Relevance as Shibboleth
The portraitist Stuart Pearson Wright gave a lecture [text published in The Jackdaw] this year at the National Portrait Gallery in London entitled “How Can Portrait Painting be Made Relevant?”†† My answer to him is that it can’t be and shouldn’t be, not by his definition of relevance.† He has asked the wrong question.†
†††††† The publisher of The Jackdaw, David Lee, is always attacking the avant garde for demanding that art be “challenging”, but from where I sit the difference between “challenging” and “relevant” is not very great.† In fact, the avant garde uses the two words almost interchangeably.† To be challenging is mainly to be politically relevant, and it is clear that Wright intends much the same thing.† He may be a realist and a portraitist, but he has accepted the theory of the avant garde right down to its roots.† For him a painting—whether it is a portrait or not—must be judged based on how well it responds to current culture.† If it fails to address current attitudes and expectations, it has failed to be honest.† Any work that is not honest fails to be good.
†††††† I agree with him that honesty is important, but disagree with all the rest.† Let us begin where he begins.† Wright opens his argument by dismissing Annigoni for “refusing to accept that human self-perception had evolved.”† For him, Annigoni’s treatment was passe, an attitude from another time.† From Annigoni’s straightforward portrait of the Queen it is difficult to tell much about an overall attitude, but taking his oeuvre as a whole, Wright’s claim is simply false.† Annigoni played with many little modernisms—in much the same way that Claudio Bravo still does—putting classical or Biblical themes in modern settings and other “clever” juxtapositions.† Wright himself is in this line, although he finds a different set of juxtapositions poignant.† Annigoni and Bravo tweek one set of conventions and Wright another, but they are not so far apart as Wright appears to think, especially in their use of realism “to make the viewer think.”†
††††† †For myself, I find Annigoni and Wright tiresome for precisely the same reason, though I would be the first to admit that they are very different in some ways.† Since I don’t believe in art “as making the viewer think”—and since even if I did, I wouldn’t believe that facile juxtapositions were thought provoking in any important way—I can’t possibly sign onto Wright’s claim that relevance is the proper adjective to apply to visual art.† Put simply, when either Wright or Annigoni is trying hardest to be relevant is when I believe they are furthest from the true calling of the artist.
††††† Wright’s next two examples are contemporary portrait painters, and they are both pretty much beside the point, as Wright admits.† They are bad not because they are passť but because they are bad.† They would be bad even if they were au courant.†† In fact, Richard Foster is often quite up to date in his portrayal of ordinary clients looking pretty ordinary. Red Sash is not really representative of Foster’s oeuvre, in my opinion.†† Wright blames Foster for poorly updating Sargent in this painting, meaning he thinks it is a mistake to attempt to transfer high portraiture into the modern age.† Conversely, I would say Foster has failed most noticeably in pose, background, brushwork, color and facial expression.† He has failed to bring Sargent into the modern age simply by failing to approach him as an artist.† Sargent tried to make his sitters look very good, and he almost always succeeded.† Foster is better at making his sitters look average, which is probably what they were and what they wanted.† He fails only when he attempts to make them look really good, since neither they nor him are up to it.† But by Wright’s method of judging, by honesty alone, Foster could easily claim he is right where he should be—a journeyman delivering the goods.†
†††††† Wright’s other example is George Bruce, and I have little to add.† He is correct to point out that Bruce’s settings ring false in every possible way, and Bruce’s technique only corroborates this falsity.† Even more obnoxious than Bruce’s chosen settings is his handling of those settings, and of his sitters.† He could bring the settings up to date in every way, and yet the paintings would still be awful.† He would then have badly painted mannequins trying hard to be relevant but they would still be badly painted mannequins.† For proof, see Eric Fischl or Jeff Koons or John Currin, etc.
