WHAT IS GOOD ART? WHAT GOOD IS ART?
BY Norman Warwick
What is ´good´ art?
David West and Cyril Ornadel might never have become the most famous song-writers in the world, but they wrote a lyric and melody many years ago that surely deserves to be called great art because it somehow became a notion I have clung to for more than sixty years now, and that in its day was interpreted so well by a vocal artist that it became very popular and climbed high into the charts. So there we have, in the same sentence, the phrases ´great art´ and ´popular art´ and yet strangely the song seems to place little value on art works or the abilities of their artists.
The song, A Portrait Of My Love, seems to suggest that no artist could possibly capture on canvas the natural beauty of the woman he loves. Matt Monroe (left), its singer, said there could never be a portrait of his love, ´for nobody could paint a dream, for miracles are never seen´. In saying this, of course, he elevates his lady to mythical levels of beauty,…..which brings us to another phrase relevant to our question, about how ´beauty is in the eye of the beholder´.
He goes on to sing, in the second verse, that
Anyone who sees her, soon forgets the Mona Lisa (right)
It would take, I know, a Michelangelo
And he would need the glow of dawn that paints the sky above
To try and paint a portrait of my love
Perhaps because he cannot find adequate words to explain or ´show us´ the beauty of the lady he loves, he invokes the name of one of the most world´s most famous portraits and also one of the world´s most famous artists to help us envisage his lady in question.
So, there is clever little trick being played here with the claim that art could never recreate her belied by the fact that the he is forced to use references to art to describe her,….and then there is another clever little trick that equates art and its creates to being somehow God-like or able imitate nature.
How would this short piece have scored on the scale of measurement of greatness devised by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard PhD?
Dead Poets Society is a 1989 American teen drama film written by Tom Schulman, directed by Peter Weir, and starring Robin Williams. Set in 1959 at the fictional elite conservative Vermont boarding school Welton Academy, it tells the story of an English teacher who inspires his students through his teaching of poetry.
There is a famous scene in the film in which private-school teacher Mr. Keating (Williams), a new masterat the school asks a student to read the opening paragraph of the preface of Understanding Poetry by Dr J Evans Pritchard PhD.
The boy reads a paragraph that begins by saying that ´to fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme and figures of speech´.
Surely anyone reading that would feel the dead hand of academia on their shoulder. The writer ploughs on, though.
We must then ask two questions, he writes.
´How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and how important is that objective? Question 1 rates the poem’s perfection; question 2 rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter. If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness. A sonnet by Byron might score high on the vertical but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great. As you proceed through the poetry in this book, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate poems in this matter grows, so will, so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.´
The reading is then interrupted by Mr. Keating interrupting with a shout that awakened those students already drifting away, and probably even nudged to consciousness most members of its cinema audience. As a young poet myself when first seeing the film I wanted to stand and cheer.
´Excrement. That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We’re not laying pipe. We’re talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? “Oh, I like Byron. I give him a 42, but I can’t dance to it.” Now, I want you to rip out that page. Go on. Rip out the entire page. You heard me. Rip it out. Rip it out! Go on. Rip it out!
Gentlemen, tell you what. Don’t just tear out that page, tear out the entire introduction. I want it gone. History. Leave nothing of it. Rip it out! Rip! Be gone, J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. Rip. Shred. Tear. Rip it out! I want to hear nothing but ripping of Mr. Pritchard. We’ll perforate it, put it on a roll. It’s not the Bible. You’re not gonna go to Hell for this. Go on. Make a clean tear. I want nothing left of it.
Armies of academics going forward, measuring poetry. No! We’ll not have that here. No more Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. Now, my class, you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world. I see that look in Mr. Pitt’s eye, like nineteenth century literature has nothing to do with going to business school or medical school. Right? Maybe. Mr. Hopkins, you may agree with him, thinking “Yes, we should simply study our
Mr. Pritchard and learn our rhyme and meter and go quietly about the business of achieving other ambitions.” I have a little secret for ya. Huddle up. Huddle up!
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman: “O me, o life of the questions of these recurring, of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these, o me, o life? Answer: that you are here. That life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.
What will your verse be´?
