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The visual arts today

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 28 January 2015

I have heard artists say that the market for art has collapsed. They relate how major galleries have closed and how hard it is to make any kind of living producing art.

In Perth the number of commercial galleries still in business can be counted in the small numbers. Has the public lost interest in buying art or have artists failed to produce work that appeals? We, as a society, have more disposable income than ever and I am sure that people value and look for works that they can understand, works that strike some note of beauty or profundity.

It is easy to blame the buyers for not keeping up with the latest artistic trends, for not having an "eye" for the good. It is easy to accuse them of being untutored Philistines and therefore not being able to appreciate the contemporary offerings.


But artists have always had to find buyers. There are examples, like Vincent van Gogh, who had a hard time of it. But this does not set the pattern for greatness. Most of the best artists were appreciated in their own lifetime and found patronage in poorer times than ours.

So what is it about our time that makes running a commercial gallery difficult and almost impossible to make a living producing art?

One factor in the demise of the visual arts scene is the idea of neoism. We live at the end of a long development in the understanding of the visual arts. Art historians have given precedence to the new, the cutting edge. Art has been seen in terms of a progress into more developed forms.

While there is a kernel of truth in this, Giotto, by giving his figures volume and expression provided a great leap from the flat expressionless depictions of Byzantine art. When the Dutch taught the Florentines how to paint landscape, Florentine painting was transformed.

The problem with the narrative of endless progress in the visual arts is that any work that relied on traditional techniques is regarded as passé. They are rejected because they do not fit in with the current insistence on the new. This leaves the aspiring artist at a loss as to what he or she can produce in order to fit in with the manifesto of neoism. One can paint like Rubens but that will not help you to be recognised as a competent painter or have your work purchased by the major galleries.

This produces a desperate scramble to produce something that has never been done before. So, instead of the aim of the artist being to reveal something good and beautiful about the world or about our experience of it, the artist is diverted towards the novel. Indeed, the novel takes precedence over all other artistic considerations.


Given that there are limited things that one can do to be new, it is no wonder that artists have resorted to the gimmick or the personal manifesto to distinguish themselves. Either that or they perfect a predictable, narrow and idiosyncratic style that is repeated to the point of "let me out of here" hysteria. The damage that an emphasis on the new has done has been pointed out by Jacques Maritain:

It is indeed true that there is no necessary progress in art, that tradition and discipline are the true nurses of originality; and it is likewise true that the feverish acceleration which modern individualism, with its mania for revolutionary mediocrity, imposes on the succession of art forms, abortive schools, and puerile fashion, is the symptom of wide-spread social poverty.

One would think that if art really were involved in an endless progress then the art of today would be far superior to the art of yesterday. We would expect to be transported by drama and beauty, to be led into the depths of the human soul. However, a visit to almost any contemporary show will demonstrate that this is not the case. The works presented are obscure and unappealing. They are often a mystery to all but the artist.

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The quotations come from Jacques Maritain "Art and Scholasticism with other essays."

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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