Fatima, Jordan Casteel, 2018
Is it possible to be a successful, mainstream artist in the 21st century without being socially engaged? Has art moved on from being a source of pleasure and become an act of social engagement? Is this a good thing?
These are some of the thoughts that came to my mind when I came across the works of up-and-coming American artist Jordan Casteel. She paints mostly in oils and she depicts people of colour, mostly family, friends and residents in Harlem, and is an artist who paints works full of “empathy and love.”
In this painting, Fatima, as there are in several of her paintings, there is a simulacrum, even an homage to the leisurely paintings of the impressionists, Matisse especially. The painting is bright, colourful, pleasing to look at, it is also a bit of a souvenir painting, depicting the street life of Casteel’s community to the point it makes you want to go to Fatima’s shop and try her egg and cheese on a roll.
Fatima is also depicted in a naturalistic manner; she looks like the artist has caught her on a break, sitting down for five minutes before the next rush, and this pose makes the subject easy to relate to, you almost feel like you’ve stopped to have a chat with Fatima.
Now of course, no piece of art can ever truly be free of the greater world. John Donne famously wrote that no man is an island, well, no artwork is either. And although Fatima is less overtly engaged than Casteel’s other paintings, there is still an element, I feel, of here is my community, here are the people mainstream society either marginalises or ignores, and here I am glorifying them as they deserve to be.
In fairness, this is not at all obvious or in your face. Had I never read any interviews by the artist I would have just seen this as a piece of realist, almost traditional art. A refreshing piece of conservatism in today’s Gaga-esque art market. And to do justice to Casteel – as well as credit – she speaks very calmly and in a nuanced manner about her art. Such as in this interview with Bomb magazine:
“As a black woman artist, does the intent need to be deemed “political” in order for the work to be meaningful?… Given the temperament of today’s art world, I have grown to understand that the reciprocal nature of my work between painter, subject, and viewer allows for political interpretations or messaging, often superseding conversations of style, technique, and composition.”
Therein lies the question that interests me, “given the temperament of today’s art world”. My first impression of Casteel, beyond the quality of the work itself, was here is another artist with a political message, here is someone more interested in slogans and trends than art itself. That reaction, knee-jerk and instinctive, did a disservice to Casteel. She is a victim of the temperament of today’s art world which tends to relegate the beauty of an artwork beneath layers of sloganeering politicisation.
I am sure Casteel is genuinely interested in her subjects, both as an artist and a human being. There is clearly respect for people like Fatima, she does her justice, and it is a painting that could be hung on someone’s wall without the need to appreciate the ‘politics’ behind it.
Art has power. Art truly can change perceptions. But that is only one, small facet of what art is about. Across history there have been artworks that perfectly capture a moment in time. Artworks as varied as Trajan’s Column, Goya’s The Third of May 1808 and Picasso’s Guernica. You could look at those paintings and discard them, saying, oh no they’re just pamphlets, propaganda. But it’s not that simple. Beauty also is not an island.
As Kant wrote in The Critique of Judgment: “When he puts a thing on a pedestal and calls it beautiful, he demands the same delight from others. He judges not merely for himself, but for all men, and then speaks of beauty as if it were the property of things.” All beauty is impregnated with the artist’s ideals as well as the viewer’s; it is a dialogue pregnant with past ideals, experience and cultures.
The greatest artists meld beauty and the ‘political’ together, gets them to work in harmony like Daphnis and Chloe. An inferior artist, or one who is nothing but a glorified sloganeer, is one that enslaves beauty and makes her work for a Cause. Is that the artistic climate artists like Casteel have to survive in?
The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer, 1657 – 1658
Even a painting as seemingly simple and straightforward as Vermeer’s masterpiece can have political undertones – if you look for them!
The milkmaid depicted on Vermeer’s small canvas is not actually a milkmaid, she is a kitchen maid. Therein lies the politics. Or the controversy. Or the subtle artistic genius. It depends on what experiences you bring upon the painting itself.
In the hundred or so years before Vermeer, kitchen maids in Dutch paintings were always depicted as subjects of male desire. Subtle little Dutch Playboy paintings, in essence. But Vermeer’s kitchen maid is unlike any of the cover girls of his predecessors.
Her gaze is stoic and focused; she is not looking out at us but at her work, at pouring milk in preparation for a bread custard. Her figure is also robust and her hair, usually a symbol of attraction, is covered.
With a modern, 21st century perspective, you can call this a #MeToo moment; Vermeer showing women not merely as sexual objects but ones dedicated to their work, even work so humble. He is here celebrating the maid’s work ethic and romanticising her commitment rather than her body and potential for mischief and fun.
Vermeer is, very wittily, reminding us of the tradition the painting is borne from. At the bottom of the painting, near the maid’s feet, is a small Cupid painted onto the wall. As if to tell us, I know what you’re thinking, what you’re expecting, but no, sexuality is not important here, it’s just a scratch on the wall. Vermeer is admonishing us, telling us to get our mind out of the gutter and admire the art and not what it might imply.
But is all that true? Is that in any way accurate and reflective of what Vermeer was telling us? Or is it just a load of 21st century baggage we’re imposing on the painting?
There are similarities to Fatima here. Maybe not in style and composition, but in its subject matter. Both artists are depicting working women at their work-place. But it is so much easier to see Fatima as a representative of a minority, a symbol for marginalised people judged by their ethnicity. With the Milkmaid you really have to do some very athletic woke gymnastics to see her as a symbol for feminism or the de-sexualisation of women.
Of course symbolism was as embedded in Dutch painting as it is 21st century art. Indeed, symbolism is part of the fabric of all art, because, as I said before, no art is an island, and little symbols like Vermeer’s Cupid are the artist’s way of connecting a painting with the outer world. But the ‘temperament’ of the art world in past times courted politics less eagerly and less obviously.
Once again, politicking is subservient to beauty. You can look at a painting like The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede by Jacob van Ruisdael as an ode to Dutch nationalism, depicting the windmill, most recognisable icons of the Netherlands, as a heroic structure, even representing the cross, showing viewers the glory of the Christian Dutch kingdom of the 17th century. But you can very easily – and this is the approach I personally prefer – appreciate it as a beautiful landscape painting that evokes the weather, topography and architecture of a very specific place and time.
Here, as in The Milkmaid, the distance we have from the political climate of the time, makes it easier for us to see the artistic and the politics merging together. Shouldn’t art be thus multi-layered? Shouldn’t artists be as turned on by beauty as they are by their ideologies? Shouldn’t the timeless merge seamlessly with the timely?
Surely, there is grandeur in this view of art.