Archive for the ‘Virgil’s Thoughts’ Category

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Dazed and Confused

March 26, 2018

I have just re-read a small book that I bought at the Museum of Modern Art many years ago, The End of the History of Art?, by the Germany art historian Hans Belting. He raised a number of questions that have been on my mind for the last little while, namely the difference between art, art history, and art criticism. My interest stems from the current practice of many writers, who claim to be art critics, curators or possibly both, of linking artists’ moral transgressions to their art works and damning them to the trash heaps of history. Of course, there are many artists, living and dead, who will not pass our current, and ever changing, character standards, and the works of art questioned are their products. I think that many of these moral judgements are confusing art with poorly thought out social science. This is currently a hot topic that I will return to in my next blog, hopefully next week.

I am referring, as usual, to Art with a capital A and what are classically thought of as the plastic or fine arts, like painting and sculpture, as this is a subject that I know something about. Historically, art comes first followed, many, many years later by what is called art history and, even later, by art criticism. Humans, as cave paintings prove, have been making art for a very long time even if they did not know that were doing so. Art is the observation of the human condition made visible. Put your hand on the wall of cave; blow some mud around it, and presto you have art. You have proven that you are human and that you are important. Skip ahead to the present and artists are still proving that they, along with the rest of us, are human. Artists release from their imaginations their art. Once released, it stands on its own. It no longer belongs to the artist. It belongs to us all.

Bay Window by Stephen Scott

Now this is where art history and art criticism come in, although art exists quite nicely without them. The job of art history and criticism is to explain art, and to place it in some sort of order.

Many credit Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, published in 1550 and revised in 1568, with being the first art historian. Of course, theories of art go back to early Greek philosophy, but they were not a history of art as we now understand it. But, the beginnings of modern art history can be traced to Johann Joachim Winckelmann in the mid-18th century, with his History of Ancient Art (1764).

Generally the history of art deals with the past while giving contemporary art short shift. The task of interpreting contemporary art history is left to art criticism. While history of any kind is flexible and ever shifting, nevertheless it is based on the past and not on the messy present. The future can safely be left to the artists. A problem with both art history and criticism is that their practitioners continually believe that they are at the end of history and they often believe that art history is linear and ever progressing—onward and upward with the arts! Indeed, Vasari believed that art history had run its course by the mid-16th century. After all, how much better could it get than Michelangelo and Leonardo? Art critics are forever telling us that artists the likes of Damien Hirst are a natural progression from Michelangelo. It is true that we all live at the end of history. It is just that history continues every day, but eventually all of us run out of days. A fact that is bothering me more every day I wake up and realize that I am still alive.

I have been looking at art and reading philosophy, art history, and art criticism all my life and have been writing about art for over half a century. The result of all that effort has left me totally confused. So much for linear knowledge. The more I know, the more I know that I am clueless. Looking at the notes of Prof. Belting’s book, I realize that I have a majority of the books that he lists as his sources in my library and that I have, largely, read them. I have a thing about keeping all my books and after sixty years or so my house is awash with them. The problem now is finding a book that I want. Of course, remembering everything that I read is another matter and it does not get easier as I slip into genteel dotage. So, the time has come to review my thoughts on the whats and whats not of art. This blog is a good as place as any to do that.

I have been silent on my blog for awhile as I tried to work out the meaning of life, a tall order that only led to a prolonged period of depression. Who would not be depressed? In the 1960s I thought we were heading for a golden age, but along with the absence of my flying car the whole world seems to be going down the drain. So, I’m back on the blog and I promise to pump something out every week.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 25 March 2018.

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Back to the Barricades: Part 1

January 12, 2017

I’m having second thoughts about not using art as a social tool to influence society. When I was a young art student and artist in San Francisco. I firmly believed in the ideas Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art. I fancied myself as a socialist if not a Marxist. Mind you this was the early 1960s and I wanted a changed world. Sixty years on I still call myself a socialist, the Marxist me is long gone, and I still want a changed world, but it’s a very different world now and one that is, if anything, worse than that of 1960. Then we were about the enter the era of JFK and now we are about enter that of Donald Trump. I have lived for the last fifty years in Canada and the United States has gone its merry way without me.

The short story is this. After serving three years active duty in US Army, nearly half of it in Korea, in the late 1950s, I went to art school in San Francisco and Bloomington, Indiana getting my BFA and MFA and, annoyed with Vietnam, exiled myself to Canada where I taught fine arts at university for thirty-seven years. Now firmly some years in retirement, I sit and think how wrong I got it all. The world is not a better place and I’m not a better person.

I did think, back in the early 1960s, that art—I was thinking visual art—could be a tool for changing the world to be better place. People, particularly those in power, would look at art and change their evil ways. It didn’t dawn on me that most people in power didn’t look at art in the first place and those that did saw it as an investment rather than an inspiration. History to the contrariety was, of course, right in front of me, Hitler was a big fan of art, but what the Hell. So banging my head on the walls of the orthodoxy of the time, Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field Painting, etc., got me nowhere.

