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Art: the Demolition Derby
Colin Radford considers the wonderful world of modern art.
Every significant change in art provokes a reaction. Perhaps that’s a tautology, but that means it’s true. In 15th century Florence, Masaccio’s work inspired awe in those who admired Giotto; his paintings and murals were so threedimensional, solid, realistic, expressive – they could be mistaken for reality! Masaccio was working in an established tradition, so the public knew how to appreciate what he produced. Whereas the works of his more innovative contemporary, Uccello, were seen as unsuccessful wrestlings with the problem of perspective. It was quite some time before his groundbreaking new techniques were fully appreciated.
Since then it’s been downhill most of the way; a long descent into artistic chaos. Recently the slope has gone from a slide to something approaching free fall. We will only arrest that descent when all but an interested coterie (i.e. a coterie with an interest), give up on art; when people say that they no longer know what art is, or is supposed to be, or, if it is art, whether it’s any good or not – and don’t care.
That doesn’t mean that people will stop looking for or enjoying aesthetic reactions, but they will look for them elsewhere; in natural phenomena, in design, and in works from earlier periods where they feel they know what it’s about, what it’s trying to do, whether it succeeds, where success is worthwhile, even if it shocks and disturbs. Of course, that won’t stop them feeling puzzled, inadequate or resentful. The arbiters of the new – for modern art is what is new – will ignore such philistinism, or treat it as a confirmation of their insider status, their aesthetic and intellectual with-it-ness. But those outside the galleries, the auction houses, the fractured, frantic, fashionable, cut-throat world of art may well decide that the Saatchis’ predilections in art are as uninteresting as the advertising schemes which enable them to indulge them.
When did the trouble start? In England, at any rate, with the paintings of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Middle-period Turner strikes the innocent as almost the work of an Impressionist, though no historian of art will allow you to say that. He was too early, and he didn’t embrace or avow the Impressionists’ theories of paintings. (‘Impressionism’, despite appearances, is not a term which characterises only the appearance of Impressionist works, and, if it did, there would be no such group of painters. The painters known as Impressionists differed widely in terms of style.)
Late Turner is, or was, even more of a problem, for in some of these works he gets within a title of being an abstract artist. Of course, he can’t be an abstract artist, because of the titles he gave these paintings and once again because he’s too early. Whistler’s work provoked a famous row in 1877, when the critic John Ruskin attacked his painting ‘The Falling Rocket’. Whistler sued Ruskin and won, but he was awarded damages of only a farthing, and the costs bankrupted him. This was a mere curtain-raiser to increasingly chaotic reactions to accelerating change. Each new style seemed even more unintelligible, outrageous, insulting, selfindulgent, offensive, or – at best – gnomic than the preceding one.
Of course, most critics are reluctant to talk like this. They know how the history of art has made conservative critics look blinkered, reactionary and so, stupid.
At least Impressionist paintings were pretty! I’ve never been clear why they should be, but they invariably are, and that limits and reduces what they do. (I would make the same criticism of Hockney.) And it also reduced the offence they gave. Roughly speaking, next came Fauvism and Cubism. Cubism did have a lot of backers, if only, initially, because anyone interested in his art knew that Picasso was an immensely gifted artist who could do almost anything he chose to do. A wider public has since come to accept Cubist works as art. This acceptance may have been fostered by exhibitions showing Picasso’s paintings with his sculptures, such as the fighting bull’s head made from the handlebars and saddle of a racing bicycle, or the baboon with a face constructed from two cars. These demonstrate Picasso’s invention, wit and wonderful eye for shape, so his puzzling paintings get the benefit of the doubt.
Fauvist paintings were, and still are, hard to appreciate. Though representational, and usually depicting traditional, inoffensive subjects, their colouration is crude, ugly, and violent without being interesting or challenging, and so wilful. Fauvism didn’t last and was replaced by abstraction. This was new. Here were paintings which were not paintings of anything. So how to judge?
But before the public could sink its teeth into this problem, it was replaced by others, for example the ‘works’ of Marcel Duchamp. What Duchamp managed to do as a sculptor was, well, not nothing; but he did not make works of art. He was not a maker as the Greeks would have said, he was a finder. He did not make the urinal he exhibited as a sculpture, and so exhibited no skill except in his ability to see that beauty of form is not confined to art exhibits, and thereby show that those who assume that it is are guilty of self-deception, or of a sort of moralising blindness.
I think this lesson was also pretty easy to learn, and learning it provided opportunities for selfcongratulation. But the chaos in art became thicker, faster, less and less capable of elucidation and explanation in terms that made sense to the general public. Of course, some schisms were at least in part intelligible, for example that between Sir Alfred Munnings, with his pretty daubs of racehorses and Stanley Spencer with his – if not ugly representations of some unlovely subjects – his intense representations of ugly and bizarre subjects. It was easy here for the less thoughtful to enjoy the Munnings and the more thoughtful, and no doubt, informed, to feel that all this had been done much better and earlier by Degas – and so, perhaps, that there was something other than the sordid or strange in Spencer. Artists like Augustus John no doubt provided some kind of anchor for those who, otherwise, would have felt all at aesthetic sea.1
But, as I say, the rate of change accelerated and what the general public were offered as art grew stranger and stranger, less easy not only to understand, but to enjoy aesthetically. Of course, they could still go to the exhibitions of work by local artists. They could still go to the Royal Academy annual exhibition. But they knew by then that even the difficult works exhibited in the Royal Academy Exhibition, however puzzling, were not regarded as real works of art, the serious stuff, by the cognoscenti. Art had taken off into a wide blue yonder leaving behind the Exhibition to the duffers and buffers.
