Does modern culture have room for Rubens and Rembrandt, for Van Eyche and Velazquez, for Caravaggio and Bernini, for Drürer and Holbein? They take up a lot of space, especially Rubens, who seemed to specialize in art by the mile. Perhaps modern walls are not ready for yards of lush color and voluptuous women, for spare beauty of a Vermeer interior, for the singing colors of an Annunciation or the terror of “Belshazzar’s Feast.” And I suspect the modern arbiters of taste and culture prefer it that way. Spiritual emptiness and hollow platitudes are easier to pass off as normal to starving spirits.
I teach a lot of art with history, lots and lots of art. Donatello, Da Vinci, Jan van Eyche, Bosch, Caspar David Friedrich, Titian, Monet, Balthazar Neumann and Fischer von Erlach, the students see all of them at least once and get a taste of the great art of the world. But then I’ve been blessed to actually see so many of these in the flesh, to sit and drink in Rembrandt’s Mennonite preacher and his wife, to savor Velazquez and Caravaggio and others. I’m not sure many people do, now, even in an age when WikiCommons has thousands upon thousands of works of art available to look at, save as computer wallpaper, and stores sell posters and nice prints of magnificent works of art, making them available for everyone.
But that’s not modern art. The vast majority of “fine art” since 1950 leaves me cold, both in the sense that I don’t recognize some of it as art, and spiritually cold. If Beauty feeds the soul and nourishes the best of humanity, then modern art is celery stalks or bitter herbs and salt water, without the religious understanding of the latter. The “message” whatever it is, has eclipsed beauty, to the point that artists who claim to be rebelling against culture and conformity can’t tell me what the baseline was. And there is no humor, no playfulness in most of what I’ve seen in modern galleries.
You do not have to know the story of the Annunciation to appreciate, oh, say,
These feed the spirit. A better world is out there, a world of lovely landscapes, of dramatic moments and gripping stories, of inspiring men and women. I really like the pre-Raphaelite painting of the princess knighting the young man. I also like some of the Victorian art-by-the-yard battle scenes that owe far more to story telling than to historical accuracy.
It’s strange, and to me sad, that we see less beautiful art in the public sphere than people used to. Churches had images and paintings, palaces and castles had tapestries and paintings, not the highest quality always, but things to delight the eye and add color, whimsical or naughty, inspiring or otherwise. People had designs and paintings of saints or heroic figures on the outsides of houses in some regions. People treasured beauty. Even realizing that we have just the best, or what later collectors valued, or what survived the caprices and whims of fate (the Unicorn tapestries only exist because peasants found them useful for covering fruit trees during frosts), the amount of what we now call fine art is amazing. And people had room for Rubens and Da Vinci and David (both of them), C. D. Friedrich, Monet, Childe Hassan, and others. Woodblock pictures and cheap prints sold well once technology became available.
I get the sense that for the “cultured art critic” today, art cannot be beautiful in the conventional sense. it must shock, or insult, or otherwise slap the face of the un-educated viewer instead of giving pleasure that grows with knowledge. I liked the Merode altarpiece even before knowing all the symbolism and technique within it. Art that feeds the soul pleases the eye and doesn’t require explanation unless someone wants to know more. If a beautiful annunciation is just a painting of a girl, filled with wonder and awe, in a quiet setting as she faces a wonderous messenger and it pleases someone, then it is doing its “job” as much as if it tells the meditating observer about the seven sorrows and the purity of the Virgin in the lily with its sword-like leaves and white trumpets. You don’t have to be familiar with Germany during the Romantic period to like C. D. Friedrich, or to not like him.
It seems to me that art should leave the viewer better than before. Happier, or more at peace, more hopeful, inspired, comforted, or entertained and less stressed, his spirit rested by gazing at a beautiful landscape or a lovely woman. That’s not modern art, at least not what keeps appearing in the news and on museum walls.
It is in part the human tendency to turn up one’s nose at things everyone else, especially the common crowd, likes. realism came about as a reaction to the Romantic movement, determined to show the world just how terrible that world really was, but even they did so in ways that showed the inner human dignity of the stone breakers, beggar girls, flower sellers, and others. A few decades later came Marxist influences through Russia about art having to have a social and economic purpose (other than pleasing the buyer and keeping the painter fed). Those demands pushed the Socialist Realism movement on one side and the lurch toward Dada and later to nihilism on the other (the urinal as art?). I’ve been told that abstract expressionism came about because it was a reaction to socialist realism during the McCarthy era in the 1950s-60s. You couldn’t like Regionalist art because it made you suspect as a Red, so people turned to Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-book pointillism and whats-his-names spatters of paint.
I’m reminded of the story about a fire in the Tate Gallery in London several years ago. People got very worried until the news came out that it was the Tate-Modern that had the fire, not the main Tate. The “better sort” were quite put out that most people thought a fire in the modern side wasn’t so important, and even more so when a few of the hoi piloi suggested that chucking a few selected works back into the fire might be an improvement.
Do we have room for Rembrandt anymore? Some days I wonder.
Edited to add: Welcome Instapundit Readers! Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy what you read and see.