I know scores of artists who might never be recognised under any conditions imposed by the fictitious but to me, then and now, immediately recognisable Dr. J Evans-Pritchard PhD. They have nevertheless all contributed their own verse (or verses) to that powerful continuous play that Keating referred to.
Of course, it is not only poetry that academics might have us measure to within an inch of its life. It takes a genius to apply such measured judgement on music and then, having handed down their imperious ruling to impose the tight confines of classification and categorisation.Visual arts, too, are subject to similar forensic inspection. There is, of course, a need for such rigorous examination-
I touched on all this a little bit when I met with Sigrid Braun-Umbach (left) for an interview the other week that we have since posted on these pages under the title of Art Creates Its Own Space. Sigrid was exhibiting her work in what was really a community room on a residential complex in Puerto Del Carmen. Whilst it is true that her work might have seemed enhanced in some way by being shown in a gallery with all accompanying lights and literature it is also true to say that somehow her work was enhanced by its humble setting. The natural light was okay and there was ample viewing room to allow us to admire the vision and interpretations Sigrid had undertaken in creating her work. Far better to be here for an admiring audience than to be in a soul-less gallery overwhelmed by surrounding art work and underwhelmed by an audience that perhaps wouldn´t seen it as collectable.
There are, of course, excellent galleries that always privilege the art as well as the artist, that respect the finished pieces as much as they do the artist, the viewer and prospective purchaser, for it is all these factors that make the whole. These are the kind of galleries that are as comfortable showing an unknown piece by an unknown artist, having measured that artist, by whatever protocols they might attach as being an artist of potential, as they would be comfortable showing a Michaelangelo or Picasso or Manrique (I throw that name in just to open another debate).
If you check out https://www.adsubian-gallery.com you will see for yourself why Sidetracks And Detours consider The Adsubian Gallery to be one that not only takes a reasonable and sensible approach to its work with artists but also delivers excellent service to arts lovers, be they creators or contemplators or collectors.
Of interest at the Adsubian Gallery at this stage of our approach to a sense of normality and freedom following the Covid restrictions, there is a lady in the village who will stay in confinement as a lasting memory of these difficult times. You will find her looking out of her window of the Adsubian Gallery annexe in Calle Principal.
`La Confinada de Adsubia ́ created by `Aldo Nonis ́ of the Adsubian Gallery, (right) is a gift for the village.
The Adsubian Gallery opened its doors in 2016, and showcases and sells the art of over fifty artists from countries such as Spain, France, Germany, UK and the United States. All the artists have a strong connection with Adsubia, our small village of two hundred houses, A main street descending towards the old wash-house that can be observed from the terrace of the gallery, all situated between the sea and the mountains, covered with orange trees. We have a population of less than 800, of which 30 are artists, painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians and comedians. Nevertheless there is a cultural life in Adsubia, too, driven by professors, journalists, an historian and writers.
Whether you live in this part of the world or are visiting this region as a tourist it would be a rewarding visit to ́La Confinada de Adsubia ́ the gallery and the wonderful village. Their address is The Adsubian Gallery, Adsubia, L ´Atzuvia, and the venue is 25 minutes from Javea Denia and only sixty minutes from Valencia.
You can be sure of a very warm welcome.
Warm welcomes and excellent service are also delivered at another of our favourite galleries that is even closer to home here on the island. The Lanzarote Art Gallery can also be seen in a virtual tour by those who live elsewhere. Visit https://lanzaroteartgallery.com to see what we mean.
