Areopagus Volume XLVIII

published4 months ago
30 min read

Areopagus Volume XLVIII

Welcome one and all to the forty eighth volume of the Areopagus. May is withering fast and June blooms suddenly ahead. So we give our introduction to a mysterious and melancholy little poem called May, written by the great Christina Rossetti:

I cannot tell you how it was,
But this I know: it came to pass
Upon a bright and sunny day
When May was young; ah, pleasant May!
As yet the poppies were not born
Between the blades of tender corn;
The last egg had not hatched as yet,
Nor any bird foregone its mate.
I cannot tell you what it was,
But this I know: it did but pass.
It passed away with sunny May,
Like all sweet things it passed away,
And left me old, and cold, and gray.

A splendid meditation on the passing of the month of May, on the passing of something we cannot quite place or name, but which we surely know is there. Hark — 'tis not yet past! There is time yet in May for another instalment of the Areopagus and another seven short lessons. We begin...

I - Classical Music

The Unanswered Question

Charles Ives (1908)

Performed by the New York Philharmonic
The Forest in Winter at Sunset by Théodore Rousseau (1864)

This piece inspired the name of a six-part lecture series delivered in 1973 by the American composer, conductor, and public intellectual Leonard Bernstein. The lectures vary between ninety minutes and three hours, and though experts have quarelled with Bernstein's methods and conclusions, they remain compelling. Bernstein wanted to explain music to people without any technical knowledge or experience of it, largely by comparing it to language, and this he does rather well. He is also one of the finest orators you'll come across.

But why The Unanswered Question? Charles Ives wrote this piece in 1908, and the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky once said he had predicted the future and that it might well have been written in the 1960s. Ives himself enjoyed little celebration or success during his lifetime - the first performance of this piece wasn't until 1946, for example. But sure enough, as time passed, people realised what a deeply original and even prophetic composer he was.

Ives wrote an explanation for The Unanswered Question. It has three parts: the strings, the trumpet, and the winds. The strings represent "The Silence of the Druids – who know, see and hear nothing". They are timeless and eternal; continuing unchanged and unaffected throughout the piece, providing it with an eery and rather ancient atmosphere. The trumpet, meanwhile, poses a question (which Ives called "the perennial question of human existence") in the form of a short, disonnant phrase, which grows louder as the piece progresses. The question is asked seven times. The winds, meanwhile, Ives called "Fighting Answerers". They attempt to answer the question with increasingly erratic, experimental sounds which seem rather like a descent into frustration and madness. The final question posed by the trumpet remains unanswered, and the closing seconds of the piece are pure silence; Ives called it "Undisturbed Solitude".

This might sound like gibberish, but if you listen to the piece carefully you will hear all these parts in motion. Ives called it a "cosmic drama" and, indeed, I think this is a compelling experiment in musical philosophy. So this was what gripped Bernstein. And though Ives framed his question as one of human existence, Bernstein took it to be a question of music itself. What should music be like? The 20th century saw Western classical music embrace atonality, polytonality, disonnance, and aleatory music; all this experimentation was presaged by Ives. But the beauty of music is that we need have no technical knowledge to understand what these words mean. You know atonality or dissonance when you hear them, and The Unanswered Question has them in abundance. Still, over a century later, Ives' question has not yet been answered. Perhaps it never shall.

II - Historical Figure

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Father of the Turks

I had intended to write about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk last Friday, since that was the 19th May and his "symbolic" birthday - symbolic because we don't know the exact date of his birth. This week, then, we return to him. In 1881 a boy called Mustafa was born in the city of Salonica (then part of the Ottoman Empire; now Thessaloniki in Greece) to a minor bureaucrat turned timber merchant. It was a mathematics teacher who gave him the name Kemal, apparently to distinguish him from another student with the same name and in recognition of the young boy's unusual maturity. At twelve he was sent to military school and in 1905, at the age of twenty four, he graduated from the military academy in Istanbul.

Mustafa Kemal fought against the Italians in Libya in 1911 and then served during the Balkan Wars, from 1912 to 1913. But it was during the First World War, and especially at the brutal Battle of Gallipolli, that he rose to prominence. The Ottomans had joined the Central Powers (Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Bulgaria) against the Entente (Britain, France, Russia) and as the commander of the 19th Division of the Fifth Army he proved himself an inspired military leader who fought on until the battle was won and the Entente retreated from Gallipolli. In 1916 he fought against the Russians in the Caucasus and in 1917 was appointed commander of the Seventh Army in Palestine.

