Friday, November 20, 2015

Harold Speed on Modern Art, Part 1

We continue the Friday Book Club with Chapter 2, "Modern Art" in Harold Speed's 1924 art instruction book The Science and Practice of Oil Painting.

Let's take Roberto's suggestion of breaking this chapter into two parts, so we'll stop at page 20. I'll present Speed's main points in boldface type either verbatim or paraphrased, followed by comments of my own. If you want to add a comment, you can use the numbered points to refer to the relevant section of the chapter.

1. "A considerable body of artists have deliberately set aside fine craftsmanship in order to express themselves more freely...there has been such a fashion for the crude methods of savages and primitive peoples."

Speed's racist comments, coming at the beginning of his book, have probably turned off a lot of readers to the useful material that comes later in his treatise on painting. That's unfortunate. But let's take a look at his views one by one and see whether there's anything that makes sense to us today.

England after World War 1 was seeing its empire rapidly eroding. Because of widespread press and travel, the doors were thrown open to an awareness of non-European cultures and art.
Andre Derain, The Dance, 1905-6
At the same time, Modern Art, which was primarily a European phenomenon, presented a direct threat to an artist with academic skills. The fact that Speed invokes "savages" and "primitive peoples" and he shows illustrations of African carvings is not altogether surprising since some of the European Moderns around Speed were called "fauvists" (which means wild animals). He was writing not long after the scandalous premieres of such works as The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, which deliberately evoked primordial rituals of non-European cultures.
Ivory Coast, Spirit Spouse.
Wood, Ht: 18."
Baule ethnic group,
early 20th Century.

I think most everyone nowadays would recognize that the art from non-European cultures—whether African or Pacific-Ocean or Native American — presents no threat whatsoever to traditional European academic painting. On the contrary, personally I find them hugely inspiring because of their language of abstraction.

In my mind non-Western art occupies a completely different category than Modern art does, despite the fact that many Modern artists used it as a jumping-off point. One can copy the outward style of any type of art, and that's totally fine. But if an artist doesn't know much about the culture or mind that produced that "exotic" art, it will be different from the original article.

Speed admits that some 19th century painters became overly concerned with naturalism, which he says led to "enfeeblement," so he has left the door open a bit to recognizing the value of Modernism.

Speed then proposes some sociological reasons for the rise of modernism:

2. Mass culture sets the dominant cultural note of the modern age
Speed suggests that there's a dominant cultural note in every age, such as that set by aristocratic patrons in the 18th century, and realism in the 20th century when middle-class values were in the ascendancy.

In other words, the power that buys the art shapes the art.

He then chalks up the trends of what he sees as crudeness in art to the rise of the power of the middle and lower classes. He says, "a great deal of the unrest and fretful violence that is disturbing the traditions of culture in all directions is due to the coming of this new cruder element into the cultural feast."

This argument strikes me not only as elitist, but wrong. If anything, it has been the cultural elite—especially academics, critics, and investors—that have promoted and supported Modernism.

Modernism has never been terribly popular in a widespread way among the lower and middle classes, compared to the art in comic books and magazines. What has truly captured the imagination of all socioeconomic classes in the West, from poor to rich, has been the "other" modern art movements found in comics, animation, and illustration.

3. "Now nobody waits until he has developed his mind before expressing an opinion."
What would he think of the Internet?

4. "The greatest works of art have been produced by small communities, such as existed in Athens and the independent states of Italy in the Renaissance." 
Interesting point, and perhaps it has a grain of truth to it, but I'm not sure that's always true. I believe art of great quality can appear anywhere, including in commercialized mass culture.

5. "It is only those whose work shouts at you, who have much chance of any immediate notice."
Speed equates bright colors with swearing and other inflated forms of language. He raises an interesting question for our time: Can art with quiet, sober virtues find an audience in our own age of ubiquity and image overload?

Speed observes that as Modernism began to emerge, artists were interested in the exotic. He says, "Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley, Conder, and the exquisite decadent art of the fin de siècle was the fashionable note. This has been followed by the craze for Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso."

He predicted that people would grow bored with such novelties. But history has proven otherwise, at least in the realm of the auction market and the museums. What may have surprised Speed were he to visit us today is how polymorphous the art world is. Whatever stuff you like, you'll find someone doing it.

6. "anaemic people painted life-size drinking the blood of freshly killed bullocks"
Speed makes reference to a specific painting at the (French?) Salon. Anyone know what painting he's referring to?

7. "I am not at all sure that the columns of literature it has produced, are not of much greater value than the works of which they are supposed to treat."
This is reminiscent of the point of Tom Wolfe's book The Painted Word, which argued that modern paintings serve primarily as illustrations of ideas that have their real life in print, and that the cart is driving the horse.

