THROUGHOUT history, Art always supported society and helped lead mankind from the dark middle ages into the light; with beauty, reason, progress and human values. With this great art, was an accepted responsibility to visually hold up a mirror of life for all to be able to see, enjoy, and was a part of the process. It was always present in in the trade craft and the visual language that all great painters used, including the Impressionists. Sadly, this practice ended with the 20th Century and the outcome has been a complete disaster ever since. As this reality is not easy to explain, mostly as a result of misleading philosophical excuses or all the confusing wordage that modern conceptual art presents today, I am providing a paragraph from my first book, which I hope will provide a new and helpful specific background accordingly.
In Trust Your Eye an Illustrated History of Painting, I spoke of “The extraordinary disappearance of tonal values from the artist’s palette at the end of the 19th Century and their replacement by colour or linear abstraction. Fashionable art historians and critics with lemming-like consistency then interpreted this as a change for the better and even loaded it with universal significance. Painters who preserved the Great Tradition of tonal painting, the language of Titian, Velázquez, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer were regarded as dyed-in- the-wool academics, nostalgic dreamers who refused to recognise the century they were born into. Otherwise they were patronised as amateurs who could not be expected to go into the deep end of experience.”
Miserably, this careless neglect of proper proven methods and traditional painting skills brought an ugly loss to modern contemporary art, for without this past use, three dimensional representation is impossible and that true mirror record of life, which is naturally three dimensional, cannot be achieved for us all. Thus without these tools, the best modern art could hope to aspire towards, was coloured decoration in one form or another. Mostly it was fantasy and abstraction with a modernist criteria, but not Fine Art. However, this change also opened a door to another worse mess; the current trend for apparent conceptual installations. Its proponents who obviously wished to justify an absence of art skills or practical standards, introduced instead the present unnecessary fashion for literally writing sheds of words to explain it.
This all sadly moved art further away again from addressing the reality of life, that visual self evidence of art we can all actually see and experience, into a false pseudo-literary world of storytelling; all without those necessary standards needed for good literature and certainly without those proven art skills, or profession expertise needed for Fine Art. Happily, this does not occur in other professions with trades people or professionals, whose practical skills, experience, and ability, are what we expect from their separate professions, the actual work title and why we pay to receive their services accordingly. And if they do not deliver they are rightly called ‘Cowboys.’ And naturally, most people in their separate professions would not wish to pretend to be called artist’s, when they have proper training, experience and expertise in their own profession. The list of these possibilities is endless. So, perhaps a Groundsmen, a Game-Keeper, Engineer, Electrician, Bricklayer, Roofer, Car Mechanic, Driver, Typist, Secretary, Clerk, Accountant, Personal assistant, doctor, nurse, etc, a huge world of competent trade-persons or highly skilled professions, all rightly proud of their own personal practical knowledge and achievements.
By contrast we have this single world of modern contemporary art, where you can apparently be totally and utterly incompetent, not having the least of good basic drawing skills, nor long years of practical working experience, or proper proven training within the wide disciplines of art, no artistic gift, and yet call yourself a contemporary modern conceptual artist. And a biased modern art media will automatically write screeds of good things about you too.
So, returning to a normal reality, and the work that most people do, let’s take the subject of manufacturing as an example, and consider those necessary skills in terms of an end product, with a view to sensible completion of work within a definite given budget. And where, if you are asked to produce a car, you don’t produce a lorry, if you are asked to produce a refrigerator; you don’t produce a hot water bottle. So looked at in a practical way, it is just completely ludicrous, this view and manner of activity in contemporary modern art at present. It is often dishonest. And it is certainly a complete disgrace, especially when these things are paid for with public money, commissioned without proper public representation, without understanding, or any complete openness regarding what choices are being made, but which we then unfortunately all see, usually showing cold ugly modern ideas, displayed as the only suitable public art in our cities and public places.
So I hope you may now look at our visual art afresh – and trust your eyes first.
If you cannot see anything – if it is not visually self evident, then it’s just not there. If you see a rock with a hole in it, then that is what it is – a rock with a hole in it. And don’t be afraid to say so. Just trust your eye, don’t be forced to choose between poor modern art and poor modern art. While if you do want to see great art, simply visit any one the National Galleries across the world that hold past Art; look at these magnificent works from the ‘Great Tradition’ which lasted 600 years. It is wonderful art which still offers anew that beauty and excellence which all sincere artists should still be aspiring towards today. The National Gallery in London has I believe one of the finest collections in the world. Edinburgh is good too. So do please go and experience the best mankind has to offer with Art, and I hope you will also enjoy this too.
Next time – a closer look at the ideas of public art today, an attempt to reconsider its present flawed commissioning processes, and some ideas of the alternatives we may all wish to see instead...
Photo by Ian Potter. 'Charles beginning a new landscape with monochrome tonal under painting. An Italian Renaissance and later a Flemish/Dutch tradition.'
(Copyright 2016: Charles Harris - 'Trust Your Heart, the Validity of Contemporary Art.')