GJ Book Club: Modern Art – Part 1

The Practice and Science of Oil Painting - Harold Speed

At the GJ Book club we are discussing  Harold Speed’s 1924 art instruction book The Science and Practice of Oil Painting.
This week, we read the first part of chapter 2, on Modern Art. Here are the points highlighted by James Gurney:

1. “A considerable body of artists have deliberately set aside fine craftsmanship in order to express themselves more freely…there has been such a fashion for the crude methods of savages and primitive peoples.”

2. Mass culture sets the dominant cultural note of the modern age

3. “Now nobody waits until he has developed his mind before expressing an opinion.”

4. “The greatest works of art have been produced by small communities, such as existed in Athens and the independent states of Italy in the Renaissance.” 

5. “It is only those whose work shouts at you, who have much chance of any immediate notice.”

6. “anaemic people painted life-size drinking the blood of freshly killed bullocks”

7. “I am not at all sure that the columns of literature it has produced, are not of much greater value than the works of which they are supposed to treat.”

8. Quotes from Roger Fry on page 16 and 17.

9. “The great influence the Press has on modern life has brought into existence a new variety of artist, one who ministers to the demands of art critics.”

10. “Good craftsmanship is a healthier soil for art to grow in than fine theories about aesthetics.”

You can read the comments and Gurney’s Analysis at Gurney Journey.

Here are my .2

1. I don’t believe Speed is being racist here, at least no more than the average set of thoughts of the period. I can’t find myself in disagreement with him when he states the superiority of western art to exotic. There are indeed interesting points in their level of abstraction, but the form is definitely primitive.
I think a nice comparison could be made in this case with music. Primitive societies cannot develop a music that is over their artistic sense. It is noticeable how rhythmic, but yet dry of any sense of melody and polyphony (I might be using the wrong english terms, sorry for it) songs of all of the african people are. It’s a matter of fact that western music has reached higher levels of expression. I think the same goes for art. We cannot compare something composed by Jean Baptiste Lully with a generic series of drum hits made in an african village, as we cannot compare Bouguereau’s Psyche Abduct with their simple, graffiti like drawings.
Yes, I will probably sound racist too, but I hate having to say good of something I think is not, just cause it sounds “politically not correct” 🙂

2. I believe speed is angry with those self-proclamed artists who pretend to be making art just because they put something together and claim it is. It’s true what James says, that Modernism is a tendency of an “elite” more than of the lower classes. My thought was that Speed is arguing with the brutalization of technique, which followed the diffusion and more ready availability of mediums to everyone. A bit like “pop” art, a more gross expression made to enchant people who for any reason do not appreciate higher levels. It’s sadly more common to hear someone praise for Ed Shereen (I don’t even know him, just hear youngsters yell about him) than for Mozart or Beethoven, which is sad. It’s something that always existed of course, but whence before lower class people had simply no access to art, “pop” made it ready for everyone.

3. So true. Social Media are the fair of people not knowing what they talk about.

4. I agree with James, and refer back to what I said on Pop art

5. Can art with quiet, sober virtues find an audience in our own age of ubiquity and image overload? I think it does, but has the same audience it had before, in terms of numbers. In these days where few people listen to Bach but masses go to Lady Gaga’s concerts.

9. I agree on Speed’s opinion on art critics: most of them love “modern” art because they can say anything they want about it. A dot on a blank canvas. Art. No way! And they come up with all sorts of mental absurdities on what it should represent.

10. I agree once more on the fact that art is a natural evolution of craft. It’s the latter expression of it. Having studied Latin I know Art comes from Ars, which means Craft, ability. There can’t be art without craft, without some kind of manual ability do create what you want to represent.

To sum it up, here is what I do when I try to describe modern art.
I take a blank sheet of paper, and draw a dot on it. What is it? It’s a dot.
Then I put it in a frame, and write below “Sad Woman”.
What is it? it’s still a dot!
But hey, since we wrote something below it and stack it to a wall in a museum, it must be art. I so agree with speed’s thoughts when he says modern art is self-proclaimed, and made by people who say that’s art, without having real value.

P.s. I wanted to add a short note on the “brutalization of beauty” idea. Stockhausen tried to make us convinced of the fact that “Quartet for helicopter and orchestra” is art. That’s not. I’m adding this to my point 2, meaning that there is a (decreasing? hopefully) tendency of both pop and “elite modern art” in wanting us to think something ugly is beautiful (the first with a decreasing quality, the latter with an absurd illogic thought at its base). Have you heard about the “piece of art” (which was just a pile of trash sacks” thrown away in venice? A garbage collector didn’t know it was art and threw it away. Of course, it was “art” not real art.