Wednesday, November 10, 2010

No Tender Visions

I was fascinated to read Emil Zola’s writings in the middle of the 19th century about what good art should be. It reminded me of certain discussions going on today! Emile Zola was a successful writer of both articles and novels in France (apparently earning more than Victor Hugo!), a close friend of Cezanne and often writing about art.

For Zola, there were two important elements in any work of art: the inspiration for the piece (generally some aspect of nature in the mid C19) and the eye of the artist. He felt that while the inspiration was the same for everyone who observed and admired the landscape, it was the eye and mind of the artist that varied. If this were not so, then all art about any particular inspiration would be identical. Like a photograph. The crucial thing in a work of art, he felt, was that the artist created not only an image of the inspirational scene or object but also his own personal feelings and sensations in response to it:

“A work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament”.

He felt that it was extremely unfortunate that both the jurors of the day and the visiting public were much less interested in the eye of the artist, in his/her personal view, than in how well or accurately the landscape was depicted. And also in how well the painting conformed to the current conventions within the medium. Doesn’t this sound familiar?

The public and the jurors, he complained, rewarded art that followed the fashionable and accepted style and rejected much more individual approaches and points of view. He pointed out that “the crowd” (think about it! Viewer’s Choice – the Worst prize you can get in an art quilt show!) always preferred art that was either easily digested and pleasing, or that gave rise to cheap thrills.

“The crowd sees in a painting a subject that seizes it by the neck or the heart, and it asks nothing more from the artist than a tear or a smile.”

Whereas : “What I ask for from an artist is not to give me tender visions or terrifying nightmares; it is to deliver himself, flesh and blood, and to affirm loudly a powerful and particular intelligence, a personality that takes nature broadly in hand and sets it down in front of us, just as he sees it”.

Of course this same phenomenon occurs today – and not only in art and art quilts, but also in music, television and books. Big business has taken over our reading – all you can get at many airports now are “the New York Times bestseller list” which of course is only the books that the publishers hype and they are – yes – either “tender visions or terrifying nightmares”! And are they written with a fresh view and individual language? No way ! trite clichés and predictable plots from start to finish. Should we therefore be surprised that art quilts also are guilty of this? We want Man Booker prize, Pulitzer prize  or Nobel prize quilts, not New York Times bestsellers! I asked my librarian daughter why do libraries buy such crap – she said “it’s what the people want to read”.

Zola’s views were very heavily criticized at the time (as Michael James is being criticized now for very similar views, and as he was when he juried Visions some years ago – such that he swore he’d never be a sole juror of a show again).

The cause of individuality as emphasized by Zola being the key thing that an artist can bring to the easel or the design wall is further discouraged by quilt shows where quiltmakers are instructed to respond to a challenge given by some external source, however charismatic. Just as novels do not improve when writers write to a given formula, however big the advance. No formulae please!

On the other hand, we all know that quilt shows, like the NYT bestsellers, are big business and in many ways big business has benefited quilters – with numerous books, magazines, shows, seminars and various venues to say nothing of providing incomes for many (thank you!). These don’t lead to great art, but there’s a lot of fun and relaxation and diversion from the horrible problems of today (created I may add by non-artists and non-quilters!). Let’s just not mix the two up and think that a fun hobby that can be engaged in for a few hours a week is going to result in Great Art. It takes much more (research suggests 10,000 hours to reach the highest levels) to get from a most obvious (and therefore probably rather shallow and commonplace and trite) exposition of a particular inspiration to a very personal, fresh, clear and mind-catching response. Zola recommended that Cezanne study and practice art for 9 hours a day for years beginning from his early student days. Nearly every great artist began with the awkward, trite and commonplace, let’s see that as a stage on the journey – some wish to go further, some don’t. That’s fine. We can only start from where we are and go as far as we can and want. But let’s be clear headed about where we are going, and where we are right now. No inflated grades, please!

If you have been, thanks for reading! And I look forward to comments! Elizabeth


Gerrie said...

As usual, you have taken a complex online discussion and distilled it down to the essence of the matter. I wish I had your art education and way with words. You always make my feeble mind see things in a new way. I want to thank you for that.

Penny Mateer said...

Spot on!

I would add that I do think those who teach need to help their students understand when the work is ready for prime time. I am guilty of submitting work out of my own ego and total ignorance in my early years. I come from a traditional quilt background albeit with my own twist. I have taken few quilt classes 3 to be exact all QSDS. My experience often was quiet or not so quiet disdain for those of us new to the discipline of the art world. I learned a great deal and I am an independent study so these classes were invaluable to me and now I am thinking about my next education back to school or what. But not everyone approaches things the way I do. I think the education of quilters entering into art is evolving and maybe new models of approach are needed.

All that said my ego and chutzpah very early on did lead me to submit to an art organization where I was accepted and won a prize which opened a whole new world to me so what the hell do I know?

Thanks as always.

June said...

Penny, I think that fools jump in where the wise and cautious stay their distance, thereby assuring that the "fools" with all their bumps and bruises (and hurt feelings) might/could and sometimes actually do do better than the wise and cautious. You learn by experience and experience is a tough teacher but the fastest way to get better is to suck it up and jump back in again:-) Terrible metaphors, I apologize.

Elizabeth, I liked your post although I do think that the original premise might be suspect. I don't think there's the scene and the artist, but rather many scenes, some of which get discarded by and some accepted by the artist. "Realism" is in the eye of the beholder, so lots of objections are often made to power lines in gorgeous views of landscapes, even when the power lines are there for all to see.

But of course, we all must keep on trying to escape our own sentimentalities and prejudices. It's hard, but worth doing, particularly if you want to do good art.

Thanks for a fine post.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Thanks for the comments!
Gerrie no one has a feeble mind who reads and thinks!
Penny: those independent students are the ones the Real Teachers love the most!
June: I think Zola probably meant objective vs subjective, or exterior versus interior - yes an oversimplification - especially in terms of today's knowledge of visual perception, the impossibility of true objectivity and the power of computers! But sometimes a simplification is a good way to get your head clear and around something.
later On I thought much of what M James had to say really is a cultural thing. The culture of free enterprise (how can we sell to the most people) is likely to reduce the product to its lowest least imaginative level. I think that is part of what is happening. Many of the people he lauds are from countries who support artists much more than they are supported here. Also, he forgot to add Rauschenberg that well known quilt artist!!!

June said...

Good observation, Elizabeth, about M. James. It seems right to the point to me. But there are also millions of us doing art (well, hundreds of thousands) none of whom will ever make the jump into the market economy. And yet we are influenced by each other to an enormous degree. I think Michael's comments are important mostly because they expose us to others than ourselves:-)

Linda and Michelle said...

Elizabeth - lots of food for thought, and perfect for where I am in my own art. I'd like your permission to use this as a guest post this coming week on my blog.