The Music of Love

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from Standpoint Magazine, where it was originally published in June 2011.

I am not actually a child of the Sixties, although I almost was. Born in July 1959, I had a fairly contented, provincial Scottish boyhood when all the strange social convulsions were going on elsewhere. You needed to be a fully-fledged urban teenager or twenty-something brat in that decade to be fully touched and muddled by all its shenanigans. I reached my own personal brat-hood round about 1976 and I stayed that way till my first child arrived in 1990.

It is interesting to reflect now on what was held up as appropriate thinking and behaviour for an artist during that phase; and I can see the same orthodoxies at work in the “artistic community” even now. The cherished values of generations through our shared history, the deep-rootedness of paradigmatic, civilised structures and human relationships have been under siege from some determined enemies. The traditional family, education, sexual morality, artistic aspirations, religious belief – these are all now sold to us as mere strategies of the powerful and the coercive “reactionary,” designed to enforce conformity and slavish obedience to outmoded fashions. The most eager proponents of this revolutionary radicalism from the Romantics onwards were artists, of course. For the Romantic of the 19th, 20th and now 21st centuries, the attraction of revolution, (and any old revolution would do) has been a constant leitmotif. Revolution, which preferably overturned manners and lifestyles as well as aesthetics and politics, has been the slogan and banner for generations of certain types of creative idealists.

But what have these fashionable revolutions to do with a love of life, or even of a love of the poor or the outsider? They seem more concerned with a love of transgression; a fetish for flouting the traditions, values and morality of established communities and peoples which the hero/rebel/artist wants to be seen rejecting. Their war against their own roots has been bloody and relentless. They seem punch-drunk with their onslaught and clobbering. It is clearly addictive and in the past has led artists as much to the extreme Right as to the far Left. It is not the upholders of tradition that have strategy as claimed. If anyone has a strategy, it is our new cultural elite, and their aim is to attack the institutions and principles of our shared common life. What began as a light-headed teenage rebellion has become a cultural regime which judges artists and their work on the basis of how they contribute to the remodelling, or indeed the overthrow of society’s core institutions and ethics.

In the light of this I can now see, in retrospect, that my first defiant counter-revolutionary activities were marrying Lynne in 1983 (according to the rites of Holy Mother Church, of course) and having three kids with her in the early 1990s. Many artists I know have abstained from the responsibility of lifelong commitment to a significant other, and bringing children into the world, as it would interfere with their vocations as cultural figures, preferring to see their own opus, in music, words or pictures as “their real children” which they set loose on an unsuspecting world. Marriage and fatherhood – it’s not exactly rock’n’roll, is it? And yet, it was the influence of two men, both married fathers, that had a seminal influence on me.

I think I inherited my love of music from my maternal grandfather, George Loy, who was a coalminer in Ayrshire all his life. He had played the euphonium in colliery bands in the 1920s and ’30s, and he was devoted to singing in the church choir for Mass at Saint John the Evangelist, Cumnock. This church, built by the Marquis of Bute in 1882, was originally intended as a place where music would be specially nurtured.

When, as a teenager, I began to show an interest in the fine two-manual Hilsdon organ in Saint John’s, my grandfather was over the moon and bought me a set of new hymn books and various manuals to help me teach myself the basics. I soon began playing for the liturgies there. This, combined with my school studies in choral music from all ages, meant that my interest and love of sacred music took off in a big way, which was to have implications for the rest of my life.

Working-class Ayrshire is a hard-man’s paradise, but could be purgatory for everyone else. The way people like my grandfather survived was to put on a hard skin and hide his true self underneath. He was good at it. He had to be. His own father was an abusive drunk who could make life misery for his family. When his sons reached a certain age, they worked out that if they kicked him in a specific place, they could dislocate his leg and render him harmless on the floor for a few hours, as he raged in his drunken stupor, thus safeguarding mother and children from physical abuse.

On another occasion as a young man, my grandfather was having a drink with friends in a local bar after work. A stranger approached them and announced that my grandfather “had the map of Ireland written all over his face.” A poetic observation perhaps, but in sectarian-infested Ayrshire one did not hang around to explore metaphorical subtleties. Turning the other cheek, they headed for the door to avoid any escalation, except for one, who couldn’t quite contain all that pent-up male rage. At the door, my grandfather turned to see his friend throttling the living daylights out of the mouthy poetic figure, who had chanced his arm with them, an inch too far, apparently. He rushed back in to extricate his   fury-infused pal from an increasingly sticky situation before the local “Loyal Defence League” turned up.