Tip to young artists: give critics and historians something to write about. 

8. Quotes from Roger Fry on page 16 and 17.
Roger Fry was an interesting character in all this, a promoter of Post-Impressionism and a detractor of Sargent. Rather than try to explain him further, here's the Wikipedia page on him.

9. "The great influence the Press has on modern life has brought into existence a new variety of artist, one who ministers to the demands of art critics."
There were publications cropping up everywhere in Speed's day which acted as tastemakers and gatekeepers. With those publications, Speed argues, comes a professional class of art critics who never existed before. He suggests that "the art-critics have strengthened their position recently by the control they have been able to exercise upon the purchasing departments of our public galleries."

Food for discussion:
a) There are still art critics in newspapers and magazines, but do they have the cultural influence they once did?
b) Has social media made art critics irrelevant?
c) What kind of artworks or artists are being fostered by the proliferation of forums like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Blogger?

10. "Good craftsmanship is a healthier soil for art to grow in than fine theories about aesthetics."
This is a fascinating point, that art is the finest flower growing on a base of craftsmanship running through all of a culture's production. Can there be fine painting without a corresponding value placed on fine furniture and architecture and wallpaper and typography? This idea is reminiscent of William Morris, who believed that all things in a person's world should be conceived artistically.

We'll cover the second half, starting at "Technical Influences," next week.
In its original edition, the book is called "The Science and Practice of Oil Painting." Unfortunately it's not available in a free edition that I know of, but there's an inexpensive print edition that Dover publishes under a different title "Oil Painting Techniques and Materials," and there's also a Kindle edition.
Speed's drawing book: Chapter 1: Preface and Introduction


Jessica Kirby said...

My guess for the "anemic people painted life size" would be Picasso's Guernica. To someone who didn't understand the symbolism in it would most definitely describe it that way.

James Gurney said...

Hmm, maybe so. I was thinking it was something by Cormon or Makart or Piloty or someone like that.

Jessica Kirby said...

Well, he further described it as "painting of the year" and it was about 20 feet long, so that also helped bring me to my guess. Then he moved on to mention the art of savages and art of children. It very much sounded like he was taking a massive dig at Picasso.

Unknown said...

Maybe it's about Nicolai Fechin's painting "Slaughterhouse"? Guernica was painted in the 1930-s. But Harold Speed wrote the book in the 1920-s.

Chris James said...

a) There are still art critics in newspapers and magazines, but do they have the cultural influence they once did?

Modernist work still sells for millions of dollars, and the critics are still there championing it, but their influence doesn't seem to reach beyond an incestuous circle of artists, dealers, and other critics. In the world of graphic arts, I don't see one dominant style, movement, or medium holding sway. I find this to be an improvement over conditions when the academies' or Modernists' dogma ruled.

b) Has social media made art critics irrelevant?

To whom? Not to that circle I mentioned above; who else would they count on to convince people with a lot of money that a messy bed is an artistic achievement worth millions of dollars. Probably to the public, which the "cultural elite" have disdained anyway. And I don't know that it was social media that made/might make critics irrelevant. How much sway did their opinions have over the culture at large in the years preceding the internet, even? If they are irrelevant, I say it was their own doing. They treated art as one does fashion, and as class warfare. No structure can stand on such a cracked foundation.

c)What kind of artworks or artists are being fostered by the proliferation of forums like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Blogger?

As you say, whatever you like, someone is doing it. And there is an audience supporting it, some larger, some smaller. I see Blogger and Pinterest carrying most of the weight, though, the former in an informational context, such as this blog here, the latter acting as a gallery space. Likely if you like them or have heard of them, you'll find a few Pinterest pages full of their work. I recently spent a good hour looking at various R. Crumb pieces there.

Fabio said...

1. I don't believe Speed is being racist here, at least no more than the average set of thoughts of the period. I can't find myself in disagreement with him when he states the superiority of western art to exotic. There are indeed interesting points in their level of abstraction, but the form is definitely primitive.
I think a nice comparison could be made in this case with music. Primitive societies cannot develop a music that is over their artistic sense. It is noticeable how rhythmic, but yet dry of any sense of melody and polyphony (I might be using the wrong english terms, sorry for it) songs of all of the african people are. It's a matter of fact that western music has reached higher levels of expression. I think the same goes for art. We cannot compare something composed by Jean Baptiste Lully with a generic series of drum hits made in an african village, as we cannot compare Bouguereau's Psyche Abduct with their simple, graffiti like drawings.
Yes, I will probably sound racist too, but I hate having to say good of something I think is not, just cause it sounds "politically not correct" :)

