Abstract Painting as SNART

Thor Stiefel Progress
Pro-gress. Oil on board.

Anybody can paint. No particular talents are needed in order to splash some colors on canvas and make it look good. Using coincidences and having them play a role in abstract painting and sometimes achieving amazingly aesthetically pleasing results is not particularly problematic. Sure, it is an investigation and an experimental process that can be a vital part of an abstract painting process, but it has more to do with technique than art; it is cover – not content.

 I want, in this letter, to address what it is that drives me as an artist using the abstract painting as a medium.

 Aesthetics are not my objective. To master some technique is unimportant to me as an objective in itself. Painting, or an artwork, aiming to be beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, can all too easily go into the direction of decoration. Beauty is subjective and what is aesthetically pleasing, varies from one person to another, from one society to another and one age to another. It is an interesting phenomenon in itself, worth investigation; but it is not my motivation.

 A mere shallow research reveals that people tend to like strong colors, contrasts and calm compositions with enough distortions to make it interesting. I think it is fair to say that this formula is the prevalent one regarding abstract painting and the one most people like. Most of us who have handled a brush in front of a canvas have practiced this formula. I am not condemning it for a moment. It is a handy exercise and can achieve some nice result, particularly for the so called art–market. After all, shouldn’t the artist´s aim be to satisfy people’s demand for art?

 There are forces at play here I want to address: Art, Markets and Craft. Without diving too heavily into definitions, I must touch upon the definition of art before venturing further into this discussion. When I was in Art School, I couldn’t but notice that neither teacher nor student dared or cared much for the question: What is Art? How strange it is to study a subject and not have the definition on the subject carved out? Perhaps, that is one of the intriguing things about being an artist and an art student? For me, however, regarding this issue is one of the fundamentals in being a professional artist. What am I doing? And why am I doing it? Answering these questions is the fuel for my motivation and the reason I do what I do. I don’t buy into the scapegoat of saying that art is something different for each and every artist or person. For many, it suffices to explain it away by claiming they are creating something people like and people like it because it is beautiful or otherwise interesting and they, as f.ex. abstract painters, keep on doing it because of that. It gives them satisfaction that there is demand for what they do. This, of course, could go for almost any production of things and certainly this is the essence of craft production.

 Early on in my career, I found myself in the situation of answering people’s demands for abstract paintings that suited their homes or offices. They had some preferences that had to do with colors, forms and sizes. Answering these demands, I had become an interior designer rather than an artist. For many abstract painters, this is what they are satisfied doing. I, however, did not like the situation and ejected from it. I had other ambitions. I was, and still am, aiming for art – not craft. So what is art then?

 As I stated earlier, going to art school wasn’t really helpful in answering the question. Studying art on a higher level was helpful in many ways, but it oddly didn’t really address this basic question. Perhaps it is part of the path of becoming an artist to discover for one self the answer. Art history, of course, is loaded with interesting attempts tackling the matter. Marcel Duchamp stated that if he took an item – any item – signed it and displayed it in a gallery it had hence become art. This fostered a revolution in art thinking and changed the way we regard art. Donald Judd, among others, stated that if an artist claims something to be an artwork it has therefore become art. A general consensus today is that anything displayed in an artistic context, i.e. in a gallery or a museum, is art and something being art has more to do with the relationship between the artist and the viewer, than for example, the item itself. So, for instance, if I place my glasses on a gallery floor, it is an artwork, especially if I claim it to be so. However, in contrast, the same glasses are not an artwork if I place them on my kitchen counter at home. I like these definitions and I dislike them at the same time (typically SNART). I like them because they pretty much silence the noise and let artists go on with their business without having to constantly justify their actions to people who don’t and won’t understand art. Also, I am interested in the investigation finding the boundaries where art ends and something else commences. Walking that line is particularly SNART – it is like the mirror separating the two worlds. What I don’t like about it however, is the fact that it doesn’t really answer the question and imposes laziness upon artists as they no longer need to answer for themselves what art is in its essence – you know: Anything is art as long as the context is right, kind of attitude.

Placing the context in the center role of defining art, is saying that for example hand–craft item (let’s say a teapot) is not art unless it is in the “right” context. A disclaimer is appropriate here before venturing further on: Any item can be displayed in a gallery as an artwork following the general practices of modern day art. What I am addressing here is the item itself – not the context. I want to be careful about this shift in an item’s essence and nature. What is happening that converts an ordinary item into a work of art? Is it merely the context and or the artist’s proclamation and intent? No. What makes this shift is deeper than that and much more fundamental in my opinion. What is really at play here is the NARRATION in the action or what I call: SNART.