Alas, the Ottomans had chosen the wrong side. The "Sick Man of Europe", as the Ottoman Empire had been called by Tsar Nicholas of Russia in the 19th century, was finally at death's door. The Central Powers lost and had punitive peace treaties imposed on them; the Entente carved up Ottoman territory according to the Treaty of Lausanne and left the once-glorious Ottoman Empire a shadow of what it once had been.

Not on Mustafa Kemal's watch. He was a nationalist and a revolutionary - in his youth he had been arrested and imprisoned for several months because of his republican activism - and had a vision for the future of his people. Mustafa Kemal launched a revolution in 1919, triggering the Turkish War of Independence, and over the next four years successful fought off all-comers. In 1921 he established a provisional government, based in Ankara, and in 1923 the victorious Mustafa Kemal formally abolished the Ottoman Empire and in its place founded the secular Republic of Turkey, as whose President he would serve until in his death in 1938.

But Mustafa Kemal was not only an inspired military strategist and general. He was also a supremely competent statesman. For once the work of fighting for Turkish independence was done, soon followed the arduous task of statecraft and government. He was up to it. With peace secured, borders established, and a nascent nation in the offing, the new President embarked on a series of radical political, social, and economic reform. The old Ottoman alphabet was replaced by a new, Latinised Turkish alphabet; primary education was made mandatory; women received universal suffrage; several Islamic religious institutions were dissolved; the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum; traditional Ottoman dress, legal codes, and calendars were abolished in favour of Western ones; and he committed the country to a foreign policy of neutrality, favouring peace and trade. Turkey was we know it today was born, transformed from a crumbling empire into a secular, progressive, modern nation state.

This was not a bloodless process and not one without its catastrophes, nor one in which we can admire Mustafa Kemal without reservation. The so-called Population Exchange of 1923 is one example. Greek communities in Western Turkey, which had been there for thousands of year, were made to leave, and Turkish communities in Greece were likewise forcibly removed. These decisions, though ostensibly centred on cultural or ethnic identity, were entirely based on religion. Nearly two million people were suddenly turned into refugees and a humanitarian disaster ensued.

It was in 1934 that Mustafa Kemal was formally granted the name by which he is now universally known: Atatürk, meaning "Father of the Turks". There is a long history of awarding political leaders grand titles, often by sycophants and courtiers, but rarely has one been quite so apposite. I cannot here give a full account of the life of Atatürk, but with this brief overview in place I think, for those who did not already know him, it is clear what a giant of the 20th century he was. That famous old phrase cometh the hour, cometh the man was never so true as in the case of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

III - Painting

Saint Michael and the Devil

Bartolomé Rubeus, also known as Bartolomé Bermejo (1468)

I have only recently come across this painting and it has rather got its proverbial claws into me. Why? It was painted in 1468 by a Spanish artist, but art in 15th century Spain looked nothing like this. Stylistically it has much more in common with Early Netherlandish Art. There must be connection. Well, Bermejo travelled to Flanders, there learned the revolutionary techniques of its oil painters (the likes of Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Robert Campin) and returned with them to Spain, where he became an immensely successful and in-demand painter. Everybody wanted what only he knew how to do, producing marvellously realised, dramatic, and richly coloured religious paintings set against delightful landscape backdrops, all with a typically Netherlandish mixture of photorealistic detail and stylistic flourishes. Saint Michael and the Devil, in particular, seems to unite several different artistic traditions into one uniquely strange, uniquely captivating work of art.

Enough of the superlatives. Let's look at the painting. The first thing I want to point out is the flat, golden background. This was a classic feature of Gothic art, when two-dimensional figures and scenes were depicted not happening in any particular time or place. They were, rather, set against plain or patterned backdrops of gold-leaf. Bermejo follows this tradition by placing his three-dimensional version of Saint Michael defeating the Devil (a famous and familiar scene) against such a backdrop of subtly detailed gold. But the effect is not only one of visual delight. It also lends a sort of ethereal, dreamlike intensity to the scene. The rather awkward composition, squashed in by the borders, and the statuesque pose of Saint Michael, also recall the forms of Gothic art. These, too, only add to its delightful strangeness.

