When somebody admiring a painting of mine comes out and says "Wow, it looks just like a photo!" ...I try not to take it too personally.
Comparing my execution of a painting with the execution of an image by a machine probably strikes them as a favorable comparison: it takes skill to get a high degree of accuracy, there must be intentionality behind the effort, the viewer likes to know what he's looking at, etc.
Especially for the student who is working diligently at discipline and technique in order to achieve visual accuracy, it could be encouraging to hear that the result of one's work is "photo-accurate." It takes time and great effort to attain accuracy in one's drawing and painting. However, though most people intuitively recognize that a well-executed painting is superior to a photo, we mostly couldn't articulate how and why. For example, a wonderfully executed still life painting, hung in an ornate frame, set in a gorgeous architectural environment within, say, a formal dining room, is fitting and beautiful (if well integrated with the space). A photograph of the same subject in the same situation would seem a parody. Why?
The major reason is breadth.
So what is breadth, exactly? To begin answering that question, let's look to painting's near cousin, sculpture. Specifically, I ask you to compare Michelangelo's David to this wax figure from Madame Tussaud's.
Let's ask the more obvious (or at least the question more modern, empirical minds find easier to answer) first: which is more realistic? Obviously the wax sculpture, correct?
Now, the less comfortable question: which is more beautiful? Don't give in to that modernist temptation to cowardice and say "who am I to judge," or "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Don't give in to a state of agnosticism because the matter cannot be mathematically proven or quantified. Say with boldness the truth as you see it. I say just as obviously as the latter is more realistic, the former is more beautiful.
But why? One important reason is the breadth of the David. I find this quote from GK Chesterton very insightful and applicable to the question at hand:
"We all know the fable of the man who imitated a pig, and his rival who was hooted by the crowd because he could only produce what was (in fact) the squeak of a real pig. The crowd was perfectly right. The crowd was a crowd of very penetrating and philosophical art critics. They had come there not to hear an ordinary pig, which they could hear by poking in any ordinary pig-sty. They came to hear how the voice of a pig affects the immortal mind and spirit of a man; what sort of satire he would make of it; what sort of fun he can get out of it; what sort of exaggeration he feels to be an exaggeration of its essence, and not of its accidents. In other words, they had come to hear a squeak, but the sort of squeak which expresses what a man thinks of a pig – not the vastly inferior squeak which only expresses what a pig thinks of a man." (from Fancies Versus Fads)
Michelangelo wasn't trying to recreate a literal man in marble (as a mold of a man could have been taken and enlarged for that purpose through mechanical processes) - no, he looked at men around him and, from his experience and intelligence, derived an ideal concept of a man that embodies poise, grace under pressure, beauty and form, strength and sensitivity. He communicated not only the story of David and Goliath but also the strength and beauty of the city of Florence, poised to slay her enemies. It is a higher, clear vision that grasps what is essential and leaves out what is not. It is as high above a mere cast of a man as a human being is higher than a beast. There are similar qualities but they are unmistakably different in kind and excellence.
So too, with a well-executed painting and a photograph.
To define it more precisely, breadth is the quality of an artwork in which the most essential elements are beautifully related one to another within the given medium without burdensome, distracting, or inessential details.
Fewer facts but more grand truth and beauty.
Now, where does Photorealism fit into this vision and understanding of art? Don't many artists work from photos even if they aren't Photorealists?
Does this make Photorealism 'bad?'
The short answer is: yes, sort of. An artist should, as much as possible, be before nature and exploring and understanding beauty as directly as possible without any mechanical separation or filter. Painting from a photograph is a fundamentally different and inferior experience and practice from painting from nature. Painting from photos is deadly to the art of painting when practiced exclusively and is deleterious to it in any quantity. This being said, it is often a necessary tool for modern artists and can be useful as long as the painter has sufficient and effective training based on direct observation of nature.
Photorealism as a movement sprang up in the 20th century with much good intent. I believe many of its practitioners recognized the intimate connection between truth and beauty (which all of this previous conversation presupposes). However, photorealism has an improper relationship with the truth in a couple of ways.
The first is that it accepts the photograph as a starting point and a foundation for the truth the artist bring to his art, as opposed to direct, unfiltered observation of nature. Leaning on photography this way trains the mind and eye to accept certain distortions and limitations of nature characteristic of that medium. Color, form, edge, and focus are not the same (or as beautiful) in photography as the human experience of sight.