It may have been as part of a determined flight from these blood-boiling belligerencies that my grandfather sought solace in music. He may have been dour and authoritarian, but he loved his family and they loved him back. I felt especially nurtured by his encouragement. Just before he died he confided in me a truly remarkable revelation of the power and presence of God which involved a piece of my music. It will remain our secret, but what stunned me most were the words he used. He did not normally waste words. He had a working man’s suspicion of pretension and fancy, and yet here he was, hours from death, trawling deep into his heart and memory to show me that music brings you into the very immanence of a loving God. No learned tome on theology or musicological philosophy has explained this reality to me more clearly since.

George Loy’s eldest daughter, Ellen, my mum, married James MacMillan senior in 1958. In his way too, he can seem strangely out of place. He doesn’t drink (much), and is quiet, thoughtful and sensitive. He prefers the company of his family to that of hard-drinking men. One of my earliest memories of him is observing him on his knees before a statue of Mary, lost in a distant humble introspection. Snatched moments like these showed me more about being a man than any of the other masculine madness surrounding me at the time. My dad’s own work as a carpenter seemed another world away from my chosen path in life. And yet I was always struck, and impressed, at how much care he took in the making of things. There were strict techniques to his craft which had taken a lifetime to learn. Again there was no place for fanciful self-indulgences in the manipulation of wood and lathe. I may use different tools and materials from my dad, but he will never really know just how much of an influence he has had on me.

An influence on making music, and on being a father. It’s only beginning to dawn on me just how iconically counter-cultural people like my dad and grandfather are becoming for present and future generations. Their inevitable route through a Scottish working-class manhood, with their pivotal roles as husbands and fathers, must have struck them as fairly mundane and mainstream in their day. The upheavals and disruptions of recent decades have made many of us look again at their taken-for-granted lives, with a strong sense of wistfulness and loss.

We all know now that working-class life has been hit hard in recent decades. First of all, the traditional communities have been disrupted physically by uprooting and dislocation. More potently and toxically, they have been disrupted socially and spiritually by the breakdown in marriage, family life, and through drug and alcohol abuse. 

The rest, they say, is history, except that a lot of people have not only been left behind by that history, but have been wasted and trashed by it. Rediscovering the role of the father seems an urgent task. Not as some emotionally remote, powerful patriarch, but as a patient enabler. The first of his tasks is to give space to the beloved, the mother, to build her nest of love. There has been a historical breach which has made a generation lose sight of how that may be done. It will require hard work in building the ideal vision again.

Can a musician contribute to this much-needed counter-revolution? Can artists be weaned off their toxic hedonism to provide new ways of imagining our human condition and its flourishing in a universal sense of the good life? I have no idea.

Nevertheless, something strange happened to me and my long-time collaborator, the poet Michael Symmons Roberts, when we first became fathers in the 1990s. We were overwhelmed at the new experience. No one warns you that you fall head over heels in love with the new arrivals – these tiny, insignificant little bundles – who can do nothing for themselves, but turn your lives inside out. Maybe mothers know about this, but as usual, fathers, perhaps a bit slow on the uptake, are the last to find out. We noticed that there was not much in our culture which reflected on this, or celebrated parenthood, and fatherhood especially. Neither was there much which rejoiced in the family, or marriage or the fullness of human sexuality, other than the usual stuff from popular culture.

We wondered if we could address this vacuum in our own work in some way. It is not the first time that Michael and I have been accused of muscling into territory recently colonised by militant, exclusivist feminism. But you know what? We couldn’t have cared less! The result was Quickening, a large oratorio co-commissioned by the BBC Proms and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The first movement, Incarnadine, is basically a love song. The word means blood-red, crimson, raw-flesh colour, the colour of life. The main part of the text is the observation of the lovers, as their loving words and endearments become flesh, literally. In a little postlude to this, written in italics, we hear the words of the coming child, who is now alive and unborn.

This is love’s alchemy, mercurial,

What risk to bring another pair of hands into the world! A tongue alive with sounds

Of long-forgotten gardens, Babel

Songs which none can recognize,

Wildcat psalms in cedar trees, what risk!

Yet this new life is our elixir,

This soft dividing pearl is our great price.