The Lanzarote Art Gallery (right) is owned and run by Art Collector Eduardo Fariña, who has recently announced an extended run for the gallery´s latest exhibition until November 22
| From Other worlds links the diverse and heterogeneous manifestations of Nuria del Pino’s work, leading us to better understand the vitality of the most characteristic features of her painting, the versatility in the use of different languages and the expressiveness she has achieved in the representation of her most recurrent motifs. So Nicolas Del Val writes on the Lanzarote Art Gallery web site, and although he speaks in the genre´s terminology there is an obvious interest in vitality and characterisation with in the art that overwhelms any need to measure it for its greatness. He goes on to speak about ´the musicality of the composition, its lightness and stained glass luminosity, bring to the work a great lyrical breath, a choreography of lights that as halos of eternity or cosmic spaces gravitate on figures and images already interviewed by the intuitive gaze of an artist who advances naturally in the eagerness to validate the adequacy of the technique to the desire to triangulate universe and destiny. Avoiding nostalgia, but without fear of adventure, the artist has chosen methacrylate as a support to develop with master efficiency and generate a singular, contrasting, suggestive and emotional dialogue between the recent yesterday and its most immediate present. The observation of these two levels or disparate planes of expression gives rise to a contradictory feeling in which the tension ends up merging into the serene and spiritual emotion that guides the ideology of his artistic work. Once again, Nuria Del Pino, a dreamlike artist who invents the deep truth behind the daily reality of the landscape of Fuerteventura, invites us to the authenticity of works that preserve the life and energy accumulated by the anticipated doubt of the creative process and the importance of its final configuration. Her painting is half sky, half mystery. It is the work of an artist who sees the sun set from the volcano and tells us without a hint of sadness that the future is no longer what it was. Just prior to posting this article we received another communication from Eduardo at The Lanzarote Art Galery that read Styles And International Art This room is composed of Artists, essences and ancestral moments, which are sheltered in a unique space… each communicating in its own style. You will find photography and painting inextricably linked by their emotions. They are all works that seem to be seeking a new environment, from artists such as|
Alejandra Feijó Argentina
Beto Ortellado- Argentina
Gersony Silva Brasil
Dirce Fett Brasil
Helena Beatriz Coelho Brasil
Josephine Di Giovanna Brasil
Lilian Camelli Paraguay
María Piedad Conde Argentina
Myriam Dutra Brasil
Ramón Larrauri Torroella México This is all part of Arte Global, an exhibition by Malvicino Palermo showing at Lanzarote Art Gallery that sounds like it would have much to contribute to the debate about what good is art and what is good art
In some way Robin Parker (left) , a former Mayor of Rochdale, and a poet who has published a story in poetry form, called The Edenfield Scrolls, and had it recorded in local dialect form, reminded me of all of the above with a recent piece in The Rochdale Observer.
Robin has written poetry based on famous paintings and I have seen him give spell-binding presentations in which he read a selection of this poetry accompanied by a slide show of the art pieces referenced. He did this in a way that opened both the poetry and the art works to our understanding, ensuring that a format that might otherwise have felt stilted and closed was brought to life by his own fascination, puzzlement and love of the works in a way that stepped beyond any dry academic calculations,
Under the banner headline of
BRING BACK ART FOR THE PEOPLE
Robin Parker wrote
´I recently attended a seminar to discuss how involvement in cultural activities can offer a positive attitude to life. It reminded me of one of the best things we ever had in Rochdale Borough: The (annual) People´s Art Exhibition.
I don´t know the reason (as to why it is no longer held) other than that there has been a change of personnel at Touchstones (Arts And Heritage Gallery) where it was traditionally housed, but I do know the exhibition is missed.
I confess here that I cannot produce visual art. I am a poet, but that doesn´t mean that I don´t appreciate (visual art).
I have spent many happy hours in The Louvre and the Museé
d ´Orsay viewing works worth millions, but there was just something special about The People´s Art at Touchstones. Each year I marvelled at the breadth of artistic skill in the Borough, but it was about much more than that.
The value of these works by local artists was not monetary but the whole exhibition oozed (a sense of) well-being. I could see it in the faces of proud artists and their audiences. (I saw) children with sparkling eyes looking at their work in the gallery.
This was truly art for the people, by the people.
For me, nothing else in the gallery could ever produce such positivity.
Please may it return?´
I certainly agree with Robin that these exhibitions were always a source of pride, not only to those contributing artists and their families but to the Borough as a whole. In fact, for several years Touchstones had a romm it deicated to exhibitions or projects by local arts. Artists would submit their proposal and a selected committee for that year would decide on the four exhibitions to which space would be granted. That committee was comprised of three different artists (from all forms) each year and to me and other local artists it was a great privilege to be invited to be part of that selection process for a year.
I remember that when I was living in Rochdale, Touchstones Arts And Heritage Centre (right) had a wonderful Friends Of Touchstones support group and an eponymous creative writing group I facilitated held their monthly meetings at the venue, often including a walk through the exhibitions to be inspired in their own literary work by whatever was being shown at the time.