But then we do have a little landscape here. Notice the ground on which the three figures are gathered. A little rocky plain scattered with pebbles, grasses, weeds, and even a few flowers. Poppies have long represented death, hence their presence alongside the Devil.

The star of the show, I suppose, is Saint Michael himself — and, above all, his glittering gold-green armour. Just like those Early Netherlandish painters, Bermejo clearly delighted in texture: metals, silks, cloths, furs, jewels, leaves, scales, horns, embroidery... it goes on. All of which he was able to present, thanks to the precision afforded by oil painting, with a quasi-photorealistic detail. Saint Michael's armour is astonishing, adorned as it is in pearls and sparkling gems, not to mention the radiance of the gauntlets, greaves, cuises, sabatons, and faulds themselves, the fine chainmail and the magical cuirass.

And what about his robe? The realism achieved here by Bermejo is remarkable enough. Its splendour only adds to the effect, combining a rich red silk with carefully woven floral patterns and a gilded border studded with pearls and rubies, all fluttering in a sort of mystical wind.

We mustn't forget his wings, with their subtly gradiated, rainbow-like colours:

Another detail. Notice the reflection on Saint Michael's gleaming breastplace — the spires of some great city, perhaps Jerusalem or even Barcelona, where Bermejo was based when he painted it. This might draw us to think of the famous mirror in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding. A perspectival trick to delight viewers and show off the artist's technical skill. And, I think, it contributes to the celestial atmosphere of the piece as a whole.

And then we have the donor, Antoni Joan, who commissioned and paid for this painting. Solemn, rather than serene like Saint Michael, he is also warty and aged and altogether of this earth, in direct contrast with the monumental saint, then, not only by his inferior size but also by his apperance. Here the Heavenly meets the Worldly.

Then there's the Devil. And what a monstrous little ghoul he is! This is a vision worthy of Hieronymus Bosch, as darkly comical and therefore unnerving as it is genuinely terrifying. The Devil has several faces almost indistinguishable from one another. Indeed, half his body seems to made of gaping mouths and fangs, while serpents writhe in his belly and slip out from his guts. He is a composite of creatures: avian, reptilian, amphibious, and other beasts unrecognisable. That the Devil's torso is also rather metallic only makes him uncannier yet, a sort of half-robotic, bestial cyborg of bone, flesh, scale, and fangs. His eyes, too, are filled with something more than mere menace: a maddened, gleeful violence.

Its wealth of texture, richness of colour, and strangeness of invention make Saint Michael and the Devil an immediately arresting, peculiarly enchanting, endlessly delightful, and therefore wholly unforgettable work of art. Here the Gothic, the Spanish, and the Netherlandish artistic traditions have been successfully united.

IV - Architectural Masterpiece

The Door That Changed My Life

Normally we explore a particular building somewhere around the world, a whole city, or an architectural style or element. Well, this week I have chosen to focus on an entirely personal bit of architecture: a church familiar to me in youth. But not the whole building. There were many elements of the church I might have picked: the stained glass, the tomb of a knight, the time-worn tower, the star-muralled vaults, the organ, or its arcades and windows. Instead I have selected the simplest and humblest of all — and the one most important to me. Here you can see the tower of the church, and its base a small doorway. It is this doorway of which I write.

First, briefly, the facts. Though this church has Saxon origins, the tower was built in the 11th century by the Normans and has been expanded, remodelled, extended, demolished, and restored time and time again ever since. One rather funny description of the church runs thus:

The parish church dates from the 11th century with 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th century additions and alterations.

But such are all Medieval churches! This door, specifically, was built in the late 11th century, perhaps in the 1080s. Its architectural style is known as Norman because it was after William the Conqueror's conquest in 1066 that the Normans introduced it to Britain. Elsewhere in Europe this style is called Romanesque, in reference to the use of rounded arches, which was a defining feature of Ancient Roman architecture. But don't be deceived by the reference to the Romans. This is not Classical or Neoclassical architecture in any sense; it is Medieval through and through. Beyond rounded arches (which this door has, as you can see) other typical features of Norman/Romanesque architecture include a sort of massiveness or robustness, a simplicity of form, and abstract ornamental stonework. You'll notice the arch of this doorway has some chevron mouldings running along its voussoirs. Far from the elaborate decoration of later centuries but pleasing in its simplicity nonetheless.

