Concerning The Spiritual In Art

January 23, 2019

Concerning the Spiritual in Art is the title of a small book written in 1910 and published in 1911 by Wassily Kandinsky. The reason I bring it up is because I believe that it has important things to say about art that are just as relevant today as they were in 1910. When I say a small book, I mean it. The current copy I have just runs to sixty-five pages of rather large print. I first read this book as an undergraduate in the early 1960s. Those were the times when everyone was looking for the spiritual though mainly through the use of drugs or a superficial understanding of Eastern philosophy and/or religion.

Kandinsky’s book turned out to be a text more on how to make art than a primer to instant bliss. His ideas of the spiritual were internal to him and turned out to make a lot of sense to me. When I first read the book, he was already he was already a favourite artist of mine. While I was in high school I had a framed large reproduction of one of his abstract paintings in my bedroom. I had lived in England during my first two years of high school and had seen his work in galleries there and in France. I fell in love with his work, and that of Paul Klee, an artist that he worked closely with. I still like their work even through most people think that I have a bias for realist art. That is just not true. I have a bias for good art which both Kandinsky and Klee produced in droves.

I have been having ongoing discussions with friends, both artists and others, about how good art comes about. The subject of abstraction came up. This led back to Concerning the Spiritual in Art and a rereading the text. I bought my current copy a couple of years ago when I was writing a text on abstract art in New Brunswick and could not find a copy in my library. It was not easy buying a copy. It appeared to be out of print. I ended up by having a copy printed by Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Reprints. Believe it or not this service is not expensive. I think I paid around ten bucks for the book.

I assume that many of you who are reading this article know who Kandinsky was and his importance to the history of art, but for those of you do not, let me re-cap. He was Russian painter and art theorist born in Moscow in 1866 and died in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France in 1944. He was the founder of the Blaue Reiter Group in 1911 (Named after his painting of the same name.). He was in the Armory Show in New York in 1913. He was a noted teacher at the Bauhaus both in Weimar and Dassau. He is credited to be one of the first totally abstract painters. His book of poetry Sounds was published the same year as Concerning The Spiritual in Art. There is much more, but needless to say; he was a player in the development of modern art.

His translator, Michael T. H. Sadler, states that Kandinsky is painting music and there much in his painting and writing that backs that idea up and along, of course, with his use of colour as pure abstract form. He was a follower of the theories of Mme. Helen P. Blavatsky and Theosophy as was Lawren S. Harris who was studying in Germany (1904-08) just before the time that Kandinsky was writing Concerning The Spiritual In Art. Colour, according to Theosophy, had mystical and spiritual qualities in particular the primaries—red, yellow, and blue. Kandinsky’s writes about their physical qualities in art as well like the obvious of yellow coming forward and blue or purple retreating. You can see Theosophy’s influence in many of Lawren S. Harris’s later works particularly in his abstract paintings. (His son, Lawren P. Harris, who hated be called Lawren Harris, Jr., was influenced naturally enough as well by Theosophy.)

Something else I find interesting in Kandinsky’s writing is that he always refers to art as she. But of course, being a 19th century man, he always refers to artists as he. But before I get into an argument, let us remember that his biggest influence was a woman, Mme. Blavatsky. Kandinsky tells us: “ External beauty is one element of a spiritual atmosphere. But beyond this positive fact (that what is beautiful is good) it has the weakness of a talent not used in the full.” Pg.14. Those five words in the brackets have always been important to me—what is beautiful is good. Of course, you need to define ‘good’. That is a question that has defied philosophers for some time. I will just fall back on, in the case of art, I know good when I see it and leave it at that. Blavatsky can be a bit with her ideas off as when Kandinsky quotes her: “The earth will be a heaven in the twenty-first century in comparison with what is now,” he goes on to say, “and with these words she ends her book.” Well, you cannot be right all the time”. pg. 22

Kandinsky wrote with insight about Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso when they were contemporary artists. Cezanne had just died in 1906. Matisse and Picasso were very much in their prime. He says that Cezanne was able to find inner life in everything. He is more critical of Matisse stating that he cannot refrain from conventional beauty and that his pictures possess only outer charm. He is more impressed by the artist’s use of colour. I disagree and feel that Matisse’s art offers far more than conventional beauty and certainly has more to offer than charm. We do agree about his use of colour. Of ‘the Spaniard’ Picasso he states that he goes from one new innovation to the next. He was particularly interested in Cubism and how Picasso deconstructed form. Kandinsky ends by stating: “In their pursuit of the same supreme end Matisse and Picasso stand side by side, Matisse representing colour and Picasso form.” pp. 26-27

There is much more that can be said about this little book, but I recommend that you read it yourself. I think that you will discover that really new ideas are hard to come by. Someone else has likely, as Kandinsky, thought of them more than one hundred years ago. So give up on trying to be original and just do as best you can and remember that is what Jan van Eyck said about his art in the 1430s.

©Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 15 January 2019.


What is Art and What is its Job

January 16, 2019

I have been having a running discussion with an artist friend, Stephen Scott, on the subject of what is art and what is its job. Actually I have been kicking the idea around both in my head and with others for well over fifty years, but recently the topic has become more focused as I become more disturbed by what passes for art in this the first quarter of the 21st century. By art I mean visual art. I will leave other art forms to others. Certainly, these are my own opinions and frankly, at this time of my life, I do not feel like debating them. If people do not like them; it is their problem and they are free to express their own ideas. I might even like them.

Art is not half-baked sociology expressed freely in any form of visual art. Heart felt concerns about the state of the world is not enough turn an object into a work of art. Here I am limiting myself to traditional visual art, objects, and leaving out performance art, as well as video and film, not because I do not think that they are art, but because they raise another whole set of problems not central to my argument. Of course, art can process powerful content, but first it must be a work of art. This is rather a circular argument as I need to define the terms art and content which would take a book rather the poke in the eye with a stick that I attempting here. By content I simply mean subject matter and by art an object that has aesthetic powers to transform the experience of the viewer hopefully in a pleasant or powerful way. The first part of the last sentence is simplistic and the second part, at best, confusing.

Subject matter in a painting can be as simple as being a still life, landscape, or a portrait. Abstraction can also be subject matter, all be it abstract, but again raising another set of problems. Thematic subject matter like feminism, racial politics or any political content cloud the issue. One can dismiss an apple as being poorly painted and get away with it, but dismissing a painting with cultural and/or social trappings, no matter how poorly executed, is another matter for an art critic. It is a no win situation and best avoided.

I have alway been of the opinion that beauty is a safe option of approaching the question of what art is. Of course, there is the problem of definition of beauty and, leaving aside the old chestnut that it is in the eye of the beholder, that beauty is bound by culture and very culture has its own idea of beauty. Actually I do not believe this and good case can be made that beauty is more universal and tied to biology and visual psychology. Hence, we can find art from other cultures beautiful. Two recent books make this case far better than I: one, The Art Instinct (2009) by the late Denis Dutton and, two, The Origins of Creativity by Edward O. Wilson (2017), but there many others as well. My point being is that I am not being original in the idea that beauty is universal and common to us all whether one admits to it or not. Beauty is related to pleasure and pleasure is good thing therefore a good painting invokes pleasure and is a good thing. Certainly, a good painting can also invoke ideas beyond beauty and the best paintings do.

Now, what is the job of art? Is it beyond invoking the well being of pleasure? Pleasure can be enough and is something that is needed by the human race. Visual art is not the only thing that can bring us pleasure. There is literature, poetry, music, drama, and let’s not leave out sex from the long list. Again, I will limit my arguments to painting. I do understand that there were, and are, societies where idea the idea of painting does not exist, I assume that they have a concept of beauty.

Back to the job description of art. Aesthetics are at the root of what art does. I taught a course on the principles of art criticism that included the philosophy of beauty for most of my career as a university professor. It covered Western philosophers from roughly around Plato to Heidegger. Yes, I realize that it was a bunch of dead white guys, but that was made clear in the course description and there is only so much you can cover in twenty-six weeks. Yes, there is philosophy other than Western philosophy and there is a sex other than men who are and were philosophers. My students were made aware of the exclusions and we did discuss why these exclusions were central to egocentric Western thought as it evolved. What was discussed was the aesthetic object and how it was perceived as the beautiful over period of roughly two thousand years.

The aim of the beautiful is to achieve a certain sense of bliss, or whatever you want to call it, through some sort of stimulus and the case of my argument here is that a stimulus can be a visual art object. That defines the major job of an art work. Some art succeeds in doing this job and some do not. Again, leaving content aside, the art work that does not possess beauty, while perhaps worthy, is not art, but something else. There is much more to be said than is covered in this short article.