The gallery also had a wonderful Education programme for the local primary and secondary schools and I served on that programme as a creative writing facilitator taking classes of up to thirty students to look at exhibitions such as the People´s Art exhibition-
That exhibition seemed to somehow define the Touchstones community spirit, and the centres arts offer to Rochdale is diminished by the absence of the People´s Art Exhibition, I agree wholeheartedly with Robin and would remind the powers that be that, as Romero Britto, the Brazilian born sculptor and painter, said in 2017 that ´Ärt is too important not share´.
So Robin has reminded us that the impact of art on the well-being of a community should perhaps also be calculated as we measure arts greatness. ´Robin was referring specifically to visual art but we began here with measuring the worth of poetry, so let´s take some sidetracks & detours back in that direction.
Should the known characteristics of the poet be considered when we, the readers, judge his work? Should the relationship between art and its creator adjust in any way our attitude to the art? Ask those who are tearing down statues.
Kipling, who wrote, in surely the world´s greatest and almost certainly the longest, aphorism, so beautifully in If, is today seen and read by some as having held racist views.
Milton not only identified Paradise for us, but then lost and regained it too. And yet a new biography has made much of the artist´s anti-social behaviour and in so doing also damned his work with faint (er) praise. We covered this in our article MAKING DARKNESS LIGHT posted on 29th October 2021 and our Arts And Culture correspondent, Michael Higgins responded thus.
(I have) Just read your Milton book review Making Darkness Light. As you know from my article on first Lockdown reading in 2020 I have long admired Milton. As a Royalist I feel for his republicanism and low Presbyterianism. Paradise Lost is sublime, especially in its first parts. Paradise Regained not so striking which is not surprising given the power of the Lost world. I know the sonnet On His Blindness by heart. Of course in Milton’s day Latin, theological matters, and civil strife remained largely the world of the wealthy – as did erudite poetry. Today one needs all these facets and more to understand his theological and political arguments. Alas now poetry and classics are not the world of the privileged wealthy and educated, but the world of hermit-like academia. Ordinary folk have to do with pop, pap and tat- or in our case the Flying Horse free-for-all. I mean poets today seem to write for an elect few in a less enlightened way than did Milton.
I included Michael´s comments in a subsequent article and he again responded promptly.
I read the news flash with interest. If I had written the Milton comment specifically for publication I might have added a sentence or two on his blindness necessitating oral composition in the old tradition. Hence his high spoken and performable art. Is his Satan a hero and who do he and God represent in the 17th century parallel world? His daughters were patient indeed in his Paradise Lost years. As for modern poetry I think i meant that in Milton’s day high Latinate poetry was assessable via public and private readings where listening was key. But in today’s world of universal education poetry has become the written refuge of the elite and professorial. Elites write and recite to elites. The people are torn between the rhyming prose of greetings cards, pop songs (which always rhyme) Pam Ayres, Wendy Cope et al and the stuff no-one but elites write and read. It is telling that modern literary criticism glosses over the likes of Masefield who was poet laureate for a long time. Likewise Betjeman. Now the public loved Betjeman but were baffled by Hughes. Hughes has the magic of word-power and imagery but not common understanding at some level. His long work is hard going and unsettling like much modern verse. As for the Pegasus sessions and read-arounds I attend at the Flying Horse, how much Hughes or for that matter Milton (equally hard going for those vague about 17th century religious and political controversies) would go down well there tomorrow? Sunday night entertainment always takes precedence over introspection. And yes I like Pam Ayres and Wendy Cope. Not so sure about Duffy and she is an academic. But Masefield, ah what can I say but praise Salt Water Ballads ad astra.
photo 10 Matt Plescher, writing in The Rapidian (logo shown right), the community-powered news source of Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently asked whether some forms of art are ´higher´ than others? Is classical music a higher form than rock music? Is poetry above detective novels? Most people are aware of a distinction between high and low art. High art is appreciated by those with the most cultivated taste. Low art is for the masses, accessible and easily comprehended.
Mr. Plescher went on to dissect this, saying ´the concept of high and low can be traced back to 18th century ideas about fine art and craft. Writers in the 1700s drew a line between work that is contemplated purely for aesthetics (fine art) and work that has some sort of utility or function (craft). The fine art grouping of painting, sculpture, music, architecture and poetry was established at this time. The familiar phrase “art for art’s sake” comes out of this view, and is so culturally pervasive that many people accept it as the “correct” way to classify art.