So, a short elegy on this door. I suppose what struck me first, and most lastingly, was its age. That this simple stone doorway was almost one thousand years old — and that parts of it, or at least some of the supporting masonry, was Saxon and therefore even older — seemed almost impossible. Here I found a surprising but direct link to the distant Middle Ages. For this was not a history book, not a set of facts or dates, but a real thing in the real world, open to the sky and the rain, placed there by some mason a millennium ago, a mason who carefully cut and aligned the stones of the arch, stacked and mortared its jambs, and perhaps delighted in carving its chevrons. The Middle Ages came to life. But then I wondered at all the things this door must have seen; all the people who had passed beneath or even briefly gazed at it, or run their hands over its masonry. So many lives, so many moments, all forever lost to the passage of time, suddenly apparent to me. Here, as ever, John Ruskin puts it better than I could ever hope to:

The greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity. It is in their lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things, in the strength which, through the lapse of seasons and times, and the decline and birth of dynasties, and the changing of the face of the earth, and of the limits of the sea, maintains its sculptured shapeliness for a time insuperable, connects forgotten and following ages with each other, and half constitutes the identity, as it concentrates the sympathy, of nations; it is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, and color, and preciousness of architecture; and it is not until a building has assumed this character, till it has been entrusted with the fame, and hallowed by the deeds of men, till its walls have been witnesses of suffering, and its pillars rise out of the shadows of death, that its existence, more lasting as it is than that of the natural objects of the world around it, can be gifted with even so much as these possess of language and of life.

Second to its age was the ordinariness of this little door. It was attended by neither pomp nor fanfare and it was paid attention by nobody. Though museums are wonderful places, by sealing objects off in glass cases and explaining them with informational plaques they can render "history" too distant a thing, and even make it dead to us. Not here. This thousand year-old doorway was not behind a rope or pane of glass; it was simply... there. I could touch those ancient stones and examine their forms and faults up close. It was like any other normal object in our daily lives - a car, a phone, a chair, a plate - which we treat with no special veneration and do not have explained to us by plaques. This history was not dead. It was alive, and present, in the real world, beneath the skies, crumbling slowly away, but somehow more meaningful and powerful and instructive by that very fact than if it had been cordoned off and sanitised in a museum.

And, finally, its appearance. There was something enchanting about the moulded chevrons of the arch, however worn and weathered they were, a sort of simple but mystical beauty. Somebody had wanted to make this door not only function (and clearly they did a good job, given that it remains standing a thousand years on!) but also, perhaps, if not beautiful, then pleasing to the eye, or soothing to the mind, even if nobody noticed those chevrons consciously, but an unconsciously, ordinary, ornamented thing. And the texture, too, of the stone! Here was not plastic, or plywood, or aluminium, or alloy, or concrete, or any of the other materials with which the modern world is built, but inscrutable stone, solid and silent. And a particularly evocative material, too, for this type of limestone is known as ironstone, permeated as it is with ferrous oxide and therefore of a rich, rusty colour.

I share all this with you not out of sentimentality (I hope) but rather because it summarises some of what I consider to be important truths about architecture. First of all that architecture is not about the great and famous buildings of the world but the ordinary; the buildings in which we live and work, by which we pass every day and whose shapes and forms direct our lives, whether we like it or not. And, secondly, that architecture has immense expressive power and is no less an art form than painting, music, poetry, literature, or sculpture. And that it is unique among these art forms because it lives more in the real world than any of them; it ages and wears, it is used and abused, it is worshipped and forgotten. And that architecture is a proverbial history book of just as much use, if not more, than literal history books. Architecture might just be the truest book of civilisation.

V - Rhetoric

Finding Your Voice

Among the great orators of the classical world there is one who stands above all the rest: Demosthenes. Though, now, I suppose the likes of Pericles and Cicero are more generally famous, it was Demosthenes who loomed like a giant over public speaking in the ancient world. He was the gold standard against which everybody afterwards was judged. It was during the 4th century BC, when Athens was threatened by the growing power of King Philip of Macedon to the north (father of Alexander the Great) that Demosthenes earned this reputation.

