I begin this column by offering a measure of what I choose to uphold what ought to be a standard of esthetics, at least in portraiture. It is by no means my only measure, but it does reflect a person I once knew, and who is still close to my conception of a romantic ideal. If she is reading this, she will recognize herself.
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw is a luxuriant representation of the kind of woman a man ought to want: In the frank, steadfast glance at her auditor is the knowledge of how she is being regarded, that knowledge shamelessly obvious in the set of her eyes and face, in the quiet confidence of her bearing, in her total expression. It is, from my own perspective, at least, a seductive, come-hither look. The hues of her satin gown, the purple sash, and the relaxed set of her arms, the surrounding colors of the armchair, the neutral background, in terms of composition, together all highlight and are all calculated to guide one’s glance to the focal point, that unforgettable, alluring face….
I have other such conceptions. Some are photographic, others cinematic. But Lady Agnew has been anchored in my gallery most of my adult life. A framed reproduction of it hangs on one of my walls. Two of my fictional characters are also painters and portraitists, literary versions of my projection of a romantic ideal: Stella Dawn in Run From Judgment, and Dilys Jones-Skeen in the Cyrus Skeen detective novels.
Well, enough of that. My point here is that this caliber of art has virtually vanished. There are some capable, unsung artists able to produce that quality of portraiture, but they are invisible to the cultural establishment, and if recognized, then shunned, banished, and deprecated. I happen to know at least two such artists, but only one has a website.
To create Lady Agnew required an enormous context and a measure of beauty. Sargent produced other exquisite paintings, some of which I like, others I do not. But, regardless of the quality of his work, it demanded a nominally rational epistemology and metaphysics. Otherwise, his paintings would be incomprehensible as selective recreations of reality, just as contemporary art is largely incomprehensible and incommunicable in meaning.
A canvas of dots and slashes is just a canvas of dots and slashes, regardless of the artist says it is. A pile of I-beams welded to hubcaps and fenders is just a collection of junk, regardless of what the “sculptor” says it is. He could give it some metaphorical name that may mean something to him, but that is just an arbitrary label.
Lady Agnew needn’t even have a name. One knows what she is. She has an identity apart from Sargent’s title. She is an abstraction reduced to a concrete.
Novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand offered a philosophy of art that could’ve been understood by Sargent, had he been able to read it, but is basically hieroglyphics to modern artists. In her essay, “Art and Cognition” in The Romantic Manifesto, she wrote:
Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence.
In her companion essay in the same volume, “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” she noted:
By a selective re-creation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. Out of the countless number of concretes—of single, disorganized and (seemingly) contradictory attributes, actions and entities—an artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction.
For instance, consider two statues of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist’s view of man’s nature; both are concretized representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures.
Art is a concretization of metaphysics. Art brings man’s concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts.
This is the psycho-epistemological function of art and the reason of its importance in man’s life….
Every color, hue, and line in Lady Agnew constitutes a concrete integrated with countless other concretes to recreate an identifiable entity which has been reduced to a single, concretized entity. Those colors, hues, and lines were determined by Sargent to be essential to the image. They reflect his epistemology and metaphysics in his sense of life and in an estimate of himself.
But, what makes modern artists tick? Why do they continue to present artworks that seem to confess a madness or insanity that is in violent conflict with the norm of “common sense” or which clashes with everyone else’s sensory experience?
Briefly, their epistemologies and metaphysics are arrested at the concrete level. Whether that is a matter of choice or is self-induced or is congenital, is irrelevant. To them, reality is a chaos and no sense can be made of it. Themes are impossible and comprehension of anything is subjective.
Modern art is a child of Immanuel Kant, the 18th century Prussian philosopher who never ventured from his hometown of Königsberg. His philosophy was that “true” reality was unknowable to man, that the contents of his mind are subjective according to layers of filters that sift thru sensory data and produce a false knowledge of existence. Existence was dichotomized into the noumenal world, which man could never know “directly,” and the phenomenal world as conveyed by our senses, which distort or mistranslate the noumenal.
Which, in turn, presents to modern artists a maelstrom of disconnected concretes, an unintelligible universe, with no unifying law or system, in which identities or labels are arbitrary and subjective.
In most cases it is very unlikely modern artists have ever even heard of Kant (or of any of his reality-contesting successors of the 19th century). But by either conscious, calculated inclination to put over a fraud (as Picasso did), or because an artist is an obsessive schizophrenic, chronically nauseous, and who is burdened with a mental cyclic vomiting syndrome and can only “express” himself in episodes of expectoration .
For example, Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” is not how anyone will see a nude woman descending a staircase, not even Duchamp. Remove one of the elements in the image, and it wouldn’t make a difference. Add one or more, and it wouldn’t make a difference. It could have the same title or any other title, such as a “Rasher of Bacon” or “Portrait of My Garbage Man.”
Subtracting or adding a drop of paint or slash of color to or from one of Jackson Pollack’s canvases would not make a difference to the overall, alleged “composition,” regardless of the name given it by Pollack. It could be “Splashes No. 46,” Or “I was drunk as a laird, No. 2,” or have no name.
The focus of modern artists is not on universal themes – which require some level of abstraction – but mere concretes. It is some species of mental myopia that would limit an alleged artist to pick some concretes that attracts him in the swirling dust devil of existence that comprises such a person’s metaphysics.
In your mind’s eye picture a modern artist frantically in search of some one entity his myopia can focus on and recreate (or not) to the exclusion of context. Ah, there’s Andy Warhol’s eight hour “movie” of the Empire State Building. Who can forget his Campbell Soup Cans? And then there’s another fellow who photographs a collection of light bulbs. An American creates a sort-of blowup Christmas tree, but it actually looks like a sex toy. It sits in the Place Vendome, Paris. Then there’s a very-well done, “realistic” sculpture of copulating crickets, with commendable attention paid to anatomical detail. The art that sits inside this Silicon Valley exhibit hall is on a par with the “erotic” insects. “Composer” John Cage focused on sounds without melody or a shred of continuity. Or no sounds at all. (He studied under Arnold Schonberg, so what else could you expect but noise?)
Want to distort the human face (“…a boot planted on the human face forever….” Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four), then try and compete with Chuck Close’s gallery of horrible, Halloween-caliber faces. except they aren’t for Halloween, they’re “high art.” Collectors pay fortunes for these…”portraits.” After all, ugly or nondescript visages are concretes, too.
See also my column on government-subsidized art, “The CIA: Funder of Trash and Terrorists.”
I could go on indefinitely about the number of utilitarian objects that have been the subjects of modern artists. It was not my intention to subject the reader to a menu of modern art, but I couldn’t think of a better way to dramatize the difference between the minds that could produce Lady Agnew and the myopic, very disturbed minds that could produce rubbish.
Please see a gallery of Sargent’s works as an antidote.