blogger counters

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

What Is Art? Bob Ross and Mary Cassatt

I was listening to a discussion of the recent documentary on the life and work of Bob Ross. He is the painter who painted all the "happy little trees" and liked it when a slip of the brush or paint drippings created "happy accidents." He was a practitioner of the "wet on wet" technique of oil painting that would allow a person to complete a painting in around 30 minutes. He was not an academically trained painter; he learned to paint through a television series after he retired from the Air Force, where he spent much of his time in Alaska.  Alaska gave him a deep appreciation of mountains and other bucolic, tranquil scenes. 

Critics routinely savage Bob Ross. They attack him for being sentimental and formulaic, and that there are no deep ideas behind his paintings, just a shallow, uninteresting set of visual cliches designed to make people feel that all is good in the world, and there is no reason to examine, interrogate, or question life. His work is not subversive, at least not overtly so. 

It's interesting about how and when critics attack artists for being too "commercial" or sentimental. I think that the early Impressionists were not universally admired or embraced, especially those who painted in "plein aire" -- taking their oils out into the outdoors and painting quickly. I think it's similar to what Bob Ross did, except the brush techniques, the color palette, and the subjects were different. Mary Cassatt comes to mind. Many of her paintings were done in "plein aire" -- "Poppies in a Field (1880)" comes to mind. It's not a landscape per se - it has children in it, but it has bright colors and to look at it gives one a happy feeling (to quote Bob Ross).

Mary Cassatt - Poppies in a Field (1880)

Is Mary Cassatt controversial or subversive?  She was classically and academically trained, and from a wealthy family. She moved to France to pursue painting -- so, her formation alone differentiate her from the way that Bob Ross learned how to paint. She was quite literate, where as Bob Ross dropped out of high school at age 14, but presumably had a GED given that he was in the Air Force.

But, how might Mary Cassatt be considered great and Bob Ross considered kitsch?  We can say that Bob Ross is making a visual commentary on the Hudson River school such as Thomas Cole and the landscape artists such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt who painted the American West -- with the sense of romantic vastness. 

Thomas Cole - The Oxbow (1836)

The answer might be not just in the technique, but in the philosophical underpinnings that inform the paintings. Bob Ross paints to elicit an emotion (happiness) while painters such as Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt painted from the Romantic spirit of the day; Romanticism as a philosophical construct that seeks extremes of emotion (awe, the sublime), a sense of the vast, unknowable states of being and universal order (or chaos), and finally, the concept of human liberty. That said, would a painter who seeks to evoke tranquility be automatically relegated to "kitsch"? Sometimes the differentiator is a commercial motive: Bob Ross worked to sell his books and art supplies. But, how many Romantic painters worked on commission? Here we can see one differentiator - Kitsch is intended for mass markets; Romantics painted for a more rarified audience, seeking the seal of approval by various academies or institutions.

But, to return to the idea of a visual "conversation" with an artistic forebear, it's interesting to compare the choice of colors - the palette - of Bob Ross versus that of the 19th century landscape artists. Bob Ross's paintings are often considered "pretty" or even "beautiful," while aspects of the Romantics could be considered "stunning" or even terrifying. He is making a commentary of sorts. The same be said of Mary Cassatt -- she is making a visual commentary on paintings such as Jean-Francois Millet's The Gleaners (1857).

Jean-Francois Manet - The Gleaners (1857)

Manet subverted generic expectations by including the poor and working class. She subverted yet again generic expectations by incorporating children of the upper middle class, playing in poppies. The children are not cherubs or angels, as in religious paintings, nor are they the infant Jesus or saints as infants. That in itself makes them rather unique -- plein aire -- spontaneous depictions of every day life, and a heightened kind of realism that makes experience, or the recollection of one's experience, more glorious and joyous each time one recollects it.

The Smithsonian's American History Museum accepted the donation of four Bob Ross paintings, along with memorabilia. One of those paintings was displayed, after the Smithsonian even hosted a Bob Ross painting class featuring one of the Bob Ross, Inc. instructors. The concept of having a school of painting and many practitioners is oddly evocative of the Italian Renaissance, and more specifically, of Michelangelo, Titian, and Donatello, except that the painters paint to achieve a mood rather than to produce a mood (thinking of religious awe or later, the Romantics' "blessed mood" (Wordsworth) or the "sublime" (Edmund Burke). But, more on that later!

Blog Archive