Primalism, A Brand New/Ancient Genre
In an effort to be more specific than the term “contemporary” about the art I do today I am identifying myself as the practitioner of a new genre: Primalism. Primal art is totally original art created from scratch. Totally original means there is no copying, appropriation, tracing, projecting, re-engineering, sampling, filtering, or altering someone else’s creation just enough to possibly be defined as a new work. Often, a primalist has no model or scene to work from. The primal artist works from his mind’s eye, memory, heart, emotion, fear, love, lust, id or gut.
Often, when the primal artist approaches a surface, medium or material, he or she has no idea what he or she is going to create. The primalist ideally starts from a tabula rasa, clearing his or her mind as much as possible of external influences, other styles, other artists, art history, teachers, mentors, collectors, clients, art school, critics, jurors, docents, committees, trends, fads, digital media, social media, public relations spin, applications, art fairs, art advisors, gallerists, art magazines, art writers, arbiters of taste, experts, online galleries, friends, family, and the wild aspiration to achieve, perhaps even during one’s lifetime, the astronomical sale prices seen in high-profile auctions in major cities.
While “primal” is a new genre, it is also an ancient one; in fact the oldest of all. The Paleolithic cave artists of Europe and Asia were primalists. They painted from their memory, heart, emotion, fear, love, lust, superstition, id or gut. There were no images offered by the Internet, TV, Hollywood, magazines, newspapers, comic books, Google images, art books, galleries, museums, image libraries, stock houses, art schools, art websites, or art videos on YouTube.
Andy Warhol is credited with having said, “Modern Art is what you can get away with.” As the founder and king of appropriation art, he got away with more than any other artist, and continues to do so today posthumously. But even he would probably be amazed at how brazen the whole-cloth appropriation of other people’s work has become. It’s clear that stealing is unfair and affects the person stolen from, but recourse is not often pursued because the law has not been clear on this issue. The apocryphal bottom line is that if an artist takes another artist’s work and changes it somewhat, it’s okay. Has “somewhat” been quantified in any specific way? Not really. It depends on the fame, chutzpah and cost of your lawyer, and the disposition of the judge. How can you quantify nuances in a work of art? Appropriation art, and any art that is overtly derivative of an existing work, whether the artist gets away with it or not, is diametrically the opposite of primal art.
Examples of primal art: Stone Age art. Pre-historic cave art. Fertility images. Much of folk art. Much of “primitive” art, both ancient and modern. Some Romanticism (Turner’s later work), Some post-impressionists (Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne), Many fauve works (Matisse, Kandinsky, Kirchner); Much original cubist and futurist work (Picasso, Braque, Leger, Boccioni); Dada, dreams and the subconscious (Magritte, Dali, Duchamp); Abstract and Abstract Expressionism (Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko); Pop art marked the beginning of establishment-approved wholesale copying of popular images for fun and profit.
Any artist who creates original, non-derivative works from his own mind and hand is a primalist. Any artist that you can reasonably call an “original” can most likely be called a primalist. Primal art can be figurative, representational, or abstract. Most largely self-taught artists are primalists, or most of their original work is primal: Johannes Vermeer, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Rousseau, Frida Kahlo, Grandma Moses, Jean Michel Basquiat are examples that come to mind.
An artist who appropriates an image, either in the public domain or not, and adds a mark or two, or a dab of paint or two, and then signs the image is not a primalist. An artist who does nothing more than sign a work that has been created and executed wholly by assistants is not a primalist. In fact, such an “artist” is more appropriately categorized as a con-artist.
A primalist may well be the proverbial “starving artist,” or he or she may be wildly famous and successful, like Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, Cezanne, or Matisse. A primalist is the real-deal, an original, an iconoclast who cuts his own swath and sticks to his guns in the face of any and all obstacles no matter what.