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  • Alan Cook

Skill: In Memorium


It was the Russian composer, N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov, who said around the turn of the 20th century that “people today confuse style with a lack of it and construe illiteracy as a sign of individuality”. He was referring to the rise of modernist tendencies in music, and in art generally, which had begun to break away from centuries of progress and exchange it for the shocking, the radical, and the ‘decadent’. Rimsky-Korsakov was a great advocate of progress in music, he himself experimented with new forms, harmonies, and styles in the latter part of his career. And these experiments were to later have a profound effect on the next generation of composers such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Skryabin. However, Rimsky-Korsakov’s concern that lay behind these comments was that art, in its noble effort to move forward, was at risk of completely breaking away from its moorings of five centuries of art history. As it happens, his concern was not unfounded and within a few short years, Arnold Schoenberg would write music which abandoned Western harmony in its entirety and which today has significance as one of the curiosities of early 20th century music, but little more. However, Rimsky-Korsakov’s concerns, albeit 120 years ago, apply more so today than ever before.

The Archibald portrait prize awarded this week is an example of such a malaise in the arts. More than a century after modernism began, post-modernism in art has since taken its place and not only continued the rejection of its heritage, but also abandoned the need for the received skills from that heritage; skills usually passed from master to student through generations. It is no surprise then that a quick scan through people’s reactions to the winning painting on social media, one finds general bewilderment that such a painting, which appears to lack any skill or maturity, should win Australia’s most prestigious art prize. One might respond with ‘what would they know?’. They are no art experts. However, in my lifetime of being an artist, I have found time and again that the general public may not be highly educated in art history and style, but they can generally recognise and appreciate a work of art that has taken great skill, vision, and maturity to create or perform.

This year’s Archibald Prize is a special case in point of how politics have taken over art. Talent has been usurped by ‘representation’, and Beauty by intent. Ideologies of social justice have redefined art and having a political point to score is more important than beauty of expression. To be highly trained and skilled at your art is seen as privileged and elitist. One’s credentials, according to this Marxist interpretation of art, are precisely one’s lack of training and skill. Such an artist is by default one of the ‘oppressed’, and not of the ‘oppressors’, and whose works automatically qualify as worthy. A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald rightly pointed out that the Archibald Prize field this year was lacking any outstanding works (and I’d point out also that the subjects of the finalists were a cavalcade of Leftist activists from all walks of life which is in itself a sign of the highly political nature of the prize that no longer has much at all to do with art), but tellingly, the author, John Macdonald, points out in its favour that it was chosen over “all those photorealist works, that hold an undying appeal for a general public still devoted to the spectacle of skill”, thus belittling public esteem for skilled work with an elitist tone that belies the ideology. However, I would argue, this ‘spectacle’ of skill is a necessary ingredient of great art. We revere great artists of the past from all cultures because of the mentoring and skill required to channel the artistic inspiration from the soul of the artist to their medium. These skills are the toolbox of the artist. Having good intentions is not enough. Rimsky-Korsakov himself discovered this when he began his career as a composer without sufficient mentorship and education, and he quickly found himself unable to put down on manuscript that which his passion alone desired. Only through diligent study did he become the master composer that we recognise today.

Strangely, art seems to be one of the few areas where recognition for skill is being abandoned. Is an athlete’s good intentions and passion enough for him or her to perform at the highest level, to be recognised as an elite athlete? Do we not demand developed skills and training of engineers, medical and legal professionals, and scientists? These professionals all stand on centuries of learning to do their jobs well. No one would want to be operated on by a surgeon that had plenty of passion and good intentions, never mind the skills needed not to kill you. Though art is not a question of life or death, why should we accept the puerile and banal works of someone who has not given their life to developing themselves in service of their Muse? The myth that talent is something innate, something you are born with that will just magically produce great works of art as long as you have the passion, underlies much of this problem. This kind of unrefined talent, so encouraged today, and not only encouraged but considered ‘better’, more ‘honest’, and ‘natural’ has resulted in what the philosopher Roger Scruton refers to as ‘Kitsch’. The mass production of mediocre, disposable works of ‘art’ with little depth of expression or originality. These works sometimes satisfy the public with the emotional ‘sugar rush’ that they crave, but like sugar, they have no real nutritional value to the soul. This dilution of the definition of ‘art’ that makes no demands on the artist means that literally anything can be called art and if everything can be art, then art itself is emptied of meaning. I am thus reminded of a Russian proverb; “Talent needs help, but mediocrity will break through all by itself”.

© 2020 by Alan Cook

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