Friday, December 11, 2009

Some great thoughts on representational art

The following is an exert from the catalog for "Immortal Works," an exquisit show currently being held by the Nerdrum Art School and the Florence Academy of Art in Gothenburg, Sweden. I wanted to share some of the author's extraordinary thoughts on the philosophy of art, and why these traditional schools continue their work in the midst of a world whose definition of Art has changed completely.

Edvard Munch had several houses. Coming to one of them in order to paint, he had often forgotten the keys. So he had to find someone who could open the door. The person concerned would receive half a Krone for the job. But every now and then, Munch had forgotten money as well… At one such occasion, he tried giving away a print instead. Of course he meant well, but the reaction was merciless. Accept such things? No thanks let me see the money!

In a similar situation, facing another locked door and without cash, he compensated his helper with an etching. This man, unable to say no, accepted. Finally home, he let his wife take care of the matter. She stapled it onto the wall of the outdoor toilet, in the company of cut-outs from illustrated magazines.

Later, the same man received a big painting as payment. Again he felt there was no choice, and brought the piece of canvas home. His wife, helpful as always, stapled it onto the loft ceiling. As next Christmas approached, she cleaned the house. The painting was carefully burnt and the cutouts thrown along with the print. New magazines had arrived, with new illustrations.

Inger Alver Gl√łersen describes this in her book The Munch I Met. It is the funniest thing, though. Several times, as I have recounted the story, something strange has occurred: People start laughing. Presumably they regard it as entertainment? Personally, I would be glad to relinquish accounts like these, so we could focus on the works. However, such stories manifest the necessity of respect – and what happens when it is non-existent, or fades. Greek sculptures with heads, arms and legs chopped off. A third of the 17th century painter Georges de la Tour's works eradicated; for centuries he did not have "a name". Consequently, his works could not possibly be of any value...

The Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset once said that the hearts of men remain the same. I believe this is correct and further, that these hearts face a choice between two cultures.

The first culture is based on a single tenet: quality and talent is measured by what you know. This culture always exists, but varies in strength. It is the precondition for an Ilya Repin, who became the most celebrated painter of tsarist Russia. Even though he was of non-noble descent, his skills could not be disregarded.

Repin's work sprang from the European culture, in turn born out of seven centuries of Greek Humanism. This is a mindset which holds a painter to be more skilled the more he can breathe life into what he paints. It is the story of Pygmalion, who created a marble sculpture so vivid that she stepped down as a living woman.

The most profound victory of this culture is that it made the talents of man his safety net.

The other culture assigns grades according to who you know. This path is also present in varying degrees. A couple of years ago, the German magazine art interviewed several prominent curators. Their opinions were unanimous: Skill in handcraft is an outdated litmus test for judging quality in art. In such a situation, the talent becomes dependant on personal sympathy or antipathy. This obviously affects the participants of this exhibition: their skills have become a disadvantage.

Notwithstanding, the contemporary art world experiences as little envy at the sight of their talents, as the Christian iconoclasts envied the Greek sensuality. The iconoclasts simply knew that it was ideologically wrong. Assured by this, they could oust all respect for the ability to transform stone into soft skin.

The comparison might seem exaggerated. Rembrandt's paintings are not thrown onto the fire. Rodin's bronzes are not melted down or drowned at sea. And of course curators do not mind old master works – as long as they are executed by an old master. The art world needs them as forerunners of 21st century art. Contemporary masters would disarrange the official art history. There would be no "improvement" if the development went from “Rembrandt to Rembrandt”. Still, the curator is more cultivated than the traditional iconoclast. The sanctions are more subtle. A curator does not burn a beautiful portrait or crush a marble figure. He laughs; he does not choose it for an exhibition. As a consultant, he gives advice not to buy such things. The curator knows that a sincere, figurative work is wrong ideologically. On the whole, this way of judging a work is signified by how its qualities are never taken into consideration.

The painters and sculptors in this catalogue share certain fundamental values. Their discipline is based on handcraft, the motifs are sincere and the faces are devoid of irony. They are united in a quest for the archetypical, detached from time.

In order to attain this, one studies anatomy, composition, handling of paint and clay, etc. One hears of Michelangelo's forgery of a Greek Cupid figure. Upon his exposure, he received the commission for the famed Bacchus – his "crime" proved his skill! One smiles, thinking of Leonardo. He bragged about a painting of the Madonna. She was so beautiful and vividly painted that the customer implored him to paint over her religious attributes. The man desired her, but was plagued by feelings of guilt. In the end he had to send her away from his house.

And one hears that Michelangelo and Leonardo were great artists.

Yet, "art" shares the fate of many other words, in that its meaning is the exact opposite of what one thinks. Anyone who seeks to know more, may find Larry Shiners The Invention of Art helpful. Originally, there were liberal arts (such as mathematics and logic) and mechanical arts (such as navigation and gardening). Up until then, "art" had been a neutral term for "discipline", "science" or "knowledge". It referred to rational knowledge, which could be learned and taught. But then – in the 1740`s - painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry and music were gathered under the category “fine arts”. In and of itself, this was less grave. However, that all changed as (mostly) German philosophers started discussing what values unified this new group of arts. They were determined to separate them from the other groups, with the result that handcraft had nothing to do with the matter - it seemed to supply the idea with a greater nimbus of spirituality. In fact, it was made clear that the "fine arts" represented the opposite of handcraft. (To separate this new meaning from the older, I will in the following write "Art" when referring to "the fine arts"). The philosopher Kant is unmistakably clear: You are only making Art when you do not know what you are doing. Thus creates a true genius. This is the background for the admiring tone of the phrase, "Oh, no-o – it's more than just handcraft!"

But it did not stop at that. Gripping the audience emotionally was derided as "barbaric". Kant had an idea of the perfect, "objective" judgment, in which there was no room for sentimentality or pathos. Art was to be contemplated with indifference.

Later, the philosopher Hegel said Art should reflect its time, and participate in progress. His addition left little for the talent to rejoice in, as a work without relation to a time was rendered worthless. Hegel identified "progress" with the unwinding of handcraft and sensual representation. These apprehensions fertilize the laughter of the curator.

Yet Leonardo knew nothing of them. He was proud of his ability to fool the viewer. It proved his skills! He tried to get out of time, and advised others to do the same (by not painting contemporary clothing, f. ex.). Despite this, Art historians refer to him as an Artist. What they gain from this is obvious: it makes video Art the climax of a long "tradition" – in the face of the fact that Leonardo represented opposite values.

The nature of their logic is familiar: 1) Artists follow their time. 2) Leonardo was an Artist. 3) Leonardo would have made video Art today. So saying, his aura is injected into the contemporary Artist. Blood transfusion as an academic principle. It is like publishing a history of the combustion engine – from the Greek horse to the modern trailer.

So how is the standing today for those who want to tell stories through painting and sculpture? I once asked a gallerist what she looked for in a work: originality or quality? "Originality" was her immediate response. If a painter had entered her gallery with a Rembrandt portrait – made today, but at the same level of quality – she would have rejected it.

Did she understand the consequences of what she said? In such a culture, an Ilya Repin does not stand a chance.

As the Art values spread with the advancement of the 19th century, the ability to perceive talent was gradually corroded. A successful composition became a lie; a nude false; a sincere face unmodern and untrue. Kitsch. A difficult word? To the curator it has the same ring as "talent". Words are not neutral. They may help or counteract people's possibilities of seeing the work they are standing in front of.

A word does not improve a work, but may secure its survival.

Basically, it's H. C. Andersen's story of the swan all over again: it was ugly – by duck standards.

Jan-Ove Tuv
Kitsch painter

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