Where are we now? No one who is not part of the contemporary art world can say, because now has become so transient. Over the last twenty or thirty years – what an absurdly antediluvian account of the now! – we have had Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalist Art, Conceptual Art, Hyper- Realism, Installation Art, Performance Art and, much more significant, art that is so new and now as to escape any of these desperate categories. Indeed, it could almost be said that today it is a sine qua non of a work’s being a work of art that it cannot be allocated to a group or movement, for if it were it would be derivative, passé.
What is going on? I shall attempt an answer that is at once historical and conceptual. Obviously, answers might be given at other levels, such as the economic, or in terms of the influences of particular artists. But underlying these, indeed making them possible, is the view that our society and its predecessors have had of art.
Before the Renaissance, European art was parochial and primitive. With the discovery, or re-discovery, or heightened awareness of Classical Greece and Rome, European artists, however much they were still in thrall to the Medieval conception of art, changed themselves, their art, and, in so doing society’s view of and views about art. They accepted the Greek idea and ideal of art. But what was that? Or more accurately, perhaps, what was their view of that?
Greek painting has not come down to us. What we know of it and its aspirations depends on vases, fragments of murals and various remarks made by such as Aristotle. From these it appears that paintings were ideally capable both of making an observer believe that he was looking at the real thing represented in the painting and also of providing an ideal of beauty. It was accepted that artists might ‘represent’ the ugly, if fine artists, or the ignoble, if literary artists, but these were lesser achievements.
Our main evidence of the nature of Greek art is provided by their sculptures and Roman copies. The conclusions traditionally drawn depend to some extent on ignorance of the fact that the statues were usually painted in flesh tones and provided with coloured stone irises, and ignore too the role they played in the religious ceremonies of the Classical Greeks. But as we look at the specimens in the British Museum, for instance, we see a collection of works which have invited and received a certain interpretation.
The earliest there date from the 6th Century B.C. and are very primitive, crude, seated figures. They are followed by stylised, hieratic standing figures that could be Ancient Egyptian. But, unlike the work of that or other cultures, such as the Abyssinian, the sculptures of the Classical Greeks evolve at an astonishing rate. Within a couple of hundred years their artists have achieved a technical mastery that has not been surpassed and which, perhaps, can only be equalled. In saying this, we assume that the Greeks were indeed attempting to produce more and more skillful – and in that sense beautiful – representations of idealised subjects.
From this conception of art flows our own, and I shall argue, all our present woes.
According to the Greek ideal, or our conception of it, a work of art was a representation of an idealised object (and, in particular, of a human or super-human being) that should be as skillful as possible and an advance on the work of earlier artists. This allowed for the unavoidable subjectivity of individual aesthetic responses, but insisted that these responses should be informed by the criteria for excellence built in to the very conception of art. And although critics and commentators, such as Aristotle, allowed that some artists were not particularly interested in or well fitted to produce such works – they might prefer grotesques or base subjects and aim solely to amuse – they were in those ways, and for those reasons, lesser artists and lesser men. In this way the aesthetic, the religious and the moral were interconnected.
According then to this conception of art, which has now virtually collapsed (that is to say, been abandoned by the art world), a work of art is just that, a work, and one produced by persons with certain aptitudes and long training which honed their skills. It is a representation, or as Aristotle says, an ‘imitation’ of something in the physical world. The most distinguished examples will represent something that is itself distinguished, elevated, beautiful, often god-like – and so, very often, a god. The representation should itself be perfect and so itself match the beauty of what it represents. In doing so, it should possess a third beauty missing from the natural world, the beauty of accuracy. Our appreciation of this gives us an aesthetic pleasure peculiar to art. The function of art is to please us, not only sensually, but intellectually, emotionally and indeed morally. Some artists were superior in technique, others in their choice of subject, others in qualities such as seriousness and the intellectual and moral depth manifest in their works.
Perhaps the first feature to be abandoned as a sine qua non of excellent art was beauty of subject. Medieval painting had been informed by a belief – or a convention – that the moral and religious beauty of God and his saints would be matched by their physical appearance. In this way it echoed a tradition which shared a similar belief but had cast its theological net much wider (Daphnnis, Chloe, Narcissus and Roman Emperors do not figure in the medieval canon). Of course, all of these artists were allowed, as it were, to represent the base and evil,and hence the ugly, but they could not be central to characteristic works.