Wright now jumps from negative examples to a positive one.† He provides a slide of Phil Hale’s portrait of Thomas Ades, a portrait hanging in the NPG.† In this portrait both Ades and Hale are doing everything they can to be odd.† Hale is looking down on his subject, as if he painted him while hanging from a light fixture.† Ades is dressed in a white suit, white shirt, black socks, and comfy shoes.† He is sprawling in a modern comfy chair and the background is empty.† Ades is doing very odd things with both hands, one looking more arthritic than artistic and the other half inside a pocket in an uncomfy way.† His head is cocked hard right and he is looking off camera either very dejectedly or with great malaise.† A shot glass appears to balance on one of his shoes, but is actually on a glass table above it.††
†††††† Wright finds this to be one of the best contemporary works in the collection.† I agree that Hale is a much better technician than either Foster or Bruce.† In some ways he is better even that Annigoni.† Hale’s technique is completely married to his expression and his idea and his subject.† Hale is more innovative, more courageous, and better able to juggle all the technical issues involved, from composition to color to pose to brushwork.† If this had been Wright’s contention, I could not have disagreed.† But this is not his contention.† According to the central thesis of the lecture, he considers Hale better because Hale has accepted that portraiture must be relevant.† Meaning that this portrait is good not because Hale is a good technician or because his technique is consistent with his attitude, but because Hale is deconstructing all sorts of things.† All the clever things going on here are important to Wright.† Ades is not trying to look good or even presentable, he is trying to be as expressive as possible.† Expressive has come to be synonymous with artistic, so how could either sitter or artist go wrong?†† They are accepting their humanity, not trying to transcend it.†
†††††† And yet something has gone terribly wrong here.†† What the viewer is left with is not an idea of truth or humanity or expression.† What an honest viewer is left with is this: “a phony painting a phony.”†† Everybody is trying just too damn hard.† Despite succeeding on all the levels I mentioned above, the portrait is still a crashing failure.† It is not appealing to anyone now, except other phonies, and will not be appealing to anyone in future generations.† Ades comes off as a self-obsessed fake prodigy in love with his own mannerisms.† After a few initial question marks, the portrait immediately becomes tiresome, in the same way that living with self-obsessed fake prodigies undoubtedly does.†
††††† Now, it might be argued that the world has been taken over by fakes and phonies, and that an honest art must come to terms with that.† If the world has become a glitzy spectacle of poseurs and their products, it would be naÔve to ignore it.† Wright might argue that a sane and sober man who found nothing of interest in gaudy simulacra and who retired in some seclusion to pursue his non-current pastimes was an anti-intellectual throwback, one who deserved to be ignored.†† In fact, although he never states it like this, Wright implies exactly that.†
†††††† Annigoni is chastised primarily for existing in a “cultural vacuum.”† Wright has borrowed that phrase from the avant garde, and I think the two words together demand a closer look.† As they are used, they must imply that current culture is the only road to personal and artistic fulfillment.† Since everything authentic exists inside current culture, it must mean that to be outside current culture is to be in a vacuum.†† But what if culture itself has become a cultural vacuum?† What is the honest and authentic response to a cultural vacuum?† What is the genuine artistic response to culture as a vacuum?†
†††† Wright suggests that all artists who do not accept the main tenets of modernity and of modernity in art must be “unthinking.”†† But what if any deep analysis of those tenets required that they be rejected?† Wright never entertains that possibility.† I strongly recommend he look into it.† Even more, I will give him a number of reasons why he should, taking my examples from art itself, just as he has.