Work (Manchester) by Ford Madox Brown 1865


How brightly gleams the morning star

October 16, 2018

Wie schön leuchtet Morgenstern


A friend who helped to edit the prologue to this project told me that I lost, and bored, her with my attempt at trying to explain the Bach catalogue system; the BWV (Bach-Werke-Verzeichis or Bach-Works-Catalogue) numbers. I told her that there was a reason for the tedium of my prose.

The first cantata, BWV 1, is nowhere near the first cantata that Bach wrote. BWV 1 was first perform on March 25, 1725 for the feast day of the Annunciation and in that year also Palm Sunday. Bach was born in 1685 and died in 1750. He wrote his first cantata around 1707. BWV 1 is the last cantata of the Year II or second cycle, of three cycles of cantatas. I will get into more detail of system as this project proceed. But writing about the cantatas, and works of art, starting with BWV 1 seemed has a good a system as any.

You might think that I would match only realistic religious art to Bach’s religious music and I will do a fair amount of that, as I do like religious art, but I plan to match paintings of all kinds to his cantatas. I am limiting my matches to only paintings because I like painting, it is my project, and I might as well enjoy myself. The only limit is that I am picking only paintings that I have actually seen. This is a project about recall. I have been collecting this music for nearly sixty years and I have been looking at art for even longer. This is an exercise in using my brain while it still works and an attempt to keep it working. It is all being done from my home office in Sackville, New Brunswick.

Back to Bach and the Annunciation. I have multiple versions of many Bach cantatas. I have three versions of Wie schön leuchtet Morgenstern, BWV 1. They are conducted by Nicolaus Harnoncourt (1972), Helmuth Rilling (1980), and Masaaki Suzuki (2006). I have nearly complete sets of the cantatas by Harnoncourt and Suzuki. Friends of mine have often asked why I have several versions of the same classical works in my music collection. That is because the interpretations are quite different. In this case the timing of BWV 1 goes from 25’ 12” (25 minutes 12 seconds) to 22’ 55” to 22’ 23” and, in this case, in the same order that they were recorded from 1972 to 2006. The timing became faster over over the thirty-four years between three versions of the work. Tempo is not everything. There are other major difference between the three versions.

Harnoncourt attempts to record the music in the style that he thought how the work originally was performed. He uses actual instruments from the period; he conducts from the first chair, playing either violin or violoncello; it is small baroque orchestra, the Concentus Musicus Wien and; finally he uses only mens and boys voices for all vocal parts. The Harnoncourt set I own is on vinyl while the Suzuki set is on CD as is Rilling’s recording of BWV 1. I will go into detail about Suzuki’s and Rilling’s interpretations of Bach’s works in later posts, but briefly they use more modern instruments and both male and female voices.

I find it difficult to pick favourite versions of the cantatas that I have in multiple recordings. I do like Harnoncourt’s use boys choirs and men and boys soloists. It gives the music a strange quality that is hard to describe. I have a separate Teldec CD Voices of Angels from 1993 that is all boys voices of selections of Bach’s coral music conduced by Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt that, if you can find a copy, will knock your socks off. (An aside, because of copyright restrictions I cannot include music in my postings. You can find Bach’s cantatas on YouTube, but not necessarily in the versions that I am writing about. They will, however, give you an idea of the music.)

BWV 1 opens with a chorus followed by a recitative, aria, recitative, aria, and finally a chorale. The first line of the chorus is, “How beautifully shines the morning star,…”; that supplies the title of the cantata, a pattern that is common to all of his cantatas. In this cantata the vocals, outside the chorus and the chorale, are sung by individual voices: tenor, soprano, bass, and tenor again respectively. Of course, the text relates to the Annunciation and to both the old (Isaiah) and new (Luke) Testaments. This is a beautiful calm work that washes over me. I have played it repeatedly to go to sleep to. I keep a stack of CDs in my bedroom that play as I try to fall asleep. Bach is a wonderful elixir for all ills.

Let me bring up another date, almost three centuries before, May 6th, 1432, that is the date that Jan van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, was completed. The first time I saw this work was in 1973 and I have revisited it many times since. It has since its inception been housed in St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. (Except the times it has been carted away by different conquerors as spoils of war, but that is another story for another time.) It is considered as Belgium’s most treasured art work. I was lucky enough to have seen it in its original location in the cathedral before it was moved and placed in a humidity controlled glass box. The first few times I saw the work an old man would come out and opened the altarpiece and then, after a half hour or so, close it again. Of course, the absence of glass was a big thing, but what was more important was that the work was where it belonged and the lighting in the painting aped the natural light in the chapel where it was housed. I will come back to this work I am sure over the duration of this project. It is an art work that has the ability to move me tears.

