On Kawara’ Depiction of History

painter ≠ artist

Most elementary school class excursions to the museum conjure childhood memories of paintings by Rembrandt, Van Eyck, Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky, Dali etc. The artist they didn’t introduce you to on those field trips was the late Paul Delaroche who said:

  “Painting is Dead.”

Now let me clarify, painting is not dead, per se,  but it is going through a crisis.  Since the advent of the camera photography has super-ceded painting as the predominant media for most accurately depicting visual reality.  So in this sense I would venture to interpret Delroches prophetic pre-Duchampian dictum as a call to liberate artists from relegation by conventional media.

Most artists today work outside of the traditional.  Since the death of “avant garde” the battle cry of post-modern art has been “make it new.”  So those artists who use paint do so in very unconventional ways. In the 1960’s the painter On Kawara  rose up to face this painting crisis. For centuries painting had been the method for capturing the spirit of the times.  It was a typology for events and moments in time.  In this way art kept track of human history. Kawara saw this and created a strict set of rules for his new paintings.  He would give himself one day to paint them, if the painting was not finished it would be destroyed and the image would be a simple reference to the days day in a Gregorian format.


By doing this Kawara makes a depiction of history into an interpersonal affair.  By referring simply to a date we need not be fixed to a myopic depiction of the artists immediate environment but a call to the viewer to recall his or her own history.

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The Best Artists Ask: What is Art? -Art for Arts Sake


Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

It is very difficult to properly determine exactly what this thing is which we humans call art. Some would say  art is that which makes us feel emotional or swept away by something created by someone else while others believe that art is that which causes us to critically view human reality and reevaluate society, politics, economy, culture etc.  Since there are so many different meanings and definitions it should be said that the greatest art is that which has no other purpose than to facilitate the understanding of art itself-“Art for the sake of art.”

Art is Interesting

The Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that art was just a representation of the natural world.  The best art, in his mind, was that which could create an illusion of reality or summon a sense of reality in the viewer.  He literally used the example of a wax figure as the perfect art form because upon approaching a wax figure, believing it to be a real person, one does not realize it is wax until further inspection.  Thus art was fraudulent yet there were only two truth elements that art aroused in its viewers: Beauty and Interest (curiosity). 

Art asks Questions


janine-antoni-touch-2002   So art was something which did not disclose truth in natural reality like objective fact but it disclosed an “ideal” truth.   In the 20th century the modern art movement known as “Conceptualism” began to center its focus on expressing more abstract concepts that were not so easily represented pictorially.  This caused people to reevaluate their previous notions of the concepts.  Some of these ideas that the conceptualists began to convey were:

  • time
  • place
  • identity
  • spirituality
  • language
  • the body

Art is Beautiful

There are those in the school of aesthetic theory who believe that they can determine the artistic quality of something based on it’s beauty.  The idea of sublimity was  a quasi-religious veneration of nature.  Art which produced a “sublime reaction “induced” extraordinary phenomenon in the viewer.

Photography is Plato’s Ultimate Artistic Medium

To Plato art was an imitation of nature.  So if the goal of the artist was to reproduce the things he sees in nature as accurately as possible then all artists would be photographers because nothing visually portrays reality better than the medium of photo.

Art is Creative IMG_0024

Thomas Hobbes had a far broader interpretation of art.  He saw art as the artificial or that which directly stemmed from mans manipulation of natural events.  He divided things between the “Natural” and the “Artificial.”  Nature, he thought, was a “The art whereby God hath made…” while the Artificial was the things that stemmed from mens own creations.  In this sense everything man made is art.

Interpreting art is a creative process itself  Readers and viewers of texts and images necessarily create their own meanings.  According to Roland Barthes no author or artist can fully dictate how others will decode an existing work of art.   Art is subjective and means different things to different people.  As Schopenhauer said, “The inner truth of a representation as to it’s corresponding ideal cannot be perceived by others.”  Quite simply the art is yours to make of it.  I implore you to ask the same question right now.  What is art?


Themes of Contemporary art: Visual art after 1980

Jean robertson, Craig McDaniel published 2005


Arthur Schopenhauer, The Art of Controversy 1831