 So what is art then? Art is a phenomenon like science that is unique to humanity. Art, like science, is humanity’s attempt to understand life. We are conscious beings and have this, it seems, unique ability to ponder about the meaning of life. Science and philosophy are ways we have constructed in order to make sense of things and answer questions we have about life and specific matters – how things work and why. Art, for me, serves a similar purpose. Humanity can explore, document and express life through art, just as it can do the same in science. Furthermore, art can be a source of knowledge that is unique and can only be achieved through art. How? I created an artwork to explain how and why. I did it through an abstract conceptual self-portrait I call SNART.

 SNART is a concept, ideology and a philosophical art system that can be used – spectacles, if you will – to read, make and understand art. Furthermore, it is a concept art in itself; constantly evolving and forming as its maker. SNART has the ability to explain why we, as a species, have this unique urge to create art. The basic principle of SNART is the mirror concept. We have all seen animals experiencing their mirror image for the first time. Most of them freak out. They take their mirror image to be someone else. They can not, at first, distinguish between the “real” world and the one appearing in the mirror. We are so used to seeing ourselves in the mirror that we are oblivious to the magical properties of the mirror. Not only can we see how we look, but we see it REVERSED. We see a whole other world through the mirror, like an echo of our existence. It is in a sense another dimension. Art, in a way, is this mirror; but the image we see through art, the image we create through art, is not an objective reflection but subjective narration reflecting back at us  – a Self Narrative ART. The artist’s story. We are, in other words, not only observing a “mirror” image in art, we are actually creating it and this creation reflects us, as artists and human beings. 

 So, to clarify; when I am making art, more specifically abstract painting in this context, I am, in fact, creating myself as an artist. I am creating my Self–Image. This process, this act, gives me a unique understanding of myself: My self as a person, as an artist, as a human being, as a life–form. This is what I am implying when I state that art can achieve and deliver knowledge nothing else can: Not science, not philosophy, not empirical exploration – nothing! It is unique to art and the fundamental reason why I, and humanity in general, engages in art making.

 So, that is, what is art. A Self Creation Process or SNART. A unique way –esoteric knowledge, if you will. A fundamental activity and a crucial one in our quest for meanings – for if we know ourselves – we can begin to understand the world.

 If you have this key, you can understand my art and any art for that matter. They start to make sense.

 So what has that to do with my methods and choices regarding abstract painting? I can reveal that I often am most satisfied with the paintings I’ve had the most difficult making. Quite often, these difficult children of mine, start out as regularly beautiful abstract paintings and I could really stop there and display them as final works. Frequently, I am sure, they might be considered done by other painters and certainly by laymen. They fulfill all the requirements for a decent abstract work: Composition, color management and contrast, make it interesting enough to look at – but there is something missing. At this stage I often feel like this is something AI could manage. It is a method, more related to craft than art. It is cover – not content. According to SNART art can be read like a journal entry. To use that analogy, I can say that this entry (the painting at this stage) – although an entry and therefore telling something about me and my state of being at that particular time – is not entirely sincere. It’s like an entry that is to make things look better than things really are. Let’s say it’s like a profile post of social media: Pictures from a happy family summer vacation is what appears. Everything is smooth on the surface, but in reality, everything is boiling to the brink: The husband and wife really don’t like each other all that much, the children are constantly fighting, the youngest one sick with fever and the cost has risen way out of control and has to be dealt with when this damn thing is all over.

 What I am trying to get across is that at this stage the work lacks honesty although perfect at the outset. Countlessly, I have carried on working on paintings at this stage. The agony, I almost invariably experience when I see this smooth “beautiful” painting disappear again, is often hurtful. But, there is light at the end of that tunnel – without exceptions. These are my best paintings, because of the struggle that can be felt in them and the eventual calmness that follows. I can see this in other artists’ works as well. This is the main difference, in my opinion, between a good abstract painting and an average or a bad one. Why? Because of the honesty in them – because of the SNART. The struggle it involves, gives the Self–Image its form. That is the narration I want to read. It’s the struggle that reveals the true Self–Image. The polished profile picture is a decoration – a craft.

 So, my abstract paintings have nothing really to do with color choices, picture composition, forms or contrast building. All of that is just a means to an end. My paintings are SNART. They are in essence self portraits: Images of my inner self, my feelings, my state of mind; snapshots of my self’s essence at the moment they are created and seen as a body of work they tell a story – a narrative of the artist that created them, consequently, creating himself – me.