I always like to test art theories by applying them to works that both sides admit are great.† Certain examples always seem to be used by both sides to bolster argument, and those examples are the ones I like to return to see how they affect disagreement.† Let’s go first to Michelangelo’s David.† I notice that the avant garde never uses this sculpture as an example of art that is passť, dishonest, tacky, inauthentic, or any of the rest.† Or, to be precise, very few have made that claim, and none have made it stick.† Let us ask why that work is great and continues to be great.† Is it because it was relevant, then or now?† No.† It may have been more relevant then than now, since its initial viewers were Christian and Florentine, and since it is a sculpture of a Biblical figure representing the strength of Florence.† But even then it was not relevant in the sense that Wright means in his lecture.† It was not au courant in any way.†† Relevant now means dismissive of the past and of past ways of thinking.† Wright says so, explicitly.† But Michelangelo and his Florentine viewers could not agree.† They were accepting stories and morals created thousands of years earlier.† Even more, they were accepting ways of representation that were already thousands of years old.† Michelangelo was lifting both his subject and his treatment from the distant past and assuming that it was still relevant to himself and his contemporary viewer.† And he was right.† It was relevant not in the sense of being up-to-the-minute; it was relevant in being meaningful.†
††††† What was even more relevant, then as now, was the fact that the work was beautiful, powerful, deep and subtle, regardless of its theme, its subject, or its technical pedigree.†† A proper viewer was and is not much interested in the fact that this is David from the Old Testament, or that the city-state of Florence is represented and glorified.†† One must assume that even the ignorant tradespeople of the time were mostly wowed by the beauty and power of the work as it is.† They may have asked who it was supposed to be, just to know, but it is hard to believe that it ever mattered.† The Italians have always been honest enough to admit it: they dubbed it Il Gigante, and the name stuck.†† Obviously, this name applies to the stone object, not to its subject.† David is not the Giant, he killed the Giant.† But the Italians have always been more than willing to advertise this confusion to the world.† Psychologically, they could have found no better way to show that they don’t care who he is.† The only way they could have been more transparently and gloriously unconcerned with non-artistic matters is if they had named him that thing in our plaza that we love.
†††††† Now let’s move on to Rembrandt, another artist generally conceded by all to be great.† Was Rembrandt relevant to his time or was he not?† By Wright’s definition, he was not.† He was relevant only to the extent that he was interesting to enough people not to starve to death, but he was not relevant enough to have ever been bought simply because he was up-to-date, or the equivalent of “cool”.† Wright might say that it wasn’t hip to be hip back then, but Rembrandt wasn’t even stylish by the terms of his own time.† Like Michelangelo, he looked to the Bible for themes; and he didn’t find the sexy themes, like Rubens or Van Dyck did.† He “wasted” a lot of time with etching, which gave him works that were neither big nor profitable.† He slummed around in the Jewish quarter, looking for models for his Dinners at Emmaeus and other naÔve and passť subjects.†† In a nutshell, his PR was abominable.† He was the sort of person that a 21st century gallery flees like the plague.† Why is he considered to be great, despite all this?† Depth, subtlety, power, and an idiosyncratic technical virtuosity.†† Nothing to do with relevance, not to his own time or ours.
†††††† How about Van Dyck?† Were his portraits relevant, in the way Wright means?† No, not even in his own time.† He was more popular than Rembrandt, and more stylish.† But he had very little interest in being relevant.†† Only in his late portraits did he begin to betray “relevance” and these are the portraits that have hurt his reputation.† That is to say, he began to introduce cleverness into his portraits in various ways, to impress his clients’ mental faculties—to make them think, or to make them think that he was a thinker.† History has seen this element in his late portraits as pollution, and rightly so—which turns Wright’s argument on its head.† Van Dyck’s greatest mistake was trying to be relevant.†† In his early portraits he is more straightforward.† He puts his sitters in contemporary costume not to make a statement or to be current, but because that is what they had in the closet.† Besides, it was more than serviceable artistically—lots of white ruffle and lots of serious black.†† The same can be said of his best middle or late portraiture, like the portrait of Frans Snyders in the Frick Collection or the portrait of Philippe le Roy in the Wallace Collection.† Nothing clever is going on here, no winking at the audience, no juxtapositions, no contemporary asides, no politics, no signs or non-signs of modernity.† Just a sitter in fancy dress, maybe with a handsome dog, with columns or drapery in the background.† What makes the portrait great is none of this, though.† What makes the portrait great is that Van Dyck pulled all these elements, and the technical elements, together into a perfect harmony of expression and character.† Color harmony, line quality, paint quality: all exquisite.† Lighting, background, design: all effortless, all nearly invisible.† And the overall effect is calm and subtle, high without announcing elevation.† All art may be manufactured, in some sense, but the Van Dyck does not feel manufactured like the Hale.† Van Dyck (usually) does not allow his sitter to overreach himself, to play a game or look absurd.† Van Dyck’s sitters desired gravity and seriousness and beauty, and they achieved it.† Hale’s sitter appears to want to be a fascinating character, but does not achieve it.
