The vortex of style

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I’ve happened upon one of the best sketch clubs I’ve ever had the good fortune to attend in tough and vibrant Glasgow, tucked away behind an inconspicuous back door in a dive bar perched on the outer skirts of the city centre. All the Young Nudes will be pleased to apply deafening and achingly cool music to your ears and drown out all other tedious distractions or heckling of the (three) models, while giving you the choice of shorter or longer poses depending where you station yourself, and of course you have access to beer on tap. Best of all, the models really are nude, something I’m finding a bit of a luxury of late in costume-oriented groups, allowing me to learn about the body once again.

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Of course, not everyone seems to attend sketch clubs in order to learn about the body. Which makes me wonder why people demand the luxury of a nude in their midst. I’ve found myself unhappily seated beside grown men with greying hair solemnly applying crayons to their paper in a decisive scribble with no correlation to the figure before them, before ceremoniously smearing the pathetic mess in turpentine. Or others who spend as much time invoking magic as they do drawing, waving their hands in spell-casting fashion at the long-suffering model. I pick on the old men because they have no excuse for not being able to draw by now, and worse—they generally feel compelled to offer us younger punters unsolicited instruction.

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I firmly believe that many of my contemporaries have no inkling of what the life class is. Each new pose, in their eyes, offers the opportunity for a new piece of Art. Another chance for the deity of Inspiration to channel something mind-blowing through their pencil. Each attempt is an end in itself. But the life class is simply about hard work, observation and practice. If anatomy is irrelevant, perhaps you’d do better to draw trees. Trees have limbs, too, and sit really still, and I’m sure would inspire similar profusions of confused chalky expression. It’s much cheaper.

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An aimless girl I met at said group confessed she has no knack for hard work, and would rather not put time and effort into drawing. Better to show up once a week, get drunk, and see what happens. She boasted that she was surprised by her own output, especially since it was so consistent. I had asked for no defence of her work, mind, but she was eager to explain to me why my ‘academic’ studies were no more valid than her half-arsed efforts. Consistency is the key, she forged on, for consistency is what she most values in art. If an artist is consistent, then they have a style, and style takes pre-eminence above all facility. What madness that an image can’t stand on its own merit, but requires a context to support it! I began to wonder if this preoccupation with ‘style’ is what drives the insistence on solo exhibitions.

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My contemporaries find my ‘style’ very easy to categorise as straight-up academic. ‘Oh, you draw in an academic style, I see,’ is the disappointed summation of my studies, which, don’t forget, I execute for my own studious purposes, not as works of Art. Others are more flattering: ‘You draw like a sculptor.’ Or, ‘You draw like an animator.’ Sculptors and animators are people who have an understanding of three-dimensional form and motion, of the construction and machinations of the body, and I feel more at home in such company. Oddly, I’m never told, ‘You draw like an artist.’ For artists can’t really draw, can they?

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Nor are they required to—and this is a significant obstacle. As Gombrich (1972: 13) lucidly explains in his fabulously unpretentious book The story of art, art was always produced toward some end: ‘Most of the paintings and statues which are now strung up along the walls of our museums and galleries were not meant to be displayed as Art. They were made for a definite occasion and a definite purpose which were in the artist’s mind when he set to work.’ Endless fretting about originality and expression never clouded the visage of the artists of the distant past. And yet, argues Gombrich (1972: 119), ‘there remained enough scope for him to show whether he was a master or a bungler.’ The unmasked utility of his work did not necessarily constrain him.

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For to be an artist is to be in the possession of a creative and problem-solving mind, and to have the urge to turn this mind towards tasks and problems and devise wholly new configurations. We are inventive creatures, our mental flights stray from the worn paths; our specialty is to approach things in ways that have not yet been considered. And as painters and sculptors we do this in a very physical, sight-dependent way, merging thought with touch.

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What we demand, then, are tasks! Ritual masks, cathedrals, portraits, book illustrations (Gombrich, 1972: 473)! Gombrich (1972: 472-3) compares these tasks to the grit around which a pearl can form. ‘If the artist’s feelings for forms and colours are to crystallise in a perfect work,’ he argues, ‘he, too, needs such a hard core—a definite task on which he can bring his gifts to bear.’ The cause is, just quietly, of little concern to the artist, whose problem-solving mind whirs over solving the physical task at hand rather than elusive concepts of beauty and expression (1972: 13). And that’s where her abilities come into their own: ‘The pearl completely covers the core. It is the secret of the artist that he does his work so superlatively well that we all but forget to ask what his work was supposed to be, for sheer admiration of the way he did it’ (1972: 473).