Incarnadine, vermillion, crimson;

That night your words were made flesh I became

A hummingbird trapped in a scarlet room, 

whose wings beat so quickly they cannot be seen.

At the first performance of this piece a young couple rushed into their seats in front of me at the Royal Albert Hall with a few seconds to spare before the conductor raised his baton. They were harassed, unsettled and out of breath. They did not know what this piece was that was beginning. As they calmed themselves, and started to read their programme notes I noticed them following the text as the singers sang it. At a certain point I saw them grasp each other in an involuntary spasm of joint recognition. They gripped fast and would not let go. Something in Michael’s text had touched their own situation. It was one of the most magical feelings I have ever experienced as an artist, attempting to communicate something of our shared humanity.

Over the years at subsequent performances I have got used to noticing people on my peripheral vision, hovering, sometimes alone, sometimes in couples, wanting to catch a quick word with me. They share intimate secrets of their love and their parenthood. Sometimes their tales are very sad, and one realises that those snatched moments of shared communion with complete strangers are vitally important, and one has to be ready with words and smiles. Sometimes they have questions for me too.

Other times the questions are not so friendly. Journalists are bright enough to realise that there might be a subterranean dimension to this work, and feel that some aggressive interrogation is called for. In the US especially, beset with its all-encompassing culture wars, some hacks figure out that all is not well with Quickening! “Do you not realise,” they fulminate, “just how offensive and divisive this piece might be?”

“Why offensive? Why divisive?” I inquire, jaw loose in amazement.

“Well, because of all this, um, eh, er…” they bluster, “all this…well, um…all this ‘life’ stuff!”

Hmm. All this “life” stuff, indeed. That would be in contradistinction to all this “death” stuff then? Not that there is anything wrong in artists exploring the mystery of death in their work. I do it all the time too. But when our world can become so anaesthetised, to the point of being a couple of notches out on the moral compass from hailing Harold Shipman-types as heroes of a new compassionate utilitarianism, we should pause for thought.

Or what about this particular elephant in the room? President Barack Obama recently signed a law decreeing that federal statutes must no longer use the term “mental retardation.” The phrase replacing it will be “intellectual disability.” How the opponents of social discrimination rejoiced. No longer would children with Down’s syndrome suffer the indignity of social stigma. The thesaurus comes to their rescue. Well, at least the 10 per cent of them that we allow to exist anyway – the other 90 per cent being discriminated out of existence because we have all been convinced that there is such a thing as “life unworthy of life,” to borrow a term from an earlier eugenical era. And our new elites bridle indignantly at the charge that they preside over a “culture of death.” What other prettified words or phrases from the thesaurus would they prefer?

This is the background context to the 21st century’s fractured landscape, where families snap apart and communities self-implode. And so, is there any place left for an artist’s need for self-definition as a father? Can an artist be inspired and even shaped by his decision to build a family rather than reject the potential? Is this a determined stance for future life?

Who knows, but there is definitely something in the air. Even David Cameron has dared to take on the 50-year orthodoxies of finger-wagging bullies, by declaring that marriage really does work best. Are some of us  developing the courage to take on the ruling elites and put family, marriage, fatherhood, motherhood, the fullness of human flourishing, the good life, Christianity even, (for Christ’s sake!), the culture of life, not death, back where it belongs – at the centre of the public square?


The Craftsman in an Industrialised Age

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay, originally published in May, 1985 as “Unemployed to Self-Employed” in Art & Design magazine, contains some thoughtful observations about human nature and the place of the craftsman. We think these thoughts are important for musicians and orchestral leadership to consider. The push to adopt technology as our savior (or replacement, as in “the virtual orchestra”) is not a new one and in many ways we are, as a society, trying to recover from the effects of our unconsidered rush to modernize.

After spending the first three years of my adulthood in an office, I became convinced that this was not to be my kind of life. Liszt had been my first hero and by comparison, my achievements seemed bleak. I dreamt of performing some heroic deed and then laying down arms because, like so many, I thought that regular work would mean more pain than pleasure. If I was any good, where was my princely protector now?

Rather than continue to force upon people ideas which nobody save me was very keen about, I felt I owed myself an early retirement. I would do what I fancied; read a lot, paint a little, travel most of the time and, best of all, play my grand piano in a lofty room with a fine view of the Mediterranean Sea somewhere in the hills above Portofino. It didn’t happen exactly that way, for I soon found out that doing nothing but reading for more than six months at a time, albeit in elegant conditions, is a trial on one’s sanity, that traveling for pleasure is a nightmare, and that, given the state of the industrial world, early retirement is not unlike playing golf between lines of battle.

