Sunday, July 19, 2015

Workmanship and Spontaneity

An effort at originality, when less than successful, only yields a novelty. It may entertain but does little more. A work, more or less conventional, when executed with consummate workmanship, by contrast, always satisfies and delights, be it a painting, a writing, or a performance -- musical or theatrical.

A thing well-made satisfies. So does anything that shows workmanship. A beautifully crafted object elicits our affection and contemplation inasmuch as workmanship demands deliberation and patient labor. A work of spontaneity, by contrast, attracts for its appearance of immediacy and vivacity; it exudes a sense of freedom.  But it could be only a crude and sloppy thing, made thoughtlessly, even carelessly. By the same token, a well-made thing may have been worked on merely fastidiously without much thought or feeling.  

Two recent exhibitions held simultaneously at Metropolitan Museum of Art made this contrast patent: Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River and Sargent Portraits: Artists and Friends.  John Sargent’s best works thrill us with their verve and show of facility.  Bingham prepared intensely for a painting with a series of painstakingly studied drawings; at his best he impresses us with a feeling of perfection.  When less successful, Sargent is slovenly and Bingham stiff and cold. 

A work may show spontaneity but conceal thought and labor that went into its making.  After long years of experience, the artist may achieve such level of accomplishment that the work may seem slapdash but actually conceal the lifelong training and mastery distilled in its effortlessness.  Such facility is what Baldassare Castiglione termed sprezzatura in his book Il CorteggianoThe Book of the Courtier in English translation, written in 1508-1528.  We see it most vividly in late paintings of Rembrandt; but Charles Burchfield in his late years also showed sprezzatura amply. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Compassion Courtesy Confidence

Compassion, curtesy, and confidence.  If all of us practiced these three common virtues, the world would surely be a better place. The greatest of these is compassion; it manifests itself in courtesy in its best sense; and when we are compassionate and courteous, we gain confidence.  When confidence wavers, we become anxious, and anxiety breeds anger, and anger in excess manifests itself in aggression; aggression in excess leads to war between individuals, groups, or nations.  The only way to curb three A’s is to strive to achieve three C’s.  This does not seem a lot to ask; but, to see the way the world is, it is apparently very difficult -- very sadly.