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Gombrich’s book fluidly traces a cultural history in which communities set definite tasks for artists, who, endlessly in need of challenge, performed them with great ingenuity and finesse. Yet there came a point when artists were forced to turn inwards for such challenges. Says Gombrich (1972: 473) sombrely: ‘It was a fateful moment in the Story of Art when people’s attention became so riveted on the way in which artists had developed painting or sculpture into a fine art that they forgot to give artists more definite tasks.’ With attention now firmly fixed on what these inventors would invent next, a string of ‘isms’ succeeded the artists’ own attempts to set themselves puzzles about light, form and colour, but also about meaning.

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Celebrated Glaswegian writer and artist Alasdair Gray (2007: 306-7) perfectly captures this claim in an increasingly impassioned dialogue between art student Duncan Thaw and his fellow hospital inmate, a local minister, in his spectacular novel Lanark:

‘There are very few good jobs for handworkers nowadays,’ said Thaw, ‘so most parents and teachers discourage that kind of talent.’

‘Did your parents encourage you?’

‘No. They allowed me paper and pencil when I was an infant, but apart from that they wanted me to do well in life.’

‘Tell me, just to change the subject, why are modern paintings so hard to understand?’

‘As nobody employs us nowadays we’ve to invent our own reasons for painting. I admit art is in a bad way. Never mind, we’ve some good films. So much money has been put into the film industry that a few worthwhile talents have got work there.’

The minister said slyly, ‘I thought artists didn’t work for money.’

Thaw said nothing. The minister said, ‘I thought they toiled in garrets till they starved or went mad, then their work was discovered and sold for thousands of pounds.’

‘There was once a building boom,’ said Thaw, growing excited, ‘In north Italy. The local governments and bankers of three or four towns, towns the size of Paisley, put so much wealth and thought into decorating public buildings that half Europe’s greatest painters were bred there in a single century. These bosses weren’t unselfish men, no, no. They knew they could only win votes and stay popular by giving spare wealth to their neighbours in the form of fine streets, halls, towers and cathedrals. So the towns became beautiful and famous and have been a joy to visit ever since. But today our bosses don’t live among the folk they employ. They invest surplus profits in scientific research. Public buildings have become straight engineering jobs, our cities get uglier and uglier and our best paintings look like screams of pain. No wonder! The few who buy them, buy them like diamonds or rare postage stamps, as a form of non-taxable banking.’

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Thaw’s claims ring as clear as ever in our own time. Inhabited public places comprise almost exclusively places of commerce: retail and dining. They are fashioned as such, and designed to urge consumption and to foster endless want and desire. Many of our cleverest and most innovative problem-solvers are more likely than ever to find their abilities at the disposal of advertising, which must be produced quickly, must be sharp and forceful, and is by nature throw-away. I’m not sure whether to be grateful to those who see value in and reward creative skills, employing us once again as humble handworkers, or whether to despair at the sorry ends to which such hands and minds have become servile. At any rate, a seemingly insurmountable division has grown between ‘commercial artists’ and ‘fine artists,’ with the latter largely unwilling to accept such tasks. Something more is demanded.

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Gombrich expertly laces together a preoccupation with style and the lack of suitable tasks. ‘Ever since artists had become self-conscious about ‘style’ they felt distrustful of conventions and impatient of mere skill,’ he writes (p. 439), continuing, ‘They longed for an art which did not consist of tricks which can be learned, for a style which was no mere style, but something strong and powerful like human passion.’ In not being required to produce anything specific, art itself became the task: the puzzles became more and more esoteric the less they became about applying art to external problems. Style is what remains when other goals are removed from the picture. Of course, that doesn’t defend laziness or ineptitude, as the indomitable draughtsman Pietro Annigoni fiercely wrote:

The truth is that the deformations of contemporary painters very seldom arise from stylistic requirements forced on the artist by his vision. They merely spring from a confused desire to be controversial, a surprising indifference to the human being and, one might add, a lukewarm commitment to life itself. The result is absolute indifference to form, lack of proper preparation and a heavy dose of sheer ineptitude. This last quality has today, it seems, acquired full rights of citizenship in the realm of art.

The less fiery Gombrich (p. 474) leaves us with this rebuke: ‘There are certainly painters and sculptors alive today who would have done honour to any age. If we do not ask them to do anything in particular, what right have we to blame them if their work appears to be obscure and aimless?’ I firmly believe we must forge a new chapter in the ‘story of art’ and that obsession with style over ability, along with the solo show and its narcissistic introspection, ought to be abandoned. Perhaps finding the modern task-giver will be crucial to this project.

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Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art, twelfth edition. Phaidon: Oxford.

Gray, Alasdair. 2007 [1969, 1981] Lanark. Canongate: Edinburgh.

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Of respect and respectability

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

I lately find myself floating untethered across Europe, of unfixed address and relying on the kindness of friends. Determined to do away with distractions, excess possessions, and non-painting-related ambitions, my faithful and scuffed old suitcase and I have somewhat conspicuously fallen off the path of respectability.

