by Patricia Emison
Conceptual art and the Renaissance were born together. When Alberti advised in 1434 that the invention of a work of art was pleasing even before its realization,
he rendered Sol LeWitt and all his confreres rear-guard. Severing art from craft, he dubbed the artist an intellectual and urged him to develop a literary as well as a Biblical imagination.
Alberti said that history or narrative painting was the most ambitious: up to nine figures in a unified, significant action. History painting, larger and larger, more and more populated, became thereafter the staple of Academic agendas for four hundred years. Governments would subsidize such art, for it fed patriotism. When history painting ended, with the terrors of World War I and John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, modernism unmistakably had begun. Whistler and Kandinsky wrote the theory that displaced Alberti and his successors, Reynolds not least; for them modern art vied with music more than with the written word. But the problem of ambition, once Cézanne and his large scale nudes in a landscape were over, was a question without a unified answer. Attention was the objective; ambition was reduced to strategies for gaining attention. Painting became, for a time, interior decoration for modernist machines for living, or set design to go with the ballets whose scores seemed to displace the symphony as locus of musical ambition. Painting shrank in scale, and with Marcel Duchamp and then Jean Arp’s paper collages, it became the record of whim or chance. As with all celebrity, much of the attention garnered sank to the level of gossip: Picasso and his mistresses; Warhol and his hangers on; Carl Andre and his wife; prices; openings. Picasso, whose merest scribble on a napkin he knew to be worth untold amounts, fascinated as much as he impressed anyone. He was a celebrity, whereas Cézanne had been a proud recluse. When Jackson Pollock was filmed and appeared on the cover of Life Magazine, the avant-garde had evolved into a sub-species of high fashion.
Artists either aspire to be quintessentially of their time or to be timeless. Classical art took the latter way; modern art the former. Renaissance artists didn’t realize they needed to make a choice, as they also were blissfully unaware of the divide between art of the establishment and art of the avant-garde. Donatello was at once a rogue artist and the pet of the de facto ruler. He came from the troublesome bottom of society, the wool-carders, and he and his colleagues made images of pain, of pride, of modesty, of humor – some images that seemed to recall the distant past and some images that seemed to come from nowhere. Theirs was an innocent art, and how their successors have envied them that unretrievable innocence! They possessed a simple sense of ambition: they wanted an art of ideas. Not conceptual art, not art that prided itself inordinately on its manual ineptitude, but art that debated whether Christ should look a peasant or a hero, whether St. Louis of Toulouse should appear a meek man or a king, whether religious subjects could be made to fit into scenes of the natural world, whether we could with a good conscience enjoy looking at representations immense suffering, whether subjects we knew well could be made fresh again? To portray ideal beauty in real time and space was a new behest, one that afforded a range of artists an engrossing project and ultimately yielded, arguably, the first society for which art was more than an accessory. The subjects mattered less than they had in medieval times, the materials were typically much less costly, yet the objects – the images – had more valence. The Renaissance gave us imaginations, and then we got all too used to having them.
Currently we have art that aims to be of its own time but also to assert that only the concept matters, an idea inherited from Alberti who was advocating an art like Antiquity’s, an art so naturalistic that it wouldn’t be inflected by historical period. In other words, the highly-publicized high-end art of today pursues a conundrum: to be as pure as the classical, and as topical as the ultra-realistic.
It should be made by artists with working class accents or of otherwise intriguing ethnicity; exhibited at the behest of the oligarchy; and milked for petty cash in the museum and gallery shops, in the form of jewelry, mugs, t-shirts and scarves sold to the middle class. Often it mistakes the merely clever for the conceptual – and at worst, the merely cheeky, a project becoming ever more problematic in a world in which uncongenial cultures each jostle for mutual respect. Seldom is there any sign of good hard work or extraordinary skill, as though either of these would degrade the high-flyer status of the artist, and love of one’s materials would constitute a sort of prostitution. Lady Disdain rules the art world.
Furthermore, the sycophantic attention of art historians and the mass media have combined to exacerbate what may already have been a tendency toward narcissism among artists. Every utterance by those deemed the prophets of today is recorded and disseminated; such a degree of attentiveness requires a narrow focus on the chosen few.
We need to find the artists who aren’t locked into narcissism. For when artists can see only themselves, what have they to show us? Narcissus, according to one legend, originated painting, but I prefer the other version, according to which a young girl of Corinth drew her lover’s silhouette on the wall before he went to war. Now that was an idea.
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"According to the Laws of Chance", Jean Arp --- Arp felt that he could incorporate chance within artistic production, comparing the role of the artist to a plant bearing fruit. According to the Laws of Chance shows Arp playing with random composition, in this case dropping painted pieces of paper onto a surface.