Secondly, Photorealism tends to make slavish, exact replication of a photograph with all the warts, pimples, pores, and other "facts" the end goal without the larger understanding of relationships, and most essential connections. This way of mechanically copying the already-mechanical image of a camera is the antithesis of breadth. I don't want to scold Photorealists too much though. The truth is the original Photorealists were trying to rebuild the connection to visual truth from the ruins of the destruction of Western Art. Much of their work is impressive and skillful in an age of art characterized by the rejection of truth and technique and the production of quite unimpressive, undisciplined, and/or ugly works.
At the other end of the spectrum, another mistake of our time is to accept and value paintings with bad color or poor drawing - schlocky work - merely because it is "art" that is too poorly made to even appear to be based on a photograph. In essence: valuing deformity as opposed to breadth and beauty.
Both of these errors (of Photorealism and schlocky painting) are types of Neo-primitive ways of painting and inferior to the great tradition of Western Art.
I want to close with two paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) that struck me on a recent tour I gave - one by Chardin and one by a Flemish Master, Frans Snyders. The difference I will describe is what led the Boston School painters (who founded the MFA) to revere Chardin as a hero and to appreciate Snyder as striving towards greatness yet ultimately remaining relatively primitive.
Among other interesting objects, this still life by Snyders features a pedestal of grapes. Every grape is thoroughly and painstakingly described, the decoration on the fine china is there in all of its detail, the weave of the wicker basket is accurate, and so on. It is realistic. It is detailed. It is impressive.
The other is a small still life by Chardin that might easily be overlooked despite its significant placement on one of the two main columns in the front of the museum (another still life by the same painter occupies the other column as well). In this simpler composition we find many fewer edges and details. The grapes, when inspected closely, tend to blend in with each other. However, as the viewer steps back, one or two edges of the cluster of grapes jump out - a reflection here, a silhouette there - until the viewer perceives some as being closer, others receding into the shadows (to recreate the effect, try squinting at your screen a bit). As the viewer backs even further, the grapes interact with the ceramic around it and the table underneath until, unmistakably, a scene of light and forms with clear and unmistakable depth congeals in front of the viewer's gaze... each part related to every other.
With this fresh experience of the painting, one glances back at the first work and notices how, despite all of its detail, it looks flat. One grape in front looks almost as close as the grape in the back of the cluster. One intricately detailed edge of the plate seems just as close as the other despite sitting on a flat table and being, presumably, almost a foot away. A direction of light is indicated but not felt. The Snyders has intricate detail added to intricate detail (1 + 2 + 3 + 4... ). On the other hand, the Chardin has considerably fewer details... but each chosen one is in marvelous harmony with the others. These details communicate with one another and multiply their respective effects into a grand unity, more expansive and much more meaningful than any single part by itself (1 x 2 x 3 x 4...).
The former has intricacy but the latter has - you guessed it - breadth.
“The new school of art and thought does indeed wear an air of audacity, and breaks out everywhere into blasphemies, as if it required any courage to say a blasphemy. There is only one thing that it requires real courage to say, and that is a truism.” - G. K. Chesterton
It is said that each is entitled to his own opinion.
There is much truth in this. However, this phrase is often used to justify the indefensible. A certain author that I knew once put forward the following silly scenario to show the limits of this phrase: are people entitled to the opinion that loaded shotguns should be kept in nurseries for young children to play with? Of course not. Few but those with ulterior motives, including fear, would ever say such a thing would be an acceptable 'opinion.' The true responsibility that everyone has is to form their opinions in accordance with the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Opinions are not valuable just because we happen to have them - they become valuable when they are well formed. The flip side of this is that they can actually be very harmful when they are poorly formed. For some reason, bad opinions are justified because of a false belief that all opinions are equal and it is impossible to sort them out.
Let's turn this idea of opinion to the subject of art.
There is a saying that good art should speak for itself.
In general, I hold this to be true. Good art should be immediately appealing, with such qualities as a beautiful and harmonious color scheme, excellent drawing, beautifully sculpted forms, harmonious composition, and division of space. Even the untrained eye will immediately appreciate works that are excellent in these ways, so the work, to a certain extent, speaks for itself. As this kind of art appreciation goes, it is a very good thing.
