Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Art or Illustration?

It seemed like every obituary of the late Andrew Wyeth included a mention that some critics dismissed his works as being illustration rather than art. Here's an example. Maybe it is because I grew up with comic books but I think that this is an insult to both Wyeth and some of the great artists of all time.

The argument goes that photography freed the artist from having to slavishly follow reality. Since cameras can produce a much more realistic picture than an artist, true artists should forsake realism and immerse themselves in abstract art.

This is a load of crap (which some modern artists have been known to dry, varnish, and sell as art). Several generations of artist-wannabees with no technical talent convinced themselves and the world that they are the real artists. The critics are pleased to go along with this. It elevates the critics. Since it takes special training to tell good art from random blotches of paint thrown on a wall, abstract art keeps the critics in business.

My personal view is that anyone should be able to tell if an artist is good. If it isn't obvious to an untrained eye then it isn't fine art.

Also, simply because an artist uses a realistic style does not mean that he has slavishly copied reality.

The Dutch artist Vermeer is a great example. Some of his paintings were based on a device known as a camera obscura. This was a set of lenses that would project a view onto a flat surface. Vermeer used this to reproduce buildings. But the cityscapes he painted did not exist. He moved buildings around. He changed or added details.

An art class could spend an entire day studying how Vermeer painted pearls (this changed during his career). Then they could spend another week studying the meaning of the different symbols he put in his paintings. There is a lot more there than you see at first glance.

Try that with Brushstrokes in Flight by Roy Lichtenstein. Everything that this sculpture has to say can be covered in five minutes.

Back to Wyeth, his art speaks to people and his technical ability shamed the other artists and critics who could not match him so the degraded him, instead.

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