Does high art exist? This is not a question most people consider relevant today. That I consider it relevant is because there is no tribe we know about that has not worshipped images. If the visual experience can lead to devotion and, in the case of outright religious worship, the ignorance of human sacrifice and the blood-letting of religious bigotry, then the greater the understanding we have of this visual experience the greater our inoculation against such excesses. If art is a cultural statement of who we are as peoples, then that statement naturally sets a standard in each generation.
The arts have been assaulted by legions of people who believe that to write three lines on a piece of paper makes it a poem; to throw colour on a canvas makes it a painting; to work on shape makes it a sculpture; to record sounds makes it music. Further, they suggest opera need not be the highest form of art, as Mozart would have it, or that poets are not the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’ as Shelley would have it. I can only deal with the visual arts, but the essence of what is said here is applicable to all the arts.
There is such a thing as ‘purpose’. In everything we do and everything we create there sits a concept that needs to be communicated. Sometimes it is obvious – we build houses to live in them. We created mathematics as a tool to open up things we cannot understand through our senses alone. We make clothes to give personality to our bodies. We have an aesthetic at play with everything we create. Because we have evolved within nature we are imbued with the sense of her beauty and ugliness.
So we are aware of something that has become a truism: when we create we cannot escape the aesthetics of what we create.
We know what we are attracted to have in our own living space. We know that beautiful people have it as a career choice to go into movies because the public expect movie stars to ‘look’ good. People swoon over their music stars, legions of stylists of one form or another are the underpinning of the ‘look’ on every TV screen. And we now know that the first hand-prints and some stone hand-tools were made for their ‘look’ alone, which makes that their entire meaning.
Our forebears in the Academies thought there was such a thing as high art and the entire Renaissance was kick-started by finding out the Greeks had an incredible aesthetic for pseudo-realistic statuary. These standards demanded skill gained through practice and to some extent were artificial: you had to learn to paint certain things.
Art has always told us who we are. It is why Egyptians painted stories on walls and why bas-relief adorned Roman and Greek temples. It is why the imprint of carvers is found on every ancient nation’s cities and homes. It is why stonemasons carved their own faces onto gargoyles high in the vaults of cathedrals. They believed their work would live on. They had little reason to suppose their societies would ever end.
What a king can have made must be important because kingship – another human creation – has to be pre-eminent. The rich had libraries and mosaics and even the earliest cities had shape – from the rectangles of Alula to the Hittite huddle of roofs. Buildings were made to fit the physical space people encompass in groups when they stand close together or gather in family units. The resulting idea of enclosing space while maintaining expanse is the foundation of every palace and every cathedral.
Filling these places with visual art continued the sordid relationship of worship with the image, growing right out of the superstitious creation of clay figurines and imbuing the inanimate with power. The most ludicrous idea ever to come out of humanity. But what was put in the palaces and cathedrals was the desired aesthetics of power, the power to impress and impose ideas on a population. And the closer an artist came to achieving those visual effects the greater they were considered. Hence the consideration of skill came to be inseparable from art. But it is to money that creativity, like all else in our nations, went to find means. And whatever else our artists want to do they have to have patrons and they have to make what they were employed to make. So upon the inherited aspects of our senses and the need to wield power, high art emerged in our nations as a ‘fact’ of wealth. And what was created informed successive generations what it meant to be French, German, Chinese etc.
Does it exist anymore?
Well not if Kusama, Banksy, Condo, Koons, Weiwei or Hirst are our examples. And, going back a generation, not if Jackson Pollack, Marcel Duchamp or Helen Frankenthaler are our standard. But then, is there a standard? Isn’t the whole point of Modernism and Postmodernism that high art became an artificial creation that stultified the artist?
Standards today are not very definable. And it is the difficulty in definition that is at the heart of this debate. Adorno said, “an artist paints a painting, not what it represents”. Brilliant in its observation because it includes everything. But it isn’t just this, it is the whole meaning of why anyone creates for the mere sake of creation itself. Why they change what they make and how they make it, why they strive to portray something from inside themselves. Every hand is unique. Every painter recognisable for their style. The intellectual, emotional, evolutionary-wise foundations of their work are the important aspects of their creative process. You will always recognise an artist through their life and you will find out their lives flow directly from their thinking and we as peoples making nations take them up as expressions of ourselves. Art plays a central role in identity because it is never confined to galleries and museums. It is all around us in the design of everything in our built environment.
Every artist who practices art knows that it is their business to create, nothing more; what the world does with what they create is up to the world. After all, once it is in being it belongs to the world not the artist. High art, if it exists, unlike patrons, cannot be about ownership, power or, as Berger pointed out, what we have learned from the publicity machine.
The hand-prints on those cave walls were looked upon with wonder by those who lived in the caves but did not think to make them. Hand-prints made today are a self-conscious choice to create a fashionable commodity. Are the bas-reliefs on Greek temples high art? They are certainly beautiful and they show immense skill and knowledge about the materials, but they were done by working tradesmen and women, done for pay all over Greece and done for gods. Power and superstition do not make high art if the life of the artist is as important a factor in the definition as the work. They are advertised to us as high art, of course. Back to Edward Bernays, who described the growing ability of advertising to mimic propaganda in his 1928 book Propaganda.
But none of this really helps us to define high and low art. We create, we get paid, we live the life, we comment on our generation, we are accepted or not by successive generations. Skill no longer exists, form is permissive, perspective fluid, colouration optional, patronage governmental, prizes widespread and the academies dead.
The power of art to define a people, a nation, is ignored. It is, to focus the points in this article, highly political. It is strange that liberalism looks to the colour, gender, social status and sexual orientation of artists as relevant. It brings artists down to social commentators. Cities have huge galleries that are more public spaces for people to meet up and hang out than engage in discussions about art. And since the demise of criticism along with definitions of art you may think high and low art can no longer exist. And yet we still have the strange phenomenon of artists surviving their lives to be appreciated by succeeding generations while others vanish, no matter how famous they were in their lifetimes.
It is here that we will find such ideas as ‘shared history’ and engagement with the ‘eyes’ of another human being. To see the world we have come from, defined by another human being who was there. Anything that is only fashion will disappear. Such as Lozano-Hemmer, Weiwei and Kusama and 99% of all installations.
The self interest of a political class, the self interest of collectors, the self interest of curators and the flow of money between them all prevents them from looking at an art work for its own sake. I know you will say collectors do, but name one who cannot tell you how much one of their works is financially worth? And maybe none of us can define high art in our own generation because that is not for us to do. Successive generations make the choice. We can highlight only by looking back, and do.
Yet eyes like William Hazlitt’s in England made choices that were stunning in their accuracy. But then, as a critic, he met and engaged with everyone. Today the methods of control are so absolute that writers and artists do not commune as they did in the past. Salons are dead, manifestos mundane and artists too diffident to show power of thought. The ‘everything is art’ nonsense has quelled their spirit.
But high art will continue to exist. As the befuddled generations pass, new generations will look for definition and description and explanation. You cannot go from Turner to Emin and expect to be dealing with the same nation or the same people. We have become lesser, as has America.
High art will exist where an artist lives the work, speaks for a nation and continues to speak long after their generation has gone. They can have nothing to do with fashion and in a very real sense, touch a quality of timelessness and they will always be indifferent to marketing.
Volume 36 no 1 September / October 2021