2. I believe speed is angry with those self-proclamed artists who pretend to be making art just because they put something together and claim it is. It's true what James says, that Modernism is a tendency of an "elite" more than of the lower classes. My thought was that Speed is arguing with the brutalization of technique, which followed the diffusion and more ready availability of mediums to everyone. A bit like "pop" art, a more gross expression made to enchant people who for any reason do not appreciate higher levels. It's sadly more common to hear someone praise for Ed Shereen (I don't even know him, just hear youngsters yell about him) than for Mozart or Beethoven, which is sad. It's something that always existed of course, but whence before lower class people had simply no access to art, "pop" made it ready for everyone.

3. So true. Social Media are the fair of people not knowing what they talk about.

4. I agree with James, and refer back to what I said on Pop art

5. Can art with quiet, sober virtues find an audience in our own age of ubiquity and image overload? I think it does, but has the same audience it had before, in terms of numbers. In these days where few people listen to Bach but masses go to Lady Gaga's concerts.

9. I agree on Speed's opinion on art critics: most of them love "modern" art because they can say anything they want about it. A dot on a blank canvas. Art. No way! And they come up with all sorts of mental absurdities on what it should represent.

10. I agree once more on the fact that art is a natural evolution of craft. It's the latter expression of it. Having studied Latin I know Art comes from Ars, which means Craft, ability. There can't be art without craft, without some kind of manual ability do create what you want to represent.

To sum it up, here is what I do when I try to describe modern art.
I take a blank sheet of paper, and draw a dot on it. What is it? It's a dot.
Then I put it in a frame, and write below "Sad Woman".
What is it? it's still a dot!
But hey, since we wrote something below it and stack it to a wall in a museum, it must be art. I so agree with speed's thoughts when he says modern art is self-proclaimed, and made by people who say that's art, without having real value.


Fabio said...

P.s. I wanted to add a short note on the "brutalization of beauty" idea. Stockhausen tried to make us convinced of the fact that "Quartet for helicopter and orchestra" is art. That's not. I'm adding this to my point 2, meaning that there is a (decreasing? hopefully) tendency of both pop and "elite modern art" in wanting us to think something ugly is beautiful (the first with a decreasing quality, the latter with an absurd illogic thought at its base). Have you heard about the "piece of art" (which was just a pile of trash sacks" thrown away in venice? A garbage collector didn't know it was art and threw it away. Of course, it was "art" not real art.

kev ferrara said...

The first edition was 1924, so unless that mention of the "painting of the year" only appears in the second edition of 1949 and not in the 1924 edition, Guernica couldn't have been the reference. It may be relevant that Speed would have been 77 years old in 1949 when the second editions debuts.

I don't think social media is the way wealthy art collectors look at or buy work. I think they buy work through relationships with brokers and advisors and interior decorators and sometimes on advice from fashionable critic-friends, all of whom have relationships with the top end brick-and-mortar galleries and auction houses. Its a small coterie making for a tight network. The rising prices for artists like Fechin, Bougereau and Rockwell give hope for the long terms financial appreciation of timeless quality or craftsmanship. But in terms of current artist purchases, the wealthy are still unceasingly tended and herded like so much cattle towards postmodernist galleries and "exciting, radical art" venues (like Art Basel.)

I think post-impressionist Modernism originally appealed to the same longing for expressive freedom as cartoons did. Bright colors and silly shapes and splashing around are a very innocent delight and a welcome antidote for many. People certainly lined up to see some of the seminal modernist exhibitions. That the "serious" modern artists kept to the trappings of fine gallery painters who used oil paint, canvas, frames, and gallery spaces was keen business, as it separated them from the funny pen and ink guys who were relegated to the visual vaudeville of the comics sections.

Asserting the "importance" of modern artists was, of course, the main object of all the theoretical gibberish written by them and others which touted their work. The fact that Modern art became a craze after 1910 or so was due to a confluence of factors. The suddenly skyrocketing prices, which not only drove prices still further as investors flooded into the fold, but the sudden bonanza also garnered tons of publicity and heated conversation and veered a great many poor art students toward expressive abstraction and the hope of quick success. So Modernism came on like a feeding frenzy surfing a tidal wave for a lot of different reasons.

Once the pictures themselves took on immense value and were held by wealthy collectors and investors, then the task became to protect, at all costs, the value of theses paintings as commodities. Which results in the "advisor class" arriving on the scene and institutions like the Guggenheim, MOMA, and more recently Dia being erected.