But how did Demosthenes become such a titan of oratory? Did he have one of those god-given voices, sweet and frightening and thunderous? Was he born with a naturally unmatchable eloquence and wit? Not at all. The young Demosthenes was prone to mumbling, spoke with a lisp, and had a weak, raspy voice. And he was mocked for this whenever he attempted to speak in public. What did the young Athenian do? He did not shrink from such criticism. As Plutarch tell us, he committed himself to becoming a better orator:

For his bodily deficiencies he adopted the exercises which I shall describe, as Demetrius the Phalerian tells us, who says he heard about them from Demosthenes himself. The indistinctness and lisping​ in his speech he used to correct and drive away by taking pebbles in his mouth and then reciting speeches. His voice he used to exercise by discoursing while running or going up steep places, and by reciting speeches or verses at a single breath. Moreover, he had in his house a large looking-glass, and in front of this he used to stand and go through his exercises in declamation.

Demosthenes was also famous for giving speeches to the sea; by matching himself against the roaring he waves he learned to speak more loudly and with greater power. All this is a reminder, I suppose, that through the unglamorous labour of sheer hard work and force of will we can better ourselves. And, in terms of rhetoric specifically, it is a reminder that anybody, even if they do not seem like a natural orator, can through training become one. This was captured rather well by the great French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix in 1859 in Demosthenes Declaiming by the Sea. It is one of my favourite paintings.

VI - Writing

How To Read

To be able to write we must also be able to read. Quintilian said as much and he was not the only one. That reading is a way to learn and to improve ourselves is an ancient truth. But... how does one read? This question is not as simple as it may seem. First of all there is the practical matter of doing so. What with all the distractions of the modern world, finding the time to pick up a book is hard enough, never mind focussing on it without interruption by the ping and patter of notifications. Second, there is the matter of engaging with the book itself. What do we make of it? How do we analyse it? Do we take Hamlet as we find him or do we perceive the social facts of Elizabethan England in Shakespeare's drama? Do we perform a critique of the text, whether Freudian, Marxist, Christian, or otherwise?

The late American literary critic Harold Bloom, whatever his faults and idiosyncracies, was a champion of the individual in literature. His self-confessed credo in this regard came from Virginia Woolf, who in an essay called How One Should Read a Book wrote this:

Yet who reads to bring about an end however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading."

These were the words that guided Bloom's life. And what powerful words they are! Here is an invocation not to read so that we may learn something, nor to read in service of an ideology, or of a specific way of looking at the world, or even of understanding one thing or another. Bloom called this aesthetic dignity. Here, as Woolf so eloquently expressed it, reading itself is the aim, and it is for ourselves alone. For good or bad, to be uplifted, disturbed, enriched, puzzled, enlightened, reading can be the endgame of the reading.

How to read in the modern world — finding the time and evading destraction — isn't easy. Perhaps it is a question of sheer will and removing temptation (turning off our phones, perhaps?) but here Bloom and Woolf give us a good way of reading once we manage to do so.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

Last week's question was:

Is there such a thing as objectively good art?

It's an age old, complicated, and important question. So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that you responded with such gusto. Your answers were too numerous and brilliant for pruning down to a select three or four. And so I have dedicated this week's itinerant seventh chapter to your answers, that I might give them the space they deserve.

Sean G:

Once you define what you consider to be art, you set the parameters for objective assessment.
It’s easy to get lost in infinite parameters but in every definition we create a binary, in or out, that can be applied objectively.
To answer your questions we must define what is meant by the object ‘good art’. The moment we delineate and define this object, we have a portal to an objective reality that is completely subjective and personal

Yitzchack F:

Your QotW "Is there such a thing as objectively good art" begs the underlying question of "what is art?" at all - a definition. That's wrapped up with the related question of what is the purpose of art? - which I'm not going to really go into, because, well, space.
For some people, Tracey Emin's My bed, Damien Hirst's Mother and child, divided, and Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII, to take just three of the most infamous examples, are too gross, shocking or simply mundane, and lacking in obvious talent and physical draughtsmanship, dexterity and skill in execution to even qualify as art, let alone as good or great art. For others, who use different definitions and criteria for what constitutes art, and who are steeped in the academic discipline and rigour of what is considered art in academic and critical circles, all three are timeless masterpieces that challenge and extend the horizons of the audience, whereas what the man on the Clapham omnibus might "oooh!" and "ahhh!" at simply lacks any artistic merit.
I have to say that I tend more to the first view even though I sort of understand the second... The criterion for what makes art good for me is the probably populist notion that it looks (or sounds, reads etc.) aesthetically beautiful or pleasant - even if it portrays a gory or repellent scene - and also combines a level of skill in execution that I could personally never hope to emulate, with interpretation or imagination that makes me pause and reflect.

