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Traditional Art & the Recognition of Beauty - The Alpine Fellowship Article

Written by Casey Thomas Larsen, this article about the lecture given by Professor Roger Scruton for Alpine Fellowship (A newly established scholarship programme in the suiss Alps that hopes to merge art and philosophy to the benefit of both) comes to corroborate my topic "Traditional Art & its importance for society, for the painter, for the viewer, and for the buyer."

On 6th of November of 2013

Modern art can be confusing. For while most could account for the general significance of a Picasso or Van Gogh, the antics of Marcel Duchamp or, more recently, Tracy Emin tend to leave many speechless. Yet whether or not the hidden value of signed urinals and unmade beds is better grasped in conjectural silence, some kind of explanation for much of the work that populates our most fashionable modern galleries would not be unwelcome, if not already overdue.

To say that the virtues of classical art, including the ability to paint, have been overlooked in recent decades would be something of an understatement. The works that solicit most attention tend overwhelmingly to be those that elicit shock, or otherwise display originality for its own sake, and at any aesthetic cost. It is no longer enough for art to invite our sympathy, let alone permitted to demand our scrutiny.

It is difficult to find many learning centres that still hone the skills of the paintbrush. But they do exist. One such place is the Florence Academy of Art, directed by the American artist Daniel Graves. Existing ‘for the training of the professional realist painter and sculptor’, its students are prohibited from even wetting their palettes before passing a rigorous course in chalk-drawing. Tellingly, the front page of the institute’s website is glossed with a quote by the 19th century French painter Jean-Hyppolyte Flandrin: “in a school of fine arts, it is one’s duty to teach only uncontested truths, or at least those that rest upon the finest examples accepted for centuries.” Artistic truths that might once have been uncontested are today enmeshed in a fierce ideological battle, and unless a case is made for their persistence through those centuries into the present today, the market will happily brush them aside.

The Alpine Fellowship is an initiative hoping to reinvigorate this discussion. Pioneered by the redemptive realist Alan Lawson, it acts primarily as a retreat for painters – recipient of a scholarship award – to spend three weeks in the Alps under his instruction. But Lawson, who studied under Graves in Florence and subsequently taught at the academy, aims to broaden the realist painter’s vocation beyond the remit of his canvas. Throughout the three-week programme, artists and students alike are encouraged to think seriously and provocatively about the meaning and value of their work, taking part in discussions and attending lectures by eminent philosophers and aestheticians. What’s the difference between a realist painting and a photograph? What role has classical art in a world that has seemingly moved past it?

There is perhaps no person better suited to suggest answers to such questions than the Fellowship’s first guest speaker, Professor Roger Scruton. As one of the world’s most distinguished (and prolific) philosophers, he has written on subjects ranging from conservative politics and education to hunting and the environment. His specialty, however, is aesthetics, the subject in which he completed his doctorate and is perhaps the world’s leading theorist. But the question of aesthetics is for Scruton never an isolated one. The things with which we surround ourselves and the choices we make about what to admire come to determine who we are.

He opened with an analogy between the nature of his lecture and the Fellowship’s very purpose. In omitting the use of props or visual aids, one is engaged in the task of addressing an audience, rather than merely putting oneself on display. Likewise, a painter ought not to refer attention to himself but invite ideas into the minds of those who view his work. The twenty-first century, and my own generation in particular, is distinctive for the temptations and distractions that permeate our daily lives, whether it be television advertisements or the untold allures of the internet. There is precious little space left for reflection, and the ‘points of rest’ in which we find solace are becoming harder to find.

For Scruton, this serenity used to be sought in religion, and after the enlightenment, found in art. In its passions and affections, through its triumphs and tragedies, the great artists captured the human condition in its raw and undiluted form. From Raphael to Rembrandt, Caravaggio to Botticelli, a set of undisputed immortals set those ‘finest examples accepted for centuries’ of which Flandrin spoke. But today the measure of value has changed. The preferred explanations of, and justifications for, a thing’s existence tend to be utilitarian, says Scruton. What works, what gratifies, what sells. Never what it says or does – what relation it bears to we who behold it.

The full title of Professor Scruton’s talk was ‘art, kitsch and the concept of home.’ Great art is designed to express and address authentic emotions, but for the world’s leading authority on aesthetic matters much of the work produced in recent decades falls short of this largely uncontroversial standard. When self-mimicry can no longer be justified as sophisticated parody, and the deliberate representation of cliché ceases to be original upon repetition, the residue is plain and irreducible kitsch. This is art that has lost any sense of meaning, and points to nothing beyond itself. In so doing, it ceases to provide a means by which to live in friendship with oneself, to be at home in a hostile world of cravings and passions, impulses that require the liberating hand of refining art.

For Scruton, beauty is a means to justify life – perhaps the only one – so not only is there little more important to discuss than the direction that art chooses to take, but there is no sphere of life that remains unaffected by its evolving trajectory. It was therefore fitting for his talk to be followed by a group discussion that drew thinkers together from a wide range of intellectual backgrounds. Chaired by Cambridge historian John Adamson, Professor Scruton was joined on the panel by the Fellowship’s founder Alan Lawson together with the art historian and publisher Dr. Hubert Burda, and his son Jacob Burda, a rising member of New York University’s graduate philosophy programme.

Discussing the parallels and divergences between ancient and modern visual arts, Dr. Burda touched on the fact that over fifty thousand Parisian portraitists were put out of work as an immediate consequence of the advent of photography in the early 19th century. Yet according to Lawson, this need not have been the case, for it is not simply the act of mimesis with which the realist is concerned. The painter does not merely copy landscapes or sitters, but translates and interprets them. A photograph instantaneously captures a set of colour values, but the painter must decide for himself which are to emphasised or neutralised, all the whilst adapting them to shifting lights or changing tones. Whereas a photograph catches just a momentary glimpse of mood, a portrait is intended to convey a cumulative temperament revealed over the course of a sitting.

The importance of such distinctions can only matter if a common viewer is willing to see them. But the pastimes of the modern world can’t seem to afford the attention paid to them. And this in spite of the fact that, according to Jacob Burda, the way that ‘things show up for us’ epistemologically can radically change the way we see the world, and thereby the degree to which we value what it presents to us. Drawing on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s distinction between the ontological (what there is) and the epistemic (how things appear), Burda insisted that it is within the former realm that art creates its meaning. Art suggests a way of being, and invites us to live within its vision. It creates somewhere we want to be, a place we simultaneously inhabit while striving to reach, a destination that needs no justification other than itself.

Recounting his own portrait sitting with Lawson, Dr. Hubert Burda emphasized that the uncorrupted concentration employed over the course of the session is not to be found in any other sphere of life. The arts matter because they provide us with the chance to halt the march of time; to stand in front of ourselves and recognize what we’ve become. Perhaps even to judge what we see. Professor Scruton noted that much like love, art can lose its purity if diluted by excessive questioning. Often we must simply learn to care for a thing before asking in what its value consists. And since our time is of nature limited, the effort to reflect ourselves in it – if only temporarily – will always be more noble than the urge to put the long littleness of life on display.

Professor Roger Scruton lecture on the subject of "art and kitsch" at the Alpine Fellowship

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