More and more these days, I come across contemporary painters who are working in a pictorial vein similar to what I've been doing for the last few years. The whole dix-huitième siècle business seems to be rather too popular of late, no doubt a lingering response to Sofia Coppola's wretched Marie Antoinette. I know there are many people, genuinely or strivingly artistic, who admire that film. And the display of eighteenth-century imagery, misunderstood and misrepresented though it is, seems to have been extremely influential. Everywhere you look, figurative artists are cluttering their subjects with flossy white wigs and bubbling plumes, groaning hoops and pink ribbon bows. No real attempt is made toward historical accuracy, of course, but that isn't the point.
The point is that all of this frothy picturesqueness has now been claimed by Modernity. And to be really, obviously modern, painters must stamp modern, new, vital all over their work: cartoon-like, distorted figures; drips and squiggles and other evidence of gritty distress; rough - or just stupid - draftsmanship (hands and drapery suffer the most extreme indignities); superfluous breasts and on down the line to full-blown pornography. I expect my contemporaries are drawn to the aesthetics of the (French) eighteenth-century for many of the same reasons I am, a similar inspiration to want to explore that visual language. But in practice we diverge. Because I am, in so many ways, not a modern painter. Don't wish to be, am unable to be. Because to be seen as modern, to be accepted as contemporary, to be proven non-derivative in the "Art World", as we know it, one needs to adopt those qualities, those methods that I cannot appreciate. I can't paint in a way that shows that I am Modern. I can't design a historicist costume or setting without doing all I can to ensure a high degree of historical accuracy. I can't scuff up and drip paint onto my carefully planned out composition. I can't intentionally - or because I don't have enough time or skill - paint a hand that more closely resembles a garden rake. I can't make my work ugly or nasty just because that's fashionable and admired and smart. I can't be, to use an old-fashioned word, sloppy. I just can't be sloppy.
My dear late father always told me that, if I was going to do something, I should "do it right". And I think there is an overwhelming difference between a job done "good enough" and one done to the best of one's abilities. In a culture that celebrates mediocrity and vulgarity and plain old ugliness, there isn't much room or recognition for real craftsmanship. Isn't much room or appreciation for excellence, and the hard work that goes along with it.
Gigi and I recently attended a small concert of baroque music. A dear friend of ours works with two string trios made up of young people; the average age is seventeen. I can't really begin to express how moved I was by the level of their expertise, their poise, and the sheer beauty of the music they shared with us. And it was the most exciting - hopeful - thing I've experienced in years. Because these kids, exposed just like everyone else to the sad state of "culture" in this country, have still found a way to transcend all of that. Those young kids gave me such hope. Hard work, striving for mastery, striving for beauty. It does make a difference in the world. I have to believe that.
2 days ago