While just a youth, when I first began studying art early in college, I learned about Jean Fouquet — not from an art history class but by pure happenstance. I was dating a musician and was visiting the university’s music room with him at the main library. There was nothing for me to do, so I wandered into the adjacent stacks. Back then they were positively medieval. The stacks consisted of acres of books on metal shelves on dark mezzanine floors, wedged between regular floors. They were tall enough but still dungeon-like. In one of these dark corridors, a title on “medieval” something or other caught my notice. I had accidentally found the shelf on illuminated manuscripts, one of which was The Hours of Etienne Chevalier by Jean Fouquet.
I checked out the book and found I loved it so much that I contacted the publisher, New York Graphic Society, and arranged to purchase a copy — this in the era long before Amazon.com! Forever afterward, I counted myself a “real” artist because I knew who Jean Fouquet was. And I knew, not because my art history professor had told me so, but because curiosity, serendipity and fate had led me there. This would not be the last cold finger of a dead old master tapping me on the shoulder — there would be many more — and the fingers didn’t really feel cold at all — but warm and living and encouraging.
What does an artist need to know? What is the difference between a broad awareness of an artistic past — one perhaps reaching 30,000 years back in time (painting has been around a while) — verses a casual sense of art appreciation or a bit of cocktail party banter about art names?
Hor d’oeuvres or the meal? Funny, I used to think knowing about important but less famous artists would mark me as a “wow.” It hasn’t had exactly that effect. One comes across as bookish, pedantic or odd. Sigh! [Top of the post: my drawing after the Ionian Flute Player]
Life is precarious sometimes. Whenever I feel a bit stressed out, I look around. That’s right, I just look around — the way children do. Children have a natural responsiveness to whatever just is. A bored child will start paying attention to whatever is outside the window as the car sails along the road, just because the vista is there. And the “what is” of life is rarely scarey to children. Even in difficulties and privations, a child will find times to play. Beauty and delight are parts of our nature. It takes a lot to shake that up.
So whenever things get dicey, I try to look. To watch, to stare, to look at things without insisting that they mean this or that. I merely take them in. This is the world around me right now. It’s interesting. It has all kinds of crazy details. I like that. And it calms a person right down. We should be more conservative about this: we should appreciate reality — because it is.
If I were giving a prize for the most overrated artist in history, it would be Ellsworth Kelly, who in truth deserves not to be rated at all for his oeuvre is painted in the purest snake oil. (For an interesting opposing view click here.) Chief among his vices is pretentiousness, for if Mr. Kelly is an artist then so is the person who lays out the paint cards at Home Depot’s paint section. Indeed, I would argue that the latter work is more fulfilling since one) it’s interactive and two) you can take the little cards home and arrange them to your heart’s delight for free.
However, more than one friend has said to me, “I hate it when somebody sees a work of art and says, ‘I could do that.'” My feeling in sharp contrast is a great sigh of pleasure in the candour of the remark. Yes, anyone could do that. So true. Moreover, I feel that when anyone can do a thing — supposing the thing has value — one should probably just do it oneself. If Mr. Kelly does this on our behalf, mind you, I’m perfectly content to pay him a decent wage not to exceed whatever they’re paying the guy at Home Depot. But if I am supposed to pretend that his achievement is equal to, say, Rembrandt’s or the Rohan Master’s or Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s then, no. I will not play that game. My own painting is far superior to Mr. Kelly’s and I make no bones about it.
I can do what he does — easily. He cannot do what I do. Not at all. (Let him try!)
Kelly is a cheap Matisse knock off. (Whew, it feels good to get that off my chest.)
UPDATE: A second post on Ellsworth Kelly can be found here.
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Honesty can be very appealing, though obviously sometimes we have to be careful about what we say. I judged that it would be preferable to write “Delacroix’s Journal” than to pretend false modesty. After so many years doing something, well, one learns quite a lot and believes that it would be better to share knowledge than to hide it under a bushel.
I see lots of art that is junk, and I know categorically that it is junk quite apart from whatever claims others might make on its behalf. Certainly, I would never tell another artist that his painting or that his “new media” is junk. Nor would I ever tell a collector that his cherished objects are junk. It’s just not something you can do. It would serve no purpose. It would hurt someone’s feelings.
But to suggest that junk exists — this is wise. It launches the idea into the world and sets people to thinking. Perchance they begin figuring out for themselves which objects belong in the “art” category and which into the “junk” category. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And in a smaller circle the fear of junk imparts wisdom too.
That’s why I’ve drummed away at this theme more than once. It’s the kind of truth that bears repeating, for the recognition of things having true worth is the first step one takes toward gaining them. Sleeper awake!