“Barely Advancing ‘The Language of Painting'”

Johannes Vermeer, Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665-67), oil on canvas, 17-1/2″ x 15-3/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Having recently moved, I’ve been spending a lot of time emptying boxes. It’s a diverting chore: For every box I open, there are a dozen or so objects included in it that distract or entrance–memorabilia, photos, CDs, books, like that.

Among the books I’ve come across (and one that I haven’t thought about in ages) is Beyond The Crisis in Art, a compilation of essays by the late British art critic Peter Fuller. A cursory skim of its contents revealed a few too many period grudges for my taste–the pieces date mostly from the late 1970s–but also enough carefully articulated observations to warrant a more thorough reaquaintence.

Here, for instance, Fuller touches on the role innovation may (or may not) play in determining artistic quality; he takes, as his basis, Vermeer’s Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665-67):

“The power of this painting has little to do with conventions, or what is called the realizations of ‘visual ideology’. The painting trenches upon areas of experience which are not particular to the to the 17th century Dutch bourgeoisie. But these cannot have much to do with instinctual sublimation: the experience the work offers is characterized by a stillness and an illusion of ‘timelessness’ which can be sharply opposed to particular excitations. Nor yet can we get at the essential quality of the work through attending to its formal or compositional elements alone: there are, for example, many inferior paintings of about the same time which manifest a similar pose and lighting of the figure. Finally, the value of he painting cannot be attributed to its art-historical position: Vermeer was in many ways a highly conventional painter. Just as he never seems to have criticized the ‘life-style’ of his subjects in his work, he cannot be said to have challenged the prevailing representational and pictorial modes and techniques of his day either. He was certainly a supreme craftsman: but he barely advanced the ‘language of painting’.”

And that’s only from the introduction. Elsewhere, Fuller interviews Carl Andre, discusses the “rigor mortis of Marxism” and insists that “our social dreams [should not] be monopolized and banalized by those who want to sell Vodka and bath salts.”

Second-hand copies of The Crisis in Art are available at Amazon starting at $00.07.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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  • Richard in Chicago  On May 11, 2011 at 6: 22 pm

    Vermeer “barely advanced the language of painting,” with the phrase “language of painting” in scare quotes? Excuse me?

    What impresses me about Vermeer is how effectively he united Wollflin’s distinction of the linear and the painterly. His line is as precise as that of the Italians, but it moves freely in space without formula or repetition, and does not lock masses and color into immobility, but is one with the vibrating planes and textures. Has anyone else accomplished that, before or since?

    No true painter, as opposed to an academic or modernist hack, works without changing the rules of the art. The conservative mugwumpism that is more concerned with catching French-structuralist cooties than understanding the process is a bore. We have only words to use when we talk about painting, after all.

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