†††††† Now let’s move on to Van Gogh, quite different in some respects from my other examples.† Very honest, by all accounts, but relevant?† Hardly.† He is loved much more now than he was then, and he is not relevant now at all.† By contemporary standards, his landscapes and flowers and fruit trees and muddy shoes and girls at the piano must seem hopelessly naÔve and “unthinking.”† Someone painting them now would be dismissed out of hand.† And by the standards of his own time, Van Gogh was backwards in almost every way, in taking religion seriously just as God was being pronounced dead, in reading books that were considered regressive even then (like Tolstoy and Michelet and Stowe), in preferring the country to the city.† What was Van Gogh’s fleeing Paris for Arles except a flight into seclusion and a dismissal of current culture?† Of course Vincent gets points for accepting the cutting edge brushwork and colors of the Impressionists, but one must ultimately ask if he did this to be modern.† It certainly didn’t do him any good in the markets, and he never thought to use it to do him any good; therefore it was more of a technical accident.† Vincent wasn’t the sort to think of a painting as a novelty, or even as a cultural expression.† And so, to be fair, Wright would have to deny him credit.† Vincent used some Impressionist tricks to express his own personal feelings about nature, feelings which were culturally marginal at best.† He wasn’t responding to the milieu and to the subjects in the newspapers.†† He was responding to his own feelings, feelings that were often sentimental, nostalgic, and romantic.† In fact, this is why he and Gauguin couldn’t get along.† Gauguin found him to be an awful rube, hopelessly introverted and out of touch.
†††† Which brings us to Gauguin—civilized to his fingertips compared to Van Gogh—and yet what did Gauguin do but run off to live on a desert island with naked young girls.† Did he ever try to be relevant for a moment?† He thought so little of current culture that he erased all signs of it from his life and art.† Contemporary critics now use that fact to give him relevance points, as if he did all that just make a statement, to be “challenging.”† But this is preposterous.† An artist can either flee current culture or embrace it.† He cannot do both.† If every negative response counts as a positive, then the argument cannot be falsified and it has no content.† Critics will say that Gauguin found culture important enough to resist: it proves he was intellectually aware of it.† But this can be said of anyone, Annigoni for instance.† Annigoni sometimes dismisses current culture—he is thereby in a vacuum.† Gauguin dismisses culture and he is fabulously progressive, a man before his time.† The standards and words are completely arbitrary, and can be used to include or exclude anyone you like.† If Gauguin was not in a cultural vacuum in Tahiti, I don’t know who was.
††††† Of course I do not hold it against him.† I remind you that I think an honest artist must flee his milieu and this milieu especially.†† All great artists fled or resisted their milieu, and part of their greatness was their ability to do it successfully.† They existed without that support that is necessary for most people.† They did not give a damn what everyone was doing or thinking, whether it was the majority or the lettered minority.† They did what was artistically and personally necessary and let the rest go to the devil.† As† further examples, think of Blake, or Goya, or Caravaggio, or Rodin, or Munch, or Delacroix, or Courbet.† Courbet was asked what group he belonged to and he answered, “I am a Courbetist, that’s all.”
††††† Whistler was another such.† He could outwrite and outthink any critic of his time or ours, but he had no time for relevance.† He had his own agenda and could not be bothered to care what current culture thought of the matter.† He told current culture what a booby it was, in no uncertain terms.† He would also have had an answer for Oscar Wilde, whom Wright quotes thusly: “Being natural is only a pose, and the most irritating one I know.”† Whistler would answer that anyone who considers Wilde an authority on being natural deserves the advice he receives.
††††† Yet another example is Degas.† Degas is used in current theory as a progressive type, as if his shopgirls and tarts are meant to be challenging and relevant.†† But in fact Degas was a misanthropic recluse, an elitist, and a tory.† He thought very little of democracy and nothing at all of public opinion.†† Current culture was beneath his notice, and he would not have found it worthwhile to make comment on it for or against.† His subjects were the surest form of escape he could think of.† Gauguin went to Tahiti and Degas hid away in the brothels and backstage at the ballet, surrounded by a world that was visual only.† How much thinking would you say is required to paint young women taking off their tutus?†† Once again I remind the reader that I am not criticizing Degas here, I am extolling him.† He knew how to find his obsessions, and his politics is beside the point.† Backstage you cannot tell a tory from a communist.† What I want from an artist is great paintings, not treatises or propaganda or jokes or puzzles.
