This question comes up a lot in discussing art. Post-modern art is known for its depth, its intellectualism, and its ability to communicate. But it is also known for its brutality, ugliness, and crudeness in some cases. What passes for art at the present time often bears no resemblance to the art of the “Old Masters”. This term, “Old Master”, usually refers to white European male painters and sculptors of the 15th to 17th centuries, people like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian.
What these men were known for is dedication to art as a craft. They studied drawing, human anatomy, and the rudiments of the materials at their disposal. They created realistic, classically beautiful works reminiscent of the ancient Greek and Roman monuments to human perfection. As Westerners we are influenced by Greek notions of beauty, with its emphasis on faithful, realistic (perfectionistic) renderings of nature and symmetry.
During the 1960’s a new emphasis on social, religious, and political liberation brought with it a loosening up of old notions of beauty and what art is “supposed” to be. At some point realism became old-fashioned and “primitive”. The only “real” art was expressive, highly conceptual, and sometimes ugly and incomprehensible. At the present, anything is art and art is anything. However, there are a group of resistors who seem to be pushing back.
More and more I am beginning to see groups devoted to a return to the “classical training of the Old Masters”, groups like the Art Renewal Center. These groups want to see a return to attractive pieces of art that depict realistic looking people, places, and things. They want technical skill, including competent draftsmanship and composition. And they want Beauty.
I must admit that this “old-fashioned” notion feels counter-cultural and thus attractive to me. I myself have a slavish devotion to beauty and see it as a gift from God, not something to be dismissed as childish or pedestrian. It is normal for human beings to be attracted to Beauty and to crave it for themselves. Does this mean I wish to see an end to weird performance art, trash and unmade beds as sculpture, and urine-soaked canvases as paintings?
Well, no. I hate that crap, but I am glad it exists. As I said before, artists of every generation have faced an “establishment” that tried to tell them what was and wasn’t art. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, who seem like the tamest artists you can imagine, were once considered rogues and thugs. Their work was said to be unfinished, crude, and hideous. People like Degas, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, and Gauguin were excluded from the establishment, AKA “The Salon” and had to hold their own exhibitions outside of the system. Real artists are always somewhere out there on their own, outside of the system, struggling to be understood.
So I am glad that at least now there are a plethora of opinions about what art is. There is still an establishment which seems to favor the avant-garde stuff but there are also a number of outlets for more traditional artists. It is good for the brain to open up to lots of different points of view. While I will never view a toilet as a piece of art, I am attracted to a lot of expressionist and highly conceptual art. I might not want to make it myself, but I can appreciate the artist’s point of view and the ideas behind his or her creation.
Artists are prophets, bringing specific and personal messages to the their people. These messages are not always understood or appreciated, but real artists can’t help but to keep trying. We all find our voices in different ways and bear our souls, seeking a receptive audience. I am devoted to beauty because I believe that the divine nature of the universe is revealed through its creation. I have a deep and abiding respect for this creation and for beauty. I believe that when we connect with something beautiful, we are tapping into the God-presence within us all.
So, does beauty matter? It matters to me. But as the old adage goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Have a great week and go follow your bliss…
These are some things I worked on this week: