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The Cultural Tutor

Areopagus Volume LII

Published 8 months ago • 28 min read

Areopagus Volume LII

Welcome one and all to the fifty second volume of the Areopagus. Fifty two! Now there's a familiar number... well, it's precisely the number of weeks in a year. Which can only mean I have been writing the Areopagus for that length of time. Well, this is true. In fact, the first volume of the Areopagus was sent in May of last year. It is only because of various special instalments, comprising contributions from you, my Gentle Readers, that the fifty second volume has come around in what is now June of 2023.

This must begin with gratitude. There are many who I might - and in due course shall - thank, but it would be wrong of me not to mention in the first place my generous patrons at Write of Passage. Whatever the value of my work — and there is, I hope, some value — it is something which could not have been shared with so many people, nor freely and so frequently, were it not for their support. For one year now I have been their first Writer-in-Residence; more are sure to follow, as they continue their project of supporting writers and of teaching people to harness the power of the internet by writing online.

To mark the occasion of this fifty second volume, then, I hope you will forgive me if I stray a little from the usual seven-chaptered structure and permit me to talk somewhat more generally about art, architecture, music, and all the rest. So, proactively begging your pardon, here presented for your perusal (and criticism!) is a discussion I have hammered into something resembling a structure. There are two parts. The first deals with Art and the second with Architecture (and various related matters). In this volume I have shared only the first; the second may follow in future.

And so, to pilfer a famous line from Henry V... once more unto the Areopagus, dear readers, once more!


Prelude: Music

Of late I have been listening to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony. This was among the final pieces of music he composed; its debut performance came just nine days before Tchaikovsky died, at the age of fifty three, apparently of cholera. Some have speculated that he killed himself and that the 6th was intended to be his final earthly statement. Though we shall never know whether this is true, there is in this symphony, especially its final movement, a soaring and achingly expressive magnitude. No wonder it is called the Pathétique, referring not to pathetic in the modern sense (of being pitiable) but according to its old-fashioned meaning of arousing pathos, i.e. emotion. Consider this my musical recommendation for the week. For something less sombre you might prefer Henry Purcell's Abdelazar Suite; one can never listen to enough Purcell.

The Gates of Art

As a child, like so many others, I was enamoured by Salvador Dalí and the Surrealists. In The Persistence of Memory I discovered a wild, fantastical, dreamlike world the sort of which I enjoyed reading about in science fiction and dystopian literature. It was strange, untamed, mysterious, and seemed to suggest so many possibilities, so many terrible tales and curious quests. Even more than the melting clocks it was the vast and empty landscape stretching out behind them that I found so captivating. Taken together, it was a powerful catalyst for my young imagination.

Otherwise I was only notionally aware of capital A Art, with some vague idea of who Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and the other megastars of painting and sculpture were. Michelangelo's David baffled me; I struggled to see what was so special about this statue. That was also true of the Mona Lisa. It seemed to me a perfectly respectable but wholly unremarkable portrait. Later on I had a friend whose favourite painter was Caravaggio (though the concept of having a "favourite" painter was beyond me then) and in time names like Rembrandt or Vermeer became recognisable, largely thanks to their presence in popular culture or off-hand mentions in literature, though I couldn't have told you a single thing about them or their work. Art with a capital A had yet to involve itself much in my life.

How did that change? Four friends and I were in Hamburg — why, I can't remember — and there we visited the Kunsthalle, which happened to be holding an exhibition called Nature Unleashed at the time. About one hundred works of art depicting natural disasters, none made earlier than the 17th century, had been gathered together. Among this selection (which included Caspar David Friedrich's terrifying Sea of Ice) were several paintings by an English artist of whom I had never heard, called John Martin.

I was awe-struck when I stood before The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, painted by Martin in 1822. The sheer scale and might of nature, portrayed here not as it actually looked, but as it must have seemed to those who witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, was engrossing in a very unusual way: fear and admiration mixed together, fascination and terror all at once. Of course, Martin didn't completely betray natural forms in his version of this famous catastrophe — these are still rocks, waves, flames, lightning bolts, and plumes of smoke. What he did was to elevate their size and extenuate their ferocity, such that the whole landscape has been wrapped in a cosmic vault of thunder, fire, and cloud. This is fantastical, theatrical, and dramatic — but it is also conceivable. So Martin was faithful to nature without merely imitating it, and only manipulated it to the extent that nature's unmatched power could be brought to bear on the viewer, bringing out its inner qualities rather than relying only on its outer appearance. See these little human figures now utterly helpless in the face of the natural world! See these proud and powerful Romans scuttling about, all their military glory suddenly useless, small and irrelevant as blades of grass to the howling winds of a terrible storm!

This was, though I didn't know it at the time, a work of Romanticism: Nature is all-powerful, inscrutable, beautiful, and mighty; mankind, for all its pride and glory, cannot match Her; emotion, drama, and mystery take centre stage; a furious reaction to the cold Rationality and all-knowing Reason of the 18th century Enlightenment. Too many -isms and -ists are dangerous: they encourage us to see art through other peoples' eyes and to look for specific traits (colours, themes, forms, shapes) as identifiers of a particular movement, rather than to observe the work of art for ourselves and see what we make of it. But, from time to time, they are helpful, if only when they are truthful. Still, probably better that I first saw this painting without much idea of Romanticism in art, and better that we remove most -isms and -ists from our minds when we view any painting.

In any case, never had a "work of art" held my attention so acutely, nor left me thinking about it for so long afterwards. This was an important moment, not only because of Martin's painting itself but because I had never, til then, heard of him. Seen from outside the world of art is seemingly dominated by a canon: there are the greats, you must appreciate these greats, and there are only these greats. This was my impression, at least, and that one might go into a gallery and discover there for the first time an artist whose work fired your imagination and stirred your emotions was not obvious to me.

What The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum taught me, then, other than what I admired about the painting itself, is that the World of Art need not be as esoteric, canonical, and obscurantist as I had first believed, and that anybody could have a "favourite painting" or "favourite painter", that "Art" belonged to anybody and everybody who cared to give it attention, and, finally, that "Art" had something of value to offer, that it might be enriching, uplifting, challenging, meaningful, and more, if only I spent a little time in its presence.

The spell of the World of Art had been broken. Its proverbial gates were unlocked — for I finally understood there were no gates at all. I realised art is a part of life, not something apart from it.

Tulips & Nettles

And where better to begin, with art, than first Dalí and then John Martin? Sensations and terrors are on full show here. Visual and imaginative spectacle, readily and immediately appreciable and impressive. Big, bold, brash, powerful emotions and ideas. Neither painter would, I think, be called subtle. The chief quality of Dalí is imagination, and of Martin is awe. These are attention-grabbing and require little from us, the viewer, to be understood and appreciated.

Not all art is like this. Sometimes it demands more of us. Sometimes we are disinterested or unimpressed or even displeased at first, only after investigation and introspection to become curious, excited, and finally captivated far more powerfully than we were by that which immediately gripped us by its overwhelming imaginative or awesome qualities. These "difficult pleasures" are the most rewarding. In life we get nothing at all without some effort, and the best rewards of all are those we receive after hard work. This is a law of the natural world, is it not? The tulip demands closer attention than the nettle, and the strawberry more careful cultivation than the potato. Not to disparage nettles or potatoes, of course — all I mean is that, if we do seek the delights of the tulip and the strawberry, we must labour a little more for them.

So perhaps there comes a point when we ought to look past the big, bold, and brash emotions evoked in art, and toward feelings subtler, more refined, and harder to grasp. This requires more of us, but by bringing more of ourselves to the task it deepens and enriches our own sense of self and of the world at large. And, I should add, such engagement is only possible where the artist has also made it possible, where they showed a certain restraint, I think, in the making of their art. Try as you might, some art simply refuses careful consideration, and however hard you try to reflect on it, and explore it, nothing comes back. However, you know you are in the presence of a great painting when, if you push at the door, it opens up to reveal a treasure of meaning you did not see at first.

An early example of this, for me, was Antonello da Messina, the 15th century Sicilian artist who, so Giorgio Vasari said, introduced oil painting via the Netherlands into Italy. Years ago St Jerome in his Study would not have much interested me — far better the sound and fury of John Martin or the dreamscapes of Giorgio de Chirico (another Surrealist)! This has changed. The scrupulous attention Antonello paid to light (notice the fastidious play of sunlight and shadow in this picture), the rich symbolism, the minute and half-hidden details, the peculiar atmosphere of stillness and contemplation, the gloomy vaults above his desk, the miniature landscape rolling away beyond the windows at the back of Jerome's study, the patterned tilework of his floor, the way all this has been framed through a majestic stone portal... these are some of the things I have pondered in this painting. And though I can't quite say I find this version of St Jerome in his Study overly spiritually or emotionally arresting (I have since found other paintings, even by Antonello, more filled with difficult pleasures) it does serve as an example of art which, with a little work, has become much more deeply satisfying than if, as with those more overtly imaginative and awesome creations, I had been able to merely glance at it with simple joy or basic fascination.

