The Prologue of the Past: Why We Must Live In Our Own Times

In this morning’s edition of ArtNews daily, the lead article bears the headline, “Sotheby’s Achieves Second Highest Price for Any Old Master Painting at Auction in London”. Those of a (perhaps) misanthropic cast of mind might choose to read “Any Old Master Painting” with an emphasis on the “Any Old”, as though a work by the great 18th century Venetian cityscape painter Francesco Guardi is just another pretty, old picture. And yet, all punning aside, there is something to the idea of reading the headline in this way, by which I mean the twin dangers of always preferring what is new to what is old, but also of always preferring what is old to what is new.

Guardi (1712-1793) was a talented painter of views such as interiors and landscapes, but particularly of cityscapes of Venice. He developed a style of brushwork that strikes us as remarkably modern for the 18th century, using dashes of color here and there to suggest, rather than to fully delineate, human figures or architectural details in his pictures. For this reason, he became a kind of influential, artistic antecedent to the Impressionist painters born several generations after him.

Regardless of his long-term influence however, we need to ask an important question: What was the primary purpose of Guardi’s work? The answer, as was the case with contemporaries like Canaletto, was to inflate the social standing of the buyer. When we get down to brass tacks, what Guardi was doing was creating tourist tat for the rich – souvenirs for people who went on the Grand Tour, and needed to have proof of their travels to show off, when they went home to places like London or St. Petersburg.  Guardi created such tourist objects exceptionally well, and we can still admire the results in museums today or, if we are so inclined, pay $42 million for our own original.

Yet to put some kind of a gloss over the work of tourist painters such as Guardi, in order to ascribe a greater worthiness to its origins, is to ignore the motivating factors which led to his painting these pictures. Although placed in a more exalted category than a consumer object, his art functioned in much the same way that an Hermès bag or Maserati sports car does today for its owner, as a kind of badge of belonging to a particular social class – though of course with less actual functional capabilities, for both the purse and car, even if luxuriously appointed, still serve practical purposes in ways which a landscape painting does not.

That being the case, it is important that those who care, as I do, about traditional standards of achievement and artistic value, and question the unquestioned worship of meaningless garbage foisted on us by the contemporary art and architecture world, do not become blind to the realities of the past.  Traditionalists have a regrettable tendency at times to bemoan the loss of the past at the expense of either enjoying the present, or indeed of imagining the future. We need to be reminded from time to time that not everything that was old was better, or that everything current or forward-looking is bad, whether we are talking about plumbing, food preservation or, yes, art and architecture.

In painting, for example, I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked to support the work of a contemporary painter because he paints people, buildings, bowls of fruit, etc., in a traditional way. And yet so often the work is of such uninteresting and derivative quality, that I cannot bring myself to suppress a yawn of boredom. Absorbing or mimicking the style of an Old Master does not win you any merit points if you cannot bring your own spark of creativity to the effort.

An artist should learn from his artistic forbearers, certainly, and the abandonment of the Western tradition of studying the past when it comes to the arts is a major problem that needs to be addressed. Yet if all the painter is doing is painting something that is trying to look old, without demonstrating that the painter is a man of his own times, his work fails to impress. The reason a Raphael portrait does not look like a Rembrandt portrait, or in turn like a portrait by Sargent, Bacon, or Wyeth, is because each developed their own style of painting, certainly looking to the past, but simultaneously living very much in their own times.

When it comes to building, as I pointed out to an architect friend last evening at a discussion on the new urbanism movement, one of the reasons I love Eero Saarinen’s Main Terminal at Dulles International Airport is that it looks like an airport, and I see little reason why an airport should look like the Baths of Caracalla.  In a slightly different vein, the “new urbanism” movement itself, which somehow seeks to rely on tradition to turn the suburbs into something other than suburbs, is well-intentioned but blinded to its own shortcomings.  For in supplanting one type of uniformity with another, it proves itself to be the very antithesis of the organic growth of architecture which it claims to re-create.

There is little organic about a developer like the Disney Corporation buying a large tract of land in Florida, and then plonking down a brand new city on it designed from the ground up.  The great cities of the world evolved over time, and are often very messy places where the buildings which form their fabric do not conform to a unified plan.  The organic experience of architecture is not something which can be replicated by a development committee sticking to a master plan with as much furrow-browed determination as if Chairman Mao or Uncle Joe was sitting in the next room going over the wheat harvest figures.

Do not mistake my meaning, gentle reader, for the past is a very wonderful place. We must honor, learn from, and cherish the traditions which have arisen from it, and we all know that we ignore its lessons at our peril.  Yet as wonderful as many aspects of the past unquestionably are, we should not seek to try to live in it.

If those of us who care about traditions of the past, particularly as expressed in the arts, are incapable of recognizing the pleasure and beauty of the modern, the contemporary, or the futuristic, then we are doomed to live in a kind of stale fantasy world.  To reject the past is ignorance, but to embrace a pastiche of the past as the sine qua non of cultural life is just as impoverished a view as that of  much of contemporary culture, which has jettisoned virtually all standards and tradition. And frankly, neither option would be much fun.

Last night’s sale of a Guardi view of Venice at Sotheby’s, London.

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3 thoughts on “The Prologue of the Past: Why We Must Live In Our Own Times

  1. Another great post. I chuckled when reading the first few paragraphs. When I visited Venice about 11 years ago, I too bought a watercolor from a 21st century counterpart to Francesco Guardi.

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  2. Art for art’s sake. I bet for 99% of human history, no one ever thought of that, unless they meant practice pieces they made to better their skills in between commissions. I don’t see where, because someone made a buck off of their work, it’s a step down, and still cannot be seen as accomplished work. Hacks are hacks, and talents are talents, regardless. El Greco produced what the nobles wished for, and sometimes struck out. Bernini and Bramante built structures based on what their bosses wanted, and Mozart made music on commission. A lot of great early rock & roll was written to fit on the side of a 45, and if you ever read “Hammer of the Gods” (about Led Zeppelin) or “Thunder Road” (about Springsteen) what a surprise it is to see the sausage rendering process that produces what we tend to think are songs that the singer organically came up with when the muse hit him one day when he was sipping coffee on his balcony. And Jimmy Buffett would still be singing for dollars in Mallory Square on Key West if he didn’t put his mind to better marketing and tailor his songs to keep Margaritaville from being a one-off.

    I find that knowing the background story on a piece makes it more interesting and gives it a life, but if it was done by a “man of no visible means of support” who has the total freedom to be the bohemian film maker, vs. someone who pounded out films for RKO or Columbia, it matters not to me. I have a palm sized wooden icon that I bought while on leave in Chania, Crete, and a watercolor of a fountain in a German town’s square that I bought off of a guy who was selling his work on the side of the street in town on a Sunday afternoon, a week before I was to be sent stateside. Both of these are pieces expressly made to be sold to tourists, but neither has the kitsch of an injection mold plastic Eiffel Tower, and both are rather well done and attractive even without the backstory. Some agency hack had to go scare up an architect to draw up a building for the new Federal Trade Commission.

    The whole art for selling vs. art for its own existence reminds me of poseurs who like a band when it’s making no money and just playing in dead end bars, but if it hits the studio with a producer, they drop it and complain how they used to like XYZ back when they had “integrity,” before they “sold out.”

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