One part of this truly magnificence polyptych is a portrayal of the Annunciation. It is in the centre of the second story of the closed altarpiece. The scene covers four panels. On the far left is the Archangel Gabriel and, the far right, Mary. The centre panels offer a view, through windowed archways, of a 15th century city, likely Ghent, as seen from above. What is common to 14th to 17th century Flemish religious painting are hidden levels of meaning that if you understand Christian iconography are made clear and there is no shortage of hidden meaning in this image of the the Annunciation. It can be complex, but it is fun, to try and figure it some of it out. Here Gabriel holds white lilies that are symbol of the Virgin’s purity.
In the next panel, the view of a town, the marble column that separates the two windows signifies the column that Christ was tied to and flogged prior to the Crucifixion. In the third panel there is a white towel hanging from a rod with twelve stripes which relates to the twelves apostles, and in the final panel a white dove hovers over the head of the knelling Mary which show the presence of the Holy Sprit and the instrument of her impregnation. The text of Gabriel words to Mary are painted in Gothic script, in Latin, from his lips toward her: “Hail who are full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Mary’s answer, toward him, in Latin, only this time backwards and upside down so that God from above may read her reply, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.”

Of course, the whole fiction of the scene is artistic invention—a literate Mary and the Archangel present in 15th century Flanders—, but a beautiful one. I am not sure that this particular Bach work was in mind when I first saw van Eyck’s masterpiece many years ago. I am sure that baroque music did fill my head at the time. That and the smell that is unique to Medieval cathedrals did make for a deep spiritual experience that I can remember to this day.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville, New Brunswick Canada, 16 October 2018.


The Bach Project — Prologue

September 16, 2018

A couple of weeks ago while staying at a friend’s summer home in Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec, I had a revelation. I had just turned eighty and was thinking that, despite my best efforts, I was getting old. The next twenty years were likely not to be twenty years and would prove fatal. What to do? It came to me as I sat in a quiet white bedroom of that 170 year old house that I needed to figure it all out, life that is—what did it mean to be alive. What came to me was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, in particular his cantatas, and how they related to paintings that I knew.

Allow me to back up a bit to 1959, the year I started art school in San Francisco and the year I became aware of Bach’s cantatas. I was just out of the army and had just turned twenty-one. I had managed to talk my way into a job at a record store in North Beach that specialized in imported exotic European classical records. I needed a way to pay for my education and that seemed as good a job as any. It changed forever my taste in music. I knew a little something about classical music before that as my parents had a small collection of classical records that I had listened to and that bit of knowledge is why the owner of the store gave me the job. But now I had thirty or forty hours a week to listen to music in the shop. Yes, I did work full-time and go to school full-time, but I was young and stupid at the time. As soon as I started listening to the vocal sacred music of Bach I was hooked and that took about all of a week.

I should state at the outset that I am a lifetime committed atheist and that my abiding interest in both religious music and art has everything to do aesthetics and nothing to do with faith at least my faith or, more correctly, lack of faith. I’m quite sure that a majority of the religious composers and painters that move me with their art were devoted to their faith. In truth, I admire their religious beliefs and, at times, wish I could share them. Only, I believe that when I’m dead that I am truly gone. I will not miss me as I will not exist and my friends will soon get me out of their minds as well. Perhaps some of my work will hang on for awhile, but I doubt that as I am no Bach or Dürer. If this seems dismal, so be it, but it doesn’t bother me. I am, however, interested in what moves me as a human being. Otherwise there seems no reason for art and I have devoted my life to art.
Back to Bach and his cantatas.

The structure of baroque music makes sense to me. Perhaps it is its sense of order and logic. Music does have its roots in mathematics and the human mind does like the order of mathematics. Bach cantatas generally follow a set pattern: chorus, recitative, aria, recitative or adios, aria and a final chorale. Within this pattern there is plenty of room for complexity. There are cantatas for solo voices, for larger vocal ensembles, sacred and secular, long and short cantatas. They are catalogued by what are called BWV or Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis numbers. The cantatas are the first of these numbers. In round numbers the first two hundred are sacred cantatas, BWV 1 to 200, 201 to 216, secular and 217 to 224 doubtful of their authorship. Around 209 survive. (There may be others such as one that was discovered in 2005 and numbered BWV 1127.) I will get into more detail about all of this as the project continues. I own 376 individual cantatas, which includes many repeats, in my collection on vinyl and CD. These are what I am going to listen to in their entirety during this project while trying to compare them to paintings that I have actually seen. Mind you, I might run out of time, life, before I complete the project.