However, I would put forward the idea that it is the responsibility of the civilized man to have cultivated good taste; in literature, music, clothing, and many other things, but particularly visual art. Sight being perhaps the strongest of the five senses, forms which we take in visually are particularly potent. All the forms that we take in, whether we actively surround ourselves with them or passively float through them, affect our souls and leave their imprints on us, This effect is multiplied when we consider how the forms in our lives also affect our loved ones, friends, neighbors, and our community broadly. (You've seen me write about this already in my artist's statement.)
But -- what is good taste and how does it apply to the visual arts?
'Good taste' is simply to have a well formed opinion, in accordance with the realities of the Good, the True, and particularly the Beautiful, when it comes to questions of art. GK Chesterton says: "A good critic should be like God in the great saying of a Scottish mystic. George MacDonald said that God was easy to please and hard to satisfy."
A man of good taste should delight in the good - even relatively small goods - and be able to recognize and compare goods so that he knows which are the greater and which are the lesser. The man with thoroughly refined tastes may even be able to identify causes of the goodness he perceives and help others to understand and appreciate that goodness. For example: the man with good taste in wine is able to indicate to his companions particular aspects of flavor, scent, and structure, comparing these qualities to other, familiar flavors and smells in order to enlighten his friends. (If you are an aficionado, by the way, I need learn from you sometime.) Of course the development of such an ability to taste comes from cultivation; being familiar with many varieties of wines and being able to remember them and mentally compare past experiences to present ones. This usually comes only through serious study.
So too, the man with good taste in art can appreciate amateur art, even a child's doodles, for the good that it is. He can appreciate the excellences a Benson has over a Bruegel (and vice versa) and recognizes the sublimities of Michelangelo and Vermeer as the heights of their particular types of painting.
But the person with good taste can also call a spade a spade and say when a lesser artist, propped up by fads, doesn't measure up to the esteem with which he's awarded by the Art World Elites, the curators and the gallerists (for instance). Often in our current art climate, however, the choice is even clearer: between what is beautiful and that which is downright ugly. Often this level of taste -- of objecting to the ugly and deformed claiming the mantle of high art -- takes no more than a little bit of common sense and (perhaps, at times, a fair bit of) courage.
For this level of taste, look no further than the example of the boy who said the emperor was, in fact - and quite simply - naked.
Thus, the responsibilities of good taste vary and take different forms in different circumstances. All of us, however, do have an obligation to the Beautiful in whatever circumstances we find ourselves and no matter how cultivated our tastes are or if we are just starting out on the journey of appreciating the beautiful. We cannot call what is beautiful ugly or claim that what is ugly is beautiful, nor can we claim a shallow or lower beauty is equal to a higher or more profound one.
When somebody suggests that a Pollock is equal to a Michelangelo, it would be appropriate for you to laugh as if at a bad joke and then ask the poor fellow to please be serious. Just as no one is, in fact, "entitled" to the opinion that loaded shotguns should be kept in every nursery, likewise some opinions regarding art merit only flat rejection.
As an exercise in developing good taste I have assembled a Pinterest Board of the 10 best images of Our Lady in Western Art. Tell me what you think! Share your thoughts and let me know if there are any images that you would put in the top 10 and which ones you might let drop out. I am always trying to refine my taste too!
Why did I leave my comfortable job to pursue classical art training?
I had been teaching at an all-boys prep school for six years. I loved my colleagues and had great bosses I respected and loved to work for. I loved the young men that I taught. My wife and I were just starting our family - we already had our first beautiful baby girl! With these responsibilities in mind, my wife and I had decided to leave the security and comforts of my job as head of the Art Department at The Heights School so that I could go back to being a student myself, full-time, under Master painter Paul Ingbretson.
Many people would say it was crazy (and likely they were saying it). I left a very good career path that didn't entail a fraction of the risk and outright financial loss that turning down years of income in exchange for years of tuition would. And yet my wife and I weighed these realities and with a little fear, a lot of hope, support from family, and a firm will, took the leap and moved our small family up to Manchester, New Hampshire to start this foolish little enterprise.
So why did I do it?