There are instances the fine art method doesn’t work well classifying art. A hand-made box with carved decoration is not considered fine art because of its utility. However, the decoration could be aesthetically contemplated. Is the decorative part high and the utility part low? Some travel posters can be contemplated aesthetically in the same way as a fine art painting, but they were intentionally created to be easily accessible and function as mass-distributed advertisements. Does that mean they are high and low art at the same time? What about movies? Movies appeared after the traditional fine art groupings were established. Are they always low art or can they be high art too? Can they be both?
Another problem with the fine art/craft distinction is the way it implies value. The fine art view holds in esteem one way of interacting with art—aesthetic contemplation. However, art had other functions before the fine art distinction was made and continues to have those functions now. Art can instruct, entertain, mystify, propagandize and frighten to name just a few. However, the fine art approach reserves the status of “good” for work that is primarily aesthetic. Contemplation is the highest and purest goal for art. Other functions of art are considered somehow impure. Hence the loaded words high and low, which simultaneously classify and judge.
This affects how people interact with the arts. People who feel strongly that high art is good and low art is bad will think of low art as something to be avoided. Some would even consider a poor classical piece better than a great rock song, simply because the classical piece is considered a higher style. Others take a more tolerant position. They hold high art to have higher value, but see low art as “having a place.” Someone with this view would consider a symphony a higher art form, but would be okay listening to pop music in the car.
Those who place a greater value on high art sometimes believe that high art serves a kind of spiritual or moral function. A common assumption is that high art is “edifying” and low art is “mere entertainment.” If only the masses can be steered into the concert halls and museums, the power of high art will awaken them from their low art-induced stupor. To them, art has a quasi-religious function, with beauty lifting us to a higher level of spirituality. It’s no accident that museums are often designed to feel like temples.
The fine art/craft approach is a problematic way to classify art to begin with, and is further weakened by the way it assigns value to narrow slice of the art experience. Another approach is to simply contrast limited-audience art with popular art, initially leaving value judgments aside.
There are several factors that contribute to whether a work will be broadly popular or not. One is how distinctive or unique the work is. Art that places a high premium on uniqueness will generally have a narrower audience. In contrast, popular art often follows proven formulas that have been shown to appeal to large groups. Popular forms are also often deliberately lower in complexity in order to be easily accessible. In short, popular art will very often be crafted to appeal to a large audience with a minimum of effort by the viewer. Lastly, popular art is almost invariably mass produced. Using these criteria, an artwork can be placed along a continuum without the black and white distinction of high and low.
Once the work has been placed on a limited-audience/popular art spectrum, the second step would be to judge the success of the work within that context (I discuss judging success in more depth in this article). This avoids the implied value judgment of the words high and low, or fine art and craft. Judging a work’s success in this way can take into account the goals of the artist, including whether the work was made for a limited audience or was meant to be popular´.
I often say, self-importantly if rather defensively, that ´I don´t know much about Art, but I know what I like´
So, my first measurement of any piece of art is of how much I like it, (though I can admire a piece of art even if I don´t ´like´ it) and I will judge a piece of art by both what it reveals and what it conceals.
My relationship with art has changed considerably in the seven years I have lived here on Lanzarote. Because of my lack of Spanish language skills I most often have to listen to, or look at, a work of art without ´knowing´ anything about its creator or that creator´s intent. I have learned that having to do so certainly helps focus the mind, especially when I have a review to deliver for the world to read,….world, hello world, is anybody there?
Primary sources for this article include notes taken from The Adsubian Gallery, The Lanzarote Art Gallery, a piece by Robin Parker published in The Rochdale Observer as well as an essay by Matt Plescher published in The Rapidian
In our occasional re-postings Sidetracks And Detours are confident that we are not only sharing with our readers excellent articles written by experts but are also pointing to informed and informative sites readers will re-visit time and again. Of course, we feel sure our readers will also return to our daily not-for-profit blog knowing that we seek to provide core original material whilst sometimes spotlighting the best pieces from elsewhere, as we engage with genres and practitioners along all the sidetracks & detours we take.
This article was collated by Norman Warwick (right), a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio 4.
As a published author and poet he was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (where he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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