The Idler: On Artists on Art


June 1, 1994

Calvin and Hobbes are walking in the snow. Calvin says with outstretched arms, “This is my latest snow sculpture.” Hobbes asks, “Where?”

“All of this!” Calvin replies, with arms even more outstretched.

Hobbes looks perplexed, “But you didn’t do anything.”

“Right,” says Calvin, “Art is dead! There’s nothing left to say. Style is exhausted and content is pointless. Art has no purpose. All that’s left is commodity marketing. Consequently, I’m signing this landscape, and you can own it for a million dollars.” Calvin etches his name in the snow with a twig while Hobbes looks even more perplexed.

Hobbes turns away saying, “Sorry … it doesn’t match my furniture.”

Calvin concludes, “The problem with being avant-garde is knowing who’s putting on who.”

Reading this, I was reminded of the one question that always arises when the course of the conversation turns to art: What is art?  Is it, to take a nihilist approach a question that has many answers and, therefore, no answer? So I dusted off a book from one of my art history courses and reread it. Artists on Art: From the XIV to the XX Century, compiled and edited by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves (Pantheon Books, third ed., 1958) is just what it says it is: the artists’ own writings, from the first, Cennino Cennini (ca. 137o-144o) of Italy to the last, Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) of Mexico. In between are famous and infamous artists up through the first part of the twentieth century.

The selected artists of the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries for the most part penned treatises on how to make art, rather than on what is art. If these selections are an indication of the times, the artists of those centuries were more intent on expounding on the skills of their craft than on reflecting on the metaphysics of art.

The following centuries show the artists contemplating more their own inner motivations (and at times those of other artists), and pondering such questions as, “What is art?” and, “Why do I do it?” Later artists, such as the Impressionists, were more concerned to defend their innovative methodologies and novel styles.

I begin with the masters.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), probably the most ambitious genius of all time, was a prolific writer, as well as an artist. He faithfully jotted down his thoughts in his notebooks, many of which have been preserved through the centuries.

painting … is the sole imitator of all the visible works of nature…. And this truly is a science and the true-born daughter of nature, since painting is the offspring of nature. But in order to speak more correctly we may call it the grandchild of nature; for all visible things derive their existence from nature, and from these same things is born painting. So therefore we may justly speak of it as the grandchild of nature and as related to God Himself.

Da Vinci’s world was influenced by the alliance of throne and altar. To da Vinci the direct line from God to man and nature was a given, and art was one of the primary ways to portray any aspect of God or nature. This view of nature as a standard for art is expressed over and over again by later artists.

Of the next great artist, Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), H.W. Jansen wrote that his genius was a divine inspiration: “a superhuman power granted to a few rare individuals and acting through them, is nowhere exemplified more fully than in the life and work of Michelangelo.” He goes on to say that Michelangelo accepted his genius as fact, “although it seemed to him at times a curse rather than a blessing. Conventions, standards, and traditions might be observed by lesser spirits; he could acknowledge no authority higher than the dictates of his genius.”

Michelangelo experienced violent mood swings—a sense of being at odds with himself and with the world. Possibly because of his own inner struggle, his statues are imbued with a dualism of body and spirit which manifests an extraordinary pathos: “outwardly calm, they seem stirred by an overwhelming psychic energy that has no release in physical action.”

Michelangelo believed that in order to transcend the ordinary, artists had to isolate themselves:

excellent painters are … unsociable … in order not to corrupt themselves with the vain conversation of idle persons and degrade their thoughts from the intense and lofty imaginings in which they are continually rapt. … Know you not that certain sciences require the whole man, leaving no part of him at leisure for your trifles? … [A] man cannot attain excellence if he satisfy the ignorant and not those of his own craft, and if he be not “singular” or “distant,” or whatever you like to call him.

Artistic minds through the ages, especially religious who believed that to become truly close to God it was necessary to separate themselves from the world, have often valued such seclusion.

In his biography on Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Charles Scribner III wrote that Rubens was an artist’s artist, a dedicated scholar and Christian humanist, a learned classicist and antiquarian, a true Renaissance man. Not one for seclusion, Rubens, a courtier and diplomat, was also a devout Catholic, devoted husband, and father of eight children, “a prosperous, energetic, life-loving, thoroughly balanced man who lived in harmony with his society and, we may assume, with himself.”

In one of his essays Rubens set forth his views on why art seemed to be declining in the seventeenth century:

we have declined from that heroic genius and judgment of the ancients; whether it be that we are blinded by the fog of our fathers, or that we have fallen on evil by the will of the gods … or that we are irretrievably enfeebled because the world is growing old…. The chief cause of the difference between the ancients and the men of our age is our laziness and life without exercise: always eating, drinking, and no care to exercise our bodies…. In antiquity, on the contrary, all men exercised their bodies every day in the palaestra and the gymnasium… till they perspired and were thoroughly fatigued.