For me a big piece of that choice goes back to my grade school experience when my family attended Saint Vincent De Paul Church. Many people in our mid-sized Midwestern Town referred to it as "St. Vincent Deluxe" -- for easily inferable reasons. And yet despite being one of the wealthiest parishes around, it was a truly ugly building. It is what I referred to as a "Pizza Hut church" whose squat architecture speaks much more of fast food than of beauty, transcendence, and elevation of the mind and heart. It's one of many such buildings erected by Catholic parishes in the United States during the dark days of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The stained glass windows were more sandy grout than actual glass. Their designs were clumsy at best -- upon reflection, I think they have much more in common with the pixelated graphics of an early Nintendo gaming system then the amazing patterning and geometry of the stained glass of Chartres or even a modest 19th century chapel. I believe it had some rough hewn statues, Stations of the Cross, and a crucifix that was inoffensive at best. Besides these, the sanctuary was very bare. But perhaps even more offensive than the barrenness of the church sanctuary were the very ugly murals just outside, in the vestibule. Stark blue-faced figures, reminiscent more of aliens than of human beings, marched across the bright orange walls of the vestibule in a world constructed of violently hacked, jagged paint strokes. They were supposed to illustrate the life of St. Vincent de Paul... I only knew that I didn't want to be around them.
With all this wealth and opportunity, why didn't we have a beautiful church? We as a parish community could certainly afford it.
Then, during my 8th grade year, my parents took me on a trip to Rome. What an experience! I was deeply moved by the great beauty I found there. The stark, colossal grandeur of the statues in St. John Lateran; St Peter's Basilica with its amazing Colonnades; the wonders of the Vatican Museums -- particularly the Sistine Chapel -- but most of all the paintings in the Jesu (a grand, post-Reformation Church, that is the head Church of the Jesuit order) spoke to me as nothing else I had ever seen before.
The beauty and vigor of the figures from the Jesu touched me deeply. Perhaps a little over-the-top, the figures burst forth from their architectural frames into the space of the viewers. They spoke to me unmistakably of the Saints being of our world, having power to intercede for us, to change the world for the better... and all of this communicated by the excellent craftsmanship, care, and vision of all-but-unknown artists. Here were men and women who looked like me, but perhaps a little higher, cleaner, more noble. I wanted to be like them and I was convinced that they would want to help me. I felt profoundly the bridge between Heaven and Earth through this artwork and it helped me to watch, to stay, to pray, and to enjoy the house of God - almost nothing could have been farther from that aesthetic experience than the experience of the vestibule at St. Vincent de Paul's back home.
And yet the communities who had made these grand, amazing churches didn't have nearly the resources in terms of technological sophistication that the community of St. Vincent's had.
I had also heard of beautiful buildings that were built in the rural area of New York State where my mother had grown up -- made by poor French and Irish pioneers and farmers. I heard stories of these elegant churches filled with carved wood and stone that, before my time, had been replaced with other Pizza Hut churches. I began to suspect that the ugly churches came about not through a lack of money or technology but because of a type of spiritual crisis: a lack of love and dedication (to Beauty and to the Source of Beauty -- as Saint Augustine said, the "beauty ever ancient and never new").
From that point on I started to feel called to dedicate myself to the pursuit of beauty.
Through the years that pursuit took different forms.
I had always drawn, but having been to Rome, interest in classical and baroque art started engaging me in a new way. I took some classes in high school, but never had any art teacher who seemed to be offering what I really wanted. I learned about Caravaggio, and was swept away by the same sense of wonder at the beauty of light and form combined with the beauty of the presence of the Divine so close to us that I had experienced in the Jesu.
I went to college; my parents encouraged me to "find something that I loved and figure out a way to get paid for it." To my parents' somewhat restrained horror I really took the first part of their message to heart, trusting that I would figure out the second part in time: I majored in Studio Art and Philosophy. Here again, I was disappointed at the lack of any teacher who could teach me what I was truly craving: how to draw the beauty, the truth - how to create an image of that higher Vision that those great Italian Masters I had seen in Rome had done.
In fact, I found they couldn't even teach me excellent technique for approaching any visual subject.
By the time that I was just about to graduate. I really didn't know what to do next. I knew I wanted to pursue "art" but had gained only enough knowledge to know that I needed a lot more training to be able to make the beautiful things that I hoped to make -- that I was haunted by, that I felt were burning at my heart.
I didn't know where to get such training though, so I decided to get a job and continue my search.
As the head of the Art Department at the Heights School I did that in one of the most supportive and generous communities that I could imagine. I taught my grade school and high school students, I took classes from different realist artists and started to learn more about the reviving tradition of realist, Western Art. A breakthrough came when I visited the studios of Henry Wingate in Front Royal, Virginia. Some friends had told me about him, encouraging me to get in touch and visit him. When I reached out to him, telling him about my history and desire for training, Henry generously invited me out to his studio.
What I saw there blew me away.
