The History of Art, Minus Art

steve martin pointing

Steve Martin with Synchromy by Stanton MacDonald-Wright, painted in 1917 and now held at MoMA. Photograph: BBC.

I want to find this slightly bizarre article interesting, but I’m distracted by astonishment that it does not show a single illustration of the work of the artists it discusses: Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell. Well, unless you count the headline photograph of Steve Martin pointing to an indistinct painting. Absent anything else to look at, make of the following what you will:

They soon began to believe that colour was just as important as music to people, and that a painting should simply celebrate this, without straining to represent real life… “In Paris they started working in this completely abstract way of painting,” Martin said. “They called it synchromism, which means ‘with colour’… Yet the pair’s claim to have invented their own school of painting was challenged later by other well-known European abstract artists, such as Robert and Sonia Delaunay, who argued that the Americans had copied their own ideas about the use of colour and shape, referred to as orphism… For Martin, though, the work of the synchromists has been undervalued as a result and it is time for a reappraisal… It is not necessary to understand the technical principles of synchromism, he argues, because the works still communicate… “I don’t generally care about theories. The result of working from a theory could be fantastic, but you don’t really need to know the theory to look at it.”

(Vanessa Thorpe, “The history of art… according to Steve Martin,” theguardian.com, 9-21-19)

(c) 2019 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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3 Responses to The History of Art, Minus Art

  1. I have a similar problem with tv art shows where I can be found shouting at the telly “show us the bloody pictures!”

    • JMN says:

      Yes, I’m in complete sympathy there as well. The problem seems compounded when the talker is a celebrity being celebrated for the talking. But it has occurred to me that the Guardian journalist herself might be snarking backhandedly at Martin. I’ve seen him in other contexts (comedy-related) shown to better advantage than here.

  2. Eric Wayne says:

    It’s not a problem if you’ve made the transition from seeing art as a visual language to a medium the ultimate purpose of which is to transmit an idea to start a conversation. Somewhere in the last half century, as people became less able to look at art, while also becoming more radical/literalist, they decided the core of visual communication is linguistics, hence invisible art, text art, and full-on appropriation. For may people art is about the ideas about art, arcane as they may be, and not about the visual experience. The idea that an artist would use his or her imagination creatively in the pure use of visual medium to create meaning was lost.

    The critic in question likely buys into the whole paradigm in which art is involved in the evolution of ideas in linguistics, in which case the contribution of synchronists would be the idea behind it, and even saying that “you don’t need to know the theory to look at it” would be considered an idea. These people think that the ideas are more important than whatever else the art communicates, evokes, or is.

    I have said before, and it’s worth repeating here, we’ve reached a point where art critics are visually illiterate. This is also why people couldn’t tell in a matter of second that the Salvator Mundi is not a da Vinci (unless he makes more beginner mistakes than I, and legions of other artists do, while elsewhere mastering anatomy).

    I’m being a bit hyperbolic here, but I’m sure there’s more than a bowl full of whole grain truth there. I can’t hope to analyze the critic, but, the two outstanding possibilities appear to me to be that 1) She didn’t share a pic of the painting because she wanted to make a point, contrary to artist’s assertion, that the painting matters less than the idea. 2) She didn’t find the painting of sufficient interest relatively to the theory to included it, and having Martin in the pic was more interesting.

    However you slice it, you hit the nail of stupidity on the head. You can’t argue the worth of purely visual art while simultaneously obliterating it.

    Lesson to learn here? This is what passes as important art criticism today. Note that it’s blind.

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