Preface - Chapter III
“The emotional side is beyond the scope of teaching...all you can do is surround [students] with the conditions calculated to stimulate any natural feeling they may possess...by familiarising the students with the best works of art and nature.”
I've been mulling around the idea recently of the development of taste in society. How do we come to recognize truly masterful works, or even tasteful ones, much less create them ourselves? In the quote above, Speed offers an answer: surround ourselves with the best we have and in us will grow understanding and discernment.
Having been burned once in the university system where the modernist movement was lauded as a seminal event in the progress of the arts and where previous works and achievements were passed over or even scorned, I am skeptical of what I am told are the best works. The art world today seems so divided, that if asked to identify the greatest artists, each faction of a different answer. The abstract expressionists would name Rothko, Pollock and Brancusi; impressionists, Monet and Degas; we Academics, Bouguereau and Gerome.
I echo the reaction I have heard from many outside the art world who are disenchanted with art today, "Where are the standards by which we are to judge, and who creates them?" Though I identify more with the academics and impressionists than any other group, I am unwilling to say that those in the 19th century had all of the answers, and take only the few masters from that era as models. But who else?
Speed does make a few statements on the subject which resonated with me:
- “Art for art’s sake,” and “art for subject’s sake,”...neither position can neglect the other without fatal loss.”
- “...whether they are good or poor artists will depend on the quality of their feeling and the fitness of its expression.”
-“Great things are only done in art when the creative instincts of the artist has a well-organized executive faculty at its disposal”
Taken together, I understand his point to be that artists who are worthy of our study are those who have refined both their intuitive and feeling natures, as well as the technical skills involved in relaying those feelings to others. Mastery and balance. I can buy into that.
Even with some clear criteria, finding "the best" work off all of the centuries and all the cultures past and present - is quite a task! One which Speed points out is a unique challenge to the modern generations. "Not only European art, but the art of the East...is part of the formative influence by which [the student] is surrounded; not to mention the modern science of light and colour...no wonder that a period of artistic indigestion is upon us. Hence the student has need of sound principles and a clear understanding of the science of his art, if he would select from this mass of material those things which answer to his own inner need for artistic expression.”
So, as we recover from our bought of indigestion, Speed offers a beautiful analogy that has brought me a good deal of hope: "The position of art to-day is like that of a river where many tributaries meeting at one point, suddenly turn the steady flow to turbulence...After a time, these newly-met forces will adjust themselves to the altered condition, and a larger, finer stream be the result. The hope of the future is that a larger and deeper art, answering to the altered conditions of humanity will result.”
I feel, with so many students asking similar questions - trying to make some kind of order out of the masses of information and opinions available - that we are on our way to achieving that "larger and deeper art" - and, like Speed, I look forward to the future.
I've always enjoyed reading Harold Speed. He has a sense of humor that whether he meant to put into his writing or not makes reading the material he presents enjoyable. He was also, clearly, an educated man. He was able to put into words what I've felt at times not knowing how to describe it. He's one man whom, were he still alive, I would love to have lunch with and just pick his brain to attempt to gain a drop of knowledge from his reservoir.
One thing that I've been thinking about for a while now is why it is that we do what we do. As artists, I mean. Why do we feel the need to copy nature and hang it on a wall? We can talk about technique, draftsmanship, form, line, mass, etc., but what does it all mean?
"The visual blindness of the majority of people is greatly to be deplored, as nature is ever offering them on their retina, even in the meanest slum, a music of colour and form that is a constant source of pleasure to those who can see it. But so many are content to use this wonderful faculty of vision for utilitarian purposes only. It is the privilege of the artist to show how wonderful and beautiful is all this music of colour and form, so that people, having been moved by it in his work, may be encouraged to see the same beauty in the things around them.This is the best argument in favour of making art a subject of general education: that it should teach people to see."
How concise. It's practically the old cliche "stop and smell the roses." Taking a moment in life to enjoy the simple beauty that is everywhere in our every day routine. And shouldn't everybody be given the opportunity to be taught the ability to do so? The painter purposefully takes from nature that which moves him to feel something and puts it on canvas in the hope that someone else will feel something similar through it.
Having the power to implement a certain feeling into someone else is something that should not be taken lightly. Art has traditionally been used for the uplifting of society, but modern artists often times seem to feel the need for more of a shock factor than actual deep emotion and value. And society has responded. If asking strangers on the street what good art is, how many people could come up with a definite answer? Yet, back in the 19th century, art was criticized harshly by the public if it didn't meet certain standards of quality in both technicality and emotion perceived. I feel, personally, that it's about time that we re-educate the public by first putting values in our work. Work on a higher level than our contemporaries so that the difference will be clear to the viewer. Once society learns to see the difference between "modern" art- art which holds a facade of pure emotion and if you don't "get" it then you just aren't looking hard enough- and art rooted in nature, tradition, hard work, mastery, values, and emotion, I believe we will see a better society overall.
“An act of vision is not so simple a matter as the student who asked her master if she should “paint nature as she saw nature” would seem to have thought. And his answer, “Yes, madam, provided you don't see nature as you paint nature,” expressed the first difficulty the student of painting has to face: the difficulty of learning to see.”
There is the crux of the matter. What am I supposed to see? The first tendency to see too much, or to fall in love with the darkest shadows. It can be putting down too much information too soon. Goldilocks, “not too much, not too little, but just right.” I see what I want to see. Even if I see “it”, putting it on paper accurately is a whole new challenge.
I am training my eye to see the hierarchy of importance. Which is why I am here in CAS, to understand exactly what is important and when.