I had no qualms about staying out of the fight, but the general unpleasantness surrounding the violent action rendered my youthful dream quite absurd. The prospect of wasting the rest of my life in shallow pursuits held little excitement: it is true that anyone following his vocation, be he an artist, a statesman, or a craftsman, abhors the mere thought of retiring at whatever age.

“Retirement from active life” as a mass phenomenon is largely a product of industrial society and the “civilisation of leisure,” a fantasy of thinkers and the alienated industrial masses. Marx promised them heaven on earth; their toiling lot reduced step by step through systematic mechanisation. With the exception of Ruskin and Morris most thinkers of the industrial era turned out to be “industrial” thinkers. Refusing to consider industrialism as a mere ideology, they posited it as an irreversible fact of history and progress, as unquestionable as the laws of nature, as irrevocably useful as the discovery of the wheel. Confusing the ideas of work effort and toil, they assumed that all forms of production were in unresolvable conflict with the idea of pleasure and liberty. In that line of thought the realm of liberty – meaning leisure time – could easily be expanded at the expense of the realm of necessity – meaning production time. With industrialism promoting itself as the ultimate form of civilisation, this mere hypothesis has become an imperative justifying the relentless industrialisation of all extra-productive branches of life: culture, leisure, education, sports, etc.

Everyday experience, however, tells us that the sensation of pleasure is inseparably linked to the idea of effort.* Ironically, the demands of industrial man’s brain and muscle are generally higher on weekends and holidays than on workdays. For then and there he undertakes deeds which no employer could persuade him to suffer, which no union could dissuade him from sustaining. He indulges freely in the sheer expansion of effort. He deploys anachronistic artisan, moral, and gastronomic activities; he preferably works manually; he climbs mountains without shying hardship; he goes on marches to support lost causes; he fancies dancing, fighting, running, and fishing without apparent gain. Regardless of whatever ecologically, aesthetically, or morally doubtful job he may be doing to earn a living, he becomes, in his leisure time, a devout ecologist, a conservationist, a samurai, a pacifist, a christian, a poet, a craftsperson, socialist, an antifascist, and what not? Instead of earning a livelihood by following his vocation, he wastes energy and savings doing just that in his leisure time. Whenever he feels free to do what he thinks right, homo industrialis turns into his own negation.

Cultures of the past have only been great when they have educated people to become independent and earn a living by doing what they were good at. There are born hunters who are deaf to music, there are unsuccessful bankers who make excellent cooks. All great philosophers, teachers, and wise men have insisted on people choosing the profession which suits them best; they have even seen in the differing vocations a demonstration of divine providence, of nature’s harmony and miraculous equilibrium.

God creates men and women fit to shape their own destinies; to use His creation for their own advantage and pleasure. Thus humankind creates objects of stupendous beauty and celebrations of awesome majesty. Surely God would not give men and women five senses and a soul if He intended them to become occupational slaves; if He destined them to toil in office-blocks, to become fragments of machines and organisations, to live in rabbit hutches and travel in underground tubes – exchangeable, replaceable, and expendable.

All great cultures of the past used industrial processes to perform necessary and unpleasant deeds. Industrialism merely generalises these processes to the exclusion of higher, i.e., artisan and artistic, forms of work. I ask you, would it be any less cruel to let machines do work in which men take great pride and pleasure than to let them take care of our sexual and gastronomical functions?

It is no secret that the industrial system is going to employ fewer and fewer hands and brains. The chairman of ICI says that despite its increasing activities the company needs less and less manpower; that the purpose of such companies is not to employ people but to make profits. Why indeed should God’s proudest creatures be employed in doing dangerously boring jobs which machines are much better at? William Morris said as much a century ago.

All this, however, does not explain the central paradox of all industrial societies, namely, that the availability of handwork decreases and the cost of handwork rises in direct proportion to the number of unemployed hands. In the UK alone there are approximately seven million unemployed hands and half as many unemployed brains. I assume that the same numbers could be made redundant from overblown local and national bureaucracies without any loss of efficiency.

One of the most perennial subjects of high-minded Modernist blabla is to speculate about the forthcoming age of leisure, where happy folk are to work for two days at the most and spend the rest of the week and their luxuriant earnings on harmless nonsense.

