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Whatever happened to beauty in art?
The following article is adapted from a talk given by Paul Fitzgerald, Australia's premier portrait-painter, at the Carnivale Christi arts festival in Melbourne. His many portraits include those of Pope John XXIII, Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Robert Menzies, and numerous statesmen, members of royalty, actors and sportsmen.
Many people dismiss the experience, knowledge and thinking of our ancestors as being primitive and passe. Sure the accumulated knowledge we have to work from today is greater than theirs, but not so our thinking power. Can we produce today intellects greater than Leonardo da Vinci or Shakespeare, or, to go back further, Euclid or Socrates?
Many people despise traditions. Chesterton pointed out the danger of this in a pithy essay. He defined tradition: "Tradition gives a vote to the most obscure of all races - our ancestors. It is a democracy of the dead. It refuses to surrender to the oligarchy of people who simply happen to be walking about."
He illustrated the point as follows. If you were walking down a country road and wanted to enter a field through a gate and saw no reason for the gate you would be wise to close it after you. There may be a dip in the field concealing a wild bull. If, however, you happen to know that it was there to keep in a wild bull that is now defunct, don't bother closing the gate.
So it is with traditions. If you know the reasons for them and they no longer apply to life today, and there are many such, then scrap them. If you do not - hold on to them. You may well have to learn their message the very hard way, as so many people have had to.
Ronald Conway cogently points out: "The great leaders and wise men of all communities have found the secret of combining the innovating impatience of youth with the need to preserve traditions having beauty and meaning, channelling innovating energy into life-preserving and life-enhancing activity."
What it makes sense to do therefore is to learn and absorb the vast treasure-house of knowledge from the past, adapt it to life today and try, if one possibly can, to add to it.
Incidentally, another pithy observation of Chesterton's was on atheism. I could never understand how anyone could possible think that the mighty coherence of life from the minute structures of atoms and the vastness of the universe with its unbelievable intricacies could function without some supernatural intellect as creator and maintainer.
As Chesterton put it: "The possibility of the whole of creation having come about through chance (as an atheist proclaims) is the same as if you were to fill a large barrel with thousands of letters of the alphabet, shaking them up, throwing them down and their landing as a dictionary."
Definition of art
Now before discussing some art topics I should like to define what I mean by the word art.
According to my definition, art is "a communication of feeling from the artist to the viewer (or with music or poetry to the listener) via some medium, conducted or performed with skill". In every dictionary under "art" you will always find the word skill, and indeed skill is a necessary component of art.
It follows therefore that any artwork has two facets: firstly the feeling to be communicated and secondly the skill or the technique used to effect the communication. A painting can be judged (a) by the aesthetic feeling to be communicated - the sense of colour, the harmony of design, the subtlety of texture and a feeling for the subject matter; and (b) by the technique - the drawing, the brushwork and the general control of the medium.
There is another factor that contributes to a work of art, that is, creativity. We like to be stimulated by something new, but if too much emphasis is placed on this, however, it can become very transitory. As Oscar Wilde pointed out: "The trouble with being too modern is that you become old-fashioned so quickly".
To understand the art scene it is helpful to understand how the abstract-experimental forms started.
It was part of the broader Enlightenment movement. Since the industrial revolution and the advance of science, the life style was changing at an ever increasing pace, bringing comfort and riches to many, but poverty, exploitation and dehumanising living standards to even more. While there was general agreement on the cause of the poverty, there was divergence of views as to the cure.
The more radical philosophers, starting with Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, and others, and proceeding through to Marx, proclaimed a course of socialism and social engineering. They denied the existence of God and believed that man alone could shape his own destiny
At the turn of the century, a large proportion of the academic and cultural populace were ardent Communists and violently critical of the status quo, which they identified with the philosophy and lifestyle of the middle-class or bourgeoisie. By the 19th century these ideas had been so successfully promoted that Nietzsche proclaimed: "God is dead. We have killed him and the stench of his corpse is over Europe".
The declared aim of the instigators of the Enlightenment revolution in politics, religion, literature and the arts was to start completely new movements. Many present-day practitioners and devotees of the modern movement deny this and claim that the abstract and experimental art is a natural progression from the art of the past.
If they were to hear this the founders would turn in their graves. Solzhenitsyn summed it up when he wrote: "Before erupting on the streets of Petrograd, that cataclysmic revolution erupted on the pages of the artistic and literary journals of the European capitals' Bohemian circles. It was there that we first heard scathing imprecations against the Russian and European way of life, the calls to sweep away all religious and ethical codes, to tear down and trample all existing traditional culture".
The new movement was able to achieve unbelievable success owing to the coincidental advent of several factors.
