Neutral subject matter

March 13, 2007

Robert Genn

There are three main types of subject matter--positive,
negative, and neutral. While there are loads of hybrid
possibilities, I'll describe three extreme works so you get my

Positive: Cats playing with a ball of wool. This is
sentimental, feel-good imagery that is lightweight,
light-hearted and life-enhancing. Some might call it "art

Negative: A posthumous rendering of the victim of a serial
killer. This "important" work draws attention to a social
issue. This is "serious" art.

Neutral: A generic tree floating in a cloud of light and paint.
By leaving the literary sub-statement incomplete, and avoiding
too much reality, an engaging image is produced. While somewhat
vacant of meaning, this sort of subject may also have a
positive effect on viewers.

Abstract art is generally neutral. By avoiding subject matter,
abstraction may engage the sensibilities on a more sublime
level. Elements such as colour, pattern and texture become the
subject, and while abstract art may "suggest" something--by not
directly coming out and saying it--the extremes of positive and
negative are avoided. It's the middle ground.

Many positive subjects such as landscape, still life and
wildlife also can be segued into the neutral or negative zone.
Recently, a friend was presenting her seagull paintings to a
gallery. After looking them over, the dealer said, "I don't
think we can use these--seagulls make a mess on people's cars
around here." The dealer was picking up on the negative aspect
of the seagull subject. He must have thought his clients would
too. After some thought, the painter realized that the seagull
motif might be all right if it was merely neutralized and part
of a greater design. Less seagull, more art. I'd like to tell
you her hunch paid off, but that has yet to be seen.

While I'm not advocating the wholesale neutering of subject
matter to make art more popularly digestible, I am suggesting
that artists should be aware of these dynamics. It's not
subjects, negative or positive, that we need to render, exhibit
and sell, but feelings. We're in the feeling business.

Best regards,


PS: "The subject means little. The arrangement, the design,
colour, shape, depth, light, space, mood, movement, balance,
not one or all of these fills the bill. There is something
additional, a breath that draws your breath into its breathing,
a heartbeat that pounds on yours, a recognition of the oneness
of all things." (Emily Carr) "The most deadly picture is a
picture of nothing at all." (William S. Burroughs)

Esoterica: What to do about figurative work? The human figure
may be art's highest manifestation. In my books it's the
toughest, and one of the most rewarding. Neutral it's not.
Being too general is to lose the most vital of human
characteristics--personality. Being too specific lands the
figure in the realms of photography and portraiture. Imagine,
the very idea of stopping and holding people's souls.

"To me Art's subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cezanne's apples I would give away,
For one small Goya or a Daumier." (W. H. Auden)