Friday, April 8, 2011

Great art as transcending constraint

A friend has been painted for the Archibald Prize. The artist knows how modern critics want her to paint, but it is not how she likes to paint. As the portrait's subject’s partner said to me recently, art evaded the constraints of the Church and then produced what of value exactly? (Somewhat harsh, but one takes his point.) It is not the abolition of constraint, but its transcendence, that produces great art. If there are no constraints, there is nothing to transcend.

In Christopher Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road he mounts a heartfelt critique of modernism and post-modernism. He observes:
But before the twentieth century, although the greatest artists nearly all achieved their success by striving against tradition and sometimes breaking the rules, there was a balance between the two forces: the goal of the upward-aiming aristocratic system was to achieve success by creating artworks that were as near to perfection as possible within the traditional rules based on the natural order. The goal of the downward-aiming modern tendency was to achieve success by creating art works that effectively changed the traditional or previously followed rules. Because the two forces were in balance, the great artists of the past did not destroy existing rules, they stretched or otherwise modified them (p.292).
Part of that natural order being the continuity of human nature:
The consistency of human behaviour over such great expanses of space and time can clearly be due only to our common genetic heritage (p.xi).
Constraints gave art something to both strive against and be judged by. Without constraints, what is the point?

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