Monday, July 9, 2012

William A. Coffin: Of "Art" and Technique

"Why is a piece of purple modelling (sic) by Besnard – whether it be a
good piece of modelling (sic) or a bad, it's all one – thought by so many
to far outshine the Baudrys and Delaunays that hang beside it on the walls?"¹

TOP:  Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, Charlotte Corday After the Murder of Marat (1861)
BOTTOM:  Paul-Albert Besnard, Matinée d'été (1886)

In the 1894 issue of Scribner's Magazine, artist and critic William A. Coffin described a trend he was witnessing in the art world which was causing him some distress.  Superior technique and the clear expression of ideas, long the benchmarks of good art, were concepts being denounced because of their connection with the "old order" of the Academies and state-run Salons.  Instead, abstract ideas and novelty were coming to be considered as superseding craftsmanship and perspicuous narrative, and the ambiguous, subjective, and all-encompassing term "art" – the usage of which had become vogue among critics, and sadly, artists too – was used to defend this position.  Though disturbed by this new manner of discussing and judging art, Coffin, in the end, felt that this fad could never win out over the centuries-long held principles of traditional art.

The twentieth century, however, proved that Coffin's concerns were well-grounded.  The novel and the outrageous became all-important during this time, and a new language was necessarily invented to decipher the meanings behind works which were intentionally left obscure.  Art, which was once made for the common man to read and understand, was replaced by "Art," which only the "select" few could comprehend.

A sketch from Punch by John Leech, 1852.

Now, with several important art competitions recently announcing their award recipients, it becomes important to re-examine how artworks are judged and discussed. Currently, the discourse surrounding art is still heavily influenced by the vocabulary of twentieth century Modernism.  Opinions of "Good" or "Bad" are bestowed upon works without rational justification.  Too often we think our convictions are universal, but no two people seem to agree on any work in its entirety.  Is it then even possible to find a language for discussing art which is free from personal bias?

How important is technique in the execution of a piece of art?  Clarity of meaning?  Certainly, they are not the only aspects of value in an artwork, but they are important ones, primarily because they are qualities which can be assessed with a certain amount of objectivity.  Measurable attributes can be used to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were.  But that can be only one step in the evaluation process of traditional art.

In any competition, final decisions are, of course, subjective by nature, and most artists seem to understand this (and do not envy those people placed in the position of judging the artworks).  But there are still those who rely upon the term "art" (or other words just as suitably unclear), as if it were an impartial assessment, when it is in fact nothing more than opinion - and personal opinion is not unprejudiced.  We may not always agree with a judge's choice, but their decisions should not be dismissed simply because someone else feels their own subjective perspective is somehow an unassailable matter of fact.

Most people now are more tolerant than was Coffin in 1894.  Works executed in a variety of artistic styles are currently appreciated for their unique beauties and for the specialized skill sets required to make them.   But with the resurgence of traditional art (even with our broader understanding of what is "traditional art"), should traditional methods of appraising the merit of a work take to the forefront?  Or is the art world forever mired in the inexact language of Modernism?  It may be more than a hundred years since Coffin wrote his article, but his concerns are still fresh food for thought.

. . . for the last four or five years at least, the word "art" has come to be used very often in a sense embodying some sort of a vague desire to attribute to certain pictures something different from what is included in a recognition of technical excellence and a comprehensible expression of the artist's feeling for his subject.  At one time it appears in the comment of a painter, who says : "I don't care how well drawn it is ; what does that matter?  There's no art in it."  In another instance it is the amateur who, when it has been pointed out that there is neither good drawing, good color, nor truth to nature in a canvas in which he seems to find much to admire, replies in the strain of the studio visitor in a Du Maurier drawing in Punch :  "I don't know anything about that, I'm sure, but look at the picture."  In the division of the French artists into two factions and the designation by the party of new ideas of the "Old Salon" exhibition as pompier ;  in the hailing of each fresh eccentricity in painting as a sign of a new "movement;"  in the general tendency, as it seems to me, to decry old ways and old things because they are old, and to run hither and thither acclaiming as a genius whosoever does something that bears the brand of novelty, no matter how grotesque and insufficient it may be judged by the standards of art that have prevailed in all the great schools for centuries . . .

"Why are Carrière's shadowy, fog-enveloped figures rated wonderful, and the
stanch, virile works of Aimé Morot voted commonplace?"

TOP: Eugène Carrière, Maternité (c. 1890)
BOTTOM:  Aimé-Nicolas Morot, Le Bon Samaritain (1880)

The trouble is that in a picture where the technical processes approach perfection, and the painter has been able to express his thought in direct, unaffected language, the critic too often sees nothing but the skill of hand.  When he sees a work by a man who has not fully mastered his trade, he is apt to give it undue praise for a meaning obscurely expressed, or expressed, as he thinks, with a fine disdain for recognized methods, and to conclude that a meaning is absent in the work of the more skilful (sic.)  painter simply because he (the critic) could only see superficially. 
The reasons are not far to seek. The public, in the first place, asks no better than to be guided intelligently through the confusing assemblages of works of all degrees of value that surround it. It is attracted by sensationalism for the simple reason that it calls more loudly than the rest, and it finds, unfortunately, too few counsellors to point out that art is indeed long; that the only works of any school that have stood the test of posterity's judgment are those in which the artist has put much more than the depiction of a passing fancy or a pretty note that caught his eye, and that the best in the world's art is that in which the artist's thought, whether interpreted by the marvellous technical cleverness of Velasquez, or by the conscientious, all-embracing methods of Holbein, is sincerely expressed, and stamped in every line with the conviction that this, and nothing else, is the truth.