All this and we haven't even mentioned the political component, about which Speed seems only dimly aware. Clearly he was blindsided by the rise of Modernism, aesthetically and psychically, maybe financially as well.

Jessica Kirby said...

Hey Leonard, good point about the dates. I didn't bother to look and see when he actually wrote the book, I just looked at the year mine was published. (DUH!)

Elena Jardiniz said...

Good points all, folks and very well articulated. I have heard, and I agree, that there was a tremendous backlash against the entire culture that lead up to World War I - the visual and musical arts as well as the political and social assumptions became despised symbols of the class that 'caused the war'. This hatred of anyone who advocates skill, specialization, education has always existed and lept to the fore as soon as a civilization gets stressed. We're seeing it now and it has happened before just after the American War of Independence when 'the rabble' exploded over the land to homestead and exalt over their assumed superiority - since they had little education, money or status they took this lack AS the reason for their superiority. And it's seductive to those who want an easy scapegoat for 'everything that's wrong'.

Elena Jardiniz said...

I quite agree that "fine art (tm)" is entirely a marketing scheme. Fabio Porta, you've really explained that well.

When I was a kid I read THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES and that story so explains the entire marketing model of "Fine Art". Every time a body is supposed to read the 'artist's manifesto' to figure out what the thing is about it's pretty darn obvious it's about ego and sales. Will these pieces actually have anything to say to people a generation or two from now? I really doubt it, I think they'll shake their heads and folks who really know their history will compare it to the Tulip Craze in Holland.

Years ago I was sitting sketching Rodin's BURGHERS OF CALAIS and an elderly woman walked up, watched me for a bit, stared thoughtfully at the sculpture for a good five minutes and finally said, "It's not Christ... What IS this?" Across culture and time Rodin's statue got across exactly what he was commemorating without any words at all. And he'd taken a specific historic incident and immortalized it in a way that actually rather offended people when it was originally installed. It is a painful, powerful piece and he'd meant it to jolt people but also to remind them of what people can do in spite of their fear. It's also a lot more interesting than a pretty, polished, 'heroic' statue would've been.

Elena Jardiniz said...

Sorry, Kev Ferrara, your comments are also very well written.

Garrett said...

Interesting thoughts Kev & Chris re: social media and the declining importance of critics- I was reminded of this story in the NY Time Magazine from a little while ago:

Basically it describes a young, wealthy tastemaker that is rivaling traditional critics in providing "expertise" to collectors looking for hot new talent.. Essentially he uses his immense instagram following to create a legitimacy for the artists he supports and drives collectors to them. This is disruptive to the traditional critics who don't necessarily share his taste, and who coincidently often moonlight as consultants for collectors (thus driving the market to their favorites).

Basically at the top end of the market, there is a disruption of the already somewhat dubious nature of art valuation. It is a self-feeding beast and doesn't want to be shown-up by some provincial upstart.

I agree Kev that there is much to consider in the staggeringly massive private institutions that perpetuate a particular narrative of 20th century art. It kind of depresses me that wherever you go in the world there is some guggenheim or whatever that has practically the exact same collection. How sad. But rather than be too cynical, I prefer to embrace the concept that James brought up about where quiet, sober work can stand apart from the fray.. and I think the internet is a positive development on that front!

jaydee said...

Interesting. About that particular painting, couldn't find one but found this magazine article discussing the excesses of paintings at the time.

James Gurney said...

Thanks to everyone for extending the discussion into fascinating areas. You've got us chasing those links and thinking more about Modern Art, both from Speed's perspective, and from the view of our own times.

seadit said...

Wow, interesting chapter and comments this week. I think Speed and James have hit a few nerves here. What fascinates me the most is how we look at or judge history through 2015 goggles (or in the case of our internet age 2015 Google). Two things came to mind when I finished reading James’ post and other’s comments: “Everyone’s a critic.” and “Opinions are like armpits - we all have ‘em and they all stink.” Neither of those are necessarily true in the absolute sense, but I think they do speak to the general social atmosphere of our current time. The internet reminds me of the Gutenberg Press and Bible which opened the door of knowledge and education to people who never had or would have had the opportunity to learn or even develop the skill to learn. In an instant the ‘veil was rent’ and the common - and at that time poor - man had access to the gathering and learning of information and means of advancing themselves that had provided the elite with power and wealth. Flash forward to our day: anything is possible because the opportunities are limitless. Or is it visa-versa. I’ve confused myself...

