Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Living With Art

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So, it’s some ridiculous hour of the morning, and I’m a complete mess, having been woken up at two–again–and unable to go back to sleep.

But let me make a few notes here. First, there’s this link


which, with any luck, will work.  It’s of the Piccolomini Library in Siena. 

And no, I don’t know if I’ve spelled that right.

But you’ll note–there is art on all the walls and the ceiling, highly detailed and demanding art.

It’s demanding on several levels, not the least of which is the amount of erudition expected of anybody looking at it–the knowledge of Christian and old Testament stories, plus the knowledge of classical ones. 

But the other point is this:  although this is “representational”–well, it isn’t really. 

The forms are certainly recognizable as forms from the real world–women look like women, trees look like trees.

But they are not in fact figures of the real world.  They’re figures from scripture, myth and history that require the viewer to know a great deal in order to understand them, and they’re presented in a way that no such figures could look in the real world. 

Okay, I’m sorry.  I really am blithering here.  I really am tired.

Painting like this was meant to present an ideal of humanity for the viewer to aspire to, as well as presenting stories from the viewer’s history and religion (also meant to inspire him (or her) or to serve as cautionary tales).

And it was High Art in its time as well as hours–it was recognized as the best of what was possible, even if no overblown mythology of The Artist existed.

(And, as a side note–The Sorrows of Young Werther was published in 1776, one of those coincidences that make the date easy to remember.  And it did, indeed, introduce the idea of the suffering genius into Western narrative.  It’s also considered the forerunner of and the intellectual foundations of all forms of the Romantic movement, even though the Romantic movement proper didn’t get underway for another fifty years.)

Anyway,  peasants then as now had access to a wide variety of popular art forms, but they also had access to high art.

And not just access.  Going to the town hall to do business meant being surrounded, on the walls and celing and often also the floors, by the very highest forms of contemporary art, to get your divorce or sell your property or celebrate your marriage in the presence of da Vinci or Michaelangelo or Raphael.

If anything, most of us have less access to such art now than we would have had then. The art in question from the period of mostly safely sequestered in musems, which most people never see.

And the contemporary version of high art is also highly museum-oriented.  Even what private collections exist exist as private museums.  Some rich guy will start collecting and have  a gallery built at his home.   He won’t go to sleep with a ceiling painted by Chris Orfili or eat his breakfast surrounded by the latest installation of dead sharks and saran wrap.

And maybe just as well.

Although, could I please say something about that “dung Madonna?”

There was a lot that religious people might legitimately find offensive about that piece, but the dung shouldn’t have been one of them.

The elephant dung on the painting was the use of an African painting technique widely used across the continent in native folk art.  There are long of Madonnas out there painted with elephant dung. 

If you’re going to get mad at Chris Orfili, get mad at the pornographic collage that made up the painting’s background.  Photographs of gaping vaginas seem to me to be more worth complaining about than a folk art technique African churches have no problem with most of the time.

Bleh.  I’m really a mess here.  And I don’t know if I spelled Orfili’s name right.

Probably not.

But when I say we don’t live with painting any more, I was specifically talking about the high art tradition–and today’s high art tradition in painting isn’t worth living with, most of the time.

The folk arts are with us always, but that’s not what I was getting at.

I’m going to go have some serious caffeine.

Written by janeh

August 29th, 2010 at 5:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Living With Art'

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  1. Yes, I’d heard about other and respectful dung sculpture–and I knew about the vaginas, so I saw no resson to believe respect was intended. “Dung Madonna” was a shorthand, admitedly, but I thought a useful one.

    And the tradition of real art in public places died relatively recently. The county courthouse in my home town–built just before WWI–has symbolic representations of Law, Justice and Freedom which would do most Renaissance painters proud. The bank across the street–1920’s, I believe–is an Art Deco masterpiece with representations of commerce, agriculture and industry. The City-County Building, which went up in the 1960’s, has imported “book” marble on the walls. It cost a fortune and says nothing.

    The “high art” vs “peasant/folk art” routine still needs serious work. Most of those attributes of Renaissance painting you give would apply to Howard Pyle or Frank Frazetta. Some would apply to Vallejo and Whelan. By including today’s dead sharks and saran wrap, you seem to saying that work is “high art” because critics, universties or museums take it seriously, and that is not a point I’m prepared to concede. And you come very close to saying that something is peasant or folk art because the hoi polloi like it, which would only be a useful definition to a snob.

    Art is art. If it has, as you have previously argued, objective value, surely this is not increased by academic politics, nor lessened by popular recognition?

    And you needn’t dismiss reproductions out of hand. I slept under a print of “The Night Watch” for some years, and may again when I return to civilization. No, it wasn’t the original–but I also didn’t have to elbow my way through a crowd to get a good look. Great art is easier come by than wall space these days.


    29 Aug 10 at 10:57 am

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