On Relevance

The New York Times asks a leading question.

New York Times Old Masters  Willem Claesz Heda, Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware, 1635. Oil on wood, 19⅝ x 31¾ in. From the Collection of Rita and Frits Markus, Bequest of Rita Markus, 2005. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Willem Claesz Heda, Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware, 1635. Oil on wood, 19⅝ x 31¾ in. From the Collection of Rita and Frits Markus, Bequest of Rita Markus, 2005. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Can the Old Masters Be Relevant Again?” asks the provocative headline of an August 28 New York Times feature by Robin Pogrebin. I’m dubious about such click bait, which takes for granted a flimsy premise; the following day another Times headline observed “Shooting Scares Show a Nation Quick to Fear the Worst,” as if relentless media attention hasn’t played a major role in stoking the very fear it then stands back to observe.

I’ll take the bait, but with as elliptical a response as the question merits. Let’s begin by parsing the question in a nearly legalistic way: what constitutes the designation, “old masters?” We can probably say that the term encompasses Western art history from Masaccio to Matisse, which covers a lot of ground. It would be a vast oversimplification, though not incorrect, to summarize six hundred years as a period in which painters fell in—and then increasingly out of—love with spatial illusion. After that it was easy enough to cite non-objective art as the cut-off between old and new; Kandinsky threw the first pitch and Pollock hit it out of the park. Since then it’s gotten a lot more fragmented. The Cold War days when my teachers could wage rhetorical battle against non-objective art are long gone; today one can hardly keep up with the permutations of figurative art alone, let alone all the approaches that don’t require conventional materials. But until I saw the Times article, I had no idea that the art of the last six centuries had ceased to matter. I mean, I’ve been following the news every day.

I understand what Pogrebin’s article is getting at, insofar as she interviewed auction houses, dealers, and curators who asserted that there’s a greater interest now in contemporary art than in art of the past. Fewer people are buying old master paintings at lower prices, and there’s a drop off in the number of scholars in the field. Perhaps the tilt in scholarship can be partly explained as practical calculation, since contemporary art offers more virgin territory for research than does the finite corpus of work by old masters.

Great art acknowledges its precursors without becoming mired in what was.

The evidence is that more folks want to see what’s fresh out of the oven than something with a layer of patina. It’s for this reason alone that I stopped putting dates on my canvases—if a prospective buyer is only interested in viewing the latest product, it’s my obligation to mess with the chronology. Another implication is that relevance may be measured through sales. There isn’t a level at which that works for me. A student of either art history or economics knows that the arc of progress, be it that of reputation or investment, doesn’t enjoy uninterrupted ascent. The Times article ends with a listing of upcoming auctions at which old master works can be purchased for relatively affordable prices. This left the impression that the piece really belonged in the financial section. Or the classifieds. The real subject was art as commodity.

For a contemporary artist with an interest in museums, what the article suggests is the epitome of a mixed-feelings situation. Forsaking the art of the past may seem close to blasphemy, yet at the same time we’re very much alive and thus have a vested interest in marketing our own wares. For most of my working life I’ve thrown in with the old school, from the Renaissance to Post-Impressionism, with a heavy interest in late-nineteenth century and contemporary realism. Maybe it’s the diversity of what’s being practiced now, and maybe it’s that I’m loosening up a little with age, but I no longer feel a need to carry a torch for a past that, in post-modern jargon, was the province of the dead white guys club. There is still immense pleasure in drawing ably and watching a representational image develop in front of me, and I still think too few artists properly appreciate, let alone excel at traditional skills. I’m deaf to digital painting that copies effects of oil and canvas. But the desire to align with certain predecessors and the attendant odor of idealistic zealotry no longer motivates me. One way of trying to bridge the gap between past and present is through emulation. When I started taking classes I became aware of teachers and students who sought to paint in the style of Rembrandt, Rubens or Vermeer, and suspected there was a self-congratulatory element to the proceedings, complete with mixing up special sauces that were supposed to replicate the old masters’ media, as if genius could be inherited through alchemy. When you’re a student it’s pretty much impossible to avoid emulating others; it is, in fact, necessary. Andre Malraux famously noted that all masters go through a youthful stage of ‘pastiche’, a time of cutting and pasting a variety of influences in the process of maturing. For years my go-tos were Degas, Eakins and Raphael Soyer, and to a lesser degree a few dozen other artists. The dangers are in relying for too long on historical crutches, rationalizing the value of adhering to an aesthetic cause, and of targeting the most superficial aspects of masters. An artist friend put it well: painters who seek to channel the concepts and techniques of another era are as close to what they’re emulating as a Civil War reenactment is to the real thing. That river passed, and you can’t step into it again.

You could argue that the most successful paraphrasing of the old masters has been that of self-conscious satire, as in the paintings of John Currin or Odd Nerdrum. But does reference to the masters have to be so, well, odd? And are pornography and kitsch the best vehicles for revisiting and revitalizing traditional themes? Maybe so, if one’s ambition is to carve a high profile spot in a noisy and pluralistic market. The problem with the Times’s question is that it is skin-deep, in that it refers to market trends, and the public’s fascination with novelty. (Moreover, a website called Art History News challenges the article for cherry-picking financial data and quotes from anxious dealers in order to reach an unsettling and arguable premise.) The last two questions I ask myself at the easel are whether the painting is salable and whether it’s relevant. There are a multitude of more interesting concerns.

It gets worse than the Times piece. As a reminder that the comfort of ignorance may trump creative thought, an article was published in the Guardian, “Yes, great art. Can I go now?” just as I was finishing this. It serves as a coda, or a coup de grace, in its view of the museum as mausoleum. Readers’ comments seconding that emotion offered testimony by a public desiring fresher diversions.

Dismaying as I find all this, there’s an inevitability to leaving the past behind in favor of living in the present. Great art acknowledges its precursors without becoming mired in what was. Still, that acknowledgment is vital for the layperson as much as it is for the artist. To slough off the past as immaterial to current experience is to live untethered, and suggests contentment to wade in shallow waters.

What does one ask in front of a painting? I propose two deceptively simple questions: Is it well done, and more importantly; Is it true? In that light, all else is irrelevant.

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