Monday, June 2, 2014

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            I know this anecdote places me in a problematic position and will at once put me offside with some readers. But tell it I must.
In London recently, I walked into the Tate Modern, nosed around among some of my favourite modernist and surrealist works, and laughed at the clumsiness of other things hanging there.
Then I found myself in a gallery in which three huge pieces were hanging. They were gigantic daubs – red paint smeared on canvas in circular patterns and curly-whirly movements, with much dripping of the paint. My reaction was the same as I suspect your’s would be – or at least your’s before you start to rationalise and tell yourself what profundities you can see in it because it is in a prestigious gallery, after all, and it must mean something.
My reaction was: “This required no talent. It’s a joke. Basically it’s rubbish, which you or I could do in five minutes on a day when we had nothing better to do. How did get here in the first place?
Now I am educated enough to know that it is not socially acceptable to dismiss what is hanging in the Tate Modern. Indeed, it is most unsophisticated to criticise any recent art. For if you are dismissive of much that now takes up gallery wall space, you will be told (a.) that you are an uneducated philistine who doesn’t know the latest art theory and is probably an advocate of “artism” to boot. And  (b.) that you’re just like those Nazis who persecuted the modern art of their day, pillorying it in an exhibition of Entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) in the 1930s and thus damning much of what we now consider masterpieces of impressionism, surrealism, expressionism and non-representational abstraction. (Sometimes I think that Hitler and Goebbels did a good turn to many a crap painter by giving them a free pass card. “If you criticise my work you must be a Nazi!” But I digress.)
 I am not advocating Entartete Kunst exhibitions. I am not in any way saying that modern art should be closed down or that artists and their patrons (yes, it is a money game) should be prosecuted or persecuted. Let free expression proceed, I say. I am just asserting my right to an informed opinion. And, dear reader, it is informed because I have looked at the art and not at the theory – which is the only way to be informed about art.
I expressed my opinion of the three talentless Tate Modern daubs by posting a photo of one of them on Facebook and making a comment. It was not a complimentary comment.
My posting elicited one very odd response. I was asked if I preferred “skill without feeling” to “feeling without skill”.
Implicitly, my correspondent was suggesting that “feeling” is of itself a component of art, and this I believe to be a great fallacy.
To set “feeling” against “skill” in appreciating art is a false dichotomy. “Feeling” may inspire a work of art. A work of art may engender “feeling” in viewers. But in and of itself, “feeling” is not what makes art art. Skill in artistic technique does. A baby cries loudly when he has wet himself. He shows great feeling. But it is not art. A child stamps her feet with rage and holds her breath until she turns red. Again, huge reserves of feeling, but not art. A teenager falls in love and feels sentiment mixed with lust. Certainly it is feeling, but it won’t be art until the teenager can express it skilfully in artistic form. Art is not essentially feeling. The art is in the skill, not in the feeling. My correspondent was assuming that if whoever did the daub felt great feeling in doing it, then we should give it the benefit of the doubt and salute it as art. The notion of “feeling” as a criterion for judging art is really the same as describing art as “self-expression”, which is another easy trap in art appreciation.
Now where did this mistaken, but widespread, notion come from?
I think it came from the romantic myth of the artist as an inspired person who simply lets inspiration come and then proceeds to let rip on the canvas. This myth seems to be validated by the evidence of many artists who were wild livers (Caravaggio), eccentric (J.M.W.Turner), mentally unbalanced (Van Gogh), tubercular and depressive (Mogdiliani) etc. The fiction grows that they presented raw, untutored genius to the world – to hell with technique – and that is what made them great artists. QED.
But after visiting two other exhibitions of art on my pilgrimage, I have fairly solid proof that this fiction is complete bollocks.
First Exhibit for the Prosecution: I paid a visit to the venerable Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle-on-Tyne, where an exhibition was being held of the English landscape tradition between c.1780 and c.1820. Centrepiece of the exhibition were lesser-known pieces by Constable and J.M.W.Turner.
