Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the founders and the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, gave a series of lectures to his student body in the mid-1700s. While some very thought-provoking things were said to these young men, the English from that era was difficult at times to understand.
So I began to paraphrase his Discourse VII for the Modern Man in modern American English. Even though I read much further than this - and his points were very interesting - the slog to make a good paraphrase was so hard that this was all the further I got:
Developing Good Taste
"Gentlemen, it has been my aim - ever since I began this series of lectures - to persuade you that success in your art depends not just on developing your technical skills, but even more so on developing your minds. When you are not painting, spend your leisure time
- Reading fine literature - especially poetry
- Studying human nature
- Speaking with and listening to educated, thinking individuals
- Thinking on how to apply what you learn to your life and art
However - sad to say - there are those who assert that the effort to acquire good taste is a hopeless pursuit. Instead, they feel artists ought to "court the muse in shady bowers," "await the call and inspiration of genius, find out where he inhabits, and where he is to be invoked with the greatest success," and "attend to times and seasons when the imagination shoots with greatest vigour, whether at the summer solstice or the equinox." [Take note, since the summer solstice is upon us!]
Absolutes in Art
These same folks are sure that striving to create art according to artistic rules and principles cramp the freedom and liberty of the imagination. They suppose that some just happen to be born with genius, and just happen to know the right things to do without direction from artistic principles, thought processes or hard work.
But I would assert that there is indeed absolute truth in art. Absolute or real truth is objective. It acts as a plumbline. These are things that can most certainly be ascertained. For example, you can tell if
- a picture is like or unlike the subject matter
- its coloring is true or not to the subject
- the drawing and composition are good or not
- the values and edges in a piece are correct or not
At this point in Reynold's discourse, I was surprised. Apparently there were battles between different views of art long before Picasso's Desmoiselles d'Avignon! If indeed Modern Art means "The point at which artists (1) felt free to trust their inner visions, (2) express those visions in their work, (3) use Real Life (social issues and images from modern life) as a source of subject matter and (4) experiment and innovate as often as possible," then what I had read from the mid-1700s was an objection to that very thing.
This battle continues. I myself have been astonished these past few years at several unexpected, emotional responses to my study of art warning me against becoming enslaved to principles while at the same time, praising the creative individual who follows their inner voice. Regardless, this is my preferred path. I also believe in creativity...but want to see it subjected to Good Taste and tried and true artistic principles.