This Is How We Do Itby Stephen Westfall
I remember when Peter Schjeldahl, writing about Andrea Mantegna at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, called Northern Italian Renaissance painting, “the high noon of western painting.” Or something like that. I can’t find it on Google. Maybe I remember a better phrase than what he wrote or maybe it was an aside in an essay about another artist. But, I love the phrase—its rhythm, drama, and insouciance. It reminds me of the pleasure of language as a kind of music. Music is its own truth, certainly, and in this way, Schjeldahl’s phrase is “true,” just as the rhetorical gesture of the phrase, the portion of grandeur it doles out to its topic, is also “true,” whether or not the phrase can be quantified as true or not. It can’t, in fact, and is highly arguable with Mantegna as representative (though possibly less so with Giovanni Bellini, but that is another story). But it speaks of the stakes which painting can play for. It pays homage to painting and stays true to the powers of language. It also gets me thinking about the role of writing about painting in the early Renaissance, in a culture that was mostly illiterate. Wealthy families commissioned paintings for private quarters and for churches. Paintings in churches were glimpsed occasionally by the peasants, who might have experienced them as visitations, but could not develop a theory of art. Ruling families such as the Medicis and Pittis not only vied with each other to patronize the best art, but had the leisure at their disposal to think about it. Giorgio Vasari was in many ways the first to write extensively about art in the “modern style,” and he could be proscriptive as well as lavish in praise. Leon Battista Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi wrote treatises on representation and perspective. But they were opening a book in the morning of the world. Except for images of hell, early Renaissance painting is lit by the risen sun. Art had all the breathing room it needed because there was one story to tell and general agreement about the skill set needed to tell it.
Ironically, it was this skill set that set things in motion. The powers of observation and naturalism couldn’t be held in check as artists and other thinkers began to see what was in front of them. Over the course of advancing history, Christianity, the divine right of kings, of men over women, white over color, straight over gay, even empirical rationalism over some re-expressions of Otherness in myth and magic, all drop back into a field of restrictive subjectivities rather than a governing paradigm. All this turmoil begs argument and encomium. If there are more stories to tell, then they must be told because we need to hear them. And there are inevitably new ways to tell them. New analytic tools and theoretical models will emerge. And most importantly, perhaps, there will be new art models for new technologies of perception.
As a painter and a writer who writes about others’ paintings I can definitely see, hear, and feel that painting is ceding its privileged position in art discourse. I think this is irrevocable and a good thing. Painting is my technology and I mostly prefer it because I understand it relatively well. I find the industrial scale of some of the newer technologies and the spectacle they provide a little complicated. Much is being written about the new art and its socio/psycho/economic implications, because we need to talk about its emergence. The permanent crises that Harold Rosenberg skeptically anticipated has arrived as a genuine product both of emergent, previously suppressed histories and subjectivities, and, nearly simultaneously, emergent communication technologies that challenge us to use them to make art—because we will at least attempt to make art out of anything and everything. Meanwhile, painting putters along. It’s adorable.