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strange but beautiful paintings, and thoughts about art
Towards a new art
There is an idea currently circulating that art can be anything whatsoever. I shall argue that this is a symptom of a dying culture. We need a new art that, rather than merely echoing this cultural death, prepares for the culture yet to be born.
Post-modernism in art
The position that I dispute goes roughly like this. You say you don't like such-and-such a piece of art, or even a whole movement of art. But I like it. Or someone else likes it. Or perhaps only the artist likes it. Then the artwork is valid for that person. It is all subjective, and it depends on what you like.
Thus, we may not say that a bin-liner full of rubbish is not art, nor are we able to condemn the trivial defacement of Goya's Horrors of War by the Chapman brothers. We may not understand why Tracey Emin's unmade bed is art and ours is not, but that is just our subjective view, and anyway, Emin thought of it first. Carl André's neat pile of bricks is not like any other pile of bricks, because it makes you think. There are no rules any more, because rules are elitist. Anything goes, in the artist's struggle to express her- or himself.
Six common errors
There are a number of threads to these typically post-modern ideas. First, the idea of relativism: that what is good depends on what you happen to like, and one thing is as good as another. Second, the idea of originality as a raison d'être. (I shall attack the idea that originality is even possible except in the most banal sense.) Third, that the function of art is to make you think. Fourth, that the old idea of quality is linked to elitism (which is applied to lovers of the great art of the past as a term of abuse). Fifth, that there are or should be no rules. Sixth, that art is about self-expression.
1. Problems with relativism
Relativism puts everything on the same level. 'My opinion is as good as yours. Nothing has any value of its own, but if someone likes it, it is good for them.' It doesn't take much effort to see that such a view leads to a catastrophic levelling down, a slide into cultural death.
The death of beauty
The latest sliced animal, the artwork decaying even within a few years of its creation, is as good as a Michaelangelo. A society that believes this will produce monsters, and the minds of its people will not appreciate beauty, because they will not be shown it. Their architecture will celebrate the egos of the architects and their sponsors, because they have nothing objective to celebrate. Beauty, in fact, is already an unfashionable word, unless it sells product.
The logical failure of relativism
What I characterise as extreme relativism is the view that there can be no absolute standard of judgement, that truth is relative to your point of view. On a logical level, extreme relativism cannot hold, simply because on its own reckoning it cannot, as a doctrine, have any greater claim to truth than its contrary.
If I claim that my culture is such that I believe in objective standards, then according to relativism my belief in objective standards must be at least as valid as the claim that there are no such standards. The denial of the existence of an objective world leads to an irreducible paradox.
There is no way to sustain this kind of relativism unless the idea of truth be denied as well, so that the issue of which doctrine is right does not arise. But if the idea of truth be abandoned, then there can be no way of arguing rationally for any doctrine at all, including relativism. According to this extreme form of relativism, relativism itself can be neither true nor false. Relativists, understood in this extreme sense, would be reduced merely to asserting their doctrine, and we should be fully justified, according to their own doctrine, in ignoring them.
The breakdown of relativism in art
From the point of view of art, if nothing is better than anything else, then Rembrandt's last self-portrait is no better than his first, and no better than the bag of refuse which was recently displayed as art in a public gallery (thrown away by accident by a zealous museum cleaner, and replaced by the artist fairly effortlessly shortly afterwards). It is hard to see how the relativist position can be sustained without denying the power of Rembrandt's art.
The breakdown of relativism in culture
I assume that by now it is accepted that a similar idea in anthropology, the idea of cultural relativism, is wrong. We reacted, rightly, against the unthinking assumption of our Victorian ancestors that their culture was superior to any it attempted to supplant. The reaction against Victorian cultural imperialism was perhaps fuelled by guilt and loss of confidence. At its extreme it led, in the latter half of the twentieth century, to the denial that any culture could be criticised from the standpoint of any other. It is hard to reconcile this view with our strong views on cultural practices such as the oppression of women, or genital mutilations carried out without anaesthetic on little girls. Such things must be wrong. It is after all possible for a culture to decay, to become bad, and to contain evil things.