Does this mean, once we strike out in search of these more difficult pleasures, that we must cast off those we first enjoyed? Michel de Montaigne, the famous French essayist who lived and wrote in the second half of the 16th century, once said this in an essay titled On Books:

And I will, moreover, say, whether boldly or rashly, that this old, heavy soul of mine is now no longer tickled with Ariosto, no, nor with the worthy Ovid; his facility and inventions, with which I was formerly so ravished, are now of no more relish, and I can hardly have the patience to read them.

It so happens that I adore Ludovico Ariosto myself. Orlando Furioso, his crowning achievement, is a poetic epic unlike any other. It is wildly entertaining, absolutely unpredictable, often very funny, and furiously delightful. But, were I to choose between reading Orlando Furioso and Jerusalem Delivered, a rather more serious, sober, and difficult epic written several decades later by Ariosto's compatriot, Torquato Tasso, I would probably choose the latter. Rupert Brooke was my first favourite poet but now I get more from, say, the challenge of John Milton's somewhat trickier verse.

The easy and the difficult delights are not mutually exclusive, of course. Much great art — perhaps the best art — gives us both at once. We are immediately arrested by what we see. But, if we explore further, there also lies beneath the surface of imagination and awe an endless well of meaning and reflection. The most obvious example of this, I suppose, is Shakespeare. An artistic case in point might be Pieter Brueghel the Elder, who manages to mix the rich symbolism of Gothic art with the vitality of Medieval peasant life and the burgeoning humanist values of the Renaissance into singularly brilliant, relentlessly baffling, and deeply informative works of art. They are delightful on a purely visual level, filled with dozens or even hundreds of stories all unfolding at once; and, if we go further, we find Brueghel waiting for us, having already laid out a hidden labyrinth of difficult delights in preparation for our prying.

There is yet another stage to the discovery of art, though I will only touch on it briefly here, and that is to look beyond a single artistic heritage or tradition, be that the one in which we were raised or the one with which we are, by whatever circumstance, most familiar. This can also require some work. If all we have been exposed to is European painting from the Renaissance to the 20th century, then everything from Byzantine icons to Japanese ukiyo-e and Persian miniatures can be hard to comprehend even Gothic art might feel alien! And this is a great tragedy, for the world is filled with an unquantifiable volume of art and a vast array of artistic traditions, each of which have much to offer and which, by their very diversity of form, approach, purpose, iconography, methods, history, and meaning, guarantee that any artistic adventures you make will be richly rewarded. Medieval Chinese landscape art and Ottoman architecture are two of the early examples I can recall, in truth even before I'd ever heard of John Martin, which drew me to consider art from beyond the heritage into which I was born.

Signs of the Times

Now we approach another question. Regardless of how we feel about a work of art, and regardless of what it does or fails to do for us, regardless of how we judge it aesthetically or morally or otherwise, regardless of the notion of good and bad, great and mediocre, there is another way of looking at it: what does art say about the people who made it?

No work of art, even if it is actively intended to be otherwise, can ever say nothing. By virtue of existing, by the mere fact of having being produced by a particular person in a particular place at a particular time, it says something about the personal, socio-cultural, political, economic, or religious context in which it was created. More than something — it reveals a lot. Much of what we know about history, about various civilisations and societies who have bequeathed to posterity little in the way of writing, we know only because of the art they left behind. And even when we have their writing in plenty or know a great deal about what they did, it often seems that art is far more truthful than any law, book, deed, or poem ever could be.

