The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Painting: The State of the Art (1985)

The Centennial Review (Michigan State University), Vol. XXIX, #4, (Fall, 1985) pp. 449 - 456.

Painting: The State of the Art. That's my title. What is the status of the art? What is the health of this ancient enterprise? There are several ways to answer, none of them really satisfactory. You may have heard about the amazing comeback of painting - or outbreak, according to your point of view - in the form of New Wave, New Expressionism, or whatever. John Russell, in the New York Times, wrote a long piece entitled "Painting is once again provocative." Well, yes. But what he is writing about is provocative mainly because it is so awful. Never have so many painted so much for such futility.

What is interesting is the question itself, and the problems a consideration of the question brings up. What about the state of the art? We get the impression in school and in reading about art that art is ageless, imperishable, universal. That is not true. Art, or I should say the habit of art, to make the distinction from physical art, is the most fragile of the things we value highly, more fragile than love, or health. There's no art in nature, unless we determine to find it there, because art has no natural purpose. Art is as peculiarly human as words and laughter, and much more precarious, because it must be fashioned, with the greatest difficulty, from things like words and laughter, and to survive it must be held in continual high esteem. Art may be a human need, but it is not built in, like food and sex, ordained to be with us as long as we are what we are. And the forms art takes, whether music or painting or dance, are even more tenuous. They change and evolve. Like people, arts are born, grow, are vigorous, become senile, die. Some, for example, argue that we have seen the death of serious music in our century. And like people and like civilizations, arts depend on security, stability and wealth. In hard times, art is the first thing to go. Art is a flower, not a rock.

The art of painting has changed a lot in the last 500 years; not just the art itself but the way it is perceived, what we ask from it. The whole notion of art as a vehicle for "goodness," however we word it, is quite modern and continues to evolve. Originally painting was only a craft. Better was obviously better, and that was that. The customers were aristocratic and rich and didn't really get involved in their art. They just wanted the best, or the best they could get and if they couldn't tell what was best they would hire someone who could. The notion of a higher kind of goodness, a human content apart from mere subject matter and craft, had its origin in the attitudes of some of the nobility of the late Renaissance, who collected art and eventually invented the art museum (and the fact that museums are such a recent development in human history is evidence for what I say here) and began to influence the making of art with Raphael and the artists of his time. The notion took root and grew and several hundred years later Manet and Courbet became the first artists who had to move consciously outside the social mainstream to paint the best they could. Their problem was that the newly rich of the 19th Century, the new middle class brought about by the industrial revolution - another new phenomenon - did indeed get into their art, using it as a vehicle for social advancement rather than a reflection of stable social status.

They moved art out of the disinterested, indulgent world of the aristocracy to the constrictive, fickle world of social climbing. Painting, forced to conform to factors outside its intrinsic material nature, became stodgy, mechanical, exacting, layered with that most cautious and noncommittal color - brown - layered on like the petticoats women were stuffed into. Constable saw what was happening; he laid a violin on the great lawn of a friend's house to show that landscape was not the dull brown of the paintings of his colleagues but a brilliant green - and any of you who have seen English lawns know what he meant.

Manet, who abhorred all the "Stews and Gravies" in the paintings of his contemporaries, was forced by the nature of his temperament and talent to move away from them, and therefore from the market, back to painters like Goya and Velasquez, to get the light and air and color which are so much a natural part of painting. He was the first in a continuing line of alienated artists, the so-called avant-garde: painters who were ahead of the art public and had to endure the consequent neglect and abuse.

As we know, Manet and his successors were successful and celebrated in the end, even if it didn't do them much good. The character of their activity was recognized, externalized and slowly, surely, became the cliché of succeeding generations. Current fashion imitates past success, and the concept of an alienated avant-garde became trite early in this century. By the time the great post-war boom was upon us in the late '50s, a highly evolved, self-conscious avant-gardist contingent was there to feed on it. Pop Art was the first big wave, art with a radical face and a soft interior, "daring" art that was no more truly daring than the 10th Street Abstract Expressionism it displaced. In fact, it could be said that Pop Art, in its first form, at least, was simply illustrated Abstract Expressionism. Never was any nominally new movement in art so quickly taken up by official culture, and official culture, in its infinite capacity to swallow and digest, is now enthusiastically avant-garde. Strange as it may sound, we now have an "avant-garde" establishment. Novelty is the order of the day, and, as Goya said, the sleep of reason produces monsters.

