What Purpose Art?

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.

Original in the Met Museum: “Virgin and Child” Dieric Bouts c. 1455-60. Fair use under Creative Commons: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435762

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.

BAL4106 Madonna of the Burgermeister Meyer by Holbein the Younger, Hans (1497/8-1543); 146×101.6 cm; Schlossmuseum, Darmstadt, Germany; (add. info.: pictured with wives (living and dead), sons who had just died and surviving daughter); German, out of copyright
“The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” Hans Holbein the Younger 1521 (Kunstmuseum Basel)

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?


11 thoughts on “What Purpose Art?

  1. Apparently, that was the better side of Neel. Her work as a middle-aged woman living in the New York world of art and Communism was all about drawing pictures of herself and her boyfriend right after sex, in a not particularly flattering way for either, and in portraying a US Communist Party official with three genitals instead of one. The art critics call this crud “loving and amused.”

    OTOH, even though it’s not terribly creative for Neel to have done a portrait in a style that was old when she was young, she does at least do representational artwork with recognizable portraits, which was edgy in the art world of her time and ours.

    Ginny was her son’s wife, and Elizabeth was her granddaughter. Eliza. She is an artist. She draws things that look abstract, but actually include pictures of dog fights and plane crashes. She doesn’t look happy, although apparently she is successful. Her art looks like a cry for help, really.

    • Also to be fair, she was seduced by a married Cuban artist while still in art school, bore him two children, and had one die of diphtheria and the other taken away back to Cuba. Her next boyfriend was a cocaine addict who slashed, burned, and destroyed most of her body of work. She slept around obsessively for the rest of her life, but raised two sons on her own who became successful adults.

      So yeah, issues on top of issues. Even the art critics say that her work often gives her subjects “neurotic eyes.”

  2. You’ve asked for positive techne and spirit for crafts and art. I had a teapot like that Polish tea-cup, but it got broken while cleaning a few years ago. Good form, colors, and fit, and retained a lot of heat. Good, pleasing craft work.

    Somewhere along the line, a lot of the strictures and guidelines were forgotten or deliberately set aside. The artist became a celebrity, with Art! that made A Statement!! and not practical or fine artwork to uplift or inspire. That seems to fit Neel’s work. There’s no joy to it, only a relentless interrogation.

  3. Modern art is specifically designed to induce misery. That’s the entire point. The Communist influence lingers on, and on, and on…

    • I wish people would stop inducing misery in the world. There’s enough to go around. Some people seem to be guilty that they are doing well. Has some one (some school) posited that life is misery? Life isn’t perfect. To judge anything against perfection is to be continually in despair.

      Life is good despite its bad parts.

  4. I did a search for “Ginny and Elizabeth” and wish I didn’t. 😦

    But yes, good art can inspire and even if it doesn’t inspire, it can be nice to view. 😀

    • Ditto on the search. Turns out there are multiple paintings with that title, with varying amounts of disturbing imagery. To borrow a phrase, it makes me want to kick off my boots and sit down with a cold can of Thorazine. No thanks, I prefer the non-modern art.

      • Same here, honestly. I am of the opinion that most everything post WWII in the so-called modern art genre, maybe with a couple of honorable exceptions, like Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses is a gigantic fraud and money-laundering scheme between major galleries, insanely rich patrons and auction houses. Look, if your splatters of paint on a half-acre canvas remind me of nothing so much as pavement routinely visited by a grackle flock, I decline to call it art. If it needs a couple of pages in the catalogue to explain it … it’s not art in the classic sense.

  5. I’m pretty big on the aesthetics of function.

    That is part of why I got to raving on the Los Alamos Primer to Orvan in Kate’s thread at the MGC recently. After reading the Los Alamos Primer the first time, I eventually concluded that it was truly beautiful.

    More conventional aesthetics, sometimes yes, and sometimes no.

    • The really sad bit is that “Ginny,” the mother, is actually the biggest supporter of Neel’s work, along with her husband (Neel’s son), and is basically promoting and running Neel’s artistic legacy.

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