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Making big wishes, Vienna

Wafting from city to city, from house to house, welcomed warmly into the homes of friends, I’m permitted into the private spheres of young doctors, paramedics, physicists, engineers and environmental charity workers, and granted a sobering insight into the contrasts in our chosen careers. But I’m also freshly awoken to how difficult it is for each of us to forge our way. My friends are well-travelled, well-educated, some are employed, some have suspended employment for the sake of a relationship, some have worked offshore, some are physically overworked, others are mentally under-challenged, some need to secure funding to guarantee their own ongoing employment. Those of us with money are not necessarily respected, because their jobs are too physical or not demanding enough of their time. Those of us who are working for the betterment of the world are anxious at not contributing enough. And I, as capable as they, cling resolutely to my cause in the face of my meagre earning-power.

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This unsettling confrontation with earning ability has been somewhat tempered by some thoughts from philosopher Alain de Botton. I found his book Status anxiety on a bookshelf in a new home and read it hungrily and hopefully. For at heart, we all want to occupy ourselves with something which challenges and satisfies us, and we want others to respect us for our efforts. But are our equations, prescriptions, policies and drawings enough when the measure held against our work is money? De Botton lays out an historical account of our attitude to wealth that can at least reassure the financially-challenged that they are not necessarily worthless. He describes the complete historical about-face of our estimation of wealth, and, most strikingly, its connection with virtue.

Poverty wasn’t always such a psychological burden to bear, argues de Botton (2004: 67-68), particularly in a world where one was born either into nobility or peasantry according to God’s will. One’s moral worth could not be wrapped up in one’s social standing if that immutable standing was allotted by God. Poverty might bring physical discomforts, but not shame. And since the aristocracy acknowledged that their luxuries were only made possible through the untiring efforts of the lower classes, it was only fitting that they demonstrated charity and pity toward these unfortunates. A delicate balance of interdependency between rich and poor reinforced the idea that virtue and moral worth were not reflected in wealth (2004: 70).

But in about the middle of the eighteenth century, argues de Botton (2004: 75-76), some hopeful meritocratic ideas began to take root and to dismantle these beliefs and thus to erode our collective appraisal of poverty. And, more sinisterly, supply and demand were switched. Rather than considering the role of the poor a necessary evil, fatefully bestowed, their position came to be described as dependent on the whims of the rich. Without demand, their labour would be for naught. Thinkers as forceful as David Hume and Adam Smith helped to redefine who depended on whom (2004: 76-78):

Hume loving, Edinburgh

Hume loving, Edinburgh

‘In a nation where there is no demand for superfluities, men sink into indolence, lose all enjoyment of life, and are useless to the public, which cannot maintain or support its fleets and armies.’ (David Hume, 1752).

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National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

‘In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own convenience, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, the rich divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessities of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.’ (Adam Smith, 1776).

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Charity became a burden; the poor became a nuisance (2004: 78). Coupled with progressive ideas that every individual ought to be rewarded according to his or her abilities and achievements, the modern attitude to poverty is one of disdain. For the flipside of meritocracy is that those who do not excel deserve the hardships and stigma that they have thus earned. It seems a regrettable but inevitable price to pay. Since one ought to be able to improve one’s position, failure to do so has come to imply moral failure in a way it did not in the past (2004: 87). De Botton (p. 85) explains, ‘An increasing faith in a reliable connection between merit and worldly position in turn endowed money with a new moral quality.’ And, worse: ‘To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now added the insult of shame’ (2004: 91).

De Botton goes on to explore antidotes to this new state of affairs, a string of themes that reads like my biography: Christianity, Politics, Philosophy, Art and Bohemia. Perhaps my attraction to these things has lessened my own regard for money and for the esteem that comes hand in hand with it. At heart, his message is to seek value elsewhere; define worth on your own terms, as many have before. Build, adopt or steal an unshakable moral code so that in dark times you can measure your life and your own worth against this and not money; so that you can respect yourself and stay focused on your life’s work. Perhaps that confidence and determination is enough win the respect of those who doubt you.

Love Newcastle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

De Botton, Alain. 2004. Status anxiety. Hamish Hamilton: London.

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Zwischen zwei Städte

Wanderlust © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Wanderlust © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Suddenly Rosita comes in with breakfast and brings me a piece of news that throws me into a joyous ecstasy. Tomorrow will be the 19th of July, and that is the date on which Monsieur and Madame arrived from Paris last year. I give an hysterical yell:

‘So I haven’t arrived yet! I haven’t arrived. Not before tomorrow will I come to Port Lligat. This time last year, I hadn’t even started my Christ! And now before I’ve so much as come here, my Assumption is almost on its feet, pointing to heaven!’

I run straight to my studio and work till I am ready to drop, cheating and taking advantage of not being there yet so as to have as much as possible already done at the moment of my arrival. …

In spite of all my stratagems to savour the last moments of my absence with an intoxicating intensity, here I am, finally home in Port Lligat. And so happy!