Work that is not pleasant and uplifting to experience, that doesn't directly enhance and beautify our lives and environment, to me can never be good art. It may be outstanding in other ways and you might even want it on your wall, shelf or playlist - think of great photojournalism such as Don McCullin's Da Nang, Vietnam 1969 which certainly reflects tremendous creative, imaginative and interpretive talent along with powerful messages, or David Rubinger's iconic Paratroopers at the Western Wall in 1967. But to me, call me a Philistine, that's not good art.

Tobías G:

This is rather an interesting question. First of all I'd like to get explain those words:
Art derives from Ars, whose equivalent in Greek is techne, technic. I can say that, everything "man made" (artificial) is, per se, art. Objectively means that judgement is not altered by one's perception, feelings or opinions. That being said, I like to refer to "art" in the widest sense, as cooking it's an art, as well as building a house or a vitraux, etc.
But how can I be objective about something that will always be based on someone's perspective? Let put some examples. Marta Minujin, an argentinian artist, built an obelisk with panettone... Swedish find surströmming a speciality and I personally wouldn't even dare to be close to one of those cans... Some group of scouts that diligently removed graffities and, in 1992, ended up erasing some prehistoric paintings in the Cave of Mayrières supérieure, France....
This is a small demonstration about the subjectivity of everything that is made by man. Art can be considered "good" by a general and widespread consensus, not excent of cultural background and knowledge and, in some cases, a little "ripening time" that allows it to be representative of some old age (could it be that those paints in france were subject of mockery by fellow cavemen?). To synthesize: Art is art and everything else is just an interpretation.

Yanti S:

I’ve recently been reminded by a colleague that we tend enjoy art as a result, and not as a process. They talked about the AI-generated artworks we’ve been indulged with lately, the works prompted by Midjourney and Dall-E, and popular criticism of how they imitate existing art and challenged originality. But what struck me the most is how they said, “Art is also about the creative process, not only the result.” And so, in responding to your question, I think art can be objectively good when seen as a process, its time of creation, the style it was responding to, the tools that were accessible when creating it, as well as the context of its creation. I think that’s where the beauty of art lies.

Ash R:

Objectively good art exists. “Good” here should be seen – or has classically been seen – as synonymous with “beautiful.” Our world has a Creator who is the author of all things beautiful and good. This beauty and goodness is always ordered. In mathematics and the sciences, humanity has observed and recognized hallmarks of God’s order, repeated over and over again in creation. Among them are the golden ratio, equilibrium, proportion, and the symmetries: reflective, rotational, translational, and proportional.
Good art mimics the work of our Creator by appealing to moral goodness as defined by God (i.e., objective truth, which also exists) using proportion and symmetry in accordance with the design principles established by God.
Ergo, if you look at a drizzly mountain landscape with a rainbow shimmering in the distance, or the interior of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and are unmoved, the problem is within your soul, not with the object’s lack of goodness and beauty.

John O:

Sometimes I think of art as water. If art were water, perspective would be its container. That makes it difficult for any art to be good (or bad, etc) by itself. I mean, you could use some of the best or top quality paints, clay or words, but in the end the judgement belongs to a perspective. So yeah, there's probably no such thing as objectively good art.PS: By "perspective" I mean less of the 3D look and feel and more of a (physical, psychological and spiritual) point of view.

Andrea E:

If we base our definition of art on the premise that it is something that evokes emotion (and keep beauty out of the equation), then yes, I do believe you can have objectively good art. Some may love it, some may hate it, some may find it boring or indecipherable, but the fact that there is a reaction means the art has done its job. It is therefore “good” art.