It is interesting, but not surprising, that all the early artists and dealers who were involved in the movement, being part of the cultural revolution, were left-wing atheists. Not only were the dealers able to induce the modern American multi-millionaires into spending millions buying it, but hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in propagating it.
Many of the artists involved became very rich, some multi-millionaires - Andy Warhol, a completely immoral evil fellow, was one, and Picasso, an immoral Communist, was another. Most of the art dealers in America, who had lost the source of European paintings, embraced the new art movements
But as I said at no stage did the majority of the general public ever accept this art merry-go-round. It was the art galleries and the corporations that kept buying the work, and of course the billionaires - the Blises, Goodyears, Whitneys, Carnegies, Crowninshields, Guggenheims and the like. There was no shortage of modern masters.
To illustrate to you how such people can be conned, note the prices of a couple paintings in last year's Sotheby's catalogue:
* A painting by EIsworth Kelly consists of a triangle curved on one side, completely coloured in with one colour - in this case a purplish red. It is entitled "Red Velvet Curve". The price given is between £200,000-£250,000.
* A painting by Marc Rothko has three slabs of flat colour - one brown, the next red and the last brown again. The anticipated price? Between £1,000,000-£1,400,000.
But, according to the chairman of the Lisson Gallery in London: "Anything is valid in art, if the intention of the artist is interesting and it's done with serious intentions."
This definition was ratified by Simon Wilson, the spokesman of the Tate Gallery in London, the year before last. He responded to a satirical letter suggesting that a dilapidated old icecream cart that was situated outside the Albert be put it outside the Tate as a work of art.
Wilson - who took it seriously, thought it a very good idea and even thought it would be a good entry for the Turner Prize. When asked by a Times Journalist what he thought was a work of art Wilson said, "Everything and anything is a work of art, if an artist says it is - providing he or she can persuade someone to show it in a recognised gallery". And who is an artist? "Anyone who nominates themselves as an artist whether trained or not". Perhaps a little drift away from the Oxford Dictionary?
James McAuley showed, with his famous Ern Malley experiment, that people can be unbelievably gullible and that when an art form or theory is presented with enough authority, many will suspend their critical judgement.
Much of the modern work I appreciate, but my concern about the modern movement, and many practitioners of it would agree with me, is that by divesting itself of disciplines, standards and restraints, it leaves itself open to inept and untalented con merchants. In many cases it dehumanises art and challenges and distorts God's creation in nature.
Most people, however, still relate to life and the world about us through realistic appearances. Colours, lines, tones, shapes and spaces register through our eyes into our brain, which in turn interprets them as people, objects and places. It is thus that we relate to the world about us.
If we dissociate appearances from art, the viewer has to be given a new set of reference points, symbols or theories to interpret the input factors entering the mind. The natural method of interpretation has to be replaced with a theory, and the theory has to be taught or explained.
The modern art movement hardly touched Australia until the late 30s, but since the late 50s it has dominated the Australian art world - the art establishment - and to a large extent it still does.
The art establishment, by the way, is comprised of the art critics of the metropolitan papers, the directors of the big art galleries, the chairs of fine arts at the universities, the powers that be in the education departments and the administrative bodies such as the art councils and the ministries of the arts. It is only in the last few years that there is even an indication of a change in the status quo. Unfortunately traditional art is not being taught in most schools.
Nevertheless, there is at last some indication of a worldwide swing back to the acceptance of traditional art. In Melbourne in the 50s and 60s there were no societies of traditional artists, whereas the Contemporary Art Society flourished. There were no group exhibitions of traditional artists. Now, the Guild of Realist Artists, which I founded in 1972, flourishes and little is heard of the Contemporary Art Society, The Camberwell Rotary Annual Exhibition for traditional art is now the largest exhibition in the Southern Hemisphere.
What should be the duty of "Christian" artists? Unhappily today we are living in a very pagan world. The fact that an exhibition of insulting, sacrilegious, highly pornographic art was put on in Melbourne by the photographer Serano, without any media outcry, demonstrates the depraved outlook of much of our media. If it were not because of considerable pressure, the Gallery Director would have held the exhibition in our National Gallery.
Unfortunately, by relinquishing the disciplines and distorting the meaning of words, a licence or permit is given to break all the laws of decency, courtesy and morality. It is lost sight of that just because a painting is a work of art does not mean that it cannot be sacrilegious, insulting, psychotic, or pornographic.
I believe it is the task of a Christian artist to uphold the epiphany of beauty and goodness and adhere to the truth of God's creation. To quote a recent appeal of Pope John Paul: "Let us try to aim for a 'renewed sense of beauty' in our time.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 17 No 7 (August 2004), p. 12
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