(Salvador Dali, p. 55)

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It seems inevitable that I will live between two cities, and the pendulum has swung me back to Wien, sparkling Vienna, where I am taking time to breathe the fresh, cool air, savour the creamy coffee and gorge my hungry eyes on art. Most importantly, I’m setting up here with the primary aim of painting. My little Dachgeschoss studio is set up, my Dutch paints bursting from their tubes, a big, fresh roll of Belgian linen that I rolled home on my bike shivers in anticipation, and I have christened the floor with turpentine that I kicked over in my painterly haste. And I have cheated time, starting a little interior days before my arrival in Vienna! Yes, it’s not until tomorrow that I arrive!

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Already I’ve met with my old friends in the galleries—Rubens, Van Dyck, Klimt and Rodin—and already I’ve fallen for many more, my sketchbook always in tow. Sketch clubs are sprouting like tulips all over the city, and I’m managing to satiate my drawing habit with more success than last year. And best of all, the ever-optimistic Jacques is a winning sidekick, ever adept at simplifying life and focusing on the work that really matters. As ever, we are scheming, and bursting with ideas, and trying to merge our art and science worlds that we see as springing from the same impulse, the same curiosity and wonder of the physical world.

Because, in the words of Editors, ‘If something has to give then it always does,’ and when life is crowding out the important things you have to put life firmly in its place, and regroup.

Straße

 

Dali, Salvador. 1966 [1964]. Salvador Dali: Diary of a genius, an autobiography. Trans. Michel Déon. Picador: London.

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The punch

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

I’ve been chewing over the role of a ‘conceptual rationale’ in art. Firstly, let it be recognised that I am not against concepts in art. Paintings should move us, and when they do they are more than mere decoration. But I am not interested in the types of concepts that only resonate in words, and that are swallowed whole in little capsules of artists’ statements, no chewing required. The real punch, the real power of art, is that it can make us sense something, consider something, meditate on something, and even feel something, just by channelling carefully composed signals through our eyes. I want to argue that while many a painting lacks a punch line, or fails to explain itself in words, it may still be about something, still built on an idea, and it may still speak softly to us, and perhaps even resonate fiercely with us as our history with it deepens. In Delacroix’s (p. 41) words, ‘What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.’

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A humble painting of an interior sits shyly beside an unlovely outburst of so-called modern conceptual art. Without being punched in the face by unpleasant truths and by the sheer disgustingness of waste in our culture, the modern art viewer can find no meaning to lock on to when confronted with a work of art. Our time certainly is not one for subtlety, and images that demand too much of us are bound to be dismissed. Perhaps we feel an attraction to a still life scene, but sense that it would be too much work to justify this attraction—and, further, perhaps we feel a certain impatience with the painter for not simply being more clever about it so the painting’s relevance was immediately obvious. Whichever way I look at it, we are faced with a paradox: the painter wants to speak in a language that no one wants to learn. And even when he gets through to us, we cast off his whisperings as meaningless.

Yet, ‘If images don’t do anything in this culture, if they haven’t done anything, then why are we sitting here in the twilight of the twentieth century talking about them?’ art critic Dave Hickey (in Poynor, p. 43) asks. Hickey argues that the power of many images can be traced to beauty, ‘to the iconography of desire,’ but I want to return to beauty shortly. It seems to me that while many paintings certainly are beautiful, they appeal to us in another even simpler way. They permit us to look at ourselves.

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In the words of Jacques Pienaar, ‘If ever art had a job to do, it’s to make humanity look at itself.’ This might be as literal as a portrait of a known individual. It might be a nude—revealing our physical form at its simplest and most honest, unadorned, plump or bony, asymmetric, uniquely proportioned, secret toilet parts included (unlike the false view of ourselves afforded, for example, by much pornography). It might be the warmth of the painter’s home, traces of their life left in the arrangement of their living quarters. It might be a five-hundred-year-old Dutch breakfast, which can fill us with envy as much as the meals at the table next to us in a café today. Whatever else a painter may have intended, when painting from life he or she has done humanity a marvellous service in making a visual record of our temporal intersection with the physical world. Our cumulative knowledge has been recorded by philosophers and scientists; our successive sensory experiences have been recorded by artists—and what a vault of lived human experience remains! And further: no amount of adding to this collection is redundant, for we live in ever changing times and our present experiences are just as valid, as is the recording of them.

Of course, art is not always truthful, but there is also meaning in this. Where a representational painting sweeps some things away and introduces others, or chases a particular light or settles into a particular mood, the painting itself becomes a sort of bridge to the future. We see the world now, but we are also permitted to see a possible future through the vision of the painter. Frank Chimero (p. 68) argues that ‘every time we tell an untruth, we confess that the world is not yet done.’ He cites art historian George Kubler (p. 122): ‘The moment just past is extinguished forever, save for the things made during it,’ adding, ‘All of these creations linger, and they echo across the long line of time and speak to what those people were able to build and what they believed.’

