Some time back (2005) the BBC conducted a poll in England that asked people to pick out the most popular painting in their land. In a field crowded with van Gogh’s evocative pictures and Monet’s breathtaking impressions, the winner turned out to be a rather ordinary-by-today’s-standards painting by J.M.W. Turner titled the ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. Somewhat more surprising was the fact that the second prize also went to a similarly bucolic oil painting by Constable – ‘The Haywain’. (Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck was ranked fourth – one of my favorites)
J. M. W. Turner, ‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up’, 1838, Oil on canvas
John Constable, ‘The Hay Wain’, 1821, Oil on canvas, 51″ × 72″
If wisdom of the masses is to be believed, then it seems that people voted for paintings that bought them calm, peace, tranquility and visions of a better, more hopeful future.
I came to this conclusion while walking around in the New Brunswick, NJ mall the other day coaxing my three year old son to get a haircut while pausing to look at some ghastly paintings of sweet looking sunrises, sunsets and landscapes hung in a mall gallery/framing shop. I thought to myself, why would people buy this art? It all seems the same and the subject has not changed over the last ten years of my brief sojourns inside mall galleries (maybe they should be called framing shops). The answer was simple: It had to serve a social function.
The art of the renaissance always seemed to be a bulwark against the forces that might topple religion off its perch and hence most of the subjects seemed to reinforce and serve as an effective muse to edifying religion. Victorian themes tended to be sweetly cloying with stories of hope, redemption and success – even if religion par se did not shine through as strongly as the renaissance, some of the common values universally dished out by a majority of the world religions seem to rise higher among the emotions and thoughts expressed. The 19th century bought with it rigorous uncertainty – among others, Darwin, Mendel and Boltzmann indirectly questioned the very nature of infinite wisdom. Suddenly one realized that religion alone could not provide succor in a random, chancy world of Heisenberg’s uncertainly, axioms and postulates.
At about this time, artists tended to veer in two broad directions, the first kind were those that created the pictures that seemed to embed messages of cheer (albeit cloying) to the people – the artists that catered to the plebeians. The second kind were artists who tended to explore art in conceptual, ‘pure art’ ways – those that did not cater to the masses. (I do not want to comment too much on the second kind here – maybe for a later post as the looser conceptual thinking encouraged by them had its own distinct advantages not seen by everyone).
When the hoi polloi vote for Turner and when malls all around the country display sickly sweet oil paintings of cottages, red roofs, waterfalls, crashing waves and when people have a rapturous look while talking about a painter of light like Kinkade, it is probably the first kind of artist they are talking about, the kind that offers them some kind of a compensatory hope while the succor offered by religion slowly diminishes as we move more and more into a scientific, technological age. In that sense these artists are trying to give hope to people who had previously got this same dosage of comfort from believing in God.
What are your thoughts? I am interested. I wrote this more as a way to clarify my thoughts and I hope this does not come across as a little bit disjointed. If it does, please accept my sincere apologies…