Now that the heat of summer is fully upon us, I’ve been trying to catch up on my podcast listening, something that had fallen by the wayside over the past several weeks between vacation and other goings-on. For many years now, Catholic In A Small Town by Mac and Katherine Barron – which just recently celebrated its 500th episode – has been one of my favorites. In last week’s episode, Mac and Katherine got into a discussion regarding whether agenda-driven popular culture has reached a boiling point, in the sense of the proverbial frog slowly being boiled alive in a pot. [N.B. You can have a listen here, beginning around 1:06.] In discussing some of the more disturbing materials available to their children via online streaming entertainment apps, it was observed that driving an agenda often leads to bad art.
I’ve been thinking about this point, and there’s certainly a lot of truth to it when it comes to things like novels, movies, and television, but if we shift the analysis to the world of fine art, things become a bit more complicated.
Certainly most Contemporary Art falls into the category of agenda-driven bad art. To begin with, it usually has very little in the way of actual art about it – that is, if we think of the term “art” in the less pejorative sense of the word, “artifice”, displaying skillfulness or carefully-honed craftsmanship. Yet because Contemporary Art is so often agenda-driven, it’s become largely immune from serious criticism. Most art critics drink from the same pitcher of Kool-Aid as the artists whose work they review, and those who don’t are usually too afraid of professional and social repercussions to point out that, whatever their agenda, most of today’s most celebrated artists don’t actually know how to draw, let alone paint or sculpt.
Of course, agenda-driven art isn’t necessarily always poorly-executed art, even if we disagree with the agenda itself. If we go back a couple of centuries and look at a major artist of international standing such as Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) for example, there’s no question that he knew his business as an artist. He could draw with great precision and clarity of line, with a skill perhaps unrivaled since the days of Ancient Greece. He remains a significant, highly influential figure in the history of Western art.
Unfortunately, David was also a fanatical Jacobin – having voted in favor of the execution of Louis XVI, among other horrors – and later became a Bonapartist. As someone who loathes anything and everything having to do with both the French Revolution in general and Napoleon Bonaparte in particular, I find much of David’s Napoleonic work in particular to be utterly ridiculous. No matter how well-executed his portraits of the little corporal, whenever I look at them I can’t help but recall the Spanish aphorism, mona en seda, mona se queda. (“A monkey in silk is still a monkey.”)
It’s also important to recognize that while an artist’s personal motivations inevitably inform his artistic point of view, “bad” people can make exceptionally good art. Quite a few great artists led lives that were, at least at times, not exactly circumspect: famous examples include some of my all-time favorites, such as Raphael, Velázquez, and Singer Sargent, among many others. They may not have been the sort of people you would have wanted your sister to date, but that didn’t make them any less the artistic geniuses that they certainly were.
A more recent irony however, is causing even the display of works by these artists to be called into question, as the art world begins to overheat in search of more people and concepts to attack. Even though those of us of a more rational mindset would never dismiss out of hand the work of a great artist such as Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), simply because he was an insatiable womanizer who fathered over a dozen illegitimate children with different mistresses, there is a slowly but steadily increasing effort to engage in post-mortem condemnations of dead artists, in the endless effort to engage in virtual signaling whenever possible. Thus, artists such as Gauguin and Picasso, who happened to live outside of the mainstream themselves, are now being chastised for nonconformity to present-day social positions championed by those who, a century ago, would have lauded their breaking of social and artistic taboos.
There’s an interesting statement from American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967), that I’d like to leave you with as something to think about, perhaps as a point for future conversation. In an interview he gave to the Smithsonian back in 1959, Hopper quoted from a statement which he had published a few years earlier in an arts magazine, in which he summed up his views regarding what an artist should be trying to achieve in his work:
Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination. One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the intellect for a pristine imaginative conception. The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design. The term “life” as used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it implies all of existence, and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it. Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature’s phenomena before it can again become great.
And now, on to some of the week’s more interesting art stories.
That newly-rediscovered painting by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) which I told you about a couple of weeks ago, a 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X’s sister-in-law, Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj, ended up selling at Sotheby’s London for a little over $3.1 million, the high end of the estimate. In my book, that’s still a bargain for a Velázquez, but given the rather unattractive subject matter – who would want *that* staring down at them from above the sofa – it’s certainly understandable. There’s no word yet on the identity of the buyer, or where the picture will end up.
Following the recent sale of what may or may not be a work by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510), a work that is actually by the Italian Renaissance master – along with some help from his friend (and Michelangelo’s teacher) Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) – has just been beautifully cleaned and restored at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami. “The Coronation of the Virgin” was painted around 1492 for a Camaldolite monastery in the area around Volterra, in Tuscany, and if you’ve never heard of the Camaldolite Order before now, trust me: you’re not alone in that. Botticelli and Ghirlandaio are known to have collaborated on a number of projects, such as in decorating the side walls of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, but this is the only known surviving work that they painted together.
Speaking of the Vatican, Leonardo Da Vinci’s (1452-1519) unfinished “St. Jerome” (begun 1480) from the Vatican Museums will go on display next week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as the only object in an exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of the artist. The stark exhibition design, with the picture placed at one end of a black room, is rather reminiscent of the marketing campaign that Christie’s used prior to the sale of the Leonardo “Salvador Mundi”. The painting itself is a prime example of the artist’s fascination with careful attention to anatomy, landscape, and the depiction of unique physiognomy, although it must be said that not only is the scale of the lion completely wrong, but its behavior in roaring at St. Jerome is not in keeping with the saint’s hagiography. “Leonardo Da Vinci’s St. Jerome” is at The Met from July 15th through October 6th.