Friday, July 1, 2011

That's Not Art! Craftsmanship and Quality in the Plastic Arts

Princesse Albert de Broglie, née Joséphine-Eléonore-Marie-Pauline de
Galard de Brassac de Béarn
, 1853, by Ingres. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
These are the two words that modern art historians hate:  "craftsmanship" and "quality."  Most people feel that they can look at a painting and tell you if it is art by judging the standard of craftsmanship, such as in the above painting by the Frenchman Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.
But is art only about rendering an accurate depiction of nature?
In the statement which I offer as a motto for this blog, I quote poet William Butler Yeats:  "Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truth, passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius, but never abandoned."
No. 5, 1948, Jackson Pollack
Most people would agree that No. 5 from Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollack is not art:  there is no heroic value, there is no religious truth and lastly, they would argue that there is neither craftsmanship nor quality ("I could do that," is what they would say, combining the last two arguments in that disgusted statement).
But how does one render the soul?
How do you show someone the accumulated agony of your life's burdens, your sorrow, your pain?
How does one show you a soul in a state of mortal sin?
This "pile of paint" represents us in our most agonized moments, our most undignified suffering, our greatest loneliness, our despair, because it is the layers and layers and layers of accumulated (pain)t that separates us from others, from our very self, from God.
How do you depict the worst day of your life, the day that never seems to end but endures year after year?  Isn't it comforting to know that you are not alone, someone else has been there, too.
Isn't No. 5, after all, a pretty good attempt at showing the misery, the darkest spot of my soul, the damage that has been committed upon that immortal fabric created in the image of God and now soiled, stained and decomposing?  Doesn't it show how even the bright spots--a thin ribbon of yellow here and there--even that entangled and entrapped by the blackness and decay of all the rest of... "it."
But does one have to abandon craftsmanship and quality to show something this deep, this intangible?
I would argue no:  there is a high level of craftsmanship in this painting and, actually, you probably couldn't paint this.  BBC presenter and historian Dan Snow continually raises the bar of historical research by always testing and enduring for himself the stories of history to prove or disprove accuracy in the written word.  If Dan were to put himself through the painting of a "Jackson Pollack," he would be exhausted:  it would take weeks, maybe even months, of back breaking, exhausting numbness.  He would be weighted down with the paint in one hand and the exhaustion of continual movement with the brush in the other hand.  He would go mentally numb and become an "automaton" without realizing--or even caring--what he was doing.  Not to mention his neck, shoulders and legs aching, from the hours and hours of standing and moving, to and fro...
Photograph of Jackson Pollack "action painting." 
But does that mean that Ingres has failed to reproduce anything in the soul of the Princess (pictured above)?  One could say that her left hand, extended and yet limp, sums up her character:  because the arm is always a symbol of someone's strength, that it's so limp, surely signifies to the viewer that she herself is of weak nature.  The light falling upon the back of the gown may denote a woman who is naturally very "bright" whereas the darker shadows on the front of the gown suggest that all the "entrapments" of royalty have created someone who appears grumpy or disagreeable to others who do not know her.  In all the sittings which would have been required for this portrait, Ingres would have gotten to know the Princess at least somewhat:  the way she treated servants, messengers, himself.  This would come across--even, or especially--unconsciously in the artist's rendering of her.
But does it show her soul? Does it show something heroic or some great religious truth?
Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn't.
Look at the title again:  "Princesse Albert de Broglie, née Joséphine-Eléonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Béarn"... isn't that pile of names similar to the pile of paint that Pollack shows us?  What kind of responsibility does she have? What kind of burdens smother her into submission of her status the way a beggar is suffocated by his poverty?  It is easy to look at the beauty of the golden chair, and see her sitting pretty without a care in the world, but hasn't Ingres managed to slip in a slight note of her cares and worries?  While a royal portrait must always be grand, hasn't he tried to show us a part of the very human who isn't allowed to be human, but bury herself and needs beneath layers and layers and layers of silk?  
This example is slightly larger:  do you notice how her rings seem to bound her rather than decorate her person? The chair seems to support her, like a crutch, instead of a prop. The lace around her arms appears to be hiding her, protecting her like a shawl, rather than adding to the beauty of the dress, the fashionableness of the wearer, wrapping her within herself, for there is nowhere else for her to go. 
Have you noticed all the little wrinkles and creases in that expensive silk dress?  Why do you think Ingres painted those in when it would have been easier to leave them out?  Are they contributing to our understanding of who she is in her deepest being?  Is it possible that her life isn't "smooth" but full of valleys and hills, creases and crevices, just like normal folk?
Are the strands of flawless pearls wrapped around her arm like chains, insisting that she herself be as flawless and beautiful as the pearls?
Does the portrait look a little different now then when you first saw it?
What happens so often in modern art is a break down of vocabulary, the bridge of communication between artist and viewer.  I had never been a big fan of Abstract Expressionism until I saw Simon Schama's The Power of Art (includes Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko; available on DVD and through Netflix).  When Schama communicated to me what Mark Rothko communicates to him, it became an entirely different situation, and I had to completely re-examine my relationship with the Abstract Expressionists, and I have.

No. 3/No. 13 (Magenta, Black, Green on Orange),
1949, 85 3/8" x 65", oil on canvas by Mark Rothko.
How different, really, is the "blank wall" behind the head of the Princess and the orange painted beneath Rothko's bars of magenta, black and green?  Are not the Coat of Arms of the Princess, painted in the upper right corner of the canvas, similar to the bars of color for Rothko? Are her coat of arms something "grafted" onto her being, that one notices as one notices the band of green against the orange?
In summary, do not immediately glance over a work like Ingres' princess portrait, and note only the fine craftsmanship, neither glance over abstract work like Pollack's and dismiss it as a fantastic hoax.  Engage art the way that you would want someone to engage with you; give it the benefit of a doubt that it's saying something and then strive to listen.
You'll be rewarded.