Rose C

The flaw is not in the artwork but in the question itself.
As a Catholic I could understand “good” art to fall exclusively within specific dogma: all art must represent the Passion or glorify the church in some way, all art must bear some resemblance to reality, all nudity is sinful because it incites lust, etc. Sounds rather limited, doesn’t it? Such tight rubrics betray the viewer’s own personal inadequacies. To quote The Chapman Brothers:

“Galleries are [not] redemptible spaces for bourgeois people to come and pay their dues to culture.”
Art cannot be used to wallpaper over our fears…rather it is an essential communication tool that can reach deep into our soul, if we let it.
There is an assumption that because we can see something we understand it and are automatically entitled to an opinion. Our eyes can only comprehend so much…we do not see the blood, sweat and tears that went into a work, nor do we see how it could have emerged through pure chance. Moreover, we tend to care too much about the artist’s virtues and vices, letting this cloud our judgement of what we see. Caravaggio painted beautiful portraits of young boys and was exiled for murdering somebody. Gauguin was indeed a salacious, appropriating narcissist…but his mastery of colour and mythology asks us uncomfortable but necessary questions about the true nature of our desires, opening the playing field for Cézanne, Matisse and, by distillation, Grayson Perry. One man’s shit eventually nourishes somebody else’s flowers.

If art succeeds in establishing common ground between viewers then one can indeed argue a case for objectivity. Yourself, a friend and I look the Sunflowers by Van Gogh. You see a tortured artist whose style is misunderstood, our friend is underwhelmed as the Sunflowers have been reproduced ad infinum by contemporary culture and wants a cup of coffee, I see the transition from summer to autumn and remember my brother’s birthday is coming up. But we all agree we are looking at sunflowers.

So…what is objectively good art?
• Photorealistic representation of the world? (Ingres’ Odalisque)
• Validates / interrupts our worldview (beauty and ugliness are both a phenomenon that happen to us, rather than an aesthetic quality in themselves…The Ugly Duchess by Quinten Massys straddles both)
• Asks important questions about what it means to be human? (Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey)• A naive appreciation of the world around us? (6 year old’s drawing of mum)• A practical joke? (Duchamp’s Fountain)
• Absolute mastery over one’s craftsmanship? (Albrecht Dürer’s engravings)• A ritual? (Lascaux cave paintings / hieroglyphs / reliquaries)
• Commemoration of war and sacrifice? (Anselm Kiefer)
• Does it give primacy to its material or its content? (Michelangelo’s David argues both)
• Empathises with broken hearts everywhere? (Dirk Bouts’ Christ Crowned with Thorns, Picasso’s Blue Period, Tracey Emin’s Bed)
• Give a voice to the small? (Giacometti’s Brothel Scenes, Clara the Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi)ETC
Then of course there is the art of one’s profession: accountancy, teaching, law, mixology, window dressing, coding and computer science…

Art is simply a means of communication. It’s up to the viewer whether or not we are open to receiving these messages

Bani H:

If objectivity is the norm accepted by the mass, then surely. Though it can be absurd, for the objective should resist the passage of time and thus when the masses were to change so would it. This paradoxon shows that clearly if anything objective existed, then it should not find its base on the mass and culture.
On the other hand we can vlearly state that the Rennaisance, ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and art are that which one sees as the best and thus objectively best. Why so? For they are the main source out of which other lesser or similar works habe sprout from. One can also argue for that, with the following point: if it were not that art, then why had enlightenment not found place before the Rennaisance, the rebirth of those arts? One can discern that those arts are the beginning of all good things, the base, the ideal of the offsprings ( later art) and thus the most close to obejctively good art. Why did not the medieval religious arts lead to such wonderful times and arts as the rebirth of the classical arta did? For they were highly religious, and thus biased and excruciatingly subjective.
On the other hand one could argue, and this is my last remark, which i stand for the most, that that which is true to the artist should be the most objectively good art. If one person looks at the works of Beksinski, they are far off from the objective works i talked about in the second paragraph. Yet, one feels that they are exactly the representation of his soul. They leave man in awe, for they are the copy of the artists Being. Thus, i would claim that the most objectively good art is the one which is in full Synchronisation with its creator and the people connecting with it. It seems the objective aspect in each thing is visible to those weak from that certain objectivity.