We have been making art since before civilisation existed; the oldest cave paintings predate agriculture, cities, wheels, or alphabets. The same impulse which drives us to doodle in notebooks and to decorate our homes is that which, ultimately, also drove our ancestors to daub red ochre on their cave walls, and which, even if in a more refined way, drove Michelangelo to chisel out the Pietà. We do not necessarily intend for art to express the truth about ourselves, but it always does so. Hence art's frequent intersections with history; they are inseparable. Of course, great art exceeds its context — we do not need to be Norsemen, nor have any knowledge of Norse history, to appreciate the vicious splendour of a Viking prow. But, considered historically and symbolically and considered in their original context, art reveals everything. Rudimentary conclusions we can draw are that the proliferation of Madonnas throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance shows how these people were very religious; the ubiquity of bulls and sheep in Ancient Mesopotamian sculpture informs us that this was an agrarian society; the sheer size of the Terracotta Army can only be explained by the immense power of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang and the reverence in which he was held. These truthful but rudimentary deductions must eventually progress to more complex ones, but for now they shall suffice.

And so, this being the case, what does contemporary art say about us? If we are quite willing to use Madonnas as proof of religious faith, and broken marble torsos as evidence of Ancient Greek idealism, then we must surely treat our own art in the same way. How will historians, scholars, and archaeologists working hundreds or thousands of years from now assess what we have placed in our galleries, museums, and public squares?

I don't think it's unreasonable to say that, on average, people don't much like what is usually referred to as Modern Art. Scholars would demur from this categorisation: Modern Art covers everything from the closing decades of the 19th century through to the Second World War and into the 1950s. Everything after that can broadly be called Postmodern or Contemporary. So while Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso are Modern in the technical sense, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst can be called Contemporary.

We spoke earlier of difficult delights. Does this not also apply to Contemporary Art? If at first we are unimpressed or even disgusted, does that not mean there is concealed within a richness to be discovered, or a mirror reflecting some previously unknown part of ourselves, as we might say of the best art? Are those who dislike Contemporary Art simply refusing to the difficult work of engaging with it properly? Well, let us consider two highly controversial works of this modern school: Tracy Emin's My Bed and Michael Craig-Martin's An Oak Tree.

This sort of thing is called Conceptual Art, and it has been around probably since Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. It is so-called because, unlike art which has been designed, and the design of which is part of its form and meaning, and unlike art intended to work upon our emotions or spirit or aesthetic faculties, Conceptual Art is purely intellectual; it presents an idea for us to tackle. In which case, does Conceptual Art not arrest our perception and challenge our assumptions, and belie a deeper possible engagement?

At times — yes. But usually — no. More often than not Conceptual Art is only a conceit or a trick, and could easily have been replaced by a sentence or paragraph explaining the idea it presents, and we are the fools for thinking that art might be delightful, uplifting, or meaningful in any way, or interrogative and reflective of the sublime and the mysterious and imaginative and awesome. None of that is criticism, by the way, because this is the precise and stated point of much Conceptual Art. The public seem instinctively to know this, and hence they seem to prefer other forms of art which at least attempt, even failingly, to do more than merely suggest to us an intellectual idea. One might conclude that Marcel Duchamp's Fountain was an excellent and necessary satire, and a joke very well told, and a landmark moment in the history of art and culture, but that all who have repeated it over the last century merely fall within the shadow of that notorious urinal, which represented the birth and apotheosis of Conceptual Art all at once.

In saying all of this, and in saying that Contemporary Art is generally unpopular, I pass no judgment, of course, on whether it is good or bad. Many people do, indeed, take some interest in it, and much of it is, I dare say, very good. But polls and studies and a conversation with any passerby will tell you that people are generally not so impressed by, say, Jeff Koons' metal balloon dogs, even if they are worth millions of dollars, or Maurizio Cattellan's Comedian. But more relevant to our present discussion than whether or not this is good or bad art, and what the implications or consequences of such art are, is, first of all, what it says about our society. And, secondly, why most people don't much like it. I shall let you ponder that first question. Let us now ask, instead: why are people dissatisfed with modern (i.e. contemporary) art?

Even a cursory reading of history — by which I mean a reading of what people from the past wrote themselves, rather than modern books about these people — informs us that at no point in the past was any generation fully, or even remotely, satisfied with its own age. That varied from person to person, of course. In the 19th century there was just as much patriotic zeal, the sort of which is now frankly unimaginable, for good or for bad, as there was serious repudiation, even hatred, of that long and complicated epoch. You need only read this plaque, fixed beneath the Britannia Monument, built in honour of Admiral Horatio Nelson, in Great Yarmouth, a seaside town in the English county of Norfolk, to see what sort of zeal I am referring to:

While he lived, Britain, his bravest champion, conscientiously honoured him, and grieved for him when he fell. With triumphs in every clime, he was distinguished for the vigour of his tactics as well as the undaunted warmth of his courage. This Nelson, terror of the world, Norfolk proudly boasts her own — by birth, lineage, and education, mind, manners, and disposition. The renown of such a name is longer lasting than brass or stone.