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Let us return to Dave Hickey and his efforts to direct our attention ‘to the language of visual affect—to the rhetoric of how things look—to the iconography of desire—in a word, to beauty!’ Wendy Steiner (xxi) analyses the twentieth-century discomfort with beauty, the prevailing suspicion that beauty is the villain—‘a siren or a whore.’ Steiner suggests we might be more comfortable with our experience of beauty, remarking that since we all succumb to it, ‘it would be well if we could recognise the meaning of our succumbing as a valuable response, an opportunity for self-revelation rather than a defeat.’ Given our positive response to a meaningful arrangement of temporary objects, let us dwell a little longer on why these things speak to us, even though they are not clever and satirical and politically charged. Perhaps Anna Karenina doesn’t speak to us because of the incisive political claims made by the main characters—perhaps it’s because of the humanity of the people portrayed, the similarity of their hopes to our own, and the impact of their historical situation on those hopes. We long to feel with each other, and in art, we can.

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Delacroix (p. 66) felt keenly that too many artists were swayed by trends—the market, or popular opinion perhaps, or government demands. ‘A great number of talented artists had never done anything worthwhile because they surrounded themselves with a mass of prejudices, or had them thrust upon them by the fashion of the moment.’ I feel that while much art that is considered ‘classical’ and hence antagonistic to concepts in fact grows up around more slowly-unravelled concepts, perhaps this obsession with concept-above-all-else is the sort of fashion that we must brush aside and simply carry on working. We know that we are not subverting everything that has gone before, but we know that we are building on a meaningful history and connecting with people in inexplicable ways. And Delacroix (p. 43) urges us on:

You who know that there is always something new, show it to others in the things they have hitherto failed to appreciate. Make them feel they have never before heard the song of the nightingale, or been aware of the vastness of the sea—everything that their gross senses can perceive only when someone else takes the trouble to feel it for them. And do not let language trouble you. If you cultivate your soul it will find the means to express itself.

Chimero, Frank. 2012. The Shape of Design. (Self published).

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.

Poynor, Rick. 2006 ‘The beauty part.’ In Looking Closer Five: Critical writings on graphic design. Ed. Michael Bierut, William Drentel and Steven Heller. Allworth: New York.

Steiner, Wendy. 2001. Venus in exile: The rejection of beauty in 20th-Century art. University of Chicago: Chicago.

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Die Ausstellung, und danach—

Am Fenster © Samantha Groenestyn

Am Fenster © Samantha Groenestyn

Relations between art and the public are shifting now as they have always shifted. The way an artist produces and presents her work is contained within certain parameters, but these parameters are always shrinking and bulging, transforming with or without her assent. There is no strictly defined career path for the artist, nor has there been a single path consistently over the centuries. Saturated by the possibilities of the internet, it is easy to forget that the gallery system of producing one-man shows was a dramatic shift to adapt to the overwhelming thrust of the market that engulfed art with the collapse of the Künstlerhaus and Salon monopolies on the careers of artists. It is easy to forget that the Salons enabled arguably more democratic production of work than the courts and the church did. We are certainly having the ground pulled out from under us again, but rather than being swept along by the unrelenting and ever intensifying tide of the market, we must sit up and, like the Viennese Secession, ‘address the problem head on’ (Huemer 2006: 146).

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The most profound question concerning an artist’s career at the time of the Wiener Secession, which was founded in 1897, was understood to be the competing pull of art on the one side and money on the other. It takes money to make art, to live in such a way as to be able to devote oneself entirely to one’s work. Where royal careers no longer exist and ambitious public projects like the construction and adornment of the grand public buildings of the Vienna Ringstrasse are exhausted, artists must find other means to make their careers.

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Klimt made his name by securing work on several of Vienna’s significant new public projects, namely the Burgtheater and the entrance stairway of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. He and his colleagues were employed for a task that required great skill and a unified vision. I am embarrassed to call the reader’s attention to the type of public projects that are funded now—the murals intended to brighten up the soul-destroying underpasses of Brisbane’s train station nether regions are regularly conceived by amateurs who submit simple photographs, completely undesigned, of native flora, which artists, paid as labourers, are induced to transfer by projector onto the concrete and colour in, skill and artistic vision be damned a thousand times to the depths of hell. In consolation, however, Vienna also seems to have run out of meaningful public projects, and Klimt and his colleagues found themselves at the mercy of the mysterious institution that was the Künstlerhaus, akin to the Paris Salon.

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The Künstlerhaus was an exhibition hall, and it all sounds very obvious now to exhibit artwork. However, bear with me through a few interesting logical twists. In public projects, art importantly had a function: whether to cheer unfortunate public transport alleys populated by junkies or to magnify the glorious warm feelings democracy stirs in us via soul-stirring symbolic fountains in the driveway to the Wiener Parlament, these projects are conceived for a specific and defined purpose. In earlier times, the exhibition was really an event, a rare occasion which lifted the work of art out of its public function and set it before us on simply its own terms. The exhibition transformed the artwork into an end in itself. Painters could probably hardly believe their luck that their work could flourish on its own terms and not bend to utility.

