Comedian Ricky Gervais has, in the past two years, produced a TV show calledAn Idiot Abroad, featuring his colleague Karl Pilkington as a reluctant traveler. Defying the convention of the wise dauntless traveler who narrates his or her experience from a perspective of professorial awe, An Idiot abroad tells its story through a traveler who is very much uncomfortable with foreign custom and dubious of the world’s spectacles. Karl is framed as the village idiot who cannot see things the way society deems normal, and is entertaining by way of his earnest grumbles. He finds the Great Wall of China repetitive, for instance. Often the show brings a strange clarity that suggests “common sense” is idiotic, and Karl’s experience is the way of genius. Karl has what painter’s relish as beginners vision, whereby the world is untainted by preconception.
This show got me to thinking how idiocy can be artful and how art is idiotic. A teacher of mine, Tina Newberry, once told me during a critique that, “Painting is dumb”. These were the words of a critic and painter whom I respected dearly, addressed to me at the very point in my artistic training when I was overwhelmed by the profundity of my new skills and the sophisticated world of art to which I was entering. She clarified that stupid painters don’t make good paintings, but that good paintings were stupid. It was still a baffling notion to someone who was in the thick of art school’s lofty insufferable discussions on art. It was like hearing a mother amongst other doting parents saying, “my kid’s a real dunce—I love him but I wouldn’t be surprised if he drowned in a drizzle.”
Tina is an impressive painter whose works of self-portraiture are stages on which to investigate histories both personal and societal. Adorned in plaid she plots her Scottish ancestry, or in uniform she casts herself in the civil war, always with equal parts stoicism and satire. Her paintings are nothing if not thoughtful but I came to see that her success hinged as much on the acceptance painting’s stupidity as it did her generous intellect. In her case, the comedic element reveals the folly of painting by using it as a straight man, but without sacrificing its integrity.
This is the puzzling paradox; a painting may achieve brilliance but it will always be naive. It is a comforting humility. The agent of stupidity comes down to the basic inefficiency of painting. To make a painting is a relatively slow manner of communicating an idea. A painting is never prompt to a conversation of any kind, it exists in it’s own time waiting for the conversation to come back around to it, so it’s relevance is suspect. Paintings are flat and static, they don’t readily adapt to new situations. Most especially though, paintings create a world of their own, each having responsibility to convey all the logic and laws that govern that space and none coming anywhere near doing that job thoroughly. No matter how vivid, or realistic, or complex, the world inhabited by a painting is boiled down, half-baked, and limited at best.
In most studies, information leads to knowledge that builds on itself and endows the thinker with intelligence. The study done by painting, however, does not necessarily follow a linear track. The knowledge mined in painting makes one suddenly aware and then suddenly lost. The development of an idea may well lead back to the beginning again, like an M.C. Escher house. However, this labyrinth of stupidity allows one to take shortcuts to genius and understanding.
Good paintings are stubborn to accept prior knowledge on a subject; they flaunt their mistakes with conviction. Like Karl Pilkington, bumbling around the world, they are ignorant of how things are conventionally seen, and as such are revealing towards how we really experience the world. Being loyal to our imperfections as observers, paintings reflect our humanity. Painted thought is emotional rather than rational, prioritizing what feels right rather than what is logical—the hallmark of stupidity.
Paintings are a reflection of an artist’s experience and thinking made visual. As such, they are evaluated as thought and their success is often seen as an act of great cerebral acrobatics on the part of the artist. Indeed, it can take terrific mental labor and research to birth a painting. But being reminded of their essential stupidity grounds them in reality. As soon as a painting tries to be too clever and follows an agenda, it loses that essential thing that makes it nutritious—that stupidity that rings with honesty. Paintings can’t be everything, and the secret is that they don’t need to be. Accepting the limitations of painting—the stupidity of it—can be the most liberating thing a painter or viewer does.