But consider this for contrast — rather than the exaltation of a modern hero we find one of the most thorough condemnations imaginable, written by John Ruskin, regarding the 19th century:

Yes, believe me, in spite of our political liberality, and poetical philanthropy; in spite of our almshouses, hospitals, and Sunday-schools; in spite of our missionary endeavours to preach abroad what we cannot get believed at home; and in spite of our wars against slavery, indemnified by the presentation of ingenious bills,—we shall be remembered in history as the most cruel, and therefore the most unwise, generation of men that ever yet troubled the earth:—the most cruel in proportion to their sensibility,—the most unwise in proportion to their science. No people, understanding pain, ever inflicted so much: no people, understanding facts, ever acted on them so little.

More often than not we find people lamenting their own age rather than praising it; though we look back at supposed "Golden Ages", nobody ever thought themselves to be living through one. And where else need we look for contemporary condemnation than the Old Testament, filled as it is with prophets raging against what was, for them, their modernity? In the Book of Jeremiah the eponymous prophet upbraids and condemns the people of Israel for having turned from their god and fallen into sin:

Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, Return,
thou backsliding Israel, saith the LORD; and I will not cause
mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the
LORD, and I will not keep anger for ever.
Only acknowledge thine iniquity, that thou hast transgressed
against the LORD thy God, and hast scattered thy ways to the
strangers under every green tree, and ye have not obeyed my
voice, saith the LORD.
Jeremiah 3:12-13

"Thou backsliding Israel" contains much the same sentiment, albeit on a larger scale, as that with which the supposed decline of art in the 21st century is charged. Things used to be better, but now they are worse. The great Romantic poet Percy Shelley, writing in 1821 rather than 300 BC, also laments this feeling of lost glory and rightfulness:

O World! O Life! O Time!
On whose last steps I climb,
Trembling at that where I had stood before;
When will return the glory of your prime?
No more -Oh, never more!

Out of the day and night
A joy has taken flight:
Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar
Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight
No more -Oh, never more!

Or, quoted before in this newsletter, The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats. We might think political partisanship has never been worse, but he composed this more than a century ago:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarcy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Such doomful verse could only have been written by somebody experiencing serious social strife. And it might easily have been penned by a Roman in the 1st century BC, when civil war after civil war very nearly brought the Roman people to their knees — and did, in the end, bring their Republic tumbling down, only for an Empire to rise from its rubble.

Are the times changing too quickly? Is technology reshaping the world too radically? Is the world simply more confusing and chaotic than ever before? John Donne, writing in the 17th century, can answer that one for us...

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and th' earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets, and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation:
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
This is the world's condition now.

All coherence gone... the same has been said about life in the 21st century. Or, going back into the annals of poetry just about as far we can, to the very first named writer in all of human history, the Akkadian chief priestess of the Temple of Nanna in Ur, Enheduanna:

Must I die because of my holy songs? My Nanna has paid no heed to me. He [a rebel leader called Lugal-an] has destroyed me utterly in renegade territory. He stood there in triumph and drove me out of the temple. He made me fly like a swallow from the window; I have exhausted my life-strength. He made me walk through the thorn bushes of the mountains. He stripped me of the rightful crown of the priestess. He gave me a knife and dagger, saying to me "These are appropriate ornaments for you".

That we are dissatisfied with the 21st century is simply par for the course. The real work is in discerning which of our problems are age-old, so that in turning to history we might tentatively identify solutions, or at the very least consolations, and in separating out the problems, if any there are, unique to this age. Political partisanship, war, social inequality, environmental degradation, moral regression, poverty, badly behaved children... many of the problems lamented by individuals or political groups turn out to be ancient and seemingly intractable troubles which, even if they have not always collectively been present at the same time or in the same way, have been burdening us since the dawn of civilisation.