Beauty of subject had to be abandoned with the emergence of portraiture, because those who commissioned portraits of themselves or members of their families were not necessarily beautiful. Still, beautiful subjects could still figure in religious paintings, and when religious trappings were abandoned the subjects, such as Bellini’s Doge Leonardo, were at least beautifully apparelled and exhibited gravitas.
Rembrandt’s portraits and genre paintings of old people changed all that. There was no way in which his paintings of old women or his selfportraits in old age could be said to be of physically beautiful subjects. However, perhaps wanting to preserve in some way this dimension of art, many of those with an appetite for Rembrandt – one I share – see in his subjects, and their treatment, a moral beauty which by a further movement of thought is sometimes projected back onto the faces in the pictures as a physical beauty.
But none of this will save ‘The Flayed Ox’. If this is a beautiful and moving painting, its being so cannot be explained in terms of its subject. The beauty and its power to move us must lie in the artist’s treatment of the subject, his skill, his detachment and acceptance.
No one could lament the diversity and added riches which this change brought to art. But many whose response to fine art is profound and intense regret the losses incurred by the next change, which were enormous. What I have in mind is the move to abstraction, anticipated by Turner, but only fully realised in this century. Artists abandoned subjects, physical subjects. It is sometimes said that this move was provoked by the emerging of photography. No doubt it was aided by the search for something new, the unshackling of a restraint, the opportunity to paint purely expressively using only two dimensional shapes and colours, or pure shape in the case of sculpture.
In making this move, artists achieved a liberation, freeing the work itself from its obligation to something beyond itself. In this way, art and artists could achieve an autonomy, and one which freed art from that which is not art. Electrifying stuff!
But the price of this new found autonomy was a high one. For in abandoning subject matter, artists not only gave up all those occasions and subjects which had helped to give their work a clear connection with the rest of life, they were no longer able to deploy and display the skills demanded by representational art - draughtsmanship, fidelity of colouration, choice of subject, or the various dimensions of response to a subject. The interest of an abstract work of art lies entirely in its shape, colour, balance and, possibly, ‘movement’. Whether it is any good – if asking such a question makes any sense – can only be decided by the spectator’s reactions to these features. Not only do individual reactions differ, they are just that, reactions, and the opportunities for justifying or even explaining them are so limited.
In gaining a freedom, abstraction forfeited much, including many features which give representational paintings dimensions and connections with the rest of our lives which abstract works must lack. So the story that Hockney gave up non-representional painting as he embarked on ‘A bigger splash’ sounds plausible.
Perhaps abstract art leaves something to skill, the capacity to achieve the result at which the artist aims, the right shade of blue, the balance of the painting, the rhythm of the sculpture – though of course no spectator can know if he has succeeded without an artist’s account of what he was trying to do. It also leaves room for originality. The question is: does it leave room for anything else, except originality? With art trouvee all claims to executive skills are abandoned. The artist finds something, rescues something, presents something which – presumably – will interest, amuse, challenge the viewer. His or her task approximates to that of the critic, whose role is to bring worthy objects to our attention; except that the critic must do more, he must elucidate, explain, get us to see why the object is indeed worthy of attention. This growing need to explain the art object may have played a part in the emerging of conceptual art. Works of conceptual art are often exiguous and accompanied by notes which discuss it, are part of it, and indeed the most important part. With minimalist art, the work, as the name suggests, has atrophied to the point of near extinction. I could go on. But there is no need. The point of modern art, the pleasures of modern art, the excellence of its best examples are overwhelmed and have been undermined by the one criterion of excellence that figures in the classical concept of art and which remains. The artist must do something different, new. But that is not quite enough. The curators, agents, gallery owners and purchasers of contemporary art insist on a further request, “ Amaze me!” And artists do their best.
Having anatomised the history, fragmentation and the present chaotic state of art, or so I hope, can my diagnosis point to any treatment of its present ills? Perhaps not: as Marx almost said, the first task of the philosopher is to describe the world. If that changes it, any improvement is a bonus. But I shall end with two remarks, an exhortation and an observation. First, exhortation: I want people to recognise the present situation for what is it and not be afraid to express doubts and difficulties which they rightly fear will be derided by experts as philistine. If one has to chose between philistinism and charlatanism, well, the world of art is not a happy place to be. Secondly, despite everything I’ve said, there are works of modern art which, despite not conforming to any view of art that would enable punters to judge them, nonetheless inspire interest, enjoyment, awe even. For me, Rothko’s paintings belong to this category. To call my reaction purely subjective would I think be unfair to it, but at the same time I must admit that I’m unable to give a rationale or justification for my response.
Given that, I cannot encourage the sceptics to glory in their scepticism about modern art; all I can and must do is encourage them to first note it, then examine it, and, if after examination their doubts remain, to respect and not be ashamed and embarrassed by them.
1 Surrealism as we find it in, say, Dali, finds ready acceptance because it is representational and technically highly skilled, and its bizarre content invites deep, Freudian interpretation. This is a winning combination!
© Prof. Colin Radford 1997
Colin Radford is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kent at Canterbury