Let this not be misunderstood: I attack no specific culture. But I do say that within each culture there is better and worse, fine things and things that are barbaric.
There is a restricted sense in which relativism is quite correct. For those who are not interested in the struggle for truth, nor for objective art, it is correct to say that art is whatever you want it to be. Strictly speaking the aim of art, as with anything else, depends on our own aim. Therefore, if our aim is producing excitement, for example, then good art is that which produces excitement. If, on the other hand, our aim is to touch something more profound, then we must look for a different kind of art. In this sense, good or bad in art can only be judged in relation to its aim.
Even this analysis has its modern oponents, in those who claim that the intention or the aim of the artist is irrelevant. I do not know how such an argument is defended. Of course, this view is useful for the incompetent artist, because without an aim, failure is impossible.
Two further things might be said in defence of relativism as understood here, one trivial and one serious.
Trivially, relativism fits in very nicely with our consumerist age. If someone likes the product, it will sell. Things have a value after all: the value of everything is to be measured in money.
Seriously, if we are to be able to take any other view, and in art, if we are to assert the existence of the possibility of objective art, then we need to be able to show, at least in principle, what kinds of thing objective art might be and how we might approach it. We have to find an art that does not merely rest on my or your opinion. I shall return to this topic below.
2. The illusion of originality
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.
Little needs to be added to this statement from Ecclesiastes, save a few remarks to illustrate the point.
The latest shock art has no new message that was not already in Marcel Duchamp's Fountain of 1917, a porcelain urinal bought from a plumbing supplier and signed R. Mutt. Duchamp's defence of this work is worth quoting because it is so similar to what we hear today to justify similarly banal works. Duchamp wrote, Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under a new title and point of view - [he] created a new thought for that object.
That 'new' thought is not difficult to discern. If you will excuse the vulgarity, which however perfectly expresses it, it has something to do with taking the piss.
The current mania for originality, leading paradoxically to more and more shallow art, has no meaning except in the desire of the artist to impose her or his over-inflated view of themselves on me and you. It is related to the idea of self-expression, of which more anon. Yet the ideas which the artist purveys as their own are necessarily recycled from everything around them, and are poorer than they need to be in proportion to how much ancient culture has been rejected, and in proportion to how little the artist returns to nature and to the human body as sources of inspiration.
Originality is to return to the origin
3. Is art to make you think?
Art, if it is good enough and if we are ready, can make us for a moment better than we were. It can, in Bernard Berenson's words, react violently on his psychosis and tend to make of him the civilized being we hope he may one day become. At its (and our) best, art can bring us to a wordless seeing.
There is nothing wrong with thinking about art, or having thoughts evoked by a work of art. I have myself taken friends to see my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, and bent their ears with sometimes lengthy explanations of history, symbolism and painterly technique. But there comes a point when we have to stop talking and stop thinking and just look.
A person can be moved by seeing Leonardo's drawing of the Virgin and St Anne (National Gallery, London), or El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz (Toledo) without knowing the complex symbolism of these works. Even so, learning even a little can enhance the experience. The line of heads in The Burial separating heaven and earth. The strange figure of eight made by the composition, perhaps (who knows?) making a diagram of the journey of the soul from Plato's Myth in the tenth book of the Republic, through the middle of which the baby soul squeezes. We see, in the Leonardo, St Anne's hand with its finger pointing up, reminding us that the universe has more than one level, that there is such a thing as up and down, fine and coarse, better and worse. That there is a higher state to be in.
Nevertheless the biggest mystery in the Leonardo is in St Anne's eyes. No theory can help us here. It is as with a simple portrait by Rembrandt: the mystery is beyond words.
The paradox of conceptual art
If this be accepted then the poverty of purely conceptual art becomes apparent. Duchamp's bottle stand and André's pile of bricks are different from any other bottle stand or pile of bricks because, by being placed in the almost sacred space of the gallery, they take on a new meaning. We are not intended to be moved by them, or even admire the craftsmanship (because often there isn't any), but simply to have new thoughts.
