September 26, 2012, by Jonathan
Looking for a bad painting
We arrived late at the Church of San Michele near Rapello, Northern Italy. The kindly tourist board person had arranged for us to see a little known van Dyke crucifixion there, painted, it is said, while he was in hiding there after trouble in Genova. We eventually located the caretaker, who opened up, and the painting, high on a wall and badly lit, was pointed out. It is disappointing; Christ’s anatomy is all wrong and the kneeling figures are unconvincing. It’s reassuring, I suppose, that great artists are human.
After that we went to Portofino, haunt, it is also vaguely said, of film stars. Indeed, the village looks like the 1939 set from Intermezzo—the place where Ingrid Bergman and Leslie Howard end their unhappy affair. It’s faded charm was not completely ruined by four mega-yachts crammed into the harbor bearing, no doubt, a dozen corporate billionaires and their followers. These objects have a sleek aesthetic of their own but even the most confident advocate of unrestrained capitalism ought to find them depressing in these times. Surely even a bad van Dyke would be a more dignified investment.
So let’s reconsider the van Dyke. Is it worth seeing a bad painting by a great artist? Yes. Some will call that snobbery; it’s what the painting looks like that matters, not who painted it; if it does not look good, it is not worth seeing, or at least it is less worth seeing than a better painting by a lesser or unknown artist.
Not at all. To admire, to love a painting is to admire—and perhaps to love—the person who made it. Paintings are not accidental patterns of colour; they are not sunsets or snow scenes or other natural sights. They are human achievements, traces of valuable human activity. That is why the aesthetics of art is so different from the aesthetics of nature—unless you think nature of the handiwork of a supreme agency. That’s why we are so interested in an artist’s oevre, the trajectory of a lifetime’s work. We should not think about paintings one by one but as a body, chapters in a connected story of artistic struggle. A bad picture by an artist who regularly creates great pictures may deepen our understanding of that greatness, for greatness is always fragile; it’s important to know what can defeat it. Looking at a better painting by a lesser artist answers a less interesting and important set of questions.
We can of course only give so much weight to this argument, otherwise we would be eternally focusing on the great artists of the past and never discovering the new ones. Fortunately there are people out there who are able to detect and to nurture the early signs of greatness. For the rest of us, the past does and must count for a great deal.
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