Many years ago, I attended a poetry reading given by a friend of a friend. The poet made his entrance accompanied by a cadre of followers, all carrying signs and chanting in unison, “I don’t know much about art, but dammit I know what I like.” Like much of modern artistic expression, what made the procession interesting was the questions it raised: Were they affirming this anti-elitist sentiment or mocking it?
I admit that I don’t know a lot about art, specifically the arts of painting and sculpture (I know even less about architecture). We had a pretty good survey course in high school, but since then I have just gleaned bits and pieces of information from conversations with artists and art history majors, Sister Wendy’s BBC series, Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word and lots of museum-going. I like pretty pictures, art that tells a story or generates an emotional response and art that shows off the artist’s dazzling technique, but I also appreciate art that challenges me and makes me ask the questions, What is Art? and Is this thing I’m looking at an example of it? (As a solution to this perennial quandary, an artist friend in college had an “It’s Art” stamp made up. Now it was very easy to tell what was art and what wasn’t – just look for the stamp.)
Humans have been making art for over 30,000 years, and in that time there have been numerous technological advances (like the science of perspective, or the guy who invented tubes that allowed oil painters like Van Gogh to paint outside). There have also been shifts in the philosophy of art, changes in the answers to the question, Why make art? To improve our chances of catching a bison? To worship our deity? To kowtow to the rich and famous? To make a political statement? To explore the effects of one color on another? To show the world that there is art everywhere we look? To stimulate the beholder to ask the questions, Is this Art? Is so, why? If not, why not? This last is what Tom Wolfe hates about modern art – that the explanation of the work can be more interesting than the work itself, that the work is meaningless without the explanation. But the response is, all artists expect the viewer to bring something to the table – it’s just that with pre-modern art, much of what we bring is emotional and feels instinctive; now we often need to bring our cognitive faculties, and that can feel like work.
The old saw is that photography killed representational art, and artists had to come up with another reason to exist, so they created forms of art that were successively more and more removed from photographic realism. Even as a novice, I recognize that this theory has more holes than it takes to fill the Albert Hall. For one thing, anyone who has done any photography will tell you that “photographic realism” is a rarely-achieved ideal. For a famous example, think of the one picture of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Shutter speeds were so long back then, and the speech was so short, that Lincoln is just a blur. It actually reminds me a little of a modern art painting (I forget by whom) in which the painter paints a portrait and then, before the paint is dry, smudges the subject’s face with his finger (or at least that’s what it looks like).
All of which brings me to my latest list. I scoured the Internet and library shelves (oversized, mostly) to find collections of the best ever paintings and sculptures that the world’s artists have ever created. I found 15 such lists and combined them into one giant list, then put every work of art that made it onto at least three of the lists and put them here: Best Works of Art of All Time – The Critics’ Picks. In the process, I learned quite a bit about art and art history. Some examples:
(1) Paleolithic cave painters used the deepest most inaccessible parts of their caves to paint, meaning they weren’t making decorations to be admired by their peers but religious/magical images that only their deities could see.
(2) What we know of Greek sculpture we have mostly learned from Roman copies of Greek works. The bronze statues made by the Greeks were later melted down for other uses, while the mostly marble copies made by the Romans have survived.
(3) Some of the most magnificent 14th, 15th and 16th Century works of art are contained on altarpieces, which were wooden contraptions with panels and hinges that stood in front of or behind the altar in a Catholic church and contained painted or sculpted religious scenes.
(4) In representational painting, it’s all about the light.
(5) There are only so many 16th Century Dutch landscapes that I can look at in a row before feeling restless.
(6) Maybe your kid could paint that, but it would never occur to him/her to do it.