Art In History Art Blog
This is a subject I have worried around before (see for example "Significant Art: What does it Signify?") because it gets to the heart of those subconscious doubts I have about the value of my work. Though I am going to look at it here from the persepctive of art history, I clearly care about it as a kind of self-justification.
My art is not an art of innovation. What uniqueness it has comes unconsciously and inevitably from the personal vision which each of us has, not from any attempt to break new ground. I am not even an experimental artist (a much less demanding standard); many artists who never break new ground nevertheless experiment with different styles and media, doing work that is new for them if not for art as a whole. My art grows and changes, very gradually, not through any decision to change but only through growing sensitivity to the task I have always pursued. Periodically I wonder if this kind of art is worthy of attention.
I'd like to look back on artists of the past, seeing them by the measure of innovation vs tradition. I think that Jasper John's "White" Flag is one of many works in the late 20th century which use the dichotomy deliberately to create tension in their work. But most artists do not address the issue so consciously; they are either innovators or consolidators (traditionalists) by temperament and inclination.
Perhaps the archetype of the innovator, in art and everything else, is Leonardo da Vinci. He produced few major works, partly because he was too busy inventing and exploring almost every other area of human endeavor, but also because once he had created a new archetype (like the pyramidal "Madonna" composition) he would lose interest, allowing others like Raphael to do the work of consolidation. Raphael was not a traditionalist, continuing in the late medieval style as did many of his contemporaries, but he was a consolidator, working through the implications of Leonardo's invention and taking it to its apex.
Art Historians place immense value on the seminal moments the Leonardo produced with almost every work, while tearing out their hair trying to preserve his "Last Supper' fresco. He couldn't be satisfied with traditional freso technilque, experimenting with new combintations of materials which are now falling off the wall.
Another pair of contemporaries who facinate me are the English artists Constable and Turner. Emerging from the same naturalistic tradition, they become alomst polar opposites in their approach. Though his sensitivity carried him beyond any of his predecessors, Constable is clearly a traditionalist by temperament, comfortably within the landscape tradition which emerged in 17th century Holland. From the point of view of art history, Turner is much more forward-looking, anticipating abstract expressionism in the freedom of his color and handling. I admire Turner, but I love Constable.
However, the artists I love most fall into both camps. If I look at still life, I would have to say I admire Cezanne more then Chardin, but I love them equally. Chardin's great strength is his "conservatism": the comfortable solidity and eternal rightness of his compositions, the earthy harmony and predicatbility of his colors. Ceazanne's still lives are alive with the titanic struggle that we see in all his work between the demands of solid form and the demands of the paint surface. They feed different parts of my soul.
One thing that strikes me about the last 100 years is the increasing divergence in art between the traditional and the innovative. Through technological leaps and ever increasing speed of communication of information, the world is changing at a geometrically increasing pace. One of the choices that face artists to between expressing the change and newness in their work, and alternately searching for what is stable and familiar. The human race has adapted radically to its new physical and intellectual environment, but it also has an every increasing longing for the way things were. I am certainly one who clings to what nurtures me in nature and in the familiar.