The question arises to the order of listening to the cantatas. Logic says start with BWV 1 and that is what I think I will do. However, it is not that simple as Bach catalogue system is not, like Mozart’s K or Köchel numbers, chronological. Most of the cantatas were meant to be played in order of the Lutheran liturgical calendar following the Lutheran liturgy. Anyway, I need a method to my madness and BWV 1 seems a good as place as any to start. So, it is back to the turntable and CD player to listen to the three versions I have of Wie Schön leuchtet der Morgenstern or How brightly gleams the morning star.
The next post will deal with that and we are off to the races or is it a race with time?

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 14 September 2018.


Déja Vu All Over Again

April 18, 2018

These are times of political upheaval. I keep thinking about the world in the 1930s and comparing to what is happening now. Then there was the rise of fascism that ultimately resulted in the horrors of World War II. Then fascism was rooted in Europe and seemed far away to many people in North America. We were still, at least in the early 1930s, in the Depression. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were just places on a map. Today the signs of a new form of fascism are much closer to home with the events unfolding in the United States following the election of Donald Trump. There are, of course, many similar signs of emerging fascism in Europe and other parts of the world.

Donald Trump is a cartoon fascist, a buffoon at best, but still deadly dangerous because of those who enable him. They are the ones who have much to gain through his presidency while willy-nilly destroying democracy in the process. The German industrial military complex had as much to gain with the rise of Hitler as the American complex does with Trump. I do not mean, in either case, the military itself. They are the one who just use the tools the complex produces. They are the cannon fodder. You would be hard pressed to find the ‘captains’ of the industrial military complex anywhere near actual combat during a war. This sorry situation just repeats itself over and over again.

What is the responsibility of those of us in the arts today with democracy being attacked on so many fronts? Last year around this time I gave a talk in Fredericton, New Brunswick at the Gallery on Queen titled Art in Troubled Times [link to video]. The issue to me at the time was whether the mission of art was to confront the political disorder of our time directly or, perhaps, provide an escape through beauty of the present chaos. I hedged my bets at the time by saying both options were possible, but at that time I was closer to choosing beauty. The events of the past year have made me rethink my position.

I am still of the option that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for the arts to directly change the course of history, but rather it is their duty to reflect history. Many people I know, both artists and non-artists, are choosing to ignore current political events because they believe that there is nothing they can do that would change things. Keeping up would just fill them up with angst, they claim. They definitely do have a point, but the people I know who are doing this are Canadian, and as an American-Canadian of certain age — old — cannot follow their example. I was born in 1938 and spent most of the first twenty-nine years of my life living in the United States. (I moved to Canada in 1967.) I can vaguely remember WWII, Korea more so (I was in the US Army in Korea in 1957 and 58.), and I lived in England from 1952 to 54. I knew that fascism was a bad thing that should not be repeated. I never thought, despite many ups and downs, that my native land would be reduced to its current situation. A Trump-like president would have never occurred to me. Yes, I do remember Nixon and other dim-bulbed presidents. That is why I moved to Canada.

I was very active in left wing politics during my time at university from 1959 until 1967. The war in Vietnam was the finishing touch that drove me over edge. Interestingly enough my art, painting, in 1967 was a version of hard-edged formalism. As an undergraduate I did figurative painting that at times was political based. The change to formalism is another story, but it is central to what I am thinking about now. People do not appreciate being preached at no matter how well intentioned the preacher. Political art often comes off as being holier than thou and mostly something people would rather avoid. This does not mean that art should not address serious political issues only if it does; it needs to find a way of finding an audience. It also needs to find an audience outside of the self assuring bubble that many of us in the arts live in. Not as easy task. Humour appears to be one way.