The last part of Wright’s lecture is given over to Lucian Freud and himself.† Freud is called the Ingres of existentialism “for his sensitivity to the interior world of the subject.”† If in fact all of Freud’s subjects’ interior worlds are rotting, flaking, miscolored corpses, then maybe this is true, but it still begs the question why Freud meets no one but zombies.† Perhaps he should try a different neighborhood.†† I must ask, if flattery is dishonest, does that make anti-flattery honest?† I would think that both are equally dishonest, since neither one is true.† Rodin might point to nature when sculpting the Helmet Maker’s Beautiful Wife: she really did look like that.† But what Freud has done is make beautiful, or at least average people, look ghastly.† How is this “getting to the essential qualities that make them human”?† Yes, we will all die, we are all rotting away slowly inside physically, or at least those of us over 30 are, but is this our essential quality?† Was the essential quality of Einstein that he lost his teeth and had bad digestion?† Was the essential quality of Marie Curie that she had thinning hair and once suffered from warts?† Was the essential quality of Goethe that his legs were bitten by bedbugs?† Is the essential quality of Meryl Streep that she has spider veins and carries microscopic vermin in her eyelashes?
††††† Freud has deceived us.† We may not be as princely as Van Dyck made us, but none are as awful as Freud has made them.†† Kate Moss’ spirit may be a wretched thing next to her body, but until it is thrown forcibly into the pit it cannot match the horror of her portrait.† I do not see the honesty or the courage in all this.† We are told that Nietzsche is the father of existentialism, but he would dismiss Freud as a despiser of life.† Only a despiser of life would call everything ugly true and everything beautiful false.† He who implies that all beauty is false is a liar.† Freud is either a liar or he must be accused of selective editing.† He paints only the ugly.† To retain his honesty, all his subjects must be ugly inside.† Knowing the crowd he runs with, this is a distinct possibility, but even so he still falls to the selective editing critique—a critique invented by the avant garde.† All the “shallow rejects” in history have fallen, cut by this sword, from Raphael to Poussin to Canova to Bouguereau to Sargent, and on and on.†† They have seen and painted only the young and beautiful and perfect, and perfected that which was not already perfect.† OK, but, mutatis mutandis, Freud has done the same thing, painting only the ugly and rotting, and making ugly all that was not already ugly.† How can lying against beauty be authentic when lying for beauty is inauthentic?† What we have is a contradiction.† Nothing as interesting as paradox, mind you, just a contradiction.† A mistake in reasoning.
Wright himself is not interested in ugly for the sake of ugly, at least not in his own painting.† He says he wants “to place the viewer in an awkward and unfamiliar place between belief and disbelief.† It is my own kind of ‘distancing effect’”.† Fair enough, but surely this requires further explanation.† I ask, “Why?† Distance to cause what?†† What does the journey to the unfamiliar place achieve?”† Wright appears to have accepted the “critical distance” of modern art uncritically.† It has been around since the time of Walter Benjamin and Roger Fry, so it no longer requires explanation.††† We are expected to go, “Ah yes, distance, always a good thing.† Carry on!”†† But is it a good thing?† I don’t think so.† In my own paintings I don’t want any critical distance, thank you, and you can keep the critic, too.†† I want the emotional response of my viewer right on top of my painting, my naked woman sitting on his Id like a cheek pressed on a pillow. †If my viewer has time or inclination to think, I have done something wrong.†† This is not because I want my image to read like pornography, but because I want it to read like a purely visual thing, an immediate passionate response.† All the artists I have mentioned above wanted precisely the same thing.† Think of Starry Night as the purest example.† The painting grabs you and hugs you so tightly you haven’t time to take breath, much less think.† Once you break free, you may ask how and why this is so, but all that is after the fact.† The artistic response is the first one, and it is the one Vincent was after.† He could have cared less about where you went after that.† He was not in control of where you went after that.† The artist is responsible for his paintings, not for your book reports.†