Varun G:

Though the adage "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder" gets often thrown around around at any associated notion e.g. "goodness of art" I have always felt that there is a great deal of objectivity about what constitutes art belonging to a basic class of goodness i.e. people often agree on what art is bad and what art is basically good, but their degree of agreement tapers away on what constitutes the truly distinctive higher grades of greatness. Moreover, this objective notion is though stable in the short term very dynamic in terms of long term variation, the zeitgeist of the age sometimes resurrects either the very bad or barely good art from past ages and raises it to being good [and sometimes great] [and why not the bad, because art that is bad without being very bad is seldom memorable and hence irretrievable at scale in terms of public memory].
What evidence do I have to back up the intuition above?
Good but Arguments About Greatness:

1. "The Night Watch" by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn: Painted in 1642, this work is considered one of Rembrandt's most famous and iconic paintings. While many art historians and critics regarded it as an innovative and ambitious work, others, especially during the artist's lifetime, found the piece to be too unconventional, especially in its composition and use of light and shadow, leading to debate over its true greatness.

2. "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" by Pablo Picasso: Painted in 1907, this artwork marked a significant turning point in Picasso's career and is often considered as the precursor to the Cubist movement. At the time of its creation, the work was met with harsh criticism and shock due to the portrayal of the women and the break from traditional artistic norms. Some critics considered it a groundbreaking work of artistic innovation, while others dismissed it as crude and offensive, causing a divide in opinions on its greatness.

3. "The Large Bathers" by Paul Cézanne: Produced during the early 20th century, this painting represents part of Cézanne's vision to emphasize the basic shapes and forms underlying in nature. Despite its praise as a significant piece of modern art, the work also faced criticism, particularly with regard to the perceived awkwardness of the figures and the geometric simplification of their forms, leaving room for differing opinions on the painting's greatness.

4. "Guernica" by Pablo Picasso: Created in response to the bombings of the namesake Spanish town in 1937 civil warfare, Picasso's work quickly became a symbol of the horrors of war and a powerful anti-war statement. While the painting has received immense praise for its content and emotion, there have been critics at several points in time that have argued the artwork lacked the technical and stylistic qualities to be considered truly great. These differing opinions on the painting's greatness underscore the subjectivity involved in evaluating art.
The Ugly which Became Good and Great:

The rediscovery and restoration of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling, painted by Michelangelo, comes to mind when talking about the shifting perception of art's quality. Once considered a mundane work for many years, the restoration work in the 1980s and 1990s unveiled the hidden beauty of the painting, leading to a broader consensus that it was indeed a masterpiece. This highlights how a piece of art's perceived quality can change significantly over time.

Another striking case in point is that of Vincent van Gogh, an artist now widely regarded as one of the greats, but who struggled for recognition during his lifetime. Facing poverty and battling mental health issues, Van Gogh's work found little commercial success when he was alive. Yet, following his death, critical attention and public adoration have elevated his name to the highest echelons of the art world. This underscores the fact that what was once deemed bad or mediocre can later be seen as exceptional.

Impressionist painters, such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, faced harsh criticism and ridicule in the 19th century due to their fresh take on painting. Initially viewed as radicals who produced unfinished and ugly works, the Impressionists were eventually recognized for their groundbreaking approach to capturing the essence of a scene. Today, the works of these once-derided artists now occupy a pivotal place in the history of modern art, showcasing the evolving nature of what is considered good or bad in the artistic landscape.

Lastly, the early years of the Cubist movement led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque can serve as another example of changing perceptions. Their then-unorthodox ideas regarding perspective and representation faced confusion and even scorn from the art world. With time, however, Cubism emerged as one of the defining movements of modern art, and the works of Picasso and Braque became celebrated masterpieces. This reevaluation of the movement's importance demonstrates how the distinction between good and bad art can be fluid as understanding and tastes evolve.

Through these examples, we can observe that the perception of what constitutes good art is potentially both objective and dynamic, shifting over time with changing cultural and historical contexts.

The final word goes to Gregg S, who responded laconically:

Yes - and one knows it when they see it (or hear it).

Question of the Week

This week's question to test your critical thinking is:

Individuals. Ideas. Technology. Which of these has had the greatest influence on history?

Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.

And that's all

Enough words for now, enough art and enough books and enough thinking. They all have their place, delightful or useful or revealing or challening, but all lessons must end and we must go out, fearfully or fearlessly, unto ourselves. Such was my feeling upon completing this volume of the Areopagus. But Walt Whitman said it more lyrically and powerful than ever I could:

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done.
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

What themes lovest thou best? Only you know; ponder them well. Adieu!


The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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