Is it acceptable to paint what is eternal in the human condition and experience of the natural world, or is a work of Art only valid, as some say, if it reflects its own time, its 'Zeitgeist'? Can we no longer paint history, or myth, or a timeless scene?
With the almost complete hegemony of postmodernism or conceptual art in the art and design schools and academies, contemporary classical figurative and representational painting is now much less prominent, and in some cases derided for being invalid reactionary kitsch or pastiche. This is a great and unnecessary loss.
While postmodernism or non-figurative (meaning non-representational) Art can produce some undeniably beautiful works (I'm thinking of the exquisite creations of Makoto Fujimura), the intentional neglect of the art schools' teaching of the classical or traditional craft of painting and drawing, anatomy, composition, perspective, narrative, landscape, still life, the history of Greco-Roman and Renaissance art, and so on, has meant that many recent graduates of art schools have simply not learnt how to paint or draw. They have been left to express themselves and to be novel.
The visual arts' rejection of the inherited treasury seems out of kilter here, while, conversely, in film it is precisely the human narrative, the story, that continues to connect with the audience, and the music concert halls still attract patrons for classical works, including modern classics.
The philosophical foundations for the abandonment of the human subject and narrative (think Malevich's Black Square) may be traced back to Kant, but the dogmatic insistence that for a work to be valid or progressive it must reflect its own time, is Hegelian ideology. Later in time implies, it is thought, being authentic, and further along in 'progress' towards a desirable expression of society. Traditional painting had its advances and temporal contexts, of course—linear and atmospheric perspective, anatomy, composition, colour theory; but non-figurative painting has a different canon, if ‘canon’ can be used in a postmodern lexicon.
Classical figurative painters may be thought of as living on the banks of a great river that has flowed through human history from Egypt, Greece, China, or Benin, with each new generation further along the same living river. In some modernist dogmas, however, it is this river that has been abandoned in the search for pure self-expression or works that are not a 'copy' of their environment (landscape, portrait). In one notorious incident in a Dublin art school abandoning the river led to the smashing of beautiful classical casts so that students' self-expression might triumph. But as Aslan said to Jill when she declined to drink from Narnia's refreshing stream, thinking to satisfy her thirst elsewhere, 'There is no other stream.'
Picture: Odd Nerdrum, Crossing the Border (detail)
(Odd Nerdrum's haunting work is singularly appropriate in the present crisis, but his splendid work Three Men in a Boat was recently rejected by the Norwegian academy as not representing progressive Norway.)