††††††† Wright finds some faults with his portrait of Prince Philip, but this fault-finding is not terribly convincing.† It is interesting to note that he didn’t choose to find faults with a painting of a less famous person.† This paragraph can be passed over mainly as a reminder that he did paint Prince Philip and had four hours with him, which is four more hours than you had.† He appears to want to apologize for making Philip look “clownish” or “like a public idiot” or like a person “not given any accolades for his ideas”, but I note that he is not above reminding the listener that the Prince is thought to be all these things.† This sort of misdirection in speaking is actually an ancient rhetorical device called litotes, in which the speaker affirms what he seems, on the face of it, to be denying.† Wright denies that the Prince is an idiot, but this denial gives him another chance to say, “that the Prince is an idiot.”† Rhetorical devices are common among sophists and other people who can’t just say what they mean directly.†
†††††† For myself, Wright’s fake self-criticism further damages a portrait I was not prone to like in the first place. It seems a cutesy conglomeration of artsy poses, none of which attach to the Prince himself—except that he allowed himself to be subjected to it.† I only hope that Wright paid well for the privilege.† He seems to be paying for it still.†
†††††† Wright claims that the painting veers off course into satire and caricature, but could it have any other course?† Are we to imagine that a fly on the shoulder and flowers growing out of the finger were meant for serious commentary?† I am not defending the Prince here.† As an American I know nothing and care nothing about Prince Philip.† But I do know a dishonest paragraph when I read it, and an uninspired portrait when I see it.† Wright has already told us that he thinks portraits must be modern, and nothing is considered more modern than irony and satire, except maybe double speech posing as depth.
After all that, only now do I descend into the whale’s belly.† The speech as a whole is not just wrongheaded, it is insidious.† It is not just one man’s opinion, take it or leave it.† It is a sign of a deeper malaise, both the artist’s and the culture’s.† And it is a clue to an almost sinister alliance, or capitulation.††† The longer I studied the speech, the angrier I got.† One reason may be seen in this line: “Achieving a likeness is, to a degree, a trick with a brush or pencil, one that can be taught to almost any individual with a modicum of innate facility.”† Here Wright has proven himself to be a mole, an enemy in poor disguise, one of Lee’s State Art people spreading the lie from inside the cathedral.† At a cursory glance, Wright might be seen to be playing the humble card, but it is a confidence trick.† Humble or not (I would guess not) he is re-planting the seed.† One of the first seeds and first lies of the avant garde is that painting realistically is easy, common, and banal.† Once mouthed daily by Greenberg and the rest back in the 40’s and 50’s, the chorus has returned to full strength.† This lie has once again been given priority in the war.† Hockney built a new career upon it and it re-entered the university on his authority.† It has been reconstituted as the Maginot line against ability.† Because large numbers of people can create terrible portraits from slides, we are to believe that the abilities of Van Dyck and Titian have been downgraded.† Because the lowest levels of contemporary realism are tacky and ill-conceived, we must believe that tackiness is avoidable, if at all, only by reading the right tracts and thinking the right avant-garde thoughts.†
†††† The fact is, achieving a likeness is damned difficult, and most people can’t do it even with slides, tracing paper, and every trick known to man.† Hockney himself proves this in his own book.† Even among well-paid portraitists, a good likeness is a rare thing, and an attractive likeness is almost unknown.† A subtle and graceful likeness is extinct.† Many painters try to flatter their clients, but very few can do it.† You may argue about whether Sargent’s talent for flattery was shallow or not, but you cannot argue that it wasn’t rare.† If it had been common then he couldn’t have demanded such huge prices.† Not one living painter matches Sargent’s ability, despite a market for it, and despite huge efforts in that direction.†
†††† This makes Wright’s statement misleading at best: it is true to such a small degree and false to such a large.† The statement has been made by so many people for so long that most now look at all realism and go, “Pah, anyone can do that.† It is all a trick, like performing magic.”†† And now a realist painter confirms it, in a lecture at the National Portrait Gallery.†† He has pulled the curtain away and shown us the mirrors.†
††††† But painting is not a trick like sawing a lady in half.†† As a “trick” it is more like dunking a basketball.† If you can do it, then you can do it; if you can’t, you can’t.† Some small percentage of people can add an inch or two to their vertical leap, and can learn it.† But the vast majority of people are not tall enough, and that is all there is to it.† Of those that can dunk, only a small percentage can do it with any style.† They are very rare, so rare that we can gather them all together for a yearly contest, and watch them all compete in an hour or two.† This rarity is why they are paid so well.
