Guest post from Deirdre Folley, John's wife and studio manager.
During the current crisis, perhaps you've heard from sources in the Art community that Art is now "more important than ever." I've received this line in my inbox from museums and galleries, institutions with special offers aiming to counteract the threat of isolation, loneliness, and meaninglessness.
In a time when millions of people are suffering unemployment, families are grieving the loss of loved ones, and experts in science and medicine are working double-overtime looking for solutions, is Art more important than ever?
Somehow, for me, this message was falling flat.
My reaction surprised me, since art is my husband's business and I try to represent John's artwork to you and the rest of the world. Do I not believe in what we're doing here?
At the same time that I was hearing from institutions in the art world, I was also hearing encouragement from some of you: friends and patrons, people who actively support what John is doing. But what I've heard from you has been different in a key way. The message in this community has been, "please keep doing what you do, because beauty is more important than ever" (my emphasis).
That's when it struck me that the reason that the museum curators and gallery owners weren't really reaching me with their line was because of this very tension: today, throughout much of the Art World, Art does not align with Beauty.
Moreover, even when the art itself is good and beautiful, the Art World tends to separate it from normal life and confine it to elite institutions, available only to a select group of adults who visit museums and attend gallery openings. While museum tours and gallery openings can be excellent, they represent the luxurious side of life rather than the essentially necessary.
But yes, we do need beauty more than ever. Beauty is not a luxury. That is why John does what he does. His aim is not to manipulate an audience with creative hijinks or even to produce works to end up in the sterile environment of a museum: he wants to produce works of beauty for you -- for patrons, for the public, and for the Church.
Just as we need the essential work of the people who provide food for our tables and the true and honest work of those who lay bricks for our buildings, so too do we need the work of those who put in the effort to produce works of beauty. In this way, although the Art World so frequently tends to the pretentious or the detached, the work of the true artist really is essential.
After all, what would be the good of conquering every disease this world could brandish, if we did not have sources of beauty in our lives to lift our minds and hearts beyond? If we shelter ourselves from threats but don't seek to enrich the world with what is beautiful, we are not living life but merely surviving.
So thank you for your encouragement and for your support. John hopes to repay your hope in him with truly beautiful work to enrich the world for all of us.
If you have never had the occasion to read John's Artist Statement, I hope you will take a moment to do so now.
Things unreal have never seemed quite so real as in our present time.
The special effects of our movies and video games offer us worlds upon worlds that can occupy us, entertain us, and oftentimes distract us completely from the real world. Such experiences can often be pleasant and perhaps even harmless in moderation, but for our culture and society, so consumed by these images and the unreality they represent, they can become a poison that is constantly consumed. Perhaps these simulated realities are today's "opiate of the masses."
In stark contrast to this dithering and dizzying world of modern entertainment stands the mission of the Catholic Artist in our times. The Catholic Artist's task is to understand and imagine reality and create forms that reflect the beauty of that reality. As John Paul II said in his Letter to Artists: "Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality's surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery."
For many Catholic artists this involves trying to articulate and communicate some of the deepest realities of our Faith in tangible forms. Most of us will never physically see these realities in this life, but the work of the artist makes them visible, understandable, and imaginable to us. Thus, when an artist reverently and skillfully portrays the mystery of the Trinity, angels, Principalities and Powers, and the holiness of saints through analogy and symbol, crafting his medium and stretching his intellect to understand and portray these things, it would be wrong for us to dismiss them as "a pleasant fantasy" or to comfort ourselves like good Enlightenment thinkers saying "that isn't real." That would in fact be exactly and precisely upside-down. Rather we should be like Moses recognizing we are on holy ground - truly great Catholic art gives us a glimpse into the depths of reality that we so often blithely ignore.
I am very honored and excited - humbled as well, when I consider the potential of the task - to be included in a merry band of Catholic artists seeking to portray the beauties of reality as I have just described. When I first saw the Catholic Artists' Directory I eagerly looked through at my fellow artists and was very encouraged by what I saw. I encourage you to uncover the treasures of art that are being produced today by some of the most skilled workmen and visionaries in the Catholic tradition. I encourage you to look through and get to know these very gifted artists working right now across the country and the world and to start dreaming some big dreams. Perhaps some of these men and women could bring beauty to your parish or your home. Now is the perfect time to reach out.
Roger Kimball's book The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art was a fun, quick read from cover to cover. If you have ever been subjected to recent art criticism, this book provides catharsis.
With humor and wit, Kimball confronts the obfuscating rhetoric that clothes political agendas -- not with his own competing rhetoric and agenda but by trying to let the artwork speak for itself. Whereas so-called art critics, bedecked as they are with prestige, institutional backing, and economic privilege, tend to flabbergast, intimidate, and discourage, Kimball encourages his readers to take a step back, have a good laugh at what currently passes for academic art insight, and counter it with a good dose of common sense. He often quotes artists themselves, as well as their contemporaries, to provide a clearer view of how they understood each artwork under discussion.
