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08 March 2015


And Art Today

Recently the artist Nelson Shanks revealed a secret in the shadows of his painting of Bill Clinton:

The story rippled around the web, some reveling, some reviling. Apropos emulation, let me just offer as an antidote to Shanks’ rather too subtle, for-artists-only joke about the color of shadows, Titian’s famous portrait of Pope Paul III and his two nephews. A portrait for a sitting pope, kept in the family for centuries (thus its arrival at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples), with such almost painful depictions of the natures of each subject, involves cojones on par with Stephen Colbert’s White House Correspondents Association Dinner in 2006, and is hard to imagine pulling off today. But when artists thought more about the art of representation, its rhetoric and poetics, and dealt with the implicit decorum of classical portraiture, such inside jokes were not (as in the Shanks) the most interesting part of the painting. The Clinton portrait lacks any sense of composition (look how it slides off to the left, clipping the ionic column of the mantel), is rather blandly or neutrally lit, and seems almost obsequious in its youthful portrayal of its subject. Not here the penetrating portraiture of a Velazquez and his painting of Pope Innocent X, who exclaimed upon seeing it, “Troppo vero.” Too true, indeed. Realism has killed portraiture.

Instead, classical painting’s privileging of allegory, narrative, and the classical ideal makes for much more interesting, long-lasting stuff:

And once upon a time art had a meaningful relationship with the other arts, because they participated in a larger, comprehensive cultural weltanschauung:

So, save us from ourselves, or from those who want to save us, like Alain de Botton’s idea of what art is for:
He suggests a fifth way, therapeutic, so that in future the Tate could have as an objective to meet the psychological needs of the nation. He even goes so far as to outline seven psychological needs which could be met by art; remembering, hope, sorrow, re-balancing, self-understanding, growth, appreciation. But the key message repeated in different guises throughout his work is that we could all benefit from regular guidance; “despite the powerful elite prejudice against guidance works of art are not diminished by being accompanied by instruction manuals art has a clear function: it is a therapeutic tool to help us lead more fulfilled lives”. - See more at:

On where we are vis-à-vis the canon, here is Arthur Krystal, “What We Lose if We Lose the Canon”. But like most people today (obviously not attuned to his canonical authors' ways of thinking), he confuses imitation and emulation:
Too much veneration for Homer, Pindar, and the Greek playwrights; for Seneca, Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid would only compel modern poets to emulate them.
“Only” emulate them? I think the author means imitate, because there is no such thing as only emulating, emulation primarily being about rivaling, exceeding in some way or another. Dante “only” emulated Virgil...

One could argue architecture has a similar canon, in so much as it has affinities to the liberal arts; and while I don’t endorse the particulars I do wish more schools of architecture thought a bit like Harvard does about what they were doing.

Finally, what the camera did to painting the computer is doing to architecture:
The camera didn’t, in fact, kill painting. It begged the question of the value of realism, not of representation per se; but because realism and representation were becoming conflated and confused around the time the camera emerged, it was thought ceci tuera cela. Only when you lose the sense of what your art does, do you, in fact, let it die…