Political cartoonists, who are certainly artists, have a way of reaching a large audience and Donald Trump has provided them with a treasure trove. Canadian cartoonist Michael de Adder is a prime example who is able to throw stuff and make it stick and there are many others around the world who have found targets in rise of global fascism. Present day political humour in painting seems more difficult to find. I am sure there many examples that I am unaware of. It is just that painting generally takes itself very seriously. Pop art, in its day, although popular, had a difficult time being taken critically in many quarters, but that is a subject for another essay. There were artists in the 1920s and 1930s, generally Germans like Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Max Beckmann who used humour with deadly effect. American artist Peter Blume’s 1934 The Eternal City with its Mussolini jack in the box or, on the American home front, Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) and Daughters of Revolution (1932) also come to mind. However, Robert Motherwell’s later (1965 – 1967) Elegy to the Spanish Revolution series falls flat at least to me, but they are pretty paintings and I do like classic American Abstract Expressionism.

There is certainly a lot more to be said on the responsibility of the arts in these dangerous times, but I have reached the limit for this post, around 1000 words, and will continue in further postings. I think that it is time for a drink.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 18 April 2018.


A Democracy of Mediocrity

April 9, 2018

I have been writing about art professionally for fifty years and for forty-five years for Vie des Arts. The profession has changed over this time and I am not sure for the better. Technology, mostly the internet, has made everyone a critic. Certainly score one for democracy, but it has made my job more difficult and made the substantiality of art magazines, like Vie des Arts, equally difficult. If you are reading this essay from a copy of the magazine that you bought or subscripted to, then, perhaps, I am preaching to the choir.

The big problem is, of course, that everyone with access to a computer, iPad, or even a smart phone, and the internet can publish what they think is art criticism without the filter of editing. The fact that much of art criticism that is published online is rubbish is beside point that everybody thinks that they are entitled to an opinion, and indeed they are, and, in many peoples mind, all opinions are equal. We are left with a democracy of mediocrity. What needs to be emphasized is that what matters in art criticism is art. That fact is increasingly lost in the fog of ersatz political science that passes for much art criticism these days and I am using the term science rather loosely.

Too often I am engulfed in self-righteous articles that demand art works be removed from exhibitions or museums, and sometimes destroyed, because of the real or imagined actions of an artist and urged to boycott them entirely. Unfortunately rants of this kind are not limited to online, but appear in print as well. I would like to think that this problem was solved by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century who insisted that art exist well beyond the artist who created it. His argument is well put by James Joyce in the last third of his 1914 book A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Yes, Chuck Close may well be a dirty old man firmly encased for years in his wheelchair who may have once said something smutty many years ago to someone about their breasts, but his paintings are still pretty good or, at least, I like them—they stand on their own remote from their maker. Using the standards of today’s new art puritans our art galleries and museums’s walls would be stripped bare of almost everything worth looking at. I could supply a very long list of dead white guys, but I’ll give you just a few: Caravaggio, Cellini, Courbet, Dali, Degas, Delacroix, and Duchamp. Rotters all and I am only to D. The secret, of course, you have the know, or think you know, the life style of the artist in order to disapprove both of it and his art. Otherwise, you run the danger of enjoying the art based solely on what you see.

Lets meditate on enjoying what you see. I maintain that there are rules that make a painting a work of art regardless of it being realistic or abstract or its subject matter or even the intention of the artist. Now these are rules that I am not making up and, yes, artists have broken rules and made good art, but exceptions prove the rules and the artists who break them know the rules well. Some rules are absolute: some colours advance, yellow, and some, purple, recede; the way we ‘read’ a picture—left to right and the diagonals from bottom left to top right. Composition is composition and has a lot to do visual perception. Using these rules to make a good picture is the job of the artist. Artists lets the pictures go from their imagination, we receive the image and when the result is good it is art.

My judgement whether a painting is a work of art is usually made within a fraction of a second and then I take it from there. That is when I look at everything else and the everything else is what is important. Of course, subject and the intent of the artist are important. An artist I admire, Stephen Scott, told me recently that painting is all about intent. I am, on the other hand, just happy that he lays the paint down well. If I don’t think that a painting is art, I ignore it regardless of the artist’s intention. He or she can be heartfelt about their subject, war is bad, racism is bad or any number of bad things. It’s just what they are doing is not art and I am an art critic and I would rather write about art. If that makes me a formalist so be it.

A last point. We live in an age of what is called curatorial activism and I do curate as well. Message to curators, young and old, it is about the art and not you. I do read quite a bit breathless prose on line about curation. It is the fault of French post modern and structuralist literary thinkers who wanted to reduce literature to text that led to art critics and curators thinking that they could reduce art works to objects to prove their half-baked ideas. The result was un-viewable exhibitions and art texts that were equally un-readable.