TOP:  Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, La Benediction (1882)
BOTTOM:  Jules Bastien-Lepage, Portrait de la mère de l'artiste (1877)

In the second place, many artists do not take the public seriously enough. They find it warped in its views by pernicious teachings and confused by the conflicting opinions of self-satisfied critics, and instead of trusting to sincere intention and unaffected technical expression to win admiration, in many cases try to attract it by pyrotechnical displays in color schemes or some novel device in composition. There is always some solemn fool nearby to cry, "Wonderful," and a host of quidnuncs to take it up. Fashion is no more than one man's repeating what another man says, and the public has a new lesson to learn every day. Let us take such a picture as "La Benediction," by Dagnan-Bouveret, and compare it with one of our latter-day "notes," or Bastien's portrait of his mother with some of the examples of portrait painting by suggestion —" A Lady in Pink," or "A Portrait in Gray," as the titles read— that dot the walls of the exhibitions, and we shall see what a difference there is between genuine artistic achievement and the semblance of it. Let us look at one of Monet's white plaster skies divided in rectangular sections bv four or five brush-like poplar trees, or his series of a haystack painted at twelve different hours of the day, and then at Corot's "Biblis" or Rousseau's "Le Givre," and it will be plain what a false conception of what art is has made its way into some of the painting of the present time. How far it may be affecting the work of our own painters and the taste of the American art public is worth a moment's consideration.

TOP:  Claude Monet, Four Poplars on the Banks of the Epte River near Giverny (1891)
BOTTOM:  Théodore Rousseau, Le Givre (Hoarfrost) (1845)

But if some of our painters were to banish the word "art" from their vocabularies, and if the American people would also stop talking about it and try to find out what painting means, I am convinced that it would be of benefit to all concerned. I mean, of course, the word art in the sense in which I have referred to it in the beginning of this paper, as expressing some mysterious quality placed above those qualities that are definable, and which, when used as it is indiscriminately by those who do not know why a picture is good or bad, has, in some instances, when attributed to certain pictures, been the means of giving a bad painter the reputation of being a good one. The influence of such talk as I have in mind has been much more powerful in England than with us; but there is enough of it in the comment on our current exhibitions to show that the public is frequently invited to bestow its appreciation on such works as have a fancied meaning in them, to the neglect of others whose merits are passed over as being merely those that belong in the technical category.

Coffin, William, "A Word About Painting," Scribner's Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 4, April, 1894, pp. 501-502.


Judy P. said...

I have not been painting long, yet am already discouraged by this problem of subjectivity in art, which has only gotten worse since this 1894 article.
I come from a background in the martial arts, that has the same combination of technical accuracy with performance, and I conclude that anything with the label 'art' is going to have this perception problem.
My husband, a layman about art, keenly notices the art of music isn't quite as bad: you don't have a person picking up a guitar, play an awful jangle of notes, then declare 'I'm just as good as Santana, only different!' But it happens in the visual arts all the time.

Jason de Graaf said...

Can't kill rock n' roll.

Atana L. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Atana L. said...

Wow, that Eugene Carriere's painting is amazing! I googled him and he just blew me away! Why haven't I heared of him before?
Thank you! Wow. What an artist!

Christopher Neville said...

The Carriere is rated wonderful because he was an extremely sound technical painter.

Read "The art and craft of drawing" by his student, Vernon Blake, to catch a glimpse of Carriere's extremely technical approach to painting, especially regarding form.

The reason it's so far superior to the painting by Morot is because it leaves some suggestion. It doesn't destroy our wonder.

The Morot, like much "academic art" is simply overstated. There's no room for the viewer to have a creative experience with the art.

Hermon said...

The discussion of technique in art is so over, and that is a good thing. We have so many approaches in technique today that it is really difficult, and unnecessary, to select a narrow range upon which to put all your admiration. We all have several, often dramatically different, techniques we admire.
We have a golden age in art right now and I don't think we're anywhere close to the peak.Unlike many previous flowerings this one doesn't have a technical or stylistic unity. And all artists benefit accordingly.

Kate Stone said...

Great post, Matt.

Dagoelius said...

The craft (of art) is a lot like a swimming pool: it has a shallow end and a deep end. Everyone has a place where they feel most comfortable, or are having the most fun. It's not really possible to assess someone else's experience if you're in a different part of the pool than they are. It's the same pool, but we all have a different experience in it. Sharing these differences is a big part of what life, and art, is about.
A great deal of the technical information about painting available now is not only written from the shallow end, but assumes that the deep end does not exist. Or that, if it does, it is a "bad place," sterile or inherently dangerous. But, as in life, the deep end is only dangerous for people who don't know how to swim.

innisart said...

"in life, the deep end is only dangerous for people who don't know how to swim." – I loved that!