Wanted, Art Heroes (1995)



 Victor Chocquet was a major 19th Century art hero. He was one of the few people of his time to see the beauty and worth of Impressionist painting, so disturbingly avant-garde to public and official opinion used to the smoothly painted, extremely detailed melodrama and coy eroticism of the manneristic, academic art fashionable in that day.


 Victor Chocquet, a collector, was no plutocrat. Buying art was a financial strain for him. But on the modest salary of a customs official, Chocquet amassed a large and wonderful collection of Manets, Renoirs, Monets, Cezannes and others, including Delacroix. Not only did Chocquet help these artists financially and morale-wise at low points in their careers when under extreme critical attack and monetary duress, but he spoke up, urging people to see and understand what these artists were accomplishing.


 Such love of art and courage in the face of overwhelmingly negative opinion deserves memorializing, and serves as a reminder that we, too, should support art and ideas of significance even when the majority of public and official opinion is against it, when, in our own time, fashionable opinion backs the equivalent of French mannerism and academicism -- the artifice of commercially oriented art and the pseudo-avant garde.


 Out of the chaos of our confused time, the true purpose of art needs to re-emerge, be discovered, discussed and defined once more. We need to ask ourselves what is greatness in art, what is the purpose of art. Answers will come through examination of our needs in relation to past -- and timeless -- greatness.


 The purpose of art, from its beginning in the soul of primitive man -- from the very inception of the creative force indivisible at the core of life itself, the functioning of nature and the universe -- has been to express the deepest needs, concerns and aspirations of humanity, the fundamental meaning of life.


 Great art has ever sought to unite humanity with the foundational realities of life, to fix a place of meaning and importance for humanity in its fear and weakness, ease the pain of its grieving, support its joy and ecstasy in manifestations greatly varied in style and point of view, but never weakened in significance and profundity.


 In our time, too many artists, critics, galleries, museums, commissions, endowments and collectors are attracted to, deal mainly in, depravity; depravity of aesthetic artifice, cliché and superficiality; depravity of art diluted for sales, killed for commerce; depravity based on a death-wish so extensive that few signs of life and health are allowed to exist. The depravity of art without a soul, deliberately created devoid of a soul in order to be as offensive and meaningless as possible, to deplete the viewer, deplete life, deplete the world.


 It is as if some kind of weird revenge, for real or imagined wrongs, were being taken on art, life and the world by severely disappointed, damaged people.


 True art feels its responsibility to the world. It does not consist solely of mindless, narcissistic self-involvement. The true artist responds to and respects the timeless matrix of flesh and sensibility common to all humanity, the fabric of sympathy that unites all life, whatever its form.


 All life wants to feel purpose and meaning in the fact of its existence. The true artist does not undermine, demean or attack this need. The true artist may be wounded by life, the corruptions of humanity, the perceived failures of God, the failures of his/her own character, yet he/she endeavors to create work that supports the existence and validity of life, based on proofs of the timeless poetry of nature and the fundamentals of human decency that emerge from our contact with, and awareness of, the deepest principles sensed and evidenced in the existence of the universe.


 Francisco Goya's "Execution of the Rebels," Spanish civilians murdered by Napoleon's firing squads, is as bloody and brutal a work of art as any ever created. But the level of artistry and aesthetics is so high, the artist's feeling, content and expression of one aspect of the human condition so profound, that we recognize immediately we are in the presence of greatness and life-enhancement despite the suffering.


 We are not sucked into the sewer by an image of degradation with little redeeming artistic, aesthetic or human value like so many inferior works today that may point out contemporary social horrors, but are too weak or deliberately nihilistic to give us hope, inspiration or a sense of contact with magnificence, the ultimate core of art and life that Goya and other great artists express. Such weak contemporary art only adds to the degradation of the original degrading experience.


 The true artist may depict suffering and savagery, great joy, emotional and philosophic fulfillment and failure, spiritual questioning, intensity and reward -- the full range of human experience -- but he never, never destroys the aesthetics, the significant construction, the meaning, feeling, profundity of his art, the integrity, the special preciousness of art.


 An artist's art, among some few other things, is as close as we get, on beautiful, savage earth, to holiness in human affairs. Such an understanding of art and the world will not allow the corruption of this artistic link with ultimate spiritual and emotional truth.


 It is in our best interests to begin to measure ourselves as artists and human beings against the great ones of the past, not to feel diminished by the comparison, nor to copy specific styles, but to use greatness as a beacon of principle, a goal to work for, a measure of what it is to be an artist.


 No one would ever doubt that Michelangelo gave fully and honestly of himself in his work. He never cheapened or formularized his art to make a sale or please a less-informed patron. He was never an opportunist hooking onto the latest fad, a publicity hound, a willing plaything/manipulator of society mainly interested in furthering his own ends. Michelangelo was not a self-fascinated careerist.


 He worked long and hard and steadily, blessed with a genius readily apparent to his contemporaries, luckily living in a time when his expressive realist-idealism was in tune with public understanding of art as the reflection of observed and felt, poetic reality.


 Artists and public were not yet alienated, on separate tracks of awareness and perception, leading to the multi-tiered tragedy of modern times when leading artists like the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists are ignored or rejected by society; when mediocre artists and their supporters impose pseudo-artistic, pseudo-intellectual aberrations on the healthier, more soundly-based perceptions of ordinary people; when, concurrently, the ordinary people are often ill-educated to believe mundane, illustrational "realism" is art.


 These basic problems of contemporary art and society would no doubt be blasted into inconsequentiality should an artist of Michelangelo's stature appear. The intensity, profundity, integrity and skill of such work would be so apparent that it would become the standard of the day, would demolish the mediocrity now passing for art.


 As if a pair of giant fingers had been snapped before our clouded eyes, we would awaken from our fifty-year sleep, our long trance of confusion, of lost artistic and ethical values, like the fairy tale princess, drugged by the witch's poisoned apple, awakened by the prince's (great artist's) kiss.


 We would awaken and shake our heads in wonder and incredulity that we had allowed ourselves to be so lost, so misdirected, for so long.


 This will certainly be the evaluation of us by later, healthier generations looking back on our ignorance, stubborn arrogance and persistent will to fail...ourselves, our society, our art. The pervasiveness of our death wish will astound them.


 But, as human beings, we have other resources of character. We have integrity, the inborn sense of what is the right thing, the worthwhile thing, to do. Perhaps, with the aid of a younger, more honorable generation of artists, critics and collectors, we may remember what great art, significant art, is.


 Art is not a matter of idle amusement. It is nearer a sacred endeavor. We may want to remind ourselves that no matter how powerful its import or urge to be born, art is always helplessly dependent on those whose hands and souls it passes through.


 Wanted: art heroes.


Copyright by Don Gray


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