Perhaps the problem of art criticism in this day and age is that there is just too much art. We think that we can absorb art through reproduction on the web and understand it. The simple truth is that we cannot. We need to stand in front of an art work and let it sink in. The old chestnut that a picture is worth ten thousands words is true and let me, a cranky old art critic, leave you, gentle reader, with the cliché that a thing of beauty IS a joy forever.

©Virgil Hammock, Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada, 3 March 2018.
This article was originally published in Vie des Arts number 250, Spring 2018, pg. 83.


When Bad People Make Good Things

April 2, 2018

The usual saying is: “When good people do bad things”, but I am reversing it and changing it instead of do to make and read: “When bad people make good things.” I am concerned with with the current fixation of people to confuse the moral actions of artists with their art works. I am most concerned here with the visual arts, as that is my field of expertise, but the confusion extents across other cultural fields. As an example, a person who chooses not to like the films of Woody Allen (even if they had before) because of past actuations of child molestation. I will not go into whether or not this has been proven in court as that has little to with the damnation he has concurred. The point is that his films have not changed. Peoples opinion about his films have changed because of their negative moral judgements about his character. This begs the question if people who had no knowledge about the actuations surrounding Allen and saw his films and liked them would their judgement be wrong? Hello Lolita.

A majority of people who visit public art galleries and museums have little, or no, knowledge of art history particularly the personal lives of the artists who produced the art that they are looking at. There is nothing wrong with that. Why should they? They normally make their judgements based on their emotions. Which is fine and follows along the lines: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” Again, perfectly acceptable and often the major galleries and museums have many items that are generally likeable. Many viewers do vaguely know the names of artists who are considered ‘good’ like Rembrandt or Picasso plus other household names. I have often watched people first look at the label beside a painting to check the name of the artist to make sure that the painting was worth looking at. If it passed their name test, they would look at the painting with admiration while ignoring other equally good works by lesser known artists in the same gallery space. I am fine with this. Who am I to question their choices?

Should they know the back stories of the famous artists that they are supposed to admire? Caravaggio? Wasn’t he a murderer and a homosexual at a time when being a homosexual was illegal? Yes, on both counts. Speaking of homosexuals, Leonardo faced sodomy charges, but was saved by the pope. Now, are not Caravaggio and Leonardo important to the history of art and are not their works really famous? I could go on and on with serious character faults in famous artists from the 15th until the 19th centuries, but the one thing that you can count on is that their art has remained unchanged. Disregarding periodic changes in critical taste, good paintings remain good paintings even if their makers have been damned to the ninth level of Hell where they are keeping company with Virgil.

Amor Vincit Omnia, 1601–1602, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Caravaggio shows Cupid prevailing over all human endeavors: war, music, science, government. (Wikipedia)

Looking at more modern and contemporary art history, there are certainly artists who don’t pass the litmus test of current social acceptability. The beloved Gustav Klimt (and beloved is the right term) fathered at least fourteen children all of them out of wedlock. Not far behind was Lucian Freud with twelve children, ten out of wedlock. You could say that both of them had a thing with the ladies. Again, is their art important? You bet. Perhaps, it’s time to take all of those Klimt posters down. But, he was a pretty fair landscape painter as well.

This brings me to the strange case of the still living Chuck Close. Alas, poor Chuck has been accused of making smutty remarks, many years ago, about a woman’s breasts. This charge, via mostly social media, was enough for him to lose a major retrospective and be placed among the new class of non-persons. Again, the actuations have yet to be proven. I have known an artist or two, over my sixty years in the art world, who have used off colour language from time to time. Come to think of it, it’s hard to think of an artists who hasn’t. Even I, a pillar of propriety, have been called out by my friends (yes I have some) for my foul mouth. As far as remembering an off-colour comment I made to a woman about her attractiveness, twenty or more years ago, I claim the forgetfulness of old age. Chuck Close and I are about the same age, he is twenty-three months younger to the day.

My point is that Close and the other artists that I have mentioned are all reasonable good artists whose works stand on their own, remote from their personal lives. I could go all philosophical here and will in another post why this is true. I stand by the title article in this blog on art and beauty. Remember that my buddies Kant and Hegel cannot be wrong all the time. Beauty is important, my friends.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 2 April 2018.