Friday, August 24, 2012

Droving into the light

The ideas behind art matter a great deal. For instance, here is a comment by the art reviewer for the Melbourne Age newspaper, Stephanie Holt:
The potential to shock, challenge and provoke is crucial to art's claims for significance. (08/08/2012)

If that is what you think is crucial, then it's hardly surprising that modern art is so focused on transgression.

But artists haven't always taken the modernist view. One of my favourite Australian painters, Hans Heysen, explained himself this way:
I cannot help feeling that my heart lies with these men who see intense and almost religious beauty in simple Nature that surrounds us in the beauty of the skies and the mystery of the earth.

Again, it is no surprise that Heysen created a painting like the following:

Droving into the light, 1914-1921

Heysen also produced tranquil scenes of domestic life that simply wouldn't fit into the modernist idea of art as transgression:

Sewing (the artist's wife) 1913


  1. Ms. Holt has given us a perfect specimen of contemporary banality, hasn't she? Art shocks (yawn), art challenges (nod), art provokes ("pass the sugar, dear"). And of course it makes "claims for significance" (I think she meant "to significance," but never mind). Do you suppose she knows that art critics began writing this line nearly one hundred years ago, , and that for the past half-century they've written little else?

    Historically, art has evoked many emotions, but one often mentioned in the very old critics was delight. Some art was supposed to evoke delight. Why does our culture produce so little delight, and none intentionally? This is a question for conservatives to ponder.

  2. I recommend that everyone interested in the subject should read "The Painted Word" by Tom Wolfe. Concise and easy to read, and it provides a great understanding of how modern art ended up in its abyss.

  3. I'm a classical guitarist: a performing artist rather than a creative artist. My objective is an artist is to create a thing of beauty. That's it. No message whatsoever.

  4. I've never heard of Mr. Heysen, but I enjoyed "Droving into the Light". Art like that inspires interesting and meaningful discussion.

  5. Thinking about this today it strikes me that the claim that art should 'shock' and 'provoke' is entirely conventional these days - it's a cliche cultivated by people who are essentially the heirs of the dreaded bourgeouise who many of the modernists hated. They seem to serve essentially the same function as a back cover blurb on books - 'This controversial story will change your life!'

    I'm extremely doubtful that the original modernists would have felt it a very accurate or truthful artistic philosophy, anyway. It's not even as if they were a unified bunch, but when you think about the modernist movements - whether they be expressionism, abstraction, surrealism, or cubism, or whatever - none seemed to have been at heart interested in art that 'shocked' and 'provoked', per se. The shock and provocation was by and large a side effect.

    Oh, there are always examples - like some stuff by the Dadaists, the Duchamp urinal, etc - but they are not at the core of the modernist ideal.