After visiting ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ (see previous post) I notice that Alain de Botton
has come out with some thoughts on this theme, in the characteristically lazy thought patterns of the right wing philosopher. It is all here: the thunderous definition of the norms of his peers as ‘common sense’, as axiomatic truths. Truths that are the unsubstantiated opinions of a particular subset of self-regarding British society. The traditionalist demands for a paternalistic set of beliefs given, like Moses’ tablets, down to the undeserving heathen. One tires of the Oxbridge educated using their highly trained ability to construct arguments with little meaningful research, so confident in their command of process that they ignore the content bit. De Botton turns a feeble search for contemporary spirituality into a tired, and embarrassingly ill-informed attack on ‘Modern Art’
“The problem is that modern museums of art fail to tell people directly why art matters, because modernist aesthetics (in which curators are trained) is so deeply suspicious of any hint of an instrumental approach to culture.”
This is such piffle it is difficult to know where to start, Let us put to one side for the moment one underlying theme here; the impossible idea that art is ‘autonomous’, that contemporary art has no relationship, intentional or inferred, to the world that it reflects and tries to represent; hermeneutics anyone? The vagueness of the pejorative terms ‘modern museums’ and ‘modernist aesthetics’ is equally ludicrous and impossible to define, do we assume Modernism begins when? 1850/ 1863/ 1907?
Has he been to either tate recently, noticed the thematic hang, and seen the numberless hordes of students and schoolchildren being put through their paces?
“And what is the mood of this grid?” as I saw a group of primary school children being asked in front of a Whiteread drawing.They were busy doing Key Stage Three National Curriculum Art and Design I expect:
“They learn to appreciate and value images and artefacts across times and cultures, and to understand the contexts in which they were made. In art, craft and design, pupils reflect critically on their own and other people’s work, judging quality, value and meaning.”
What can de Botton mean by ‘instrumental approach to culture’
“To have an answer anyone could grasp as to the question of why art matters is too quickly viewed as “reductive”. We have too easily swallowed the modernist idea that art that aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be “bad art” – Soviet art is routinely trotted out here as an example – and that only art that wants nothing of us can be good. Hence the all-too-frequent question with which we leave the modern museum of art: what did that mean?”
Think of the big shows on in London in the last year or so:
Gerhard Richter or Pipilotti Rist. Just walk round Mike Nelson’s installation: ‘The Coral Reef’, Alain and tell me that this is not art with an informing imperative, with points to make about our approaches to art, society and emotional response. Has he been to Grayson’s installation at the British Museum?
What none of this art does though, is didactic, single issue tub thumping, neither does the presentation follow such banalities. Each of the shows above, laid out a clear range of possible ways for the viewer to understand them, from the purely canonical and chronological via contemporary thought, right through to the overtly emotional response. After seeing these shows we had a fair idea what the artist was about, what the curators thought the artist was about and what we, the viewers, thought it was all about (not always the same thing)
“Christianity, by contrast, never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to teach us how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of. Such art is extremely simple at the level of its purpose, however complex and subtle it is at the level of its execution. Christian art amounts to a range of geniuses saying such incredibly basic but extremely vital things as: “Look at that picture of Mary if you want to remember what tenderness is like”; “Look at that painting of the cross if you want a lesson in courage”; “Look at that Last Supper to train yourself not to be a coward and a liar”. The crucial point is that the simplicity of the message implies nothing whatsoever about the quality of the work itself. Instead of challenging instrumentalism by citing the case of Soviet art, we could more convincingly defend it with reference to Mantegna and Bellini.”
Does De Botton genuinely believe that Christian art is consistently “simple at the level of its’ purpose.” Has he ever looked at it?
At the Mannerist art in, say, the National Gallery, at the very curious knowing figure of the young Christ striding away from his mother in Parmigianino’s Madonna and Child with St Jerome? Or, think of the curiosities involved in Leonardo’s iconographically radical composition for ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’, including for the first time, the figure of the very young John the Baptist.
