We’ve recently returned from our annual trip to the South Island which culminated in the Watercolour New Zealand outdoor painting safari to Kaikoura.
Friends in Christchurch told us over lunch how they had attended a University of the Third Age lecture on art where the presenter’s thesis was that in order to be worthwhile, art had to carry a political message. I couldn’t help but think that the political art produced in Soviet Russia, Hitler’s Germany and Mao Tse Tung’s China wasn’t exactly distinguished and that it would be drawing a very long bow to claim that the Mona Lisa, the statue of David, the paintings of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velasquez, the French Impressionists or Rodin’s sculpture are in any way political.
However, ideology and ideas of what truly is art will always be with us. There will always be some art critics and academics who think that they alone are the arbiters of what is, and what isn’t, real art.
The American critic Theodore F. Wolff put it very well in his book 'The Many Masks of Modern Art':
‘For sheer arrogance of attitude in matters pertaining to art, and for pure dogmatic self-assurance on issues of creative theory, I doubt that there has ever been another period like 1952-58 in American art. The “truth” about art was finally known – and whole generations of figurative and old-line non-objective painters became nonpersons as far as the art world was concerned. Careers ended abruptly or were thwarted for no other reason than that the artists concerned were content to paint as they always had...
One began to get the distinct impression in the late 1950s that conformity to the prevailing style or styles was all that mattered in art, and that the only reason artists painted or sculpted was to be accredited as true believers. An art career, for anyone hoping to be taken seriously, became as precarious a matter as tightrope walking: one slip, one error in judgment, one word of appreciation for an artist condemned to professional oblivion, and the aspiring artist could be disgraced and his future work ignored.’
Of course elements of such attitudes still persist. My own view is that works that need pretentious artist’s statements or waffling curatorial “explanations” full of obscure artspeak so that the great unwashed can truly understand their meaning have failed to communicate to the viewer. There is a strong element of the emperor’s new clothes in a good deal of what passes as art criticism. We would do well to remember what Edward Hopper told an interviewer ‘I would like to say what Renoir said: that the important element in a picture cannot be defined, cannot be explained – perhaps it’s better.’