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What would seem to be a promotion in the value of art, however, was coupled with the crippling phenomenon of the market. Gottfried Semper (who was to go on to design the Kunsthistorisches Museum with Karl von Hasenauer) recognised this shift in 1851 when he wrote, ‘The path that our industry, and with it the entire artistic world, is following unrelentingly is obvious: everything is calculated and adjusted to the market’ (in Huemer, p. 146). No longer responding to a brief, each work of art must stand on its own, and rise above all others to compete in the ruthless marketplace. The exhibition hall, then, which started out elevating the work of art beyond utility, reached its logical conclusion in metamorphosing into ‘the central exchange medium for the defunctionalised work of art’ (Huemer p. 146).

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The Künstlerhaus, rather than respecting this newly elevated art, became ‘a market hall, a bazaar, where dealers flaunted all kinds of wares’ (Huemer, p. 147). Huemer (p. 147) goes on to describe ‘the barely administrable flood of submitted works, which the commissioners hung, after selection by jury, like mosaics on the exhibition walls. Thousands of paintings were displayed, hung in several rows, frame to frame, to make the greatest possible use of the space available for display.’ The Wiener Secession arose in direct response to this unsavoury development, setting out to defend the artist in the inescapable market environment on his own terms, openly rejecting this hideous meat market of paintings.

Secession, Wien

Secession, Wien: ‘The time of our art; the art of our freedom.’

We have entered the world at a time when the market is already a fact. We do not have the luxury of debating the question of ‘business or art,’ as artists of earlier times did—art is business, and we, like artists of every time, must work within the constraints of our own time. Our options seem ever more dramatically diverged: the market forces us to fend for ourselves, to defend our own product, define our unique selling point, and target our own niche client base in the slow decay of the gallery system. The government denies us real work, awarding us petty projects that involve amateurs of the community or inept children, and doling out pitiable sums for work bound by restrictively specific selection criteria. The outlook is not good. But even Klimt dramatically turned his back on the state, proclaiming, as one equally passionately might now, that ‘official organisations would support only the ‘weak’ and ‘false’ (Huemer, p. 145).

In Klimt’s (Huemer, p. 145) own words:

I would never—particularly under this Ministry—take part in an official exhibition, unless absolutely forced to do so by my friends. Forget the censorship. I am going to take matters into my own hands. I want to liberate myself. I want to break away from all these unpleasant, ridiculous aspects that restrict my work, and return to freedom. I refuse all official support, I will do without everything.

Taking matters into our own hands, there are two attitudes we might adopt towards the marketplace we find ourselves nestled in. The first is one of acquiescence, embracing the commerciality of art and developing one’s product to fit trends and consumer desires. This might be to take on commissions of people’s indistinguishable blob-babies, or otherwise generally taking briefs from others who are willing to fund small, private projects. It might be create work with the intent of having it made into consumer products: iPhone cases, clothing, notebooks. These ventures have their merits—art becomes accessible to all, fulfils immediate needs and desires, brightens the world. Things of utility may as well be attractive. However, the work seems stunted at its inception, and as Hermann Barr (in Huemer, p. 147) demanded to know of his Wiener Secession, ‘Shall the Viennese painters be damned to remain petty businessmen, or should they attempt to become artists?’ Artists choosing to operate in the market on the consumer’s terms, accepting that ‘paintings are like goods, like trousers or stockings, to be manufactured according to the client’s wishes’ (p. 147) are at the mercy of those who know very little about and demand very little from art.

Secession, Wien

Secession, Wien

The second attitude grasps the last remaining threads of integrity of art as an art form, clinging fast to those old ideas of a higher function of art. Painting as an intellectual pursuit is as profound as any other academicism; a visual philosophy that wrestles simultaneously with physical substances and with emotions, psychologies, experiences of the world and abstract ideas, painting is but another means of thinking through and encapsulating notions that others drape with words, poetically or scientifically or otherwise. Politely declining well-intentioned governmental suggestions, limiting the energy one spends on fun commercial detours, the artist can set her own brief, driven by the highest intellectual considerations, by the most difficult questions she faces as a human being. In this sense, perhaps art is not an end in itself, but simply another medium in the pursuit of knowledge, sitting alongside philosophy papers, physics experiments and the most penetrating literature. It is created not for the exhibition, nor for the unknown future buyer, but for humanity.