A thorough dislike or distrust of "modern art" is one of these feelings that has been shared by many (though not all) of the generations that have gone before us: Horace thought Roman playwrights interminably inferior to their Greek predecessors; Bernard of Clairvaux thought the ornamental sculptures of Gothic architecture were morally outrageous and spiritually dangerous; Erasmus said popular tales of knights and Arthurian romances (the equivalent of our comic book superheroes?) were no good for children; William Morris called the 19th century an "anti-architectural age"; Leon Battista Alberti, though he hoped it might soon change, thought all his contemporary painters were unforgiveably childish and unsophisticated in comparison with the painters of Greece and Rome; John Calvin condemned art in places of worship as, essentially, evil. And here is something the Japanese Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenkō wrote in the 14th century:

In all things I yearn for the past. Modern fashions keep growing more and more debased. Even among the pieces of furniture built by our master cabinetmakers, those in the old forms are most pleasing.

Although their specific gripes, and the specific artworks about which they complained, were different to the ones now so unpopular, we must imagine how they felt about the art of what was, for them, the modern age. And if we do that, and we do our very best to imagine what it was that bothered them, and how it made them feel, we can see whether our dissatisfaction with Contemporary Art is to do with this specific type of art itself as we currently have it or results from an age old and thorny distrust of all things new and unfamiliar, or some combination of both.

Locating Art

But let us accept for a moment the conclusion that art is not as good as it used to be. Where has all the Art gone, then? And where are all the Artists? Well, if we find them lacking, we have only been looking in the wrong places. We must remember what the Roman lawyer Pliny the Younger once wrote, and let this be an invocation to search out good artists where they do exist, and award them the praise they deserve, if we can find them:

I am an admirer of the ancients, but, not like some people, so as to despise the talent of our own times. It is not true that the world is too tired and exhausted to be able to produce anything worth praising.

Those who would have been painters in 15th century Florence, sculptors in classical Athens, playwrights in Elizabethan England, Mamluk metalworkers and glass-cutters, Gothic stonemasons, Kyoto master gardeners, bronze-casters in Ife, or Song dynasty landscape artists are now working in cinema, television, and video games. These seem, to me, to be the definitive modern art forms. And, I dare say, many of the specific technical skills involved in those older arts and crafts are directly applicable to and imitated in these new, modern forms. A CGI artist uses much the same techniques as did Renaissance painters (and all painters who followed until, at least, the late 19th century), be that a study and application of human anatomy, the representation of nature, of fluid mechanics, of smoke, and of the effects of light, whether refracted, reflected, or obscured, of the folding of fabrics and the illusion of movement, depth, atmosphere, and so many other challenges regarding the representation of the real world. If this sounds far-fetched then I urge you to watch any Behind The Scenes documentary about the production of a film. Watch the CGI artists at work and hear them explain their craft; then read Leonardo da Vinci's On Painting, a short treatise of advice for young artists, including plenty of technical explanations. The similarities are striking and, when you think about it, entirely logical. And this is before we talk about the other people involved in making films, and the many similarities between these other roles and the great or important art forms of the past.

There are directors, screenwriters, production designers, costume designers, special effects gurus, CGI artists, and so on, working today or having worked in the 20th century, who, when enough time has passed, will most likely be regarded as the leading artists of our age. Do the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Akira Kurosawa not seriously deserve to be considered artists in the fullest and most reverential sense of the word? Have they and their ilk not done for us what, say, Phidias did for the Athenians or Rubens for the Dutch? Has cinema not captured our imaginations, stirred our hearts, given us an escape from the day to day, invited us to contemplate, challenged who we thought we were, made us laugh, cry, tremble, and gasp, uplifted us, given us moments of even brief transcendence, shocked and changed us, given us solace in difficult times, a consolation in strange and harrowing moments, inspired us to be, do, and become better? If cinema is not, or at least cannot sometimes be, great art, and the people who make it great artists, then nothing ever could be and nothing ever was.

And even where this is not the case, the artists we are looking for — the painters and illustrators and sculptors — are less likely now to be in the academies or galleries than they are to be working online. Many of these "content creators", to adopt that rather demeaning neologism, are publishing their work to audiences of only a few hundred or a few thousand, be that on Instagram or elsewhere online, scratching out a living from the support of their followers or creating only in their spare time. We need not look very far for supremely talented artists; the internet is filled with them!

