The Mystique and Mystery of Fine Art



When I was young I used to pour over Arthur Mee’s children’s encyclopaedia hour after hour wondering about some of the amazing paintings contained within those hallowed pages. There was this great sense of awe and mystery even though many were printed in black and white.


When visiting some of the great galleries of Europe and England many years later, in fact almost half a century later, I relived that same thrilling sense of awe and mystery while standing in front of those great creations.


When I first went to Johan Oldert for art lessons way back in the early 70’s, that sense of excitement and mystery was the thing that spurred me on when things were tough and nothing was going my way. I wanted to be part of that mystery. I just couldn’t understand why everyone in the world did not feel about art as I did.


One of the greatest minds ever, said “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true Art and Science.” That is correct, the perceptive words of Albert Einstein.


This is the description of the art I love and do not want that to change! Filled with mystery and brimming with subtle meaning and lashings of ambiguity.


Am I in the minority though? It seems as if I may well be. Why? Well because in many lectures and meetings I have attended, and often in the literature I read it seems that the modern mantra says that art must be de-mystified. For heaven’s sake why? It must be accessible to everyone – why? Are maths, science and philosophy accessible and understood by everyone? Of course not, so why should art be? Why shouldn’t art be elitist?


Fine art was never meant to be furniture or for decorative purposes only, and I cannot believe that the mystery and mystique was only because the painting or sculpting was so bad no-one could make head or tail of it. The Mystery and Majesty are an integral part of its greatness.


When looking at the earliest cave paintings, although the images are fairly simple, there is this sense of the eternal, awe and the mysterious. There are so many symbols and signs and innuendos. One has to be blind and without any kind of soul not to be affected by the inscrutability of it.


As the huge stream of art moved through time new mysteries and symbols were introduced and added to the old ones and unravelling art was part of the attraction.


Art was never for everyone, not even those earliest paintings which were created in the darkest most inaccessible passages or high up on ceilings and walls of the caves of Altamira or Lascaux.


Only a few could enter into that realm.


So it was with art until just after the First World War. The end of civilisation some seem to believe.


Art was not perfect. It never was and never will be, but at this point the fact is that some had set themselves up as custodians, and took upon themselves the role of being the last word on art and taste. This in turn upset others (Possibly those being the ones left out of the inner circle) to the point where they took a position which they themselves declared was Anti-art.


There have always been opportunists in the game of art (and not art) and this then seemed to be just the fertile soil that one Marcelle Duchamp needed to take his own mighty swipe at the establishment. He did not need to do much other than acquire a urinal, purchased from a hardware store and enter it in a high profile exhibition. Bingo – he changed art forever and not necessarily for the better I’m afraid.


The establishment were pretty odious in their own right but art did not deserve to be turned into a football or the reason for what in essence has turned out to be a sick joke.


The paradox of the matter is that at least a section of art, in spite of all the utterances to the contrary, became even more elitist and further removed from potentially art-loving masses, but still lost none of its mystery. Perhaps in this context I’m confusing Mystery with Confusion?


Backtracking somewhat: There was a major change in direction with the advent of Impressionism, which was followed by numerous other –isms. Steadily the ordinary people became more and more alienated and perplexed until we reached a point where certain spheres of art have largely been rejected by the public altogether. Meanwhile the artwork which has a wider appeal is spurned by “those in the know” and sadly by much of the media too. The media it seems is interested only in the exaggerations and the excesses and not in virtuoso painting or sculpting. Not even where the ideas and thinking are solid and compelling. On the other hand a large proportion of the contemporary work, some of which falls within the academic discourse and which is often presented as great and lofty ideas, when one considers them carefully, evoke little more than a tired yawn or a sense of déjà vu. New doesn’t always convert to interesting or exciting. Tried and tested doesn’t always mean boring.


To Summarise: The old thinking and methods are now passé to some and yet the so-called contemporary art is so often the same old regurgitated thinking using in some cases new technology and liberal use of smoke and mirrors. Can one accept that an old idea is suddenly relevant because different technology is used? Is all experimental art better than other art because it is supposedly new? I think not!


What I do believe is that the visual arts have maneuvered themselves into a corner by their own ‘cleverness’ and in truth have not the foggiest idea of how to ‘paint’ themselves out of it. Making it common is not the answer.


Just yesterday I saw on Facebook that some well meaning “Artist” was exhorting ‘them out there’ to take art back to the streets (I hope that he meant performing arts rather than visual arts) I wonder why art needs to go to the streets? What streets, what art, why and for whom? When were the visual arts ever part of street culture? As it is we are rapidly becoming a nation of amateur artists and the DAC and many others do not even know the difference between amateur and professional Artists anyway.


Personally I believe that art is so multifaceted and so big that there is room for all. That is professional and non-professional and everything else. Professional artists and highly trained people are needed to show the way forward technically as well as creatively. They should explore the length and depth of art and not bring it down to its lowest common denominator.


Art belongs to no one group, and no group of artists or experts or their thinking should be allowed to believe they own it. Art also does not belong to everyone but those that make the effort to learn its secrets. Let art speak for itself! The operative words are EXCELLENCE and CREATIVITY. That is all! Oh and Mystery! Art must have the power to transport people to other places and times, and even stop time for a few moments where possible. Don’t try and demystify it or make it too accessible or it will surely die. We need to go to art and raise our hats, and not make art come to us…


Till next month….


Written October / November 2010

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