Secession, Wien

Secession, Wien

This doesn’t solve where we, as painters and other artists, sit in the modern marketplace. But remembering that other intellectuals forge careers in the same world as us, perhaps we can look around for inspiration as we secede from the currently accepted methods of doing business in art. Tony Abbott might have erased the Science Ministry, but the founder of Blackberry loves theoretical physics so much he set up the world-class Perimeter Institute outside of Toronto. The Queensland Literary Awards might have been scrapped by Campbell Newman, but impassioned supporters have continued to award financial prizes through crowd-funding. Sotheby’s might never look at you in your lifetime, and your humble manner of sticking paint to linen might not be interdisciplinary enough for the meagre governmental grants on offer, but if we hold fast to what we believe art to be, we can construct new modes of integrating our work into the world on our terms.

Huemer, Christian. 2006. ‘Gustav Klimt—The prophet of Viennese Modernism: Marketing and cult at the Secession.’ In Gustav Klimt Landscapes. Ed. Stephan Koja. Prestel: Munich.

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The analytical romantic

Copy after Bernardo Strozzi, The widow of Sarpeta with the prophet Elias

Copy after Bernardo Strozzi, The widow of Sarpeta with the prophet Elias

I’m suspicious of dichotomies of the likes of Romanticism(s) versus Classicism, and I’ve no intention of defending such categories here, though I’ve been reading much literature on the topic. Where the definitions of Romanticism and Classicism are themselves individually contested, and individual artists are argued to fall under both titles, it seems difficult to gain anything of substance from the division. At best, I can see that broadly, some artists strove for a universalisable, eternal method in art, ‘so simple that their universality could be deemed self-evident,’ (Barzun, p. 24). Other artists broadly reacted against this, often responding to the multiplicity in nature. What follows assumes this very simplistic definition.

Bricked-up door, Bratislava

Bricked-up door, Bratislava

In fact, I want to argue against the hard division, which seems to do more intellectual damage than good. As an artist and art lover, it has always been the so-called ‘romantic’ art—sublime hillsides and vast skies of Caspar David Friedrich, emotive colour and heady composition—that has won my deepest affection. As a philosopher and thinker, reason and analysis must underpin everything. It seems to me that the two need not exclude each other, as is so often simplistically asserted. Profound emotional experiences can direct our systematic thoughts; just as our bodies ache and thrill as guides for our minds, our emotions and passions give our intellect cues. To reject such indicators as invalid is an unhealthy denial of the self; to fail to probe them with the mind is short-sighted and disengaged. We are sensuous creatures, dependent on our senses for basic functions and reliant on them for information; art takes this sensory experience to a higher plane that gives our minds a way in to thoughts of a very different quality.

Bricked-up window, Bratislava

Bricked-up window, Bratislava

It troubles me, then, to read the praises of thoughtless naïveté, passions disconnected from thought, as though thought might actually ruin the sensation rather than amplify it through intention and understanding. Babbit (p. 15) refers to the naiveté of Romantic artists whose ‘spontaneity and unity of feeling had not yet suffered from artificiality, or been disintegrated by analysis.’ Surely only shallow feelings dissolve at the airy touch of thought? Surely it is one-off performances that prove false when gazed at squarely? The fleetingness and transience ascribed to Romantic art attempts to paint it as a wholly ungrounded discipline, mere lucky snatches at inspired impulses, never to be explained, understood, or repeated. Clark (p. 263) worryingly calls such miraculous occurrences, ‘like all romantic arts, … a triumph of the irrational.’

Van Gogh windows, Bratislava

Van Gogh windows, Bratislava

The very accidental nature of such performances makes me question their value. Is the lucky slug of a beach-cricketer who hits it for a six more inspired than the precision of technique of a skilled batsman? Is the feeling of surprise-based elation in that moment more meaningful than the pay-off of solid hard work? And, further, is the magic of the flight of the ball destroyed by a scientific understanding of trajectories and friction? The scientist would vehemently argue that understanding makes the observation more profound. Perhaps the art-viewer would be more moved by having an intellectual grasp as well as an emotive connection to a work of art. And perhaps the artist herself is more invested in and expressive in a work of art in which she has demonstrated some intentionality rather than working mindlessly, purely physically.

Plumbing windows, Bratislava

Plumbing windows, Bratislava

Barzun (p. 26) argues contrary to Clark: ‘It is a fact beyond dispute that the romantic artists worked like scientific researchers. Their notebooks,’ he continues, ‘their critical writings, their letters and treatises on composition are there to testify that technique was to them as important as subject matter.’ Should Turner be offered as a fine specimen of romantic artist, I would question the free, unthinking irrationality attributed to him by the likes of Clark (p. 255; 259), who in the same breath describes Turner’s long-term project of understanding colour as both ‘an unthinking response to sensuous delight’ and a ‘determined effort to master the theory of colour.’ The continuity in Turner’s approach to colour exhibits a methodical application rather than a mindless splattering of paint. If anything, his ‘response to sensuous delight’ is all the more apparent because he has thought through his sensations, and how one might represent them, rather than leaving it to chance. Analysis of the tracts of Italy before his eyes allowed him to produce the colours that he did, just as such analysis by the viewer deepens the experience of viewing these paintings. Nice colours stimulate three-year-olds. Meaningful colours speak volumes to those who have felt the languid Italian sunshine warm their skin and watched it melt into the hills before them.