Or what about the relationships depicted in Leonardo’s ‘Madonna and Child with St Anne,
complex and oddly frightening, a great deal more than maternal tenderness going on here, and certainly not an image that anyone would recommend for a mother and baby workshop.
Very few of the thousands of other Madonna and Childs that litter Western art contain tenderness by the way, the premonition of pain and sorrow perhaps, the weight of the future, the glory of redemption occasionally; very little about tenderness. Equally, the iconographic intention of most Last Suppers is to reinforce the lessons of the Eucharist and the Semitic qualities of Judas, usually by painting a lot of slightly bored looking young men (one with darker skin and a hooked nose), a large amount of tablecloth and an awful lot of legs.
It might be worth pointing out again the role of context here; context at the time of making and now, and to consider how we appreciate that change in context. Look at for example, the art produced in direct response to the Council of Trent (the Catholic Church’s attempt to visually upstage insurgent Protestantism in the late 16th Century) if you want art that was designed to be consistently simple in message.
Apart from being dull, it is still incomprehensible, visual language and iconography changes over time: in how it is depicted and how it is understood. De Botton seems to want an art that is utterly static; autocratic icons.
I have taught the History of Western Art for many years, it is rare for the Christian message to be obvious to contemporary viewers. ‘Who was Judas?” I get asked that sort of question quite often and in nominally Christian educational establishments. Yet somehow or another, we live in a world of considerable emotional literacy, think of the nuances of our responses to reality TV, to soaps and to 24 hour news. A world which has lost the basic Christian narrative, has also also lost the multilayered complexity of Christian imagery. My point is that the complexity of art is still apparent to students, although the didactic Christian message does not come across unless it is explained, didacticism it is not necessarily inherent in an image.
To give another example. I have shown Caravaggio’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’ (the earlier one in the National Gallery) to most age ranges.
Very few identify the central figure, even fewer know the story. It is by the way, the sudden re-discovery of Christ alive after the crucifixion and disappearance of the body. We see the instant realisation of the risen Christ/ mankind’s redemption in the gestures and faces of the two disciples, possibly Cleopas and Peter. They recognise Christ from his gesture, first seen of course at the Last Supper, or rather seen in paintings of the Last Supper by artists and viewers of art. Art is a language, it uses particular forms in particular groupings that comment simultaneously on the portrayed narrative and the process of portrayal. Ie art has always been about art,
Look at the role of light in this work, the brightly lit fruit still life in the foreground is also a vanitas piece
(see the rot in the grapes and apple) think of what that might be about in such a story, and why the dark shadow underneath as the bowl appears to fall through the picture plane into our laps. Or, notice the cast shadow of the innkeeper that makes a halo over Christ, but why a black halo? All this without mentioning the role of the artist himself. Many, many layers of meaning going on here. Show this image to people under 30 or so, they usually assume that the central figure is female. But armed with a few other images of Caravaggio’s self portraiture and you can guarantee some fascinating insights into the public portrayal of the self, and some very skilful unpicking of the vast range of themes on offer. Even to the extent that one small boy explained that this was a painting about fishing, and therefore, boasting.
“See that man on the right, with his arms stretched out, he’s telling the others that he caught a fish and it was thiiiis big!”
In fact, I find that students find more complexity and relevance in contemporary art than they do in paintings ”about men in dresses waving their arms about”. Tracey Emin’s ‘Bed’, although ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With’ usually strikes a closer chord.
Or, more obviously Hirst’s ‘Mother and Child Divided’ (a new Madonna and Child perhaps), parent and offspring forever divided from each other and themselves
The simplicity that de Botton is after is a chimera; it has never been there, it only exists in propaganda, advertising posters and the lazy minds of paternalistic ‘philosophers’. We live in an ambiguous world and have done since the collapse of feudalism, the rise of capitalism and the art that reflected it. Art is ambiguity; that is why it is interesting.
I think I have to go and lie down in a darkened room now, perhaps I’ll re-read Lucy Lippard’s ‘Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object’ to calm me down; it’s awfully good you know.