So, I figured there was art and then there was everything else. Art was the beautiful. Hence, the title of blog: Art and Beauty. I taught a course on the subject for over thirty years. I still believe in the beautiful and that’s the art I like looking at and the art, now photography, I want to make, but recent events have made me think that I should have another look at my ideas of half a century ago. Democracy is clearly in danger. America has elected a neo-fascist president, or at least the Elector College has, and those that voted for Trump do not seem to understand the danger to the republic and themselves. They wanted change and they are certainly going to get it.

liberty-delacroix

Yes, a majority of Americans did not vote for Trump, but they’re stuck with him. Still people do have to continue to speak out and not normalize his presidency. Artists, in particular, have a role to play. I am not suggesting that all art need to be political. Indeed, the beautiful can provide a respite from stress of Trumpism, but artists need to take a stand on the side of democracy if not in their works then through their actions and words.

(To be continued.)

©Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 11 January 2017.

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Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery

July 20, 2015

The Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Fredericton, New Brunswick
(2 May – 24 August 2015)

Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery
Sarnia, Ontario
(19 September 2015 – 7 February 2016)

Audian Art Museum
Whistler, British Columbia
( May 2016)

Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery opened in 1959. It was the gift of Lord Beaverbrook (Sir William Maxwell [Max] Aitken, 1879-1964) to New Brunswick, the province, where he grew up and first prospered. I cannot think of a comparable gift of this type in Canada. On opening day, he had not only paid for the land and the building, but had filled it with three hundred and twenty-three first class works of art. In addition to his own collection, he also convinced rich and powerful friends, in particular fellow New Brunswicker Sir James Dunn, to donate important pieces to the gallery before it opened. Since then the collection has grown to over two thousand works, that include a second gift of paintings from Lord Beaverbrook.

The current exhibition was initiated in 2009 by Terry Graff, now the gallery’s director, who was at time was its deputy director and chief curator. It took extensive research to put it together. The resulting selection of seventy-five major works from the collection has since toured the United States and Canada and is now being shown at its home, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, for the first time. Graff has added forty additional works to the Fredericton exhibition which now virtually fills the gallery’s main floor viewing space. The impact is spectacular. Never before have so many of the gallery’s finest works been shown at one time.

They range in time from Lucas Cranach the Elder to Lucian Freud and Salvador Dali. It’s hard to pick favourites. Each time I view the exhibition, I come up with another list. Lord Beaverbrook wanted to emphasize British and Canadian art and the Masterworks exhibition mirrors not only his taste, but his predilection for realism. Of course, since Beaverbrook’s death in 1964, the gallery’s holdings have become much more eclectic reflecting the broad nature of art, but while he was alive, he handpicked every work in the collection. Lord Beaverbrook would have approved of this exhibition.

I have a soft spot for British 18th and early 19th century portraiture. There are some beautiful examples in the exhibition by the likes of Ramsay, Romney, Reynolds and Lawrence. The abstract quality of their brushwork within areas of clothing and background is outstanding, and their sheer virtuosity has always amazed me. To pick one, George Romney’s 1776-77 portrait of a young man, Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, Duke of Lennox and of Aubigny, is a beautiful example in every way. Its portrayal of the young Charles resting outdoors with his dog possesses a beautiful strong diagonally composition combined with a carefully chosen palette. It certainly easily fits the criterion of masterwork.

It’s impossible to describe in a few words the many fine works in this collection. There is an excellent catalogue edited by Graff that covers, in detail, all seventy-five works in the original exhibition. Perhaps, the best known works in the show are Joseph Turner’s The Fountain of Indolence, 1834; Cornelius Krieghoff’s, Merrymaking, 1860; Lucian Freud’s, Hotel Bedroom, 1954 and Salvador Dali’s, Santiago El Grande, 1957, but everything in the Masterworks exhibition is of very high quality. Many of the works were involved in the infamous lawsuit between the heirs of Lord Beaverbrook and the gallery, which has now thankfully been settled largely in favour of the gallery.

Hotel Bedroom by L. Freud

Hotel Bedroom by L. Freud

Central to the suit was the Freud painting that was bought directly from the artist by Lord Beaverbrook in 1955 after it won the second prize of ₤500 in an art competition sponsored by his newspaper, the Daily Express. The painting was part of the original gift to the gallery in 1959. It is now worth many millions of dollars and is considered a key work by the artist. The small work (91.1 x 61 cm), is a haunting self-portrait of the artist is set in a Paris hotel room. He appears darkly in the background, while his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, lies in bed in the foreground, her head resting on a pillow.

The work foreshadows the greatness that Freud would eventually attain. Fortunately, Hotel Bedroom is now firmly in the hands of the gallery and will remain in Canada rather than on an auction floor like those few works that were lost to the Beaverbrook Foundation in the suit.

