|"Back to Life"|
"I maintain that two and two would continue to make four, in spite of the whine of the amateur for three, or the cry of the critic for five."
What is 'good' art or conversely, what is 'bad' art? Whistler certainly found out all about that question.Let's have a look at what happened to him and see if it will help us decide what is good or bad art. Whistler maintained that art should need no explanation - that it should stand entirely on its own merit. Unfortunately this brought him into conflict with the establishment and in particular one John Ruskin. Ruskin was the pre-eminent critic of his day and the final arbiter of what was acceptable or not, in other words, what was 'good' or 'bad' art. He thought art should have a moral or social value. Ruskin wrote a particularly vitriolic condemnation of a painting by Whistler. Our hero was incensed and took out a libel action against Ruskin. Whistler based his case on "art for art's sake", arguing that art was art regardless of what anyone else might think or claim, summed up in his quote above. He expected the support of his fellow artists but he was wrong - his 'friends' were too afraid of offending the establishment so they kept silent on the issue. Nevertheless, amazingly, he won his case. But even the Judge closed ranks against him and awarded damages of just one farthing! One farthing was one quarter of one pence in old money. The resultant court costs and other incurred expenses made Whistler bankrupt and his paintings and possessions including his home were sold off to clear his debts. He travelled around Europe continuing to confront and confound the art establishment. He made many friends and built up a large following becoming very successful on the way. These friends included the Impressionists, who invited him to exhibit with them at their first controversial exhibition - an offer he declined. Strange therefore that this enigmatic artist who was so modern in his ideas and subjects is best remembered for a painting he did of his dear old mum!
So what do you think? Who was right - Whistler or the art establishment?
I think that today the answer would very clearly favour Whistler. We live in an age when anything can be classed as 'art' and according to Whistler - rightly so because art needs no explanation and has no moral or social obligation. So what is 'good' art? There is no objective answer. When I worked in galleries I noticed what I called the 'Gallery Effect' on people. They would talk in whispers so that nobody could overhear their comments and think them stupid for liking or not liking the 'right' thing. There is still a great deal of snobbishness attached to art and critics still have far too much power in deciding what is good or bad. The older a critic gets the more he seems to favour modern or contemporary art...I think this is just to make him appear cool, but the knock on effect can be very detrimental to traditional painters who have taken a long time to learn their craft only to be dismissed as old fashioned and irrelevant(on the soapbox again!). I used to tell the customers that if they like it - it's good, and if they don't - just say it's not so good. My painting above was based on a faded print in my mother's home (perhaps I should do a painting of her.). I had always liked it and brought it back to life as a large watercolour. I later found out that the original artist was called Benjamin Williams Leader. A Victorian painter and a member of the RA, he fell victim to the obsession for modernity and is largely now unrecognised for his fantastic work.
For me though, this is and always will be 'good art'.