But there is also a very high chance that the real artistic geniuses of the age have simply never been discovered, nor ever shall be. Had Cimabue not come across a shepherd boy scrawling on a rock and noticed his preternatural talent for drawing then there'd be no Giotto to speak of; nor if, even having been noticed, there wasn't the system of master and apprentice, of workshop and patronage, into which Giotto was brought and through which he flourished, would he ever have achieved his preeminence. No doubt there are Raphaels and Picassos among us now, but rather than working as artists their talent may never have been noticed, encouraged, or trained, at least in that particular field, and they are instead working as delivery drivers, cashiers, plumbers, gardeners, nurses, or any other such noble vocation, instead of painting, sculpting, or whatever else it might be, had we only discovered them and were there only a system in which they might flourish.

Much of the "traditional" Art World has, at least in part, been transformed into a global industry in discreet goods auctionable for millions of dollars; the global art market in 2022 was worth just shy of $70 billion. No doubt some of these people genuinely like the art they are buying, but the mind-boggling fees forked out on them can only be the result of an artificially inflated market. The actual labour required to produce works of art does not demand tens of millions of dollars, and nor has it anything to do with the quality of this art. It is simply the fact that art has become a commodity, given the inherent scarcity of every painting (there's only one of them in the world), especially when an artist is dead (they can't produce any more art), and has therefore come to be regarded as an excellent investment opportunity. I mean this as an economic truth rather than a statement of opinion. Consider Willem de Kooning's Interchange, painted in 1955. After completion it was sold to the architect Edgar Kauffmann Jr for $4,000. In 1989 a Japanese art dealer called Shigeki Kameyama bought it for over $20 million, which set a new record for the sale of the work of a living artist. Kameyama soon sold the painting at a loss to the businessman David Geffen, after the burst of the Japanese asset price bubble, only for David Geffen to sell Interchange in 2015 to the hedge-fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin for $300 million. He has loaned it to the Art Institute of Chicago, where it can be enjoyed by the public, which is certainly a happy ending. None of this is to pass any judgment on the work of Willem de Kooning. But you see the moral of the story: this is not about art, it is about commodities. And so, in our quest to find art, we needn't look in the auction houses.

The Evolutions of Art

It might not be that we have any fewer talented artists working today; it's just that they're making different kinds of art. If music was the art of 18th century Vienna, and illuminated manuscripts of the Dark Ages in northern Europe, ceramics of the Ming dynasty, epigraphic earthenware of the Samanids, marbles of Ancient Greece, oil painting of the Netherlands, mosaics of the Byzantines, and so on and so forth, then perhaps cinema (along with its cousin, television, and the novel though controversial art form of video games) is the art form of the 21st century. If Polycleitus or Niccolò were born again today, what exactly do we suppose they would do? Carve athletic victors in marble? Sculpt and mould monastery doorways? In all likelihood they should end up doing a normal job. And, otherwise, if not simply sharing their artwork online, they might have attended their gifts to these modern art forms which did not exist when they were alive.

Where to find the great artists of the 21st century? We must look to the art forms which are now most popular and beloved, which offer the greatest possibilities for employment and for expression and craft, which are attended to with the most vitality, which have the greatest potential for respect, reverence, and achievement. Above all we must not close our minds to the possibility that Art is not what it used to be; new forms are invented, and the dominant art form of the age can shift. Perhaps this is what has happened, and in lamenting the decline of art we have simply failed to notice the truly great art with which we have been surrounded.


And that's all

That was, then, the first half of my discussion. Thence we proceed to Architecture, the so-called Lesser Arts, and various other matters. Whatever comments you have about my words — tell me! Criticism and objection are verily welcomed. The subsequent half I may send next week, or perhaps the week after, with a usual seven lessons standing between; or perhaps I shall never send it at all!

Alas, this was the fifty second volume of the Areopagus. And all being said and done, let us not dwell much longer on words and thoughts. Summer is upon us (or Winter, for some of you) and therefore it is perhaps to the natural world we ought to turn; infinite source of delight and wonder, of mystery and variation, of unshackled might and almost impossible delicacy, of life, death, creation, destruction, relief, labour, desolation, and multitude. We end with a reminder from William Wordsworth, then, not to overlook the wealth of the world about us, a wealth far greater than aught we can build or mend or conceive, far more rewarding than the pleasures we vainly pursue from day to day, and an endless consolation for any and all of the artificial woes and anxieties that plague us, if only we dare to remember it.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

With all the gratitude I can muster — yours,

The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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