Salisbury cathedral soars above the grassy main and rooftops of the surrounding city. At a staggering 404 feet, this cathedral’s spire is the tallest in all of England, and is the tallest surviving pre-1400 spire in the world. It has the oldest surviving clock in the world. It has one of four copies of the Magna Carta. The stained glass windows are bewilderingly magnificent. The interior of the spire looks as if it were woven by a wooden spider, with giant cedar beams running to and fro in an ordered chaos. Faces emerge from carved reliefs on the sides of pillars, chests, altars. The intarsia glowed with rich layers of varnished wood. The overall harmony of proportions was never violated by the vertical thrust of the entire cathedral. Upon exiting the building, I gazed upwards at the beautiful spire piercing the sky, and I could think only one thing about this magnificent church: I don’t like it.
My wife and I got into the car with my friend Jenny, and discussed what we would do next. Jenny grew up in the country nearby Salisbury, so she knew the area well. As we drove along, I was perplexed by the question of why I did not care at all for the Salisbury Cathedral, this cherished gem of architecture that was beloved by all England. What was it that failed to grip me? Where had the cathedral gone wrong? Why didn’t I like it?
The car rolled along the wrong side of the road, winding its way through the beautiful countryside of Constable’s England. With my head against the glass, I watched as the rolling fields gave way to forests, gave way to farms. “We’re almost there” Jenny said, in her soft English accent. “We will have to do a bit of walking, as the parking has been relocated to the other side of the road. They’ve built a tunnel though, so we can easily cross.”
Making my way up the path, I was halted in my steps by the looming, hulking figures of Stonehenge. They were stone shepherds of empty fields, brooding monolithic giants quietly overlooking the lush, green plains of Wiltshire. These powerful stones, resting against eachother, commanded the deepest awe, even fear. I stood transfixed, unaware that was blocking the path. I moved to the side and stared in wonder. Why had these been placed here? By who? When? Who would go to such lengths? Why am I shaken to the core?
It’s not the intention of this blog to descend into theological polemics, and discuss Christianity versus paganism. But I am concerned with the concept of the initial spark, and how a spark can eventually burn land hundreds of miles away. I am concerned about the original document, before it has been xeroxed, and then the xerox is xeroxed, and that xerox is xeroxed, etc. One thousand, two hundred years after Jesus’s limp, whipped, bloodied body was nailed to a wooden cross, the cathedral of Salisbury was erected. Twelve hundred years after God became a man and hung out with peasant fishermen, the Salisbury cathedral was created. And yet… it somehow seemed more like a symbol of English pride, than a manifestation of “the meek inheriting the earth.” I may be forbidden from ever joining the Anglican church for saying so, but the Salisbury cathedral seemed pompous and insincere. It seemed like Jesus was the original document, and then a copy was made of him, then a copy was made of that copy, and then…
Stonehenge seemed to gush with sincerity, a natural response to the experienced world. A people striving to make peace with the divine something. Striving to understand. A people, now labeled “Neolithic,” in all of their perceived simplicity, erecting a sublimely beautiful something to a someone, to the universe.
What am I talking about? What does this have to do with art? With painting?
There are classical art academies in New York City, classical art ateliers in London, classical art studios in Shanghai, classical art books, classical art magazines, classical art DVD’s, classical art coffee mugs, classical… I feel that the current movement of classical art is the Salisbury Cathedral.
I’m not condemning classical art, nor am I condoning a reactionary primitivism. I am condemning the pursuit of classical art for the sake of the pursuit of classical art. Art is not about art. Art about art is as useful as an extension cord plugged into itself. Art is about life. Right? Was Michelangelo pursuing classical art when he painted the Sistine Chapel, or was he wrestling with God in the same way that Jacob wrestled with the angel? Was Chopin pursuing classical art when the brown washes of his melancholy chords explored the range of human emotions? Was Chardin pursuing classical art when he painted the beautiful, mundane objects around him? Keats when he contemplated ideas of mortality, of beauty? The “classical artists” that we have apotheosized were more human than we give them credit for. When you place somebody on a pedestal, it is hard to remember that they once walked on the ground with you.
I guess I’m writing to say that I am worried about the current movement of painting, classical realism, which I am oftentimes lumped into. I am worried that it is an art form that does not respond sincerely to the wonder of being, as Stonehenge does. But rather, classical realism is preoccupied with perfection, with greatness, with distinguishing itself from the pagan practices of abstract art, and being elected into the canons of “high art” along with the artistic saints of ages past.
On my end of things, I’m just going to keep painting, playing the violin, and enjoying a glass of cheap, homemade wine with my friends.
To read more on this theme, in the parallel world of music, read this fascinating article by Alex Ross: