May 06, 2017

Self-portrait with a sunflower, Anthony van Dyck

Self-portrait with a sunflower, Anthony van Dyck

Source: Wikimedia Commons

But surely, you say, you cannot be advocating the return to such a regime, not in the second decade of the 21st century? Indeed I am not, for I do not believe that the production of the highest art can now be the most important goal of our existence, partly because so much art of the highest type is in existence already, more than enough to satisfy everyone if he did but appreciate it. In any case, great art is not like the bull’s-eye in an archery competition, that with enough practice can infallibly be hit. And censorship would now be worse than the disease it pretended to cure. Where art and literature are concerned, we shall have to reconcile ourselves to the production of the second-rate, at least until we have learnt to program computers to produce first-rate art on our behalf.

There is worse than the second-rate, however; there is art so bad that it is not worth the effort of giving it a rank. But this is the first time in history, I suspect, that, thanks to government subsidy, artists have to aspire neither to excellence nor to popularity. Indeed, the failure of any public, except the administrators of the subsidies, to understand their work is some kind of guarantee in their mind that their work means something. I have read quite a few catalog essays in my time by artists of this ilk, and they always bring to mind Byron’s satire on Coleridge’s metaphysical speculations:

And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,

But like a hawk encumber”€™d with his hood,

Explaining metaphysics to the nation”€”

I wish he would explain his Explanation.


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