The New World had been discovered over a century before; the Gutenberg Press had been invented; trade in a variety of commodities among the New World, the Far East, the Near East, and Europe was flourishing; the sciences were developing as rapidly as the computer industry does today; and time was moving faster than it ever had before. Art was now not so much an enterprise to be patronized as an activity for those who could afford the leisure. In later decades, the majority of those who did try to make it their prime trade usually died penniless.

Auguste Rodin (184o-1917), the great sculptor of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was fortunate enough to receive considerable recognition while still alive. Albert Elsen wrote, “Before his death … he had enjoyed at least twenty years of homage from five continents, England and Japan, not merely as the finest living sculptor, but as the greatest artist of his time.” On the execution of art, Rodin maintained that there is a special bond between the artist and nature:

I grant you that the artist does not see Nature as she appears to the vulgar, because his emotion reveals to him the hidden truths beneath appearances…. the only principle in art is to copy what you see…. There is no recipe for improving nature…. The artist … sees; that is to say, his eye, grafted on his heart, reads deeply into the bosom of nature.

It was written of Georges Rouault (1871-1958): “Of all twentieth-century artists he is the most unclassical, the least calm, the most disturbing. That he was a fervent Catholic is obvious from some of his works and certainly deducible from all of them even from the least evidently religious.” Rouault asserted: “My only ambition is to be able some day to paint a Christ so moving that those who see Him will be converted.” He believed that an artist could only achieve salvation by living a life of the imagination, which would be possible only if, Se retirer du monde, croire trouver la paix, quelle gageure si to ne portes en toi un autre monde qui transfigure les plus miserables matieres et leur donne odeur et saveur des fleurs du paradis. L’ordre, c’est du dedans qu’il rayonne et non du dehors. (Loosely translated: “One withdraws from the world, believing that he will find peace, but what will you gain if you do not have within you another world which will change the most miserable of objects and give to them the aroma and taste of flowers of paradise. Order shines from within and not from outside.”)

He avowed,

Often pagans, with their eyes wide open, do not see very clearly…. I am a believer and a conformist. Anyone can revolt; it is more difficult silently to obey our own interior promptings, and to spend our lives finding sincere and fitting means of expression for our temperaments and our gifts—if we have any. I do not say “neither God, nor Master,” only in the end to substitute myself for the God I have excommunicated….

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) was “not only one of the most important and influential of abstract painters but a leading theorist of abstraction.” In one of his many essays on art Mondrian wrote,

The laws which in the culture of art have become more and more determinate are the great hidden laws of nature which art establishes in its own fashion. It is necessary to stress the fact that these laws are more or less hidden behind the superficial aspect of nature. Abstract art is therefore opposed to a natural representation of things. But it is not opposed to nature… It is opposed to the raw primitive animal nature of man, but it is one with true human nature.

Eric Gill (1882-1940) was a British artist who was well known between the two world wars, but whose own controversial prominence was later eclipsed by more notorious artists. In his early years Gill belonged to the Church of England, but became interested in Catholicism in 1911 and was received, with his wife, into the Catholic Church in 1913. Malcolm Yorke wrote that Gill’s conversion was not solely the result of pure reason:

St Thomas Aquinas wrote that “the senses are a kind of reason,” a means not just to sensation but to knowledge and to holiness. After all, “nothing is in the mind but what comes to it through the senses.” Gill’s conversion was only partly through ratiocination, for, as he admits, the sheer beauty of the plain-chant at Mont Cesar played an important part too. He wrote: “I became a Catholic because I fell in love with the truth, and love is an experience. I said, I heard, I felt, I tasted, I touched. And that is what lovers do.”

Gill himself wrote on the close bond between art and religion:

The Incarnation may be said to have for its object the drawing of men from misery to happiness. Being the act of God It is the greatest of all rhetorical acts and therefore the greatest of all works of art…human works should be holy, for holiness is properly their criterion, and holiness is not simply that which is so called…. Art is a rhetorical activity—this is easily understood when we think of books and dramatic plays, of poetry and music, or pictures and sculptures. And if we realize that there is no dividing line between these things and the works of blacksmiths and navvies, we shall see how all things work together for good, and that is to say, for God.

What is a work of art? A word made flesh…. A word, that which emanates from the mind…. From the highest to the lowest that is the substance of works of art. And it is a rhetorical activity; for whether by the ministry of angels or of saints or by the ministry of common workmen, gravers or gravediggers, we are all led heavenwards.

Man is always seeking that which distinguishes him from the rest of the animal kingdom. Every living creature expresses itself in some manner. Yet only man has a spiritual nature, and only man is driven to express himself artistically. And possibly the noblest artist is the one whose need for expression creates a passion within his soul that can only be released by producing a great work of art.

What is art? Art expresses faith in the beauty of truth. It can be religious but is not religion; it is rooted in time, but can reach eternity. Art is man’s attempt to grasp a moment and express an Eternity.


  • Gayle Yiotis

    At the time this article was published, Gayle Yiotis was an assistant editor of Crisis.

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