Turner is one of those painters who is seen (by the semi-informed) as a “wild inspiration” man. I mean, how could he be anything else? His canvases are so filled with “feeling” aren’t they? This is the man who, in such luminous masterpieces as Rain, Steam and Speed and The Fighting Temeraire, devised his own Impressionism about half a century before the term was even invented. Look at those brushstrokes. Look at those vague but suggestive outlines. This must be pure inspirational genius working at the canvas, right?
In fact, wrong.
For by displaying many of the more obscure works of Turner’s youth and young manhood, the Laing Art Gallery exhibition showed that Turner spent a long artistic apprenticeship learning his craft by learning his technique from other artists. He pegged away for years at watercolours and at small canvases in the conventional, classical style of Claude Lorrain. Only when he had mastered such skill and craft did he gradually develop his own artistic vocabulary.
Is there inspiration and force and “feeling” in the mature Turner? Of course there is, but it is built on a solid foundation of technique. Look at the perspective, that neat division of the canvas, that departure from objective reality of having the fire on the outside of the train in Rain, Steam and Speed, and you are looking at the learnt skills and technique upon which genius and inspiration could work. The inspiration and “feeling” would not have become art without the learnt technique.
Second Exhibit for the Prosecution: Even more powerful, this one, because the mental states of the artist were more extreme and he has almost become the archetype of the wild, inspired artist.
In Amsterdam, I spent some inspiring and instructive hours in the Vincent van Gogh Museum. It is a wonderful and large collection of the artist’s work. True, it does not contain some of his most celebrated works (the famous painting of the Arles café terrace at night, for example, or the starry night which is, I believe, in MOMA in New York). But it does contain many of the best-known self-portraits, the postman, the view of his bedroom, the sunflowers, and other canvases that are recognised internationally.
Because van Gogh’s canvases have been arranged (more-or-less) chronologically in the Amsterdam museum, you are able to see the artist developing and growing in style and technique.
Do you know him only from the colourful canvases he painted in the south of France? Do you think of him simply as the guy who had an unstable mind, was hospitalised after a major mental breakdown, seems to have made an attempt to kill himself and once cut off part of his ear? Therefore, do you think it was an inspired and disoriented mind alone that produced the masterpieces – that they are the fruit of “feeling”?
Now it’s true that van Gogh’s years in France were among his most fruitful and it’s true that he renewed himself as an artist first in Paris and then in the south. (It’s hard not to think of him as being as much a French painter as a Dutch one.) His mental disturbance did indeed contribute greatly to his last works.
But walk through the Amsterdam gallery and look at van Gogh growing and learning
and polishing his technique throughout his career. Look at all those early and sombre paintings of dark Dutch peasant cottages under stormy skies, which perhaps those with only a casual knowledge of van Gogh would not readily recognise as van Gogh’s work. They are so different from his last works. Look at his respect for objective reality in his patient accounts of Dutch peasant life, culminating in what some see as his first masterpiece The Potato Eaters. Certainly it is not photographic realism (consider the modelling of the head of the man on the left of the canvas – I’d call it expressionism). But it is not the work of a man riding on blind inspiration either.
And then look at how consciously, and in experiment after experiment, he modified his style once he was influenced by his French contemporaries.
To look at a large body of van Gogh’s work like this, taken from all periods of his artistic career, was to discover an artist who knowingly and with a rational mind worked on his style, modified his technique and perfected himself as a painter. This was not a man who got up each day and waited for inspiration to zap him. This was a man who worked hard at his art.
Of course “feeling” fed into his work. Of course his disturbed mind was a big factor in his final works. But the feeling would have been only feeling, and not art, without the years and years spent learning and growing in technique and skill.
Because in this long editorial I have raged so much against “feeling” as a criterion in judging art, I hope you will forgive an apparent self-contradiction as I end. When I came to one of the last paintings in the Amsterdam gallery – a painting long considered to be van Gogh’s last – I found myself almost choking up and crying. I refer to the jagged, the disturbing, the beautiful Wheatfield with Crows, painted in 1890, shortly before van Gogh died.
But you’ll note that I’ve admitted works of art can engender strong feeling in viewers. My feeling in viewing Wheatfield with Crows was both shock and wonder in being drawn into its unique view of the natural world; and a realisation that the artist’s lifelong working at his skills brought him to this masterpiece.
But my feeling was not the art.

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