†††† Wright’s statement takes none of this into account, since he uses the idea just like the avant garde uses it.† He uses the very lowest end of the scale to dismiss the entire spectrum.† A majority in the arts have accepted this, but it is an argument without merit or sense.† We can teach eight year olds to dribble and shoot, but that does not call into question the ability of a Michael Jordan.† An avant garde logician would watch Michael Jordan score 60 points and say, “Well, so what, my grandmother can shoot a basketball.”† Yes, but she misses.† It is hardly equivalent.† By the logic of the avant garde, Michael should be forced to justify his game with some off-court relevance.†† The NBA should be forced to tart up the game with gratuitous political references or undercut it with ironic self-commentary or self-parody.† Wright implies, by the movement of his speech, that because a couple of mediocre artists he found on the internet are mediocre, he must eschew straight quality and begin tarting up his works with some species of cleverness.
But the central reason Wright’s speech is insidious is that he says this: “I feel an increasing ambivalence toward portrait painting. . . naturalism itself is but a code. . .I am still indulging in artifice.”† To most this will seem a pretty tame confession, but to me it is the clincher.† For it leads me to ask why the National Portrait Gallery could not have hired someone who believed in himself and his art.† Why was Wright chosen to be the representative of the opposition?† He was chosen because he agrees with current theory at almost every point, and those few points where he strays give him serious pause.† He is a realist and a portrait painter, which take him about as far from Tracey Emin and the Saatchi people as you are now allowed to go.† But it turns out that he hasn’t the balls to actually disagree with them on anything.† He obligingly repeats all their mantras and apologizes for his own work.† They hardly need to attack portraiture when he will do it for them.† They hardly need to police his mind when he has set up the internal guards and cameras already.††
†††††† He sums up with two more central tenets of the avant garde: “What it means to be human is a perpetually shifting idea,” and, “each period’s portraits hold a mirror to their time.”† Both contain a kernel of truth but are predominantly false.† Things do change, hair, clothes, politics, and so on.† But what it means to be human does not change, until we stop being human.† That is why, despite losing some of the details, we can follow the events of history with compassion and understanding.† We can read of ancient Egypt or Rome, knowing that they were people much like us, who ate, raised families, dreamed, questioned, and created.†† The portraits of history do tell us things about the specific time periods, but they were not created to do so, and their main value then and now was not to mirror society.† The timeless aspect of all art is more fundamental to it than its quotidian aspects, and this is true of portraiture as well.† When I look at Titian’s Man with a Glove in the Louvre, I am looking at an immediate communication across five centuries.† Artistically, the chronological variances are of no import.†† His hairstyle is something I might see on the street, and his gloves could be bought at the corner store; and even if they couldn’t, so what?† It is the way Titian has captured this man that should interest me, that does interest me.† If I am looking at gloves and other details, then Titian has failed.† The gloves and such are secondary matters; they exist as part of the harmony and should not interrupt the main line of music, which is from eye to eye.†
†††††† Wright clearly understands none of this.† His lecture serves the entrenched status quo
as another brick in the wall.† It is
another piece of propaganda that the avant garde can use to deflate the
ambitions and passions of young artists.†
If they are attracted to realism, they will fear to "indulge in
artifice."† If they encounter any
genuine emotion, they will feel the need to deflect it or undercut it or
distance it.† If they propose to paint
in any straightforward way, they will chastise themselves as unthinking and
irrelevant.† Wittingly or unwittingly,
Wright has offered up his neck to the chopping block, and with it the heads of
the next generation of artists.
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