Pissaro's message for today's world of work
We are living in an era when art may serve as a momentary escape from the exigencies of daily living or a window onto the human condition, but it has little to do with the productive activities to which we devote the major portion of our adult lives. The increasing substitution of technology for human effort, even in white collar jobs, has only served to make art more marginal by depersonalizing our relationship with the world and the people around us.
This separation is unfortunate, for to the extent that art provides a vision of order and wholeness, achieved through the exercise of skill and imagination, it may help us find a sense of dignity and meaning in our work, and a new respect for the efforts of others.
Such is the message that can be gleaned from the exhibition of Camille Pissarro's work now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. To use this term in reference to the paintings, drawings, and prints is very appropriate because there was no distinction between art and work in Pissarro's mind.
His landscapes and cityscapes reveal a man who found his work a way to develop his identity and interject it into the world. His views of Louveciennes are painted so that we sense the hand and mind of the artist discreetly at work in ordering the deceptively simple compositions.
Not surprisingly, Pissarro was committed to the notion that art had a social function to perform. Openly disclosing his creative process was both a way to guarantee his personal integrity and a means of teaching others how to organize their productive efforts.
Pissarro's works also show the degree to which art helped him retain his identity in the face of industrialization. Personal experience had made him acutely aware of the negative effects of machine manufacture. When the worldwide depression of the early 1880s drastically affected the demand for his works, making art became a means of bringing some harmony and control into an otherwise chaotic and insecure time in his lfe. The overtly structured compositions of this period are modest in theme, placid in mood, but daring in design; while the divisionist technique he adopted from Seurat endowed a number of these works with a self-consciously crafted character.
During the 1890s the introduction of cheap commercial printing methods directly challenged Pissarro's assumptions about the relationship between art and work. Faced with the dilemma of having to choose between making a few increasingly expensive, well- crafted works or using a process that allowed inferior quality facsimiles to reach a large audience, Pissarro opted for the approach that had guaranteed his sense of self-worth over the years. The result was a series of intimate and exquisitely fine prints published in very small editions. While his decision meant that he renounced the belief that art could be an effective means of social reform, it does eloquently testify to the value he continued to place on personal involvement in productive activity.
Recognizing that most of us cannot, like Pissarro, avoid the use of labor-saving technology in our work and may not wish to do so, it is still worth asking whether his example can enlighten us in any significant way. I think it can. Perhaps modest images such as Pissarro's may sensitize us to the value of thoughtful effort.
But, in a pluralistic society, where much of our work involves analyzing visual information transmitted on video screens, art might have the most profound effect on our lives by providing designs for the organization and sequencing of information.
The challenge to the artist is to mesh aesthetic aims with practical considerations such as the need for efficiency.
Perhaps art will never entirely resolve the alienating effects of technology, but it may aid us in discovering a new form of personal satisfaction in trying.