Theodore Dalrymple wrote an essay recently, based on two paintings of a mother and child. One is by a modern artist from 1975, the other a Northern Renaissance painting by Dieric Bouts the Elder.
The other painting Dalrymple talks about is “Ginny and Elizabeth” by Alice Neel. I found it rather disturbing, as does Dalrymple.
I’m not going to argue that art has to have a purpose, or to demand that nothing but what I like be shown in public. Different things make people happy, and sometimes artists (and writers) release a lot of frustration, anxiety, and other things through the work. Then on occasion display or sell the results. Sometimes people just noodle around for themselves and enjoy the process. That’s great!
A lot of art does end up serving a purpose, however. It brings pleasure, praises the patron, praises or encourages contemplation of a deity, it fills space. It can be useful as well as decorative (applied arts), or just nice to look at. Yes, it can also be used for money laundering, which seems to be the purpose of some Modern Art. I’m thinking more about popular art, works that are not confined to the rarefied world of the critic and the connoisseur: works that people buy copies of for their homes, designs that please the eye.
Long-time readers know that I have a special spot for Renaissance art, mostly Northern Renaissance. I also prefer images that I can recognize, or that look realistic. So Western Art, especially Charlie Russel, and Tim Cox, among others fits the bill. Basically, with a few exceptions, my fondness for fine art tapers off after the Impressionists. I know what I like, I like it, and if other folks prefer something else, that’s great. However, one thing about all the find art that appeals to me: it uplifts the spirit somehow. It is beautiful, or poignant, or stirring. It may tell a story, or just show a private moment between a mother and a child. Or it may be chilling.
The painting above is striking. It was meant to form the bottom of an altarpiece, and is life sized. It is disturbing. It is supposed to be. It is to inspire meditation on mortality, and the awe-full idea of G-d dying. But the family portrait is also about death, sort of. Except it has hope as well. I would not hang a reproduction of the lower painting in my house, but having seen the other Holbein? Yes, even knowing the story behind the painting. Perhaps especially because I know the story.
Art should inspire, or make you smile, or intrigue you. It should improve your mental or physical world. It doesn’t have to be an Old Master. Tim Cox paints landscapes with cowboys and horses. He’s not Rembrandt, or Jan Van Eyck. But I like his paintings. They make me happy, because he catches the western sky so well. I needed that, still need that some days. I also need Van Eyck, “St. Luke Painting the Virgin,” and Monet landscapes, and other lovely things. Or exciting and inspiring things, like the little portrait of Prinz Eugen von Savoy on my desk. It is a detail of a much larger battle painting, and shows him smiling a little and pulling back a curtain to reveal one of his victories over the Turks. The dude managed to hold off Louis XIV and the Turks, while operating on a Habsburg budget! If he could do that, I can get my chores done and papers graded on time.
Art should also uplift. Yes, many of the old works are idealized, glossing over things like Phillip II of Spain’s terrible congenital jaw malformation (ditto his father, although Charles didn’t have it quite as badly). There’s a reason Oliver Cromwell was very insistent that his portrait literally show him with warts and all. The battles in the enormous battle paintings were never that neat and tidy, the horses not so sleek and well groomed. That’s part of the point. It’s like saints in Christianity – they are to inspire, to serve as models, in some cases to combine horrible warnings (“don’t do that. No, seriously, just don’t”) with encouragement (“These people fell short, they lost their temper, they got in trouble as teenagers, and yet G-d used them and they improved, or held firm when everything else came crashing down.”) Ditto art.
The painting of Ginny and Elizabeth . . . does not inspire. It does not make my world better. It worries me, for both mother and child. That may have been the painter’s goal, in which case she succeeded admirably. But I’m not sure the world is a better place for having the work in it.
No, my Polish tea-cup doesn’t inspire me to great thoughts. It does fit my hand and pleases my eye with the shape and colors. It does its job, and is attractive. A Titian, or Caravaggio, or Breughel, or Mary Cassat painting, or a lovely statue, please the eye, and ease the spirit, or inspire it. Tim Cox’s work makes me smile, and lets me get away for a few minutes. Which is all I ask of art. Make my world a little better. Please?