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In defence of painting.

NOT so long ago I attended a lecture given by one of this country's leading art commentators. Essentially the purpose of the lecture was to defend from various forms of popular criticism and ridicule the current practice of contemporary visual artists who you could say fall under the protective umbrella of the Art Establishment.

Cost, manner and speed of execution, degree of public praise, tabloid press reaction, an artist's emotional reaction to criticism, and the like were all skewed one way or another and presented as if evidence of artistic merit. In fact such things are neither here nor there when it comes to determining artistic merit.

The relation between beauty of subject to beauty of art object was raised. That is to say that the subject of an art object need not be attractive for there to be beauty in the object. Yes, but it doesn't therefore follow that an ugly subject necessarily indicates artistic merit.

It was suggested that understanding an artist's intentions is not always helpful when determining artistic merit, as if merit happens accidentally. Surely such an approach to the artist's intentions is a little insulting to the artist's intelligence. Perhaps an artist who has not understood or realized his or her intentions is not much of an artist. Or perhaps the fault lies with the art commentator's limited understanding of what an artist has made and has said.

Because the contemporary has some incidental characteristic in common with the established and acclaimed it should not be reckoned on the grounds of this shared incidental characteristic that the contemporary is or will ever become established and acclaimed. The only value of citing such characteristics is to demonstrate that as criteria they are not valid in determining artistic merit. What is really needed is to identify valid criteria.

When considering an item's worth as a work of art it is much more helpful to view the item as a spiritual rather than a moral statement, where the word 'good' has a spiritual rather than a moral meaning; other than correctness. Consider whether the item is inherently good. If it is good it will have value as a work of art. This is why a painting by the Cornish primitive Alfred Wallis could happily sit alongside a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Both paintings are inherently good.

A further point presented was that the artist who conceives a work need not be the person who physically makes the work of art. This is an interesting point of relevance to painting, which when applied to painting tends not to be true. In considering this it is useful to examine how we use the word art and what in particular is distinctive about painting as one of the arts. The term 'the arts' is used as an inclusive title encompassing a variety of human activities, and differentiates 'arts' activities from say the 'sciences' or 'sports'. Drama, music, opera, dance, painting, sculpture, architecture, prose, poetry, various crafts are the kind of activities that collectively form our traditional view of the arts. It might also be claimed that the impact of some recently developed technologies has given rise to new art forms.

Interestingly another of this country's leading art commentators once asserted, 'anything can be art'. If this is so, is all this differentiation necessary? Given the context in which the statement 'anything can be art' was made I guess that what was meant was 'anything can be visual art'.

So if anything can be visual art can a symphony or a play be visual art, for instance? Surely what Mozart expressed in sound cannot be expressed in paint, and what Rembrandt expressed in paint cannot be expressed in words, and what Shakespeare expressed in words cannot be expressed in sound and so on and so on. Even where there is common ground occupied by two or more art forms there still remains ground which can only be occupied by each distinct art form. Ideas and phenomena unique to a particular art form, by definition, cannot be expressed in any other art form. And it is because certain ideas and phenomena are unique to a particular art form that we differentiate one particular art form from other art forms.

It follows then that criteria used in making value judgements in relation to one art form are not necessarily appropriately applied when making value judgements about other and different art forms. For example, it seems reasonable to argue that the architect need not be the builder of the building, but to assert that the painter does not have to be the maker of the painting for the painting to have significance as a work of art is a difficult argument to sustain. Firstly, for a painting to give full expression to a painter's significant concept it is necessary that the painter undertake the actual painting, because the exactitude and subtleties of the concept are ineffable and so not communicable to another human being other than through the finished painting itself.

Secondly, because a painting was made by the painter who conceived the painting, almost as a physical extension of themselves, where thought and action integrate, the painting somehow becomes a physical manifestation of what it is to be human, to be conscious, to be civilized. Others then looking at the painting are able to identify with the painting, identifying with the physicality of the object, an object that embodies the complexity and subtlety of the thinking of the so very human painter.

It is the object, not just its image, which is so significant. Consider making a photographic or digital image of Vermeer's The Lace-Maker and reproducing this image an infinite number of times. Then given the choice of owning either the original or the infinite number of images, the owning of the original is without question to be preferred. The artistic merit of the infinite number of images is nothing. The artistic merit of the original painting is everything. The object, made by Vermeer's mind and hand, is what's significant. It is probable that in conceiving a painting a painter achieves a synthesis of held values and beliefs, visual information received from observation and knowledge of the medium, the painting. The thought process is additive including only what is significant.

'Do me a favour, painting's only been around for 400 years!' exclaimed yet another of this country's leading art commentators. In fact there are cave paintings at Chauvet, for example, that are something like 30,000 years old. The history of art suggests that individuals are born who desire to paint, individuals who possess formidable visual intelligence who choose to paint, individuals who in their formative years are influenced by their experiences of a reality they encounter as they grow to maturity as painters. What sort of a civilization is it that neglects to foster and cherish its most creative and intelligent painters? If it is true that the visual intelligence necessary to create significant paintings is unique to painting then other kinds of thinking, however intelligent or otherwise, cannot substitute for this visual thinking.