Irrespective of political ideology, industrial systems produce, instead, a sizable nation within the nation, which is not only un- or ill-employed, but whose hands and brains have been permanently, and it seems irreversibly, put OUT OF WORK and OUT OF BUSINESS. Not only are they ill-educated and over-specialised, unfree and dependent – exactly what industries and unions have always wanted them to be – they are also, as a result, frustrated, helpless, angry, jealous, and vengeful. Like children they consider unions and industries, governments, and states to be Godfathers who should look after them from the cradle to the grave; Socialism and the Welfare State have promised them as much. To ask these people to become responsible therefore sounds like asking a drowning man to take up swimming lessons. It is painfully evident that the greatest achievement of the industrial system is not keeping such vast numbers away from the streets, away from rebellion and political mischief, but rather succeeding in holding so many hands and brains in docile submission; in anticipating and preventing them from ever entering serious competition with the industrial economy and ideology.

It would, however be short-sighted of any government to believe that the long term unemployed masses would be less dangerous politically than unionised masses, or that the problem could be solved by “new wunder-technologies.” The fact is that you cannot negotiate with the unemployed; their reactions are unpredictable. I find it more stimulating, therefore, to speculate on what these millions of hands and brains could be doing once they became apprenticed as competent and self-employed craftsmen, traders, and artists.

When Chartres built its cathedral it was a town of approximately 10,000 people; when Florence was the centre of the world it had no more than 60,000 citizens. In theory our unemployed nation could build, in the next ten years and with artisan methods, about 100 cities and 500 white cathedrals no less splendid than Chartres or Florence. It could plant forests where now there are poisoned wastelands, replace suburban sprawls with richly varied agricultural landscapes. It could build for all to see the true alternative to industrial mass society, to the bleakness of industrial parks and council housing, office compounds and comprehensive schools, university campuses and shopping precincts. Very soon it would down on us, on our dreary suburban masses, our silly entertainments, our crude sports and violent games, our depressing factories and offices.

The tragic effects of industrial modernism have not been limited to the spoiling of cities and landscapes; they have destroyed the educational, social, religious, and economic structures which had built, expressed, and maintained higher cultures. There exist, to this day, approximately 140 branches of traditional crafts, 40 of which have to do with architecture and building directly. A democracy dedicated to the regeneration of a dynamic and diversified economy will have to promote the reconstruction of self-employed and independent crafts with the same financial and legislative privileges that it now uses to lure industrial enterprise into action.

The immense success of the elite Akademie des Handwerks (Academy of Crafts) at Schloss Raesfeld in Westphalia shows the way. In this prestigious new institution the very last generation of masters has been brought from the remotest corners of the Federal Republic to teach the techniques and secrets of their crafts to “young” apprentices who must not only have the regular “master” title, but, in order to be accepted, also show evidence of ten years of self-employed professional and commercial success.

After only five years of intense activity, the Akademie has succeeded in training several thousand masters, thus laying the foundation for the reconstruction of traditional building crafts and apprenticeship.

I believe that, besides making long-due cuts, a visionary government has to promote at the highest level the establishment of such leading institutions. As HRH the Prince of Wales recently pointed out, small, efficient, and independent crafts and trades should not be located in isolated industrial zones but in the very midst of cities and villages. That is where they are needed, that is where they can offer their services most effectively. All this demands nothing less than the complete lifting of mono-functional and suburban zoning codes.

After the well-intentioned revival of the central city, after years of urban over-expansion and schematisation, a radical contraction of the cities and a parallel reconstruction of non-industrial agriculture has: 1, to be envisaged; 2, to be legislated; 3, to be promoted; and 4, to be effected. Only such a project truly transcends the accepted political and ideological divergences; positing organic growth against mechanical over-expansion; putting quality into competition with quantity. It is now a matter of ecological and cultural life or death. It may well be the only way to break the deadlock which paralyses and traumatises industrial man and society.

Craftsmen are needed everywhere all the time, and where there are great artisans, artists will inevitably prosper. It will be good for the arts, it will be good for the economy, and it will be good for democracy.



* This is one of Hannah Arendt’s main themes in The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958).


A Defense of Virtuosity

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.


Your map to places only the dorkiest dare to go.

Subscribe to find out more about the ideas behind our ideas. And the progress of our projects.

Your email address is safe with us. Unsubscribe anytime.