Tangled Questions in British Art

Yesterday a good friend and fellow blogger sent me an article from The Daily Mail, which details an interesting but unscientific experiment conducted recently at Tate Britain in London. Four works by deceased, well-regarded artists of the preceding centuries were contrasted with the works of four British contemporary artists, based on observations of how long people stopped to look at each of the works of art, and providing anecdotal evidence of the comments of visitors about the pieces they looked at. The results, so far as they go, are interesting but not surprising: people generally like to look at attractive images. Unfortunately, the article is fatally flawed in that it demonstrates a poor grasp of art history, its methodology is suspect, and it fails to ask the right questions.

To begin with, the article refers to the deceased artists in this experiment as “the great masters”. However, this is not really a precise or useful term, and somewhat slapdash-shorthand. One can be a “great master” of just about anything – a great master cabinetmaker, for example, or a great master chef. If we are going to use a term for purposes of comparison, then we need to be a bit more careful about what we mean.

The term “Old Masters”, for example, which may be what the article intended to reference, can be generally defined as European painters working between the dawn of the Renaissance and the end of the 18th century, though the endpoint is somewhat imprecise. Of the now-dead artists whose works were selected for this experiment – William Hogarth, John Millais, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeil Whistler – only the 18th century satirical illustrator Hogarth may technically fall into the time frame for Old Master painters, though personally I would hesitate to include him as a member of that body of artists. The English painter Millais was a member of the mid-19th century Pre-Raphaelite movement, and therefore not an Old Master. Sargent and Whistler, two American painters working from the mid-19th into the early 20th century, are definitely not Old Master painters either.

Another flaw in the experiment is that not only are the “great master” works selected for the purpose of comparison all paintings, but as evidenced above they are all in completely different styles. Of the four works by contemporary British artists selected – Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst (two works), and Rachel Whiteread – only one is a painting. The remaining three are, respectively, a photograph, an installation piece, and a sculpture, leaving us with something of an apples and oranges situation. Had the article compared Whiteread’s sculpture to one by, say, Flaxman, then we might be getting somewhere, although even this would be a problematic comparison for various reasons.

We must also consider the issue of how both art criticism and general popularity can change over time. The article describes how popular Millais’ famous “Ophelia” from the Royal Academy exhibition of 1852 was with the visitors observed for the experiment, and recounts the positive comments of the painter’s lush treatment of the landscape and the costume of the figure. Yet this painting, beloved as it is today, was ridiculed by many when it was first exhibited.

John Ruskin, possibly the most influential art historian-critic of the 19th century, castigated Millais for having painted a “rascally wirefenced garden-rolled-nursery-maid’s paradise” in this picture. The contemporary Atheneum magazine, in its critique of the painting, thought the figure of Ophelia herself was terrible:

The open mouth is somewhat gaping and gabyish,–the expression is in no way suggestive of her past tale. There is no pathos, no melancholy, no brightening up, no last lucid interval. If she dies swan-like with a song, there is no sound or melody, no poetry in this strain.

The point is not to suggest that future generations will view the work of Emin, Hirst, and others in a rosier light; in fact one hopes that this will not be the case but that sense will finally prevail. Rather, it is further evidence, if it was needed, that this article is not only poorly-informed but fails to ask the right questions. As amusing as it is, the experiment is of little practical use in the consideration of contemporary British art.

The amount of time one spends in looking at a work of art in a museum can certainly be an indicator of its attractiveness, but it is not necessarily an indicator of whether or not that work of art is any good. Beauty is an important consideration when considering the worth of a work of art, but not when placed in a vacuum. What turns many people off to contemporary art is its profound ugliness; there is an embrace of the unpleasant image in a way which could not, at first glance, seem to be more distant from the slick and sensuous portraits of Sargent, for example.

Yet attractiveness can just easily become a fetish, as Roger Kimball points out, if it is disconnected from life. There are plenty of paintings that are admittedly unpleasant to look at – Goya’s “Black Paintings” for example, or the horrifically hellish torture scenes of Hieronymous Bosch, or the crucifixions of Matthias Grünewald, and so on – but which nevertheless are very great works of art. The decoupling of long-held Western ideals of civilization from practical, technical achievement in the plastic arts is what has led, in large part, to the mess that we see in contemporary art today.

While arguably well-intentioned, this experiment at Tate Britain fails because it does not actually tell us anything that we do not already know. It also engages in what has always been, in art history terms, a problematic exercise, i.e. using popularity as the best gauge of whether or not something is a work of art, instead of questioning whether the art is good, and if not why not. Indeed, the article might have been more cogent if it questioned how contemporary Britain sees itself, as reflected in the art it puts on display in a museum dedicated specially to British art. These are the types of questions that need answering, and remain unanswered in this piece.

If we are to go down the road of popularity being tantamount to artistic achievement, then the National Gallery will be filled with Norman Rockwells, still life bowls of fruit, and dogs playing poker. That would be a very bad result indeed. There is certainly an enormous problem in the fact that our culture has gone down another, rather tritely passé-Marxist and nihilistic road, which is reflected in the art it places on its plinths. But while popular opinion can be instructive in common-sense terms, if it is considered as dispositive in and of itself of the relative worth of a work of art outside of any deeper contextual analysis it is, in its way, just as superficial a consideration as the art at issue.

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais (1852)
Tate Britain, London
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