I grew up in a city that didn’t have noteworthy museums compared to the great cities of the world. My knowledge and appreciation of art came from my mother who was an artist, and her parents who had traveled the world and had what I consider great taste for beautiful and fine-crafted things, which decorated their home. They were really my first exposure to critics as it were. Later came a greater appreciation from books and schooling along with my own experiences and travels to far-off, great and diverse museums and galleries. It kind of reminds me a little of my own experiences with ‘wild animals’ - my first exposure coming from children’s books; then my early education and visits to the local zoo, with the culminating experience coming from a safari in Tanzania. Each one built upon the other for what became a love and appreciation for those magnificent creatures. We each start somewhere and go as far as our learning and exposure to others can take us. Save the geniuses of the world anyway.

My first visit to MOMA was a real eye opener after being weaned on the old masters, but is what I experienced there any less art? In Speed’s previous book he defined art as ‘the Rhythmic expression of Feeling’ which really resonated with me. I’ve always had a difficult time appreciating ‘modern’ works that regardless of their value in the art world didn’t qualify as art in my mind, like Duchamp. I simply couldn’t connect with them. Yet isn’t something ‘new’ in any age worthy of the tag modern? I think sometimes the works with the highest value or esteem are only regarded as such because they were the first to be recognized as something new. How many works are lost or forgotten that might have exceeded the talent or skill of the ‘great artists’ of their time simply because they lacked a good patron or critic?

What’s my point? Save the laws of science and physics that are absolute, everything else is somewhat relative and subjective. If it weren’t for critics, the so-called experts, trend setters and wealthy patrons of the arts throughout history, what we know and appreciate as art and fine crafts wouldn’t exist or have the influence in our lives and own work as it does today. At least I don’t think it would.

We’re social beings who by our very nature connect with like-minded others, so to say that there’s something for everyone is a good thing, which in turn makes us all a critic to some extent. I say thank goodness for those who have and continue to champion anyone who has the ability to inspire and excite, whatever the forum or stage!

Lou said...

#1 I didn't take away from my reading that Speed's comments were so much racist as narrow and elitist. I was disappointed that he lumped all art by "savages" and "primitives" as "crude" and decried the "prominence given to primitive art and the work of savages..."

#2, I concur with you James that Mr. Speed's take on the "masses" and their influence on modern art is wrong. In fact, I didn't agree with several significant points Mr. Speed makes in this section. To me his emphasis on the rise of democracy as greater influence on art than the burgeoning middle class is misplaced.

Some very articulate comments here. I've really enjoyed reading every one. Mr. Speed's writing and everyone's comments have helped me consolidate and articulate my own thoughts on modern art.
I hope someone comes up with the bullocks blood reference. I'm intrigued.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

the painting referred to could be "the blood drinkers" by Gueldry, it was shown in the salons about 1900? It shows a line of anemic faint-looking ladies with a dead bull. (found it referred in a book of late victorian painting, "Idols of Perversity"

Found a link to an image here in black and white:

Jared Cullum said...

My book finally came in the mail today. I look forward to catching up!

seadit said...

"Homemade thinking went out of fashion with homemade bread." What a great, profound quote! Rereading the chapter made me realize much of what he says of his time applies to our's.

P said...

Thank you to Roberto for making me aware of "The painted word". One who was speaking of this very early on was Delacroix. Looking back, it seems prophetic. The following is from Paul Signac’s little book "Delacroix and Neo-impressionism" 1899. (I have translated from the danish edition from 1946.) Delacroix once told his assistant Andrieu:

"Know, little clerk (that being the intimate name he gave Andrieu), that the day, when the painters have lost the skill and love of their tools, then the sterile theories will begin. Because, when they no longer are able to express their thoughts in forms and colors, they will then express them in words, and then the men of letters will get hold of them. I am not talking of the true poet, such as my good little Chopin, but of the assisting teacher who will explain a verse by Vergil."

Peter Sass

Roberto said...

I think Elena Jardiniz is correct in attributing World War I as a major social influence on the modern art movement. The brutality, inhumanity, and futility of that war was devastating, and the mechanization and chemicalization of war proved to be the ‘Dark-Side’ to the advances of the Industrial Revolution. (not to mention the political consequences of the war and the world-wide Influenza epidemic of 1918.)
The prevailing paradigm of Newtonian Physics and even our understanding of the nature of Time was also going through a major transformation during the early part of the last Century, with Einstein’s Relativity theories starting in 1907. All of these influences can be seen in the works of the Fauvists, the Futurists, the Cubists, The Surrealist, and Dada.
Leonard Shlain explores many of these influences/connections in his excellent book “Art and Physics.”
(I wonder what 'Art' will look like Post-FrankenBorg?)-RQ