Beauty and the Mind

I remember going to the Tate Gallery in 1972 and seeing Mark Rothko’s impressive canvases painted in a solid red that were arrayed (three of them, I think) at the front of the museum. I don’t remember what I thought about them at the time other than that they were huge and that Rothko had great nerve to paint canvases in a solid color and expect them to be accepted as art.

There is a very thin line between the intellectual idea behind a piece of art and the art itself. There was an excellent exhibition on John Singer Sargent at the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, NY this summer which largely consisted of Sargent portraits. Some were mediocre and a few were spectacular. The spectacular ones stood out because you could feel the interaction of the painter and his subjects.

The intellectualization of concepts which become art, be they Duchamp’s urinal or Hirst’s embalmed shark, seem to dominate the contemporary art scene. This is all very well if you are on the inside of the concept, but when you are on the outside, the vigor of the thought loses traction and the filter of preference starts to appear as a filter of preference borne of an age.

I am certainly not saying that contemporary art is a con. But is it beautiful? Some of it is without a doubt, but a lot of it is not. That interaction that Sargent achieved in his more spectacular canvases is what is exciting for me, it is what forces me to acknowledge the beauty of his skill, and I believe it begins with what is resting on the canvas not on the idea that resides in an artist’s mind.

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