Letter: Great art can be transformative
Too often, “art experts” make remarks that confuse the public about the nature of art. I was annoyed to read critic Jerry Saltz’s recent quote at an Anderson Ranch lecture, stating: “No one in the art world can prove that Vermeer is better than Norman Rockwell.” I know Jerry and suspect he said it to be controversial. However, it implies there is no specialized training or knowledge to determine quality in art, and he knows better!
Vermeer was the most brilliant painter of light who ever lived. His works are extraordinary examples of imagery that transcends time with no clear message or story. Vermeer’s paintings are loved by all who see them, whether “art educated” or not. In part this is because of the incredible nature of his brushwork and because the works convey an intimacy to each viewer that reaches across the centuries. It is impossible to imagine a future time when Vermeer’s work will not be considered masterpieces of wonder and brilliance. As with all masterworks of art, each viewing reveals something new and different in the work.
By contrast, Rockwell was a consummate illustrator. Each work reflects a single, clearly identifiable message. Rockwell painted an idealized America that never really existed. The few political issues he depicted were commissioned by magazines, not subjects he chose to paint. And even these were idealized and from a single point of view. His works can be completely understood through a quick, single viewing.
In the art world, we may disagree which works are our favorites or the “best of the best,” but for the most part, we agree on what works will end up in museums and so are saved for future generations. I believe we have done a poor job of teaching the public that great works of art have no single, factual “answers”; they are personal expressions that each viewer who stands and looks closely at the work “completes” through her or his subjective reactions and thoughts. The art that holds our attention, causes us to have strong emotions and reactions, and rewards repeated viewings are the “great” works, the one-liners we can pass by after a few seconds are not. Illustrations, like advertising, convey a single, clear message.
In our daily lives, there is a lot of art that we each love whether it is “great” or not. It makes us smile and become thoughtful, and we hang it on our walls. For most of us, this is the “greatest art” because we love it and it enriches our daily lives. Its dollar value and what the art world thinks of it don’t matter. But Jerry, please, as with expertise in anything, after years of study and experience, many of us in the art world do know the difference in quality between a Vermeer and a Rockwell!
New York City
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