Colourful windows, Bratislava

Colourful windows, Bratislava

In Barzun’s (p. 26) words, ‘Romantic art, then, is not “romantic” in the vulgar sense, but “realistic” in the sense  of concrete, full of particulars, and thus congenial to the inquiring spirit of history and science.’ Barzun finds thought—philosophy, if you will—the bridge between art and science. An artist, moved by sensations, grounded in the physical world, may apply his analytical mind to very real, chemical and spatial problems and produce, wholly intentionally, a representation that moves the viewer through her sensations. The onus is on the artist once more to do the hard work, rather than the viewer to interpret the obscure accompanying statement. Barzun (p. 27) praises the energy of the Romantic painters, stating that ‘energy was not merely a cult but a fact. … All this means work if it means nothing else.’ And the analytical romantic, compelled to inquiry by the profundity of her physical sensations and the emotional responses they inspire, is not afraid of such work, and not so far removed from the intellectual impulses of the classicist.

Random windows, Bratislava

Random windows, Bratislava

Barzun, Jacques. 1965 [1961] ‘Intrinsic and historic romanticism,’ in Romanticism: Definition, explanation and evaluation. Ed. John B Halsted. D. C. Heath: Lextington, Massachusetts.

Clark, Kenneth. 1973. The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus classic art. John Murray: London.

Babbitt, Irving. 1965 [1919]. ‘The qualities of Rousseauism,’ in Romanticism: Definition, explanation and evaluation. Ed. John B Halsted. D. C. Heath: Lextington, Massachusetts.

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Grand old things

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I had the recent good fortune to be introduced, through physicists, to Heinz Letuha and his incredible piano workshop, Die Klaviermachermeister. With a neat shopfront on Burggasse, the workshop sprawls through an old, sturdy Viennese building, huge piano shells wedged into tight hallways, hidden Steinhauser practice rooms tucked beside leafy courtyards, the workshop itself backing onto a cobblestoned side street.

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While his shop houses some new pianos, his main business is to lovingly restore these stately old creatures, and many are close to a hundred years old, some older, most Austrian made. Each is an individual—grown to its own dimensions, housing a distinct metal heart of a harp frame all its own, and outwardly styled with deco trimmings or flourishes or wooden filigree. It’s incredible to see them disassembled; oversized puzzles, but so intricate and demanding such precision and attention.

We’re offered fresh Austrian mineral water, direct from the Alps through the taps (it is especially delicious), and we duck into the second room where Vienna’s preeminent boogie piano player happens to be hanging out. He gives us a little spiel; I have a little groove. Grand pianos are tucked into every corner, and we get to hear the distinct voices of them all—the more mellow and touch-responsive tones of a grand old lady next to the more jubilant and springy timbre of a youthful 1970s jazzy grand.

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The workshop itself is flooded with the scent of glue and varnish, and dismembered keyboards are arranged on table tops, receiving individualised attention. A metal frame has just been re-lacquered. A case sits stripped of its innards down to its soundboard. We learn about the smallish pieces of hardwood that sit near the keyboard and that the strings are pegged into. This piano has had its peg-holes broadened a fraction so that newer, larger pegs can be fitted more snugly than the old wearing ones. This piece needs to be fitted so precisely, because it supports the metal harp frame across which the strings are strung—and when tuned, they put a vast number of tonnes of pressure across this frame. Incorrectly fitted, it can break, and danach ist deine Klavier kaputt.

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We watch the little key mechanisms, see how they are fitted differently in an upright (there is a sliced piano in the window demonstrating just this, in fact), and inspect the density of the felts. One felt has been sliced down the middle, and it’s impossible to force back together. The immense pressure in every part of this instrument! The careful balance of heavy parts and huge tensions, all in search of the perfect sound. And so much of the work is down to the tonal abilities of the craftsman himself—he trickles out little scales to listen to the piano, like an attentive doctor listening to a heartbeat, detecting tiny imperfections with his naked ears, getting back in under the bonnet and making careful adjustments. He works just like an experienced painter who uses his eyes to make comparisons and detect the red in the blue, or the green of the yellow.

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The passion for his craft sparkles in Heinz’s whole being, in his large eyes shining behind thick glasses, in the richly descriptive explanations that flow from his mouth, perfectly delivered—a performer keenly aware of his audience. It’s thrilling to meet someone so enamoured of this beautiful instrument, who has made it his whole life, who chases after perfection in every component, every material, in the way he reconstructs each one. It was an honour to meet such a craftsman. ‘When it comes from your heart, people see it and they respect that,’ he explains humbly.

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