What thoughts we are supposed to have is not always clear. Perhaps every work of conceptual art should be supplied with a printed account of what thoughts we should have. Sometimes the thoughts are supplied by art theorists, but then we get what appear to be ordinary words strung together in such a way as to make them incomprehensible. Maybe they should translate them into plain English. Presumably this does not happen, either because there is actually no content, or else because if the project succeeded, the justification for the artwork itself would evaporate. We should merely read the words.
However this analysis is probably unfair. The arrangement of some object in the empty white walled space of the gallery does in fact create a different feeling, a different state, than would reading the words at home. Therefore, whether conceptual art is good or bad, it uses the same method as traditional art: by the arrangement of an object in space it attempts to act on our consciousness in some way, rather than merely evoking new thoughts that we could have had by reading the catalogue. If this is correct then there is no such thing as purely conceptual art, and Duchamp's analysis is wrong.
The word art
If there are those who, in spite of Leonardo, Rembrandt, Piero, Velázquez, in spite of all great art since the Sphinx, still think that art is mainly about words, about concepts, then let them think it. Let real artists call themselves simply painters, sculptors and so on, as they did in Leonardo's time. There is no need to argue about the word art nor about who has most right to it.
Let the conceptualists and self-expressionists have the word art if they want it: we can still aspire to the reality under a different name. However, for want of a new name I shall continue to use the word art in what follows. It should be clear what I mean.
Elitism is often used as a term of abuse to denigrate great art and those who appreciate it. It is an odd usage. Are we to assume that the mythical ordinary person truly appreciates the Turner Prize entries or the works of Damien Hirst, while failing to enjoy Boucher, G.F.Watts or Gwen John?
This is a tricky area, because, as mass-circulation newspaper editors know well, the public loves a circus, and the Turner Prize is a particularly spectacular one. Modern art is everywhere: its very notoriety causes it wittily to be tamed in advertising. Hirst's meaningless painting of coloured circles converts into a fun decoration for the boat which will take you along the Thames between the two Tate Galleries. Thus current art becomes part of everyone's landscape. Also, much modern art is so constructed as to be an almost visceral assault on the senses, and to experience nausea requires no education.
Nevertheless, if the charge of elitism sticks anywhere, it must stick with the purveyors of modern art theory, who confuse obscurity with depth, and it must stick with the manufacturers of the incomprehensible artworks which the theorists pretend to discuss.
What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.
Ludwig Wittgenstein - Preface to the Tractatus Logico-Philosopicus
The world of art is open to anyone. London is one of the most richly-endowed cities in the world in respect of art. Entry to most museums and galleries is free, as are many of the talks and guided tours. On your strolls around the National Gallery you may come across a floor covered with attentive primary school children, in front of a great painting, listening to an informative talk by one of the gallery's experts. Listen in, and you yourself will learn someting worth knowing. Go to the Victoria and Albert museum, and you will see school children drawing the sculptures and casts. Elitist? I don't think so, but no-one can make you go if you don't want to.
The need for art education
Perhaps it is true that to appreciate art requires education, or at least exposure to art. Does this not exclude people whose education is incomplete in this area? Perhaps we should admit that the best art is elitist after all. Does it follow that we should therefore make art crude enough to be understood by everyone as they are?
More reasonably, we could actually fund our adult education institutes properly, and make sure art is taught to a high level in schools. If as many children could draw as can play musical instruments, and to the same standard (and I am not saying that musical education in this country is at all well-funded), then there could be a British artistic renaissance within a generation. I know hardly any children who can draw, yet I know where I can hear a whole orchestra of children playing to near-professional standards. What we don't value, we shall lose.
I do not know for certain, but my worry is that just as there is a shortage of teachers of mathematics, there may be an even worse shortage of teachers who can themselves draw to a good standard. By good standard, I mean the ability to create a drawing that would give equivalent pleasure to a musical instrument played at grade 8. That is to say, a near professional standard that many children attain in music, yet which hardly any attain in art. Go to an open day at any good school, and you will see what I mean.
5. Why have rules?
Everything in the universe obeys inevitable laws. Art cannot be any different. If you paint badly your art will not have the effect you want. If you walk off a cliff you will fall down.
Rules express our current understanding of how those laws work.
