Peter Schjeldahl’s post  on Klimt’s “Adele” got me thinking. The thirty-five million dollar painting, he says, “isn’t a peculiarly incoherent painting, as I had once thought. It’s not a painting at all, but a largish, flattish bauble: a thing. It is classic less of its time than of ours, by sole dint of the money sunk in it.”

In fairness to modern art, I think people are often too quick to dismiss it: “It doesn’t look like anything,” or, “I could have done that myself.” “True,” I’ve often responded, pointing out the obvious, “but you didn’t.” Rothko’s big block of orange might not be on the same level as Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation” (I am admittedly biased toward my confrère), but it’s a very pretty block of orange. And as disgusted as I was by half the pieces in Vienna’s Museum of Modern Art when I once made a visit (I really wish I had those nine euro back), an abstract or non-representational quality is not sufficient for rejecting a piece of art (or a genre) out of hand.

Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism provides, I believe, two principles to keep in mind when considering a work of art. First, whether art’s imitative quality is, to put it in my own words, the sine qua non of art (he uses the then-popular cubist movement as an example). In a chapter called “The Purity of Art,” he discusses what is usually (mis)understood when we say that art is, by nature, imitative. “It would be a complete mistake to . . . restrict the word ‘imitation’ [as Aristotle uses it] to its popularly accepted meaning of exact reproduction or representation of a given reality.” And then, “The joy procured by the beautiful does not consist formally in the act of knowing reality or in the act of conformity with what is; it does not depend upon the perfection of the imitation as a reproduction of the real, or the fidelity of the representation.” In other words, painting is not photography.

On the other hand, speaking about art as “right reason in making,” Maritain makes the point that art is “essentially human in its method of working.” He argues that a work of art must pondered, prepared, brooded over and matured before being executed. “Its formal element, what constitutes it of its kind and makes it what it is, is its being controlled and directed by the mind. If this formal element is in the least degree lacking, the reality of the art becomes correspondingly dissipated .” It is this principle, I submit, that, even if not articulated, prompts the common reaction that modern art “isn’t art.” There is an instinctive reaction to a painting that looks like it was done on accident, or by a brute animal, forsooth. If paint is arbitrarily scattered and dribbled over a canvas, or as is sometimes the case, a virginal canvas, without the faintest hint of human impression, adorns the gallery wall, does it not seem that its being a “product of reason” is attenuated, almost to a minimum? (One piece in Vienna’s museum was a partially filled glass of water. The title was, as I recall, “halb voll, halb leer.” Not terribly original.)

So, while I can’t quite agree with Charles Ryder’s sweeping condemnation of modern art (referenced in the post’s title), I do think it can be criticized. Also, as Schjeldahl indicates, it’s the unreasonable hype over something that is barely a product of reason that is nonplussing. It’s not so much the objets d’art themselves that are objectionable, but the ludicrous infatuation and inordinate price tag. But while it is often difficult to see any intrinsic connection between what is produced and what it is worth, it can still be art, albeit not the highest form.

In the end, Schjeldahl has this scathing critique:

With the best of will—and I have tried—“Adele” makes no formal sense. The parts—including the silky brushwork of the young lady’s face and hands, which poke through the bumpy ground as through a carnival prop—drift, generating no mutual tensions. The size feels arbitrary, without integral scale in relation to the viewer: bigger or smaller would make no difference. The content of the gorgeous whatsit seems a rhyming of conspicuously consumed wealth with show-off eroticism. She’s a vamp, is Adele; and for whom would she be simpering but the randy master, Herr Klimt? The effect is a closed loop of his and her narcissisms. They’re them, and we aren’t. I think we are supposed to be impressed. And let’s be. Why not? Our age will be bookmarked in history by the self-adoring gestures of the incredibly rich. Aesthetics ride coach.

Articles by Sebastian White O.P.

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