The market, of course, loves the idea that anything goes. The critics, afraid to miss the next trend, put aside tough criticism and merely accept, comment and recelebrate the already celebrated. An unwholesome aesthetic has been set loose upon the land, merciless amateurism, with no roots of feeling in art, profoundly hostile to beauty, relishing the discovery that the hard and true parts of art can be willfully disregarded, demanding not only that art be a commodity, as it must, but be fashioned as a commodity: childish glitter with an oversize label saying "genuine art," modishly contrived tastelessness, vacuous as art, offensive to normal taste, intimidating to the deformed and frightened taste of the art public. If it's bad, it's got to be good.

Well, you say, in reaction to this discontented effusion of bile, that may be the state of the market you are griping about, but what about the state of the art? After all, there will always be bad art around. The state of the art should be measured by the good stuff. Look what we know about the art of the past, of, say the Impressionists 100 or 125 years ago. Manet exhibited his Luncheon on the Grass. Boudin was out on the beach bringing blue sky and seashores down into canvas. Monet and Renoir sat side by side painting La Grenouiliere. Degas did those marvellous portraits of children and artists and dancers and horses. Pisarro and Van Gogh were out in the fields, paint and palette in hand. Sisley rendered his rivers and clouds and Cézanne his mountain and quarry. Sun and shadow were everywhere. It was always May. And that, as we know, was the state of the art in painting in 1868, or 1875, or 1883.

OK. But what if you had been there? How would you have felt about things? The chances are you would have been rather bemused to hear that that indigent bunch of open-air crazies was the wave of the future. Why, you'd say, most of them are damn lucky they have some outside income or they'd all be obliged to go out and get a real job. You'd be right, too. And you would point to the real thing, the real art, the serious stuff, official art, the art of the salon. You want radical art? Look at the Pre-Raphaelites. And here's Alma-Tadema, whose polished classical scenes, so pregnant with meaning, have earned him a knighthood. Or, better yet, Lord Leighton, president of the Royal Academy. He was made a baron. Queen Victoria bought his paintings. And over across the channel there is the masterfully meticulous Meissonier, and Rosa Bonheur, the first woman to win the grand cross of the legion of honor. And Bouguereau, whose Zenobia on the Banks of the Araxes won the fabulous Prix de Rome. You remember the Zenobia, of course. Good Lord!, you continue, rising to the argument, surely you don't mean to compare Gérôme, or Bastien la Page, who was a popular sensation last season, to that ragtag little band of - what do they call them - Impressionists?

Sure, we can poke fun, but only because we have the advantage of historical distance. Time has done the judging for us. Don't forget, these salon painters we disparage now were real professionals. They could paint. They had, at the very least, highly evolved skills which are in very short supply today. Very short supply. And some of them, especially when they painted small and loosened up and got away from all the overblown sentimentality their customers asked of them, did some very nice things. Besides, if Alma-Tadema amuses us, what in the world do you suppose our grandchildren will think of Andy Warhol? Or Rauschenberg or Johns, or any of the Pop artists, or conceptualists, or the new wavers like Schnabel? Or of us for putting up with them?

All right, Bannard, if you're so smart, why don't you tell us who are the Impressionists of the present? Who are the recent painters upon whom history will place the mantle of greatness?

Well, like anyone in the art business, I've got my opinion, my list, which I'll be happy to recite to anyone who's really interested.

But there are real problems attendant on this business of list-making.

First of all, it makes me uncomfortable. It is too much akin to the shallow arrogance of the professional tastemakers, like Robert Rosenblum, who presented his official list of great living artists, brass bands and all, in a supremely snotty article in Art News several Januarys ago. I think it was entitled "The New Historical Pantheon", and the artists who had entered its hallowed precincts were trotted forth, one by one, like the great Oscar awards of eternity. It was pure official art; pure establishment; and every artist on it, as an artist, was distinctly third rate. Rosenblum, like so many of our contemporaries, has forgotten that great art is not made in the glare of the spotlight. Not only was he all off, but by writing the piece he cast himself into the future as a visible type-specimen of the classic Critic-Who-Was-Wrong. Read the piece, if you are up to it, and can find it. It is a clear symptom of the present sickness of the art business.

Second, lists have a non-effective finality about them, like stock picks or a racing sheet at the track. No one ever pays any attention to them after the fact. My list of obscure and uncelebrated artists would be greeted, at best, with the same kind of puzzled disbelief a list of the Impressionists would have met 100 years ago, because the artists who interest me are just as much out of it, out of fashion, or of even any consideration of fashion, as the Impressionists were. Furthermore, it is equally narrow, limited and "elitist," and, as you will presently learn from my colleague April Kingsley, the "in" thing right now is "pluralism."

