Friday, March 18, 2011

To Rembrandt or Not to Rembrandt

Every so often I have to dust off my Master's Degree. Having a graduate degree in art history means never having to say you're employed.

So, what is art? Discuss.

It's the eternal question among art historians, critics, artists, and people who dress in black everywhere.

About 20 years ago the Dutch decided to set up the Rembrandt Commission to answer part of this question.

It seemed there were hundreds of Rembrandt's, supposed Rembrandt's, and out-and-out crap with fake Rembrandt signatures on them. And they wanted to deal with it. So they put together a panel of art historians, scientists, scholars, and others to examine every so-called Rembrandt in the world and give it a thumb's up or down.

Museums and collectors all over the planet held their breath as the fate of their art rested in the hands of these experts. Some were so concerned they wouldn't allow the commission to examine their art. Who wants to be told that they Rembrandt they paid $4 million for was, in fact, a worthless fake?

There was, as you can imagine, great controversy. The commission had a few verdicts. Paintings were graded as authentic Rembrandt's, from Rembrandt's workshop, in the style of, by a 17th century artist not Rembrandt but not a forgery, real forgeries, and various other categories.

And this raised the question of: why does a name de-value a painting? If a painting is beautiful why is it suddenly worthless just because some guy named Rembrandt didn't paint it? That's the big question. Is it the artist or the art that defines it?

Who or what really decides the label "art?" It seems to be a matter of opinion. And I have a very narrow one.

I am a Classicist. To me good art ended with Impressionism and everything done after that it crap. (Yes, I exaggerate.) But I do find myself responding more to representational art than splotches on a canvas. I will always, always, always think Van Eyck was more talented than Picasso. I get PIcasso. I understand why people consider him a genius. But I don't have an emotional reaction to him.

I marvel at brush strokes, use of light, reflections, the creation of life. I can lose myself in the detail of the sleeping dog in the town square, the peasants in the field, the glow of candlelight in a quiet chamber. But when confronted with a square of black and a square of red, I don't lose myself. Usually I laugh. I'm just that much of a Philistine.

I love art that you can describe in literal detail. "Vermeer perfectly captures the quiet moments of a quiet life." True. On the other hand, I usually screen with laughter at phrases like "this painting conveys the disharmony between the curious now and the unbalanced when." Oh bite me. This shrimp-pump claptrap isn't a real art conversation. It's a way to convince people you're worth having sex with.