If we consider the artistic achievement of fifteenth-century Florence, with its population of very roughly one hundred thousand, we find a remarkable number of creative individuals. If we now compare this with the artistic achievement of twentieth-century Staffordshire, the county in which I live, with its population during that century of very roughly one million, there seems in Staffordshire a remarkable scarcity of similarly creative individuals. Despite the possibility of benefit from a potential body of knowledge and understanding accumulated in the interceding years the culture of twentieth-century Staffordshire did not support creativity in the way that the culture of fifteenth-century Florence did. The deadening hand of the Art Establishment is pervasive. At the end of the twenty-first-century how many such creative individuals will it be easy to identify from amongst Staffordshire's or any other county's people? How many will be painters?

The notion 'anything can be art' sits as the latest chapter of the Art Establishment's view of art history. Central to this view is the chronological linear development of the visual language of art. This line runs roughly through icon to representation to abstract to alternative media to conceptual to anything. Alongside this development runs the development, in recent centuries, of the Art Establishment itself, where we are told by it that art needs a context and this context, of course, is given by the Art Establishment. Art, the Art Establishment maintains, can only be understood in terms of its relationship to this linear development of visual language, where all judgements are made with reference to the Art Establishment and its view of art history. This Art Establishment is notorious for getting it wrong.

An alternative view of art history is that art objects are manifestations of the spirit of their age. Visual art objects are best understood when considered as objects functioning in their own right with respect to the integrity of their formal elements and the values and beliefs they embody. Their place within a linear chronological scheme of the development of visual language is secondary or incidental, except perhaps where a culture is preoccupied with visual language and its development and the art object therefore reflects this preoccupation with visual language.

Different cultures hold different views of the same world in which we all live. For instance perspectives on time vary. People of different faiths might see different specific events in history as pivotal. Therefore the linear development of visual language so valued by one culture might seem entirely beside the point to another culture. That there has been some kind of evolutionary development of visual language in Western art is hard to deny, but that this emphasis on the development of visual language should be pre-eminent in the art of every culture is highly contestable.

In our twenty-first-century multicultural democracy it is important that the Art Establishment reflects and embraces the richness of cultural diversity. The postmodernist 'anything can be art' view belongs to the tail end of Western twentieth-century Art Establishment thought. Diverse vibrant creative multicultural societies need to develop and mature in twenty-first-century democracies. Painting needs to be valued for its capacity to give expression to and affirmation of cultural identity, helping each individual culture to assert its identity alongside other cultures.

The statement itself 'anything can be art' is worthy of analysis and sheds light on to the implementation of postmodernist thinking. I have already stated my view of the uniqueness of the essence of individual art forms and the difficulty of giving meaning to a statement like 'music can be visual art'.

If 'anything' literally does mean 'anything' then it becomes possible to substitute whatever comes to mind for the word 'anything' in the statement 'anything can be art'. Try it. In our approach to everyday living and to making sense of this world we tend to identify different and distinct phenomena and give to each a particular name. The 'anything can be art' maxim erodes our normal understanding of each different noun's meaning. Consequently whatever was normally understood as being distinct and different from art can now be art. So then taking what normally would be considered extreme examples, to see if the exceptional will prove the rule, can illegal and depraved acts or crimes against humanity be art?

The 'anything can be art' doctrine gives an illusion of freedom and seems to validate the abandoning of all constraints. If 'depravity' can be the 'anything' then depravity itself can be the art. As if freedom, so cherished a child of human rights, need no longer be practiced with responsibility. Because Goya rightly showed us in his war etchings how depraved we can be it does not follow that depravity itself somehow can now be the art. In the course of the practical applications of the puzzle of the 'anything can be art' argument, the argument finds its limits and its errors in reality, and like a boomerang comes hurtling back as a problem of essentiality and distinctiveness.

Of course 'anything' could be anything': object, concept, emotion, relationship, part of a whole, an aspect of something and so on, or any combination or permutation of things. It would be a strange claim that art is the destination for all things, as if it was just a matter of time before an 'artist' comes along and turns every last thing into art, perhaps claiming that art is the fundamental stuff of all things.

However the 'can be' bit of the statement 'anything can be art' implies conditions. A thing has the potential to become art after being subject to a process. Before processing, this thing is not art, and after processing this thing has become art. Criteria have to be applied and a judgement made as to when the thing becomes art. Or can an unprocessed thing be art? On the one hand the statement asserts that an unprocessed thing can be art because an 'unprocessed thing' counts as an 'anything' and so can be substituted in to give an 'unprocessed thing can be art', and on the other hand the unprocessed thing cannot be art because it is in an unprocessed state and as such has not achieved its 'can be' potential as art. The statement 'anything can be art' is absurd.

Postmodernist culture is not the only culture established in twenty-first-century Britain. It is one of a number of ways of looking at our world. Whilst it is true that society today is complex, it is not necessarily true that every culture holds the view that there is no bigger picture and that everything is fragmented. We are multicultural, where the label 'multicultural' embodies a positive concept of inclusion within a whole.

The disintegration of the essence of phenomena and consequent blurring of definitions frustrates the possibility of holding meaningful conversations and accurate debate. The Art Establishment's philosophy leaves it unable to discern essential differences. It is as if the 'anything can be art' school of thought fabricates its illusion that it is free from the force of essential meaning, but when outside its own peculiar world is overwhelmed by this force of essential meaning, and so it retreats into its fabricated world, claims superiority and denies any validity to the views of others.

If, in the face of essential reality, the Art Establishment insists on championing its dogma that 'anything can be art', even the Art Establishment must concede that 'painting' is an 'anything' and that 'painting can be art'. Mustn't it?
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Author:Clarke, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2008
Words:2427
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