A Defense of Virtuosity

Author and poet

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, who originally published it in American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2008, Volume 25, Number 3.

Virtuosity in today’s art world presents a hard brief to argue insofar as it encompasses virtù, or excellence, which implies hierarchies of values, achievements and, at least in a narrow sense, persons. All of these are currently suspect if not, in the present parlance, downright transgressive. In some quarters, a craft tradition may now be seen as obsolete or, worse yet, exclusive. It is hardly surprising that the draftsmanship of freshman art students has been declining for decades. This shift, to some degree, represents an overcorrection of past failings. In the Ars Poetica, Horace emphasized the importance of both native ability and assiduous learning, but until relatively recently the appearance of talent and the opportunity to cultivate it appeared almost entirely among the privileged classes. Occasionally, a great talent could ascend in society in the same way as a great beauty, but the common lot was mere subsistence, and commoners’ lack of achievement no doubt reinforced aristocratic attitudes and perpetuated self-fulfilling prophecies for generations. The spread of mass literacy, increasing life expectancies and a degree of mass prosperity have fortunately extended to many commoners the opportunity to find out whether they have talent and the will to cultivate it. While we can only wonder how much genius has been wasted in the past, it would be perverse not to relish these new opportunities.

Egalitarian bonhomie has gotten carried away, however. In American terms, a Jeffersonian aristocracy of merit has given way to a Jacksonian approach in which anyone might be assumed to perform as well as anyone else. Thus few are humbled, and few are rightfully exalted. (How many artists occupy the recognizable top rank among their peers and the cognoscenti of their fields, let alone among the public at large?) The Jacksonian impulse may actually serve quite well in politics – horrors are more likely to stem from the pursuit of greatness than from an Everyman’s attempt to put in a day’s work – but serves the arts poorly.

Blaming the decay of virtuosity on capitalism would be facile. The mass marketing of art rewards mass-produced reproductions, but those reproductions seem at least as likely to be those of Vermeer or van Gogh as they are of any artist active since 1900. The most obvious excrescences of modern art stem instead from the caprices of collectors who attempt to carry on the aristocratic tradition. Without a sense of devotion to Church or State, these collectors have found themselves without guiding principles other than a dedication to conspicuous consumption or a residual Edwardian devotion to progress, or novelty masquerading as progress. This pseudo-patrician hegemony of taste has filtered into the educational system, as generations build on their predecessors and attempt to justify their own experiments. If models of virtuosity are ever more faintly approximated, subsequent generations have only weaker models to follow.

Such a patrician approach also leads to the sort of egalitarianism advocated by those who don’t have to live with its consequences. The intellectual classes have provided the underpinning for the notion that differences in talent are irrelevant. Beyond getting a fair opportunity to attempt, it is now held that individuals have the right to be artists, or at least consider themselves as such. And there is a certain undeniable cachet attached to this. This approach, tantamount to a latter-day Marie Antoinette waving off the crowds by saying “Let them make art,” trivializes all art by removing distinctions of quality. The combination of a decadent patrician tradition and a radical egalitarianism might have proven disastrous enough on its own, or merely one of those occasional lulls that occur in art history. But these trends have converged – or shared roots – with a shift in the definition of a work of art, from that which is made, often after years of training and bitter struggle, to that which is perceived. If other eras have labored and will labor again under the shadows of Rembrandt and Velázquez, or their successors, the present age is laboring under the shadows of wall-mounted handlebars and urinals.

These experiments were not without value. Every work of art exists in a context, and context can constrain as well as enable the viewer. Well-executed industrial design often holds greater appeal than self-conscious but questionably executed art. Umberto Eco has noted that the most genuinely beautiful objects at fairs and expositions are machines rather than allegedly decorative or artistic items. A spidery Philippe Starck juicer offers at least as much aesthetic appeal as the average Henry Moore sculpture, and far more utility.

The historical error, however, has lain in treating perception and context as sufficient rather than necessary conditions for art. Duchamp and Picasso moved on to projects that more fully engaged their talents once they had made their statements, but many others have mistaken a detour for a cul-de-sac. Perceptions and changes of context become a series of what graduate instructors might call “thought experiments.” At first these questions needed to be asked. The definition of art, the role of the museum and gallery in relation to class and aesthetics, and an interrogation of the artistic tradition’s development were all questions worth asking, especially after the timidity and complacency that dominated art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; even the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists did not stray that far from the groves of the academic approach.

Artists have been expected to épater la bourgeoisie for over a century, but continuing a revolutionary struggle starts to look foolish when everyone alive has been born long after the fall of the ancien régime. Surveying twentieth-century poetry, for instance, Timothy Steele has argued that decades of vers libre bards are still reacting to the late Victorian era’s soporific iambic pentameter and metronomic approach to recitation, dragons long since slain by the likes of Eliot and Pound. Apparently, the former avant-garde, like many other triumphant revolutionaries, would rather fight than govern. Remaining in a defensive stance, they have failed to establish a tradition that admits of development and amplification. Instead, there is a narrowing and reduction – a working out of ever-narrower formal questions. Thus the “progression” from the Cubists to Mondrian to late Rothko.

