Part 2 of Opinion, Value & Taste series
It is fair to say that many observers of art, professional or otherwise, are hampered by preconceived ideas of what represents good art. The uninitiated might consider Botticelli’s Venus the epitome of female beauty and use it as an unswerving benchmark. Many of the images and concepts that have so outraged the gallery going public of late may appear shocking but also reflect to an extent our cocooned and politically correct world. Step back a century or three and one is confronted by some difficult and deeply affecting portrayals of life.
These frequently spoke of truth and reality and were designed to convey a message. The voluptuous nudes and Dionysian revelry may offend a few but one must always look at a work of art in the context of its time. A display of bacchanalian pleasures in 17th century painting was as much a statement of the wealth and prestige of a patron as anything else. There is a danger that we allow prurience to distort the impact and effect of art. Should we banish Goya from public view? Goya was an intelligent and sensitive man, accepted as one of the leviathans of Western art, yet he produced a body of work that exposed the rawness and horror of war in the most coruscating terms. He was a contemporary of Hume and Kant, another son of the Enlightenment, but the moral nihilism that marks his famous series Los Desastres de la Guerra cannot be easily ignored. He did not fight shy of the facts as he saw them so we must confront images drawn directly from his experiences in the French and Spanish Peninsula War. Disembowelled bodies, brutal soldiers, indifferent peasants and the detritus of human life litter his canvases. And yet there is more.
As Goya grows older and more disenchanted with the erosion of his value system, we are presented with Saturn Devouring One of His Sons and a host of, frankly, stomach churning images. But is any of this more appalling than many of the early renditions of The Last Judgement, a popular theme for Dutch artists, frequently in papal or ducal employ, who were encouraged to ham up hell and damnation to terrify loyal subjects into godliness and submission? No, I don’t think so. In each case, the desire to portray realism forced ever greater innovation, as well as a subliminal message, and what shrill critics of contemporary art keep forgetting is that the advent of photography has removed one accepted plank of realism in the modern era. Hence, we witness much experimentation of the mind’s eye, some good, some bad and some plain unclassifiable.