John Howe

The Art of Talking Art

Or Getting A Few Words in Edgeways

This is an essay about the fine art of talking about… art. There’s decidedly an art to it. Serious art critics, who speak about serious art, adopt a palette of authority, sternly applied with brushes that brook no objection, deciding what constitutes Serious Art, and what is not. I do take some small comfort from the fact that this exclusivist approach has been a constant since people have been authoritatively writing about art, though membership in the ranks of Serious Artists is as ever-changing as the passengers on the quay of a train station. The other constant is that we always seem to be right. Now. And look on those who were right before with derision and commiseration. Undoubtedly someone will one day look on what we say and shake their heads.
In light of this, I’m always reminded of John Ruskin’s lecture on Classic Schools of Painting given at Oxford in 1883, when he described Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s “The Pyrrhic Dance” as “exactly like a microscopic view of a small detachment of black beetles, in search of a dead rat”. Tastes change.
Leslie Stem is a film-maker, artist and writer, and not afraid of speaking her mind. Or of graciously agreeing to stand in for me, when, in some desperation, I asked if she might not enjoy the exalted, albeit virtual, status of guest newsletter-writer (and save my skin in the process). *


“I wish the Art World would go away because it doesn’t accurately reflect the world of art.” Tavish Stone

The advent of photography was seen by many artists as an opportunity to liberate themselves from the constraints of realism. The florid excesses of the Baroque era, the corpse-pale of the aristocracy and morbid still-lifes were discarded like so many corsets. Freed from these bonds, a new generation captured the quality of light in a fleeting moment ), a common domestic scene or the phantasmagoria of the night skies.
But the Avant-Garde, once entrenched, becomes the Old Guard. The rebels stormed the gates of Academia and rule there still. Today the heirs of a counter-revolution led by the Pre-Raphaelites are seen on book covers, in calendars and on movie screens. Fantasy artists are dismissed by the pundits of the Art World as mere illustrators or production designers, not Serious Artists.
Not long ago there were a number of articles in in the Los Angeles Times denigrating the work of Jean-León Gérôme as seen in last summer’s exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. One in particular compared the sculpture of Gérôme unfavorably to that of Henri Matisse.


Left: Praxiteles, the Aphrodite of Cnidus, perhaps the first full-size nude female figure. He is also said to have been the first to bring life to sculpture through contrapposto. Unfortunately, none of his original work is believed to have survived.; we know it only through copies.
“Paris did see me naked,
Adonis, and Anchises,
except I knew all three of them.
Where did the sculptor see me?”
Centre: Jean-Léon Gérome, Pygmalion and Galatea, c. 1890
Right: Henri Matisse, Reclining Nude 1 (Aurora), 1907. I think this speaks for itself.

Speaking as an artist myself (however modest my skill may be) I would point out that the essential difference between Gérôme and Matisse is that takes a high degree of technical and visionary skill to paint and sculpt like Gérôme whereas anyone with a modicum of eye-hand coordination could paint and sculpt the childish lumps of Matisse. Gérôme’s painting are not just pretty photographs: when you compare his work to the photos he used as reference you can see how they have been endowed with a sense of life and drama that only mastery of one’s craft can convey. Picasso’s abstracts would not have the power they do had he had not first mastered realism; Van Gogh’s ecstatic brushwork has a solid foundation in space. Rules must be learned before they can be broken. Singers cannot improvise until they first learned the melody. Matisse and others like him serve only to make populists feel like everyone can be an artist.
And if you object to Gérôme’s sculptures for being “florid” because they are tinted- well, tell that to Praxiteles!
I don’t think that I will be able to convince anyone in the art establishment that this Emperor Matisse has no clothes, but I have to try. I just find it interesting that pendulum of art academia has swung over the last century and a half from celebrating mastery to finding deep meaning in a piece of wood set into the floor. Art can be all about context and fashion, I know, but how long an artist has been dead doesn’t hold any water with me as a judgment of relative value.
Mere technical ability is not my only criterion (although it is hard to get excited about some piece of art I could have done blindfolded and left-handed). It is rather that art strikes one deep in the soul with its beauty or terror, narrative or play of light, control or deconstruction of perspective, mythopoeic resonances or contemporary relevance, evocation of sorrow or serenity, irony or deification, literalism or dreamlike qualities.


From left to right: John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888. A distinctly Victorian atmosphere for Tennyson’s 1883 poem, blending fin-de-siecle anguish and loss with the landscapes of nostalgia emptied by the Industrial Revolution. Waterhouse’s magnificent painting contains many interwoven threads, explicit and implict.
Maxfield Parrish, Riverbank in Autumn, 1938. Magic hour, Indian summer, mythology of the New World, new gods substituted for old.
Norman Rockwell, Art Critic (cover for the Saturday Evening Post, published April 16, 1955), The Connoisseur (cover for the Saturday Evening Post, published January 13, 1962 ).  Or the art of not taking oneseself seriously, Rockwell’s paintings are far more enduring and acerbic for their being treated in the Saturday Evening Post style. They are trick mirrors, though just who is tricked, perhaps critics a century from now will be able to say.

Art is not something like the weather that affects everyone the same way. Except in rare cases the weather does not strike something deep in our soul. It either affects you or it doesn’t. Everyone can get wet or cold- not everyone can respond to the aesthetics of the weather. (See Oscar Wilde’s satirical essay  “The Decay of Lying” on the question of whether the public can be educated to appreciate beauty.)
I believe that the artistic sensibility is instinctive and cannot be taught, merely honed. Art education can lead those who care into deeper understanding of techniques, symbology and historical contexts, but mostly it leads people by the nose. They are taught to believe that this or that artist is “good” according to current trends or theory (“and here we see the artist’s Blue Squiggle period”) but those are so changeable as to have little real meaning.
One can hardly blame art critics for drinking the Kool-Aid of Academia. It requires strong will and intellect to realize that standards of Good Art are subjective and not absolute. One person looks at Maxfield Parrish and is swept away into a world of somnolent beauty and others will see tacky poster art for the masses. Fifty years ago Norman Rockwell was a mere illustrator and now he is in galleries all over the place. What’s a poor art critic to think?
Matisse is an artist for the ages not because he could paint his way out of a paper bag (he could not) but because his work looks like “Matisse” and no one else. It is the interface between the artist and viewer that gives the work its meaning, not some formula of realistic + narrative + popular = Bad Art.
I know I am preaching to the converted here in this particular forum, I know many of you, as I do, read your newspaper’s art reviews largely for the laughs, and hope, along with me, that “fantasy art” will one day grace the walls of museums and that the critics, having been reeducated, will join in the applause.
Leslie Stem is Director of Eyedelon Productions, “An Imaginary Production Company”
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