The questions being asked, however, are largely redundant and ultimately not very interesting. This poses a far greater problem than abstraction per se to viewers who have endured the slander of simplemindedness for far too long. After a century of abstract art, representation does not represent a sine qua non of many viewers’ aesthetics. Without so much as an art appreciation class, it is possible to appreciate the volumes and geometries of a Brancusi on their own terms and, for all their surface simplicity of execution, as achievements sprung from both skill and effort. It is not necessary to analyze his movement from outer representations to portrayals of archetypes and Platonic essences in order to enjoy his work. The same could be said for Kandinsky. We know that something substantial is being said – because of the arrangement and mastery of materials and because he felt compelled to exert a substantial effort. To apprehend that statement immediately, or ever to understand that statement in its totality, are unfair demands to place even on the cognoscenti. Moreover, any verbal statement is presumably secondary to non-verbal apprehensions of truth. Kandinsky is remembered for Yellow, Red, Blue and the Composition series, and only secondarily as the author of the cryptic, if intriguing Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and those paintings do not so much make statements as ask questions about the proper subjects and techniques of painting.

Fast-forward to the pickled menageries of Damien Hirst. The question being asked is relatively simple: how does it feel to be presented with a dead animal? Simplicity alone does not render a question unworthy of being asked, but an artist who asks such an obvious question assumes the concomitant responsibility of providing an answer that merits the viewer’s attention. The work of an artist such as Hirst partakes of banality. Once the novelty of their concept wears off, their pat and workmanlike answers demonstrate no exceptional command of skills or materials, and the execution could just as easily have been subcontracted as left to the putative artist. Such execution belongs more to the realm of artisanship or mass production. The resulting vision is impersonal, not in the way of Egyptian or Mayan work, but that of a widget. The possibilities of discovery inherent in working with and perhaps mastering one’s materials are thus prematurely foreclosed. An architect suckled on computer-assisted drafting, better known by its acronym CAD, may well turn out more product than a predecessor trained with pencils and a drawing board, but having his spaces created for him with the click of a mouse may deprive him of the chance to envision a structure ex nihilo and consider its possibilities before committing himself to drawing a line by hand.

What kind of painting would have resulted if Edward Hopper had subcontracted the execution of a canvas portraying figures at the counter of a late-night diner – and conveying the grandeur and unspeakable loneliness of American individualism? Only in painting Nighthawks was he able to convey his sensibility and refine it, through the discovery and discipline of engaging with his medium. Short-circuiting that process can lead to a premature sense of achievement. This is not even the self-satisfaction that Tom Wolfe denounced in The Painted Word, which assails modern art for serving mainly as the concretization of aesthetic theory, rather than the expression of any other impulse. Such theory-bound works can be, for all their coldness, a mental palate cleanser. The Cubists did not merely stop at asking the intriguing question “What if reality can be rewardingly portrayed with multiple vanishing-point perspectives and a geometric conception of matter?” They also sounded out the implications of that question. Pollock similarly asked whether a painting can rightly represent the document of action as well as the portrayal of an interior or exterior stasis, and he likewise worked through the implications of that question. We would not be able to approach this question in the same depth – or ask it at all – without his exertions. In short, our understanding and even our consciousness are expanded through the artist’s exercise of virtuosity, far more than they might have been through the short, pat answers of conceptual art. Merely saying “drips,” “squiggles” and “splashes,” or providing a few cursory examples, hardly does justice to their possibilities. Pollock’s particular drips, squiggles and splashes, with their underlying symmetry, make manifest at least some of those possibilities.

The answers of many artists, however, do not greatly improve on the possibilities of a one-sentence reply. Rothko’s later monochromatic canvases simply don’t tell us much, other than that the artist has reached a certain dead end of experimentation. While reaching a dead end is a noble risk of any experiment in art, as it is in science, artists have all too often lingered in that dead end. Faced with a similarly intractable obstacle, a conscientious scientist will cut his losses, however reluctantly, and pursue a new line of inquiry. For an artist, the option exists of returning, perhaps refreshed, to an approach that embodies more than a nominal treatment of materials for their own sake. Indeed, some artists have done precisely that. Anselm Kiefer does not deny the paths that Rothko took, but he transcends them through a tendency to elaborate and add materials into what would otherwise be a realm of pure negation.

That negation can derive from momentary fatigue or despair, but the repetition of those moments takes on an air of schtick. This is not confined to late Rothko. Barnett Newman’s monumental canvas Voices of Fire, which consists of three vertical stripes in red and yellow, takes up the greater part of a high wall at Canada’s National Gallery. Neither the question (what would three gigantic stripes look like?) nor the answer is terribly interesting, and, in an era of computer-generated special effects, the thought experiment could be made tangible with a few keystrokes. Instead, in the less technologically advanced days of 1990, the museum paid some $1.8 million for the privilege of owning the work.

The musical analogue of this approach occurs in the perverse milestone of John Cage’s 4‘33”. Besides the vague unease that attends sitting around while waiting for the performance not to happen, the impact of this piece could just as easily be obtained by stating as a thought experiment, “Imagine someone sitting down at the piano without playing.” Though Cage staked out his territory first, another composer could have “written” the score as well as Cage himself. Performance raises a further set of questions. The audience is pranked, or wills itself to admire the emperor’s new clothes, as nothing auditory is on offer. Short of a spirited interpretation in mime – and perhaps this has already been done – no two pianists (not that a pianist is strictly necessary) can offer meaningfully different readings of the piece.

This disregard for virtuosity – or even for the possibility of virtuosity – has both personal and historical implications. Developing a skill or exploring the properties of a medium can build character, or at least trim the overgrowth of our worst excesses. Doctor and host of the radio program Loveline, Drew Pinsky has applied an inventory of narcissism to his celebrity guests, and he has found the highest levels of narcissism among those who have applied the least discipline to the development of their talents, i.e., reality show participants. Lower levels obtain among those, such as musicians, who have had to defer gratification and subordinate their egos in order to master an instrument on its own terms. Cause and effect prove harder to determine when one moves from individuals to entire societies, but archaeological evidence across cultures and eras consistently associates a decline in the quality of crafts, such as ceramics, with a decline in the vitality of a place or culture.

The historical questions raised by contemporary indifference to craft and its flowering in virtuosity will not be answered any time soon, but for now that indifference can lead viewers, canaries in the aesthetic coal mine, to feel that they have been had. Sometimes money is the issue (a squandered “donation” for museum admission), but more than value-for-price is at stake. Viewers who have not been trained or indoctrinated in a certain tradition of self-conscious art appreciation are at least as likely to feel hoodwinked out of their time and attention as their money, and left to wonder if taste-making mandarins are somehow having a joke at their expense, or performing an experiment on the viewers, rather than in the medium purportedly employed. In short, it is easy for many viewers to simply feel manipulated toward no clear end.

An experience many seek but often will not find in high-concept works of art is awe, whether at the total sensory impact of a work or at the artist’s deployment of his skill to expand the consciousness of others who do not share that skill or vision. Individuals with a mature understanding of their own limitations are able to appreciate the virtuosity of Michael Jordan, Yo-Yo Ma or Dante in the same way as a rainbow, the Grand Canyon or any other wonder they could not have created themselves. To ignore this possibility is to insult the audience’s intelligence or profoundly misunderstand its needs. An artist expecting praise primarily for his ideas virtually consigns himself to failure. Giotto and Michelangelo had ideas as well, but their technique made them accessible to others.

Superlatives have no doubt been achieved in some mediums, techniques and movements, but this does not mean that it has all been done before (a recurrent postmodern complaint) or that the possibilities of virtuosity itself have been exhausted. A healthier response than settling merely for the crude realization of a concept – or the pursuit of a studied ugliness – is apprenticing oneself to a new medium. Photography and lithography were once new things under the sun, and Goya explored the latter in his final years. The possibilities include failure and a very long learning curve, but they hold out greater prospects for aesthetic exploration and existential bravery than small, self-satisfied “successes” that register as an exercise in high-concept painting by numbers. Such works can serve as student exercises, ensure survival in an MFA program where one or another dogma prevails or tide one over during lean times with an occasional sale. Nonetheless, they hold the danger of conflating means and ends.

An artist who is frustrated in achieving a desired level of accomplishment and is not interested merely in repeating himself may have to consider alternatives such as waiting for inspiration and making less art, or none at all. There are plenty of worse things not to do and, as Rilke noted in Letters to a Young Poet, plenty of other worthwhile things to be. Artists who cut back on their work or give it up altogether may have to redefine their self-concept, as many do at different stages of life. Practicing an art does not, and should not, confer immunity against basic human struggles. If we end up with fewer works of art this way, what will we be missing – collages of advertising, mutilated Barbies, installations of decontextualized household objects and outsize plastic moldings of ears of corn and fire trucks? In a latter-day corollary of Gresham’s Law, this debased currency drives out more accomplished work, or at least makes it harder to find.

This disproportion, if nothing else, helps to explain the low regard in which much modern art, particularly in the visual arts but in other fields as well, is held by the general public. With fewer high-concept, low-execution pieces of art crowding gallery floors and walls, there might be a fair chance for a non-artist to look over a painting or sculpture and see an idea realized as well as posited, word made flesh through vision and skill.

About the Author

J.D. Smith has published two collections of poetry, “Settling for Beauty” (2005) and “The Hypothetical Landscape” (1999). He has also edited an anthology titled “Northern Music: Poems About and Inspired by Glenn Gould.” His numerous other works appear in a variety of publications and include verse, essays, opinion pieces, children's books, and crime fiction. Smith was awarded a Fellowship in Poetry in 2007 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Links to his work can be found at his website.

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