In the previous post, I sang the praises of the Great Artist, a hero who exemplifies a type of high achievement toward which any serious artist should aspire. My song related to a little trip I took to the National Gallery of Art yesterday where my reacquaintance with a particularly wonderful landscape painting by Claude Monet, set my mind into nostalgic reverie about the meanings of art.
I tried to define the activity of the great artist and to distinquish him (or her!) from the conventional world of images. Many of the pictures in the National Gallery of Art’s exhibit on Fontainebleau are of this other type, which is to say: they demonstrate the conventions. However, despite their conventional qualities, they are amazing, fine pictures. And this fact brings me to another notion about which we hear too little talk in today’s art world. We have plenty of convention in our own time. Think about any famous museum of modern art that you’ve ever visited. Ask yourself (be honest now) how different are any of these from their kin?
Museums in our time have come to resemble another institution prominent in our world: they are like fast food restaurants. Indeed, most of the modern institutions that have the de rigueur alphabet soup name (MOMA, MOCA, LACMA, MOCAD, et al), are like McDonalds Restaurants of Art. (Can I get that in a Happy Meal?)
They are the BIG TREND places. Their official motto is edgy-ness. They claim to be “cutting edge,” they “break the rules,” “push the envelop.” Purportedly they are boldly going where no one has gone before. So how come they all look alike?
Convention serves a useful purpose as a medium for communicating ideas — when ideas are real and worth communicating. Whether the ideas found in every modern museum in the world are worth it — I really think they’d put these museums on every street corner if they could — I’ll leave for others to judge. But in regard to the art of the past, the art that deals directly with life, certainly the convention carries some weight of its own.
I have admired great art for so long that I forget how much beauty the “second category” of art conveys. There were certainly some great paintings in the National Gallery show that are not household names. Yet their pictures transport you to beautiful scenes of everyday life, to a time before “global warming,” to a time when people felt Nature was more at their doorsteps.
To be able to paint like the best of these conventional painters would satisfy most artists. We could certainly do worse than to emulate them. Do worse? Why we could be living off those Happy Meals and getting nothing but a steady diet of junk art!
You know, that’s got to be bad for you in the long run. Real art, like real food, takes more thought and more work. But in the long run, it’s worth it.
Ars longa, vita brevis. Remember, you are what you eat.
[Top of the post: Théodore Claude Félix Caruelle d’Aligny, Rocks at Fontainebleau, c. 1842
Musée du Louvre, Paris, Gift of Maurice Bourdot-Lamotte, 1951]