Santiago-El-Grande[1]

The massive Santiago El Grande is only one of three late paintings by Dali in the exhibition. The other two are La Turbite: Sir James Dunn, 1949 and Equestrian Fantasy: Lady Dunn, 1954. These large husband and wife portraits by Dali are fanciful, to say the least. Sir James appears wrapped in a gold sheet every inch a Roman emperor while Lady Dunn is dressed in velvet, seated on a horse with a falcon on her arm. Not surprisingly, the Santiago El Grande is the painting that is the most popular work in the gallery’s collection. It’s not only its size that overpowers viewers, but its composition. You look up, from below, at St. James mounted on horse. It’s painted in a limited blue palette and there are strange details to be found by the careful viewer. The atomic cloud under the horse, the small draped figure, in the right hand corner, Dali’s wife, Gala, and the even smaller figure, in the centre bottom, that the artist says is a self-portrait although this is not apparent. It is a very accomplished piece, perhaps the best late, work by the artist.

While the Masterworks exhibition continues on tour after Fredericton there is other good news from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. It has just announced a twenty-five million dollar expansion of its facilities that will make the gallery the largest in the region. Phase one will encompass new galleries, storage space, an artist in residence studio and a café.

With the work starting almost immediately. The future bodes very well for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and the public of Atlantic Canada.

Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 25 May 2015.
* First published in Vie des Arts, #239, Summer 2015, pgs 64-65.

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Paring my Nails

February 25, 2015

The other day I was paring my nails and I had a Proustian moment, my very own madeleine. My mind went back to 1962 when I first read James Joyce’s words in the Portrait of the Artist describing his epiphany: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Those words of Aristotelian/Thomistic logic struck me like a thunderbolt then and they still ring true. An art work, while the product of the artist, stands apart from its creator. One cannot exist without the other, but once the artist releases, gives birth, to the work of art, it exists on its own merits.

I have been thinking about this separation of art from the artist for over a half of a century. Certainly the genesis of a work of art exists in the mind of the artist and its execution is by the hand of the artist. However, once it’s done, it stands on its own. Anonymous art works are no less valuable those by a known artist. Art works by a scoundrel, Caravaggio, are no less valuable than those by a saint, Fra Angelico. The history of art is filled with very good art done by very bad people.

Valuable is a funny concept in regard to works of visual art. Is a Gauguin worth hundreds of millions of dollars? No, it isn’t, it is priceless and if priceless, then it is also valueless. The worth of a painting comes when it is seen by a viewer. There is something obscene about the current art market with its ever increasing prices at auctions for art works both good and bad. Of course, art has always been a hobby horse for the rich. People without taste trying to prove otherwise are nothing new, but we appear to have reached a new high (or is that low?) in money chasing art. That is too simplistic as many high end art purchases are investments pure and simple. Investment in art has outstripped other investments many times over. It’s simply buying and selling art like pork bellies only more profitable.

What’s to be gained by the forces of triumphal commodity capitalism in having someone like me go into a museum and look at a painting. Where is the money in that? Actually, the price of looking has gone up since I was young with most art museums requiring hefty admission fees plus even more money for so-called ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions. I’ve been to exhibitions recently that ended up costing thirty-five bucks to join the herds in a jam-packed gallery. Lucky me, I have a press card that gets me in free and often to private views of exhibitions, but as a child and young man art museums were generally free. My grandfather would take me to San Francisco’s deYoung and Legion of Honor from about the time I was ten. It was there that I fell in love with paintings. As a teenager, I lived in England and went to public art galleries and museums there and in Paris. Later, as an art student, I went to museums in San Francisco and New York. All without paying a cent.

You are the product of your experiences and I doubt if my life would have followed the course it did had I not gone repeatedly to museums when I was young. It is interesting that fifty years ago, and more, the galleries were often quite empty and I had whole rooms to myself. It’s a paradox that even with high admission charges the museums are more crowded now than then. This seemingly blows my theory that museums are more elitist now, but it’s who doesn’t go rather than who does that matters regardless of the attendance figures that is important. What is more, those that should, don’t and their numbers are increasing. Yes, museums have free days and school tours, but it begs the point that museums are seen by many as elite. That’s a shame.

meaning_meaningWhat drives people to become artists? Why did Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the young artist in question, want to be an artist and not a plumber? Even then a plumber would make a better living than a poet, but a poet’s life was a whole lot better than a plumber’s at least in Stephen’s eyes. Joyce’s hero wanted romance; to be a romantic. I think romance is still a good idea a century after Joyce’s book. Certainly, art offered me a way out boredom and on to a path that I hoped would end in adventure. When I was twenty, I didn’t think of making a living or about saving for a pension plan. I wanted to be an art hero and that’s why I read Portrait of the Artist. If Stephen could do it, I reasoned, so could I. I don’t think I ever became the hero I wanted to be, but my life has been filled with wonders and it wasn’t boring. I’m slowing down a bit now. It is the winter of my life, however, I’m hoping for a couple more springs before the curtain drops.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, February 23, 2015.