Finally, and most important, making lists, making choices for you, claiming prescience from the podium as the imported expert, is not only contrary to the spirit of art but is a disservice to you. What art has for us becomes real through experience, not words. Art is what it is by the experience it gives. I won't do you any favor by saying you'd better like something I think is good and if you don't you are some kind of heathen. No thanks. That is too much like the part of the art business I don't like, the part that operates on intimidation rather than joy. We go to art with delicate awareness, openly, easily, with our real and honest perceptions, not with a gilt-edged list of the top 40. And not with sore feet either, by the way.

Rembrandt! He is there on the wall for you, as a friend, a resource to be mined, offering something only great art can offer. What that something is is very hard to know and impossible to say, with any exact clarity, anyway. The joy I mentioned seems to be the only tangible benefit, if I can call it that, and I say this after 25 years of thinking pretty hard about it. It is a kind of extreme pleasure, and it is a pure one, without ill consequence. But if we insist on the "importance" (I don't like the word in this context) of art, an insistence I suspect but yield to, I would guess that this pleasure we find in art is the feeling of comprehending what I will call, for want of a better term, "goodness." Art is what we as a species have concocted to represent the best of ourselves to ourselves, human value brought down into materials. Value is to art what transportation is to the automobile: easily overlooked, disguised by fashion, but absolutely fundamental. Art is made to be better; it exists to be good, to bear high standards. It has, by definition, no other requisite function. Not any more, at least.

Now, isn't this an awfully narrow view? Can't art be fun, exciting, uplifting, instructive, dramatic, therapeutic? Sure it can, and often is. And a painting can cover a hole in a wall, or prop a door open or be a dart board, anything it's physically suited for. Like the man who told the sculptor his piece didn't have "impact," and the sculptor said "you want impact, I'll give you impact," and bopped the guy on the head with it.

But art, as art, is materialized value. Whatever else it is may be just fine but it is something else. And I might add, attempts to make it more usually make it less. Art is only art. The better the art the more it insists on this. The more serious the art lover - I should say the more in love the art lover - the more s/he reaches for it, for the art only.

Now, I've said be wary of lists, and that art can take any form, and that art is personal, and that no one can define what good art is. Well then, so what? Taste is just subjective anyway, right? Wrong. Absolutely wrong. If taste were ultimately subjective there could be no such thing as great art, perhaps no art at all, at least art that existed beyond mere fashion, and the evidence that there is great art, and bad art, and minor art, is overwhelming, both historically and personally. Taste varies, is individual and imperfect and so forth. But it is not subjective. Taste changes; goodness does not. Taste is merely the name we use to identify what we use to get at it. And, in the final analysis, when we do get at It, it is more a matter of recognition than taste. Seeing art well is very nearly as hard as making it well, and very nearly as valuable. It is not "deep" or "high" or "profound" or any of the other highfalutin' vulgarities we insist on putting between ourselves and what is there. What's there is there, and if you work at it, it's there for you. It's up to you; I repeat, it's up to you.

This I why I mistrust lists, and definitive pronouncements on the state of the art. The state of the art is what it holds for us. What's there is in the art. It just won't jump into bright clear words and lay out on paper for you. I have my opinions; how can I help it? I feel that painting is decadent. I'm distressed by the very low level of dialogue in the art business; it really is simply hard to find an intelligent invigorating argument any more. I'm disappointed that the "New Expressionism," with all the marvellous freedom in the air, and with the full use of pigment and color encouraged by the style, can't come up with something better. I find it depressing that there are no younger artists who scare me, who give me that chill up my back which says there's something here I've got to do something about. That hasn't happened to me since Jules Olitski's show in 1972. And Jules is a dozen years older than I am. Larry Poons is the only contemporary of mine who I feel is pushing me around artistically. I need that sock in the face; every artist worth his salt does, uncomfortable and disquieting as it may be. To me, at this moment, the art of painting looks like an overweight middle-aged man acting like a teenager, too silly to be interesting, heading for a fall, and the audience is like the dozers at a conference lecture, applauding what they've slept through.

On the other hand, I have a couple friends, art professionals who know what they are talking about, who point to all the really good art being made. They say everything's fine, there's plenty of good art, it's just pushed into the background by the bad art, just like always, and that I am just an old grouch. I hope they are right. There's nothing I'd like better than to be proven absolutely and utterly wrong. But, as Jefferson said, let history answer this question. Only time will tell.

These remarks were given at a Michigan State University symposium on the state of the arts. Bannard's bio read: "Walter Darby Bannard is an internationally recognized painter and art critic. A Guggenheim Fellow, he writes for Artform and Arts Magazine."