The Figure is Back...Again

04/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mark Mennin Sculptor and Professor of Art and Culture

In early March fashionable New Yorkers braved the late winter storm to attend what has become one of the toniest parties on the social schedule: The Tribeca Ball, a benefit for the New York Academy of Art, a graduate school which offers a Masters in Fine Arts to students who actually become masters of something. But while the flashbulbs were on Bill Clinton, Justin Timberlake, and high-heeled luminaries from fashion and society, the real celebrity that night was the Figure. I don't mean just the nude live models and their likenesses displayed in studios around the building, but the Figure, capital F, that historical constant as captured though paint and clay. I mean the human form writ large -- the artistic representation of manly muscles and womanly curves (or vice versa), and of gesture, expression, and human emotion.

To those of us who have been waiting for quality and talent to take its rightful place again after a glut of fin-de-siècle art world decadence, this is a hallelujah moment. It is also a time to realize the importance of institutions which teach the figure, the most critical skill and practice in the visual arts. This is not to stifle creativity, but to recognize that all visual arts start with the live nude. The rendered figure is finally freed from its long perceived reactionary stance and is now simply a very hip constant. This is owed to the progressive movements around the figure as well as its own steadfastness.

The ability to render the human form should be the undisputed jumping off point for any working visual artist, from Pop to Neo-Geo. Dominant art movements make life easier for art historians, but are not necessarily the healthiest points of reference for the art world to have. And man -- or woman -- is never far from any work of art. The relevance of the human form is implied in all transactions between the art and the public, whether one is viewing the piece at a crowded museum or over a fireplace in a private home. A human being is responsible for the conception and execution of all art. Man is present even in the most abstract work, particularly when tangential, conceptual movements are borne out of an anti-figure perspective. This also applies to sculpture, which is viewed in relationship to man in scale and gesture, as well as to architecture, where one of the most important aspects is the human procession through the space the building contains.

People immediately relate to the figure, whether it is from the long history of human representational art that reassures us, or just from our plain, innate narcissism. When I look at Michelangelo's David, I am not only looking at the most perfect sculpture of any time, I am also looking at an affirmation of man's own beauty -- which is a healthy declaration of vanity.

As has happened so many times over history, the re-emergence of the Figure reaffirms that representational art will never die, as many art manifestos would like to declare in their very first sentence. Traditional figurative art may never again completely dominate the world aesthetic or the marketplace because of technology and new media, but it is always the place to which great art returns, and where real talent takes root. It has an innate longevity which just will not go away. Our contemporary awareness of Art History shows us that there is a tradition of recycling imagery, whether it was Picasso embracing the ill-named "primitives" or more recent appropriations. The figure in some form is always there.

It seems only fitting that these recessionary times should embrace the return of the Figure, in all its simplicity. We are all reduced to flesh, blood, clothing occasionally, and a range of feelings that we cannot always hide. These days, many of us are lost enough to search for meaning and sometimes ourselves, and it is remarkable what we can find in representational art. When the narrative is in the painting, there is less reliance on the written word, which the world of art criticism will otherwise generously provide. This allows once again for instinct, for falling in love with a painting or a sculpture. People will likely be pulling back from the idea of speculation and will force the art-appreciating public to educate itself. With less disposable income, collectors will be less likely to buy art because someone told them it would be cool, just as investors will be wary of the next Bernie Madoff because someone tells them he's a genius. Patrons will want to see and understand for themselves what they are buying. If the night at the New York Academy is any indication, there will be renewed appreciation for quality and durability in painting and sculpture

For the figure to maintain a toehold, it also needs to make some noise, much as Julian Schnabel (yes, he was above all a representative painter and a loud one at that) did in the 1980's. What is missing most in America are enough institutions that can teach these skills at an early enough age where artists can master the figure intuitively but not have it be a constricting way of looking at the world. In other words the need and acquisition of skills is an asset, not a liability. At the very core of this is something that we all crave whether we know it or not -- to be transported by an imagined rendered beauty. Abstract art can do this of course. But without the mastery to back it up, we all come up empty. And we will always return to the Figure, for what it can express to all of us looking on.