Kimball considers a number of cases of art criticism that he assures us are representative of the current practices in the field (rather than outliers or exceptions), systematically exposing them and de-jargonizing them while diagnosing the intellectual diseases at work in each case. Having been through a number of college art history courses at a prestigious university, I can attest that his selection of texts certainly is representative of the fare foisted upon my classmates and I. One of my favorite instances here is a perfectly ridiculous text on "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," a beautiful group portrait by John Singer Sargent. The art historian who penned the text, one Professor Lubin, wanders so far afield that he starts reading perverse sexual meaning into words that don't even appear in the painting or in the title of the painting, but only in the pun on the title that the author admits to fabricating himself and that would have never occurred to the artist or the patron. It is in this bizarre way that he purports to "find" the meaning inherent in the artwork. From the book:
"Professor Lubin's first point is that the French word for box, boîte, is only one letter and an accent mark away from the surname of the painting's subject: "Boit." "The Boit Children makes a visual-verbal pun by translating into Les Enfants de (la)Boît(e): the children of Boit and the children of the box." In fact, it is not the painting that makes the pun - and a silly enough pun it is - but Professor Lubin. And that's just the beginning of the charade....
"Professor Lubin readily admits that "It far oversteps the bounds of credibility to think that Sargent had any of this in mind before, during, or after he painted the painting." "For this relief, much thanks"! (Hamlet I:1) But then he cheerfully tells us that, notwithstanding what Sargent thought, we shouldn't be surprised "if somehow a psychic transfer or transmutation occurs between the verbal part of the creative mind... and the visual part." Psychic transfer? Transmutation? What is this, Shirley MacLaine meets art history?"
Kimball quotes Lubin at length as the latter goes on (and on) about vagaries of the significant connections between certain - ahem - anatomical parts and the uppercase and lowercase of the letter 'e' (because -- don't forget! -- the letter 'e' is conspicuously absent from the name in the title of this painting! Following this?). All he has to do here to reveal Lubin's absurdity to the sound-minded is simply to quote him!
In short, Kimball has done a wonderful service: He selects representative tests of art criticism, translates them for his reader in the context of the real work, the practices of the artist, and his times, and calls them out for what they are: self-serving academic and political garble dressed up in very fancy pseudo-psychology, pseudo-philosopy, and, most of all, just words, words, words... Words that ultimately obscure the paintings they purport to describe. Kimball continues on more witty and enlightening jaunts with paintings by Courbet, Rubens, Winslow Homer, and van Gough and their critical aggressors, valiantly defending the honor of the masters along the way.
While he does a delightful job of pointing out the ridiculous aspects of the current state of art criticism and the intellectual rot that has for a long time posed as learning, I do dock Kimball a few points for trying to enlist to his aid a number of artists and critics who are complicit in this decay. For example, Kimball amusingly rips apart a piece of art criticism or two dealing with the canvases of Marc Rothko, but not before a few pages of dedicated to apparently serious appreciation of that painter. He seems to accept, if not validate, Rothko's place in the canon of Western Art as written by the very critics and academics he is lampooning. Rothko's current prestige and place in the art world relies almost solely on the basis of the ridiculous climate of the arts made possible by the decay of common sense and the love of beauty. The only way Rothko can be so highly revered as he currently stands is through the rejection of beauty and the acceptance in its place of fatuous theory and political jockeying.
Kimball also tries to enlist Clement Greenberg as an ally in his interpretation of Paul Gauguin without putting Greenberg in his proper context as one of the primary founders of the strains of art history attempting to do away with beauty as a central theme in understanding art. In fact, Greenberg himself was one of the first critics to reject the beautiful representation of volumetric form in paintings as meritorious and in its stead have a theory of art that valued "flatness" per se. This of course flies in the face of the tradition of Western painting which, from the time of Leonardo and even before, considered the beautiful and accurate rendering of three dimensional form one of the key marks of beauty and indicators of the accomplishment of an artist.
For readers interested in the subject of art history and those looking for further entertainment along these lines, I recommend Tom Wolf's The Painted Word to understand the earlier stages of the sickness of the art world and gain a broader critique of certain facts that Kimball either takes for granted or doesn't recognize as part of the problem.
Overall The Rape of the Masters proves clarifying, fun, and refreshing. I would heartily recommend it to anyone, especially those who deal with art critics or interact with the art world establishment in any way. From the author himself: "... I hope that The Rape of the Masters will provide some inoculation against academic intimidation. The claims made by the critical marauders I discuss in this book are so outlandish, and they are typically expressed in language that is so rebarbative, that many people are stunned into acquiescence or at least into silence. It pleases me to think that The Rape of the Masters will help counteract that anesthesia, prompting more people to object to the objectionable."
I think that Kimball's book will bear out these hopes admirably. Students in particular, approaching the discussion of art within mainstream academia or other art criticism circles, will do well to arm themselves with this work before undergoing the mental assault typical of the field. I wish I had been thus armed myself.
What do you think? Does art criticism intimidate you? Do you have a hard time with interpretations of paintings that seem to be irrelevant to what's actually on the canvas?
“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!
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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