benefits for a person’s body, mind and spirit.  Haiku poetry is all about small details of nature in time and space.
Of course, nature art does not have to be detailed.  It can inspire wonderful paintings in a variety of styles, flat or three dimensional, bold or detailed.  But in the delta, one style is not more advanced that any other.  Those days are over.  That is the whole point of this essay.
I am lucky to meet many people who are interested in nature and nature art.  What is especially fascinating is that in recent years I see and hear from more and more young people.  Many of them would like to grow up to be a wildlife artist.  I tell them to first get a day job as a “meal ticket” and then paint their little hearts out in their spare time, for the love of it.  If they get a meal ticket or day job they will not have to paint for the market, which is the death of creativity.  Most artists will never be famous but that is not the point as long as they participate in the joy and struggle of creating art. 
As long as nature is here, nature art will be here to stay.  The future of nature art is bright.  Let’s hope that the same can be said about nature itself.