Session 3: Art as Historical
This week we conisdered art from the perspective of historical style. Historical style contrasts with individual style. When thinking about an artist's intentions, individual style is typically achieved through a range of conscious, semi-conscious and non-conscious interventions and decisions resulting in a distinctive and recognizable approach. These might involve not just the 'how' 0f brushstroke and media, but also the 'what' of subject matter selection (so, for example, Giorgio Morandi's obsessive focus on painting vases, and bottles on a shelf is an aspect of his individual style). So there is no style/content dichotomy.
We understand an artist's individual style in part through examining a range of that artist's work - that is what allows us to recognize the patterns of decisions and to distinguish the accidental and incidental from the core choices. What typically emerges is an artistic personality, or rather an implied personality, with a take on the world.
Some thinkers argue that to have an individual style is an artistic achievement, that 'style' is an evaluative term, in contrast to the use of 'style' to mean something like 'trademark'. A connoisseur can make accurate attributions based on features of an artist's work (such as how he or she paints ears), which may contribute little or nothing to the artist's style in the evaluative sense, but which are, rather simply recognizable features that give away the authorship - the equivalent of a fingerprint. The difficult issue then is to say which features of an artist's work are stylistic features in the evaluative sense (though that might well be the job of the critic to make such decisions).
Attributions aren't just of interest for those inolved in the art market - they are crucial to our assessment of the expressive properties of a particular work. So, as Ernst Gombrich pointed out in his book Art and Illusion, knowing that 'Broadway Boogie-Woogie' was painted by Piet Mondrian (in 1942-3 when he had come to New York after escaping from Europe and from war) and that Mondrian's typical output in later years was far more austere, we will read the work as expressing a certain kind of abandon and delight. Had it been attributed to another artist, (Gombrich uses the example of Severini, the Futurist), our understanding would be very different. Imagine, for example that it turned out to have been painted by Jackson Pollock - then it would seem peculiarly reserved...
This week we were in Tate Britain, and that gave us a chance to look at works from the perspective of a historical style, in this case Romanticism. Romanticism (like Modernism) was a movement that found expression across a wide range of the arts, and which was in large part a reaction to the optimistic rationality of some aspects of the Englightenment and to Ne0-Classicism - it flourished in the early to mid- ninteenth century, but had its roots in 18th century thinking. In painting, it was characterised by, amongst other things, a concern with natural elemental forces - Romantic artists were not attempting accurate mirrors held up to nature, but rather expressed their subjective and often turbulent emotional responses to the world. The artist was seen as an original genius, typically misunderstood, and outside of the mainstream, but with the courage to follow his or her own path. In landscape painting Romantic artists were often influenced by the idea of the sublime rather than the beautiful. The notion of the sublime was resurrected and given philosophical coherence by Edmund Burke's book, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime of 1757. A complete online searchable text of Burke's Enquiry is available here.
Burke's account of our responses to beauty and the sublime focuses on the bodily and emotional responses to physical objects. Burke gave clear expression to idea that beauty may not be the only quality in nature and art that moves us profoundly. He maintained, quite plausibly, that pain and pleasure aren't on the same spectrum. A reduction of pain does not automatically lead to an increase in pleasure (though, in his terminology, reduction of pain results in delight). Pain is effective in our self-preservation; pleasure makes social interaction possible. Pain has the power to move us more profoundly than pleasure. To back up this claim he points out that few would agree to a life of exquisite pleasures if they knew that this would end with brutal torture.
Burke described beauty as 'for the greater part, some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses'. Beauty is a quality that tends to produce pleasure.
The sublime in contrast is always in some way linked with terror. Not complete terror, but rather with the potential for danger. Causes which under different circumstances might endanger us evoke the emotions of the sublime.
The key passage in which Burke contrasts the beautiful and the sublime, from Section XXVll of the Enquiry [NB he uses 'the great' as a synonym for 'sublime' here at several points]:
Burke believed that the reason we frequently take delight in intrinsically painful situations - an apparent paradox [related to the Paradox of Tragedy - listen to a podcast on Paradox of Tragedy] is that this is nature's way of toning up our nervous systems. While this last point isn't particularly persuasive, his general account of the contrast between beauty and the sublime has been extremely influential.
In Tate Britain we visited the exhibition The Romantics, and partiularly the room Pictures for an Exhibition. Many of these pictures drew on the notion of the sublime, the viewer put in the position of being overwhelmed by natural phenomena, whether a mountain, or a thunder storm, or the force of an avalanche. Where figures were present, they were tiny in comparison to the elemental forces. Seeing these pictures as part of a school drew attention to different features than if, for example, we had seen each as formal arrangements (Clive Bell's approach). We also visited the room devoted to the so-called Neo-Romantics, painters such as Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, and John Piper, who, painting in the 193os and 1940s, referred back in some ways (sometimes through explicit allusion, sometimes through parallel approach) to Romanticism. In this case the consensus of the group seemed to be that approaching the work through the notion of a period school was less useful than for 'Pictures for an Exhibition', and that many of the interesting aspects of these paintings had relatively tenuous links to Romanticism (looking ahead to week 7 of this course, there are interesting issues raised her about the curator's share - the extent to which the grouping of these works as examples of a historical school highlights particular features of the paintings at the expense of others).
Next week: back to Tate Modern for Art as Material