The only way to avoid rules in art is to cut art adrift from the rest of the universe. If we say that art need have no rules, then in effect we are saying that art is ineffectual, it does nothing. If on the other hand we wish our art to move us, to change something for us, to act on us, even if it is merely conceptual art that gives us only thoughts, then it must act on our psychology and on our senses in some way. Art is therefore subject to the laws that govern psychology and the senses, and rules in art are an attempt to make those laws work for us.
This is so obvious it should not need to be said. The penalty of ignorance of the laws of art is that the effect of the art is not in the artist's control: it is accidental. If an artist wishes to bring the viewer of art to a particular thought, emotion or state, the artist must know what works and what does not. This is never in doubt in the advertising industry, and to pretend there need be no rules in art is unsustainable.
The confusion perhaps arises from the fact that the rules that have worked before are not necessarily a complete model of the actual laws of art. Like the laws of physics, we do not know the whole reality, but we make guesses, test them, and constantly change our view. Similarly in art, it is necessary for each artist to make discoveries, and to push at the boundaries of what has been up to now possible for him or her. A great artist may need to push even against the limits of what has been done in the past, to extend the rules and discover new ones.
The gods did not reveal, from the beginning, all things to the mortals; but in the course of time, through seeking they may get to know things better.
Breaking free of old rules
What effect do I wish my art to have? How can I achieve this? In order to obey the Muse, an artist may need to break old rules and discover new ones. This is not to deny that art is subject to laws: the artist's struggle with the medium of expression is like the physicist's search for a better approximation to the truth.
The epoch-making revolutions in physics, like Copernicus's revision of Ptolemy or Einstein's revision of Newton, do not start from nothing, but build on what they eventually partly replace. Similarly it is noticeable that many great artists who have successfully broken or bent the rules (Rembrandt's and Titian's increasingly free brushwork, Degas' experiments with pastel, Picasso's and Matisse's simplification of forms) have started from a sound ability to produce art according to traditional methods. Revolutions which seek to destroy entirely what went before must fall back merely on that which is in the artist's head, which may not be a great deal.
If I have seen farther than the rest, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.
One of the most pernicious ideas in art is the idea that the function of art is to express the personality of the artist. Here we come to the pit of hell, the ultimate banality.
Personality is the mask of the woman or man, the actor's mask through which sounds the actor (Latin: per sonare, to sound through). The actor is the soul within, the self. The mask is the husk, the artificial self, the temporary, the constructed. It has no permanence, it is all learned, it apes. We are born ourselves but we become what we think others want us to be. Then we imagine that that is us. That is bad enough, but to wish to reproduce it, to write it large for others to see, is both to fix our own artificiality as though it were real, and at the same time to expect others to believe in it.
The elevation of personality through art is the elevation of what is most superficial at the expense of that which is most real.
It should make a euphonious harmony for the glory of God and the permitted delectation of the mind; and like all music its finis and final cause should never be anything else but the glory of God and the recreation of the mind. When this is not heeded, there really is no music, but a hellish howl and clatter.
J. S. Bach on continuo playing.
I suggest that Bach wished to exclude from the final cause of music the making of a noise for the greater glory of the musician.
In our art schools, young students fresh out of school are taught, before anything else, self-expression. This is madness. To be capable of self-expression, one must have a self. This is not the job of art schools. A self must be acquired by long work, by living authentically, by trying to create one's own understanding of truth. Many years later, perhaps, with luck and with work, a person may finally have something to say. When that day arrives, the artist will need the craft skills and techniques that modern art schools so scandalously fail to provide.
Put simply, self-expression can at best only produce a work as fine as the self it expresses.
There is another way, which is both familiar and yet hard to defend rationally. An artist with the necessary technical skills may be visited by the Muse. I can say little to defend this view except that there have been artists and poets who know that it has happened to them. Yet it was a common ancient belief, one defended by Plato in the Ion and the Phaedrus, and echoed in the modern film Amadeus, that a divine influence could use an artist, perhaps even someone not particularly impressive as a human being, to create works of inspired beauty.
While we may hope for inspiration, we can profitably spend our time meanwhile practising honest craftsmanship.Towards a new art: part 2