"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Why Art? For Personal Reasons

One of my favorite painters is John Singer Sargent.  I love his women. They are elegant, beautiful, and graceful; and I would like to know each and every one.

I visited a Sargent retrospective at the National Gallery a few years ago with a young friend who, much to my surprise, spent most of his time looking at Sargent’s watercolors – landscapes and urban scenes.

I asked him why he was not interested in the portraits, the most important pieces of Sargent’s work.  “They are too intimate”, he said; and of course he was right.  The brilliance of Sargent’s portraiture is their remarkable directness and intimacy.   The men and women in his paintings are looking directly and unmistakably at the artist and by extension to the viewer.  There is no escaping their gaze and no reason to, for Sargent has captured the essence of their character and personality.  The woman in the painting above has to be ingénue but sexual, guileless but attractive, inviting but demure.

The girl in the painting below can only be confident, smart, forward, and engaging with only a hit of girlish shyness.


Was Sargent a great painter? Critics have long dismissed him – and most portraitists – as commissioned tradesmen, good at their craft but adding little to the world of art other than a superficial beauty.  Yet the Mona Lisa is revered by these same critics.

Why have these critics loved Mona Lisa’s ‘enigmatic’ smile, wondered who she’s looking at, and speculated whether or not she was pregnant?  Is it because of Leonardo’s technique, painterly, classic, and uniform; and if so, why should such criteria be applied universally?  Sargent’s women still reflect traces of Impressionism in the ambient color of his palette, but are no less intriguing.

Critics are taken with the Mona Lisa for academic reasons.  They have put a premium on mystery and complexity.  Sargent’s women are too easy to understand, they say.  Their directness is little more than the ‘come buy me’ appeal of the summer boardwalk artist. Sargent is only a few notches above the most famous happy tableau artist of all, Norman Rockwell.

I am having none of it, and not a day goes by without my looking at the Sargent portraits on my wall; and I could care less if these works were commissioned by wealthy New Yorkers.  Critical dismissal of Sargent on the basis of the wealth and privileged status of his subjects ignores individual value. These women in their Edwardian elegance all have a unique and special allure.  Sargent did not set out to chronicle a social class or be a champion or critic of it; but he found something essential and meaningful in confidence and poise.

These portraits are far more than a gallery of the rich and influential.  Sargent understood women and appreciated their beauty, strength, and dignity.

He saw men quite differently, but accurately captured their gruffness, male power, and rude strength.  This self-portrait is not unlike the other men that Sargent painted – serious, determined, and defiant.

Sargent, John SInger (1856-1925) - Self-Portrait 1907 b.jpg

Francis Bacon could never be called a portraitist, for he was never commissioned by the subjects he painted.  Pope Innocent X did not sit for Bacon, but the painting is a portrait nonetheless. It is a frightening image of psychological distortion.  It is as hard to keep one’s gaze on the painting as it is to turn away from a portrait of Sargent.

I have an acquaintance who is a self-styled ‘art lover’. There is no exhibition in Washington or New York that he has missed.  He is a particular fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, but appreciates them more for the transitional place in the history of art than anything innate or personal about them. He can lecture on the landscapes of Turner, Constable, and Frederick Church ad infinitum. He can talk easily about Impressionism, Modernism, and Post-modernism. There is nothing particularly sensuous about Renoir, nor personally appealing, he says.  The Boating Party is pedestrian but important for its social commentary.  His nudes were groundbreaking because they brought the female form out of the classicism of Velasquez and into the world of the sensual.  Rothko and Motherwell in their Abstract Expressionism went much farther than Braque and Picasso in altering reality.

Yet, never once has my friend gone beyond this impressive cataloguing of art history.  None of these paintings mean anything to him.  He is more interested in deconstructing them for form, line, composition, and social relevance than he is in decoding their relevance to him.

I once went with him to the East Wing to see a retrospective of Anselm Kiefer.  I brought him to this painting – one of Kiefer’s most powerful and chilling.  I shudder when I look at it.  It is cold, harsh, devastated, and frighteningly empty, desolate, and devoid of humanity.

Henry, however, rattled on about meaning and historicity. Sounding like the critic David Cohen, he said, “The scale alone of Kiefer's fiercely monumental works lays claim to a contemporary sublime. The disasters of modernity, including the Holocaust, jostle disconsolately in a bubbling cauldron of ideas and associations with explicit references to Jewish mysticism and European poetry.”

I have another friend who feels the same way about literature as Henry does about art. “I find literary criticism more interesting than the works criticized”, he said, and had shelves full of the takes of New Criticism, Deconstructionism, Feminism, Queer Studies, and Freud on Shakespeare, Joyce, and Conrad.  Yet whenever I told of my return to literature after a hiatus of many decades, he was dismissive.  I was rereading Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Faulkner, and Shakespeare because I hoped that they could provide the insights that years of travel, and studies of history and political philosophy did not. The Death of Ivan Ilyich was compelling not because it was an anomaly in Tolstoy’s social and historical opus; but because it is a chilling and honest look at death and dying. “I need to know these things”, I told my friend. “I am 73.”

I once told my children that the world had enough doctors, lawyers, and engineers; and that if they were to become artists, I would be happy. Where would any of us be without Shakespeare, Kiefer, Dostoyevsky, or Sargent to remind us of what counts and what will always count?, I asked.

In the first two pages of Absalom, Absalom Faulkner described the frustrated torments of Rosa Coldfield, created an ambience of the South, foretold the saga of Thomas Sutpen and his heroic overreaching and his tragedy. 

From a little after two o'clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that—a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

After reading Absalom I understood Southern history, American enterprise and ambition, and the essential destructive and restorative powers of family better than ever before. I reflected on my own complicated relationship with the Deep South, race, and my own immigrant family. No book has been as complex or insightful.

My son and I have had long arguments about ‘What is Art?’ but never about why.  He insists that art is in the creation and the viewing, not in the analysis.  The works of Dale Chihuly are as potent American works as Sargent, Pollock, or Motherwell.  I have never agreed; but not for academic reasons.  Chihuly’s works say nothing, mean nothing, represent nothing, are nothing to me.  They are decorative, pleasing, and colorful but no more.

My son and I argued art vs. craft and the nature of art for hours; but ended up agreeing that whatever it is, it’s a good thing. Although prickly scholars may chafe when Chihuly pokes his nose under the tent, they really do have to let him in.  As long as there are still the likes of Anselm Kiefer and Francis Bacon around, give the boardwalk artists a patch of sand.

I am resolutely traditional in my approach to art.  All art is definitely not equal as Deconstructionists would have us believe.  Shakespeare and slave journals can be compared no more than Kiefer and Chihuly. Hamlet is not simply a work that is  representative of time and place, indicative of social imperatives, windows into race, gender, and ethnicity. It is all about a man’s relationship with his mother and his father; and about his incestuous, Oedipal feelings which color the way he looks at women and which weaken his political resolve. What’s not universally personal in that story?

The point is that all art should be personal.  In an increasingly mediated, technical, and secular world, the triptychs of Francis Bacon are religious icons. They remind us of our humanity, our complexity, and our perplexity.  They should go up on our secular altars.

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