EPPH’s Principal Principle 1: What is Art?

A diagram of how Manet's Mlle V in the Costume of an Espada ought to be seen: she is painting "the canvas".

I’ve received criticism from a frequent viewer that this site is too devoted to portraiture. Certainly the discovery about portraits is the simplest new idea to grasp and, for that reason, is featured on the video. It is only, though, one small part of the much larger puzzle. If anything is central to this site, it is the entirely novel interpretation of Manet’s masterpieces and the Sistine Chapel, two oeuvres which later artists considered central to their own practice and which have become part of the weft and warp of painting in the West. (If you have the time, please download and read the short papers on the Essays page.) Velazquez’s Las Meninas is another such image.1 What each of these works has in common, is an allegorical depiction of their own creation and, even more remarkably, the same specific location - inside the artist’s mind - which, in Michelangelo’s case, is also the mind of God. Thus Dürer’s portrait of himself as God became not an exception but the rule.

Many viewpoints expressed on EPPH are unusual so, over the coming days and weeks, we will be explaining each separately. Hopefully, the user will gain a better understanding of our overall thesis. The first step, though, is to define our subject. We all know what biology is when a biologist speaks or literature when Shakespeare is discussed. Art, though, is famously more difficult to define. In consequence, its definition is now left to the Department of Aesthetics. That is not right. We who write on art should define our subject too because without doing so how do we know whether our arguments are internally consistent? What is it about images that makes them art?  

EPPH believes that art is visual poetry and that, therefore, not all practitioners of the visual crafts are artists, no matter how well trained.  There are artists and there are mere painters, craftsmen (of either gender) who are not poets. Craft is important; it may – contemporary art aside - even be essential; but it is meaning which determines whether art fits into the art historical tradition, not technical quality alone. On those grounds, the decorative arts should really be the decorative crafts. Let’s use literature as an example. Despite the fact that vast numbers of people write well, only an infintessimally small number write literature and few of us readers claim to be good judges of it. Thus what unites literature is not the quality of writing – that is taken for granted – but an underlying sense that each work is part of the literary tradition that began in antiquity and will continue into the future. In art everyone, generally speaking, can make sense of the apparent scene. Yet only connoisseurs can properly judge the painting’s quality; only restorers the painting’s condition; fewer still seem able to see through the surface image to the poetic content underneath. Picasso, annoyed by the claims of critics blind to his meaning, put it well: “People say they have no ear for music…they never say they have no eye for painting.”2

The ability to judge comes with long years’ of exposure to art and is sometimes subconscious. Connoisseurs, for example, pay little attention to an artist’s meaning but can still differentiate between a poet like Edouard Manet and a contemporary illustrator like Paul Delaroche. They may not be able to describe the difference precisely (they even call both artists) but their wide experience allows them to sense that the content of Manet’s art is profound while that of Delaroche’s is shallow. I will explain how I believe this is done another day.

Art-making began at least 40,000 years ago. Today it is widely believed that the earliest images, painted on rock or sculpted in bone, depict the lost spirit world of these Neolithic people and, in some manner, aided worshippers in their practice. Whether crafting figurines like the Venus of Willendorf or a Christian altarpiece, artists seem always to have focussed on the inner reality of the spirit. Cultures changed but art’s purpose seems to have remained steady. Icon painters prayed before picking up a brush. Many artists in the late Middle Ages still lived and worked in monasteries, not just illuminators of sacred texts but men like Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi. Even an atheist like Picasso used to penetrate the depths of human existence with remarkable ease as Francoise Gilot discovered to her surprise after living with him. He could have been a philosopher, she remarked.3 That's why the discovery about portraiture, still thought by many to be accurate likenesses of the sitter, is so important. The true difference between painters like Delaroche and artists like Manet lies in their mind: while the former copy narratives of the exterior world or images of nature, the latter depict the inner reality of the spirit. This, in turn, reveals the artist’s probing intellect which, regardless of commission or even culture, remains in search of self-knowledge.  

 

1. Even if the presence of these source images in a later one is only glimpsed by viewers on occasion and, in theory, mainly by other artists whose visual perception is trained similarly, they are nevertheless often there. Picasso, freed from the bondage of patronage, made obvious in his “variations” on key works by earlier masters what he and others normally hide. That is why I feel that Picasso must have been suffering from some form of painter’s block during those periods when he turned exercises into finished works.

2. André Malraux, Picasso’s Mask, trans. J. and J. Guicharnaud (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston) 1976, p. 116

3. Françoise Gilot and Carleton Lake, Life with Picasso (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons) 1965, p. 57

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