Henry's studio was a whole building, the size of a small house, tailored to the needs of a traditional artist. It had a huge room with an enormous north-facing window. Multiple panels, custom made to fit the window, could be placed over or removed from different areas to completely control the flow of light. It had a large, raised pedestal where he drew and painted from live models in natural light. And it had his work: beautiful still life drawings and paintings; large, imposing portraits; but most of all, his epic grand-scale religious figurative work. I felt like I had stepped into the studio of one of those great Italian Masters. It was unlike any other Studio I've been to before and I knew I was on the right track.
I wanted to study with Henry, but to my disappointment he informed me he was not taking any students. However he directed me towards the master under whom he had studied: Paul Ingbretson. It was a very exciting moment in my journey. If Henry could make paintings like this, maybe someday I could as well.
A year passed before I could visit Paul's studio. I'd seen some of his work online, but the thing that really took my breath away when I finally visited were the colors in the still life. By that time I had visited a number of studios of contemporary realist painters; I had seen much of their work in galleries; I'd been to many great galleries in the US, the UK, Italy, and France. I have never been as impressed with color in still life. The vibrancy and freshness of the color without exaggeration or over-saturation, combined with disciplined drawing, was so powerful and yet so calm and restrained! It was truly a revelation of Beauty for me. I had never suspected until then what an exciting thing still life painting could be.
The decision had been building for a number of years. I had often talked with my wife about it and finally we both had enough clarity to see that after our first child, if we didn't make the jump to have me study painting then, we probably never would. We had to choose between settling down and taking the "leap of faith." We had both decided that we were committed to beauty. We recognized that real sacrifices often have to be made in order to pursue the highest goods, and we both recognized that learning how to make beautiful images for others and to present a vision of true beauty -- in short, working actively in building up a culture of beauty -- is something worth sacrificing for.
We had both seen our share of Pizza Hut churches as well as a popular art culture that rejects and often attacks beauty; we had seen how many people were seeking true beauty and were unable to find it; and we recognized the need for people to act to change the culture for the good, the true, and the beautiful. We had discerned that we felt a call to be such people - culture warriors, perhaps some might say - in the service of Beauty. We also realized that we had only one life to live, and that if we didn't make the jump we would probably regret it for the rest of our lives.
And so -- we jumped!
What do you think? Is there a dream out there that you would pursue if you had the chance? Tell me about it.
According to the WSJ, The Best Investments of 2018? Art, Wine and Cars.
The author notes that for the calendar year of 2018, while traditional investments like stocks and bonds lost relative value, luxury items such as fine wines, fancy colored jewelry, and art actually gained value on the market. So, while perhaps not addressing such deeper questions as what gives value to art, it is at least an indicator that taking the step towards that painting or sculpture you had your eye on already could have some short-term financial gains. The increase in value of artwork can be especially true in the case of emerging artists (I hope I'm not being too subtle here).
On average, according to the WSJ article, the market value of art investments have increased about 12% in 2018. The author compares this to the value of the S&P 500 Total Return which has lost ~5% and the Stoxx Europe 600 Total Return which has lost ~12% in value. You may end up looking like quite the sharp investor by purchasing a beautiful painting at these rates!
However, even greater returns are possible by investing in art, in the non-monetary gains that they will bring to your home and family - as well as our culture as a whole. The first and strongest argument for investing in beautiful art is that having beautiful forms around you will actually change you and those around you leaving their positive mark on your mind and soul. (More of my thoughts about that here.)
The reverse effect is also unavoidable when we surround ourselves with ugly forms or are taken by the tide of least resistance into emptiness or utilitarian forms.
When we take into account our family and friends whom we influence by the beauty or ugliness with which we choose to surround ourselves, this effect is greatly multiplied. But take look at the picture on an even grander scale yet: A decision to value beautiful artwork with our finances can support the artist and beauty-seeker, not merely to the point of maintaining a contribution to culture, but in the best case actually pursuing the craft in order to obtain an ever fuller and deeper understanding of beauty to share with the world. Perhaps investing in what today is considered merely a "luxury" will ensure that beautiful work is widely available for enjoyment for all people the way it might have been moreso in the past, and not just a "luxury" good for a select few. To my mind, this is the deepest value of investing in beautiful artwork.
That's why I'm so appreciative of every purchase and commission from my collectors.
What do you think? Were you surprised by the WSJ's reporting on luxury investments?
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley. Thanks for visiting the Beauty Advocacy Blog, where it's my job to help you become a more discerning art appreciator.
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