October 15, 2003
On bad old art, art (by William Blake) which works better as artwork, and inner light

Alan Little went to an art exhibition today. Well, actually it was on the twelfth. He emailed me about this, and if only to encourage others to email me about matters cultural that they've written about, I duly link. Apologies for the delay.

I found this paragraph to be the one that really intrigued:

Also striking was how much better and more interesting the "modern art" (for want of a better term for the art of the first half of the last century – there was very little on display that was less than about forty years old) was than the older stuff. People who dismiss modern art can’t, I conclude, have spent much time looking at eighteenth and early nineteenth century European art, most of which is hideous. I doubt if even Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin has ever produced anything as ugly and ridiculous as a sparkly porcelain bundle of asparagus.

I had a similar albeit not identical reaction when I went round the non-modern English stuff in the Tate, being struck by how bad I thought the worst of it was, how feeble, how small, and how much more exciting and shiny and "sparkly" (to echo Alan's phrase) the very same things looked in some of the book and magazine reproductions of them I'd seen. In particular, many of the William Blake pictures looked like they'd been dashed off on the backs of envelopes, which for all I know they may well have been. And he's supposed to be really good.

It's a change of subject, away from the badness of Ancient Art, because actually I don't think that Blake was an "artist" at all, in the orthodox sense that his pictures are at their best when you view the original artwork itself. Those originals are just that, artwork. They are instructions to a printer, and once the printer has got to work, they can actually look better than those originals. I'm not saying that they actually were instructions to a printer when he did them. I do not know, and would welcome education by comment, as often happens to me here. But I do say that this is how I think they work best. For me.

William Blake's pictures also work very well on a half-decent computer screen, I think. Maybe that's because a computer screen supplies an internal light source, which many of Blake's pictures cry out for, but which in the original they just do not have. Also, the originals are absurdly small, compared to, say, the big shiny posters that are made from them.

Talking of inner light sources takes me back to the Italian Renaissance, where, although they didn't literally have electric lights behind their paintings, they were masters at making it look as if they did.

I did a posting a while ago on Samizdata about a really interesting invention, which was basically a computer screen which did not have a light source behind it or otherwise built into it, and which only reflected light off its surface. It behaves exactly like a regular printed photograph or a painting, in other words. That'll be an interesting development, assuming it develops.

In general, when I go around a really big and famous art gallery, with lots of pictures from all the different art eras, I'm struck by how fabulous the very first oil paintings often were, compared to a lot of the later ones. Those first great renaissance set piece religious paintings were like Hollywood epics, and it can't be an accident that when movies first arrived at their technical peak, a lot of movies looked like renaissance paintings, and I don't just mean the Biblical epics. It's as if those first few generations of painters just exulted at what was suddenly possible, and maybe also suddenly allowed, the way only movie makers do now. And it occurs to me that the Bright Shining Dawn of movie making has maybe now, on the whole, drawn to a close. Or maybe it's me, and I'm getting old and am not myself dazzled by the sheer look of movies any more. And my impression of the Renaissance upstaging the later stuff may merely reflect either that this particular art gallery had better Renaissance stuff than later stuff, or that there was just as much good stuff done later, but a lot more bad stuff. Which I would suppose is the truth.

As for the general run of bad Ancient Art, I agree with Alan that there's tons and tons of rubbish out there, not involving the twentieth century at all.

A bit of a ramble, I fear, and no doubt hideously misinformed. Oh well. I'll learn.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:43 PM
Category: PaintingSculptureTechnology