DISCOVERING THE GOD PARTICLE
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Here I examine the presumption that Art Is Humanity's Window Onto the World...and I somehow end up discovering the God Particle.
Art was once upon a time humanity's window onto the world. Artists and their apologists for a time adopted that metaphor as their purpose, not as ONE of their purposes, but as their SINGULAR purpose.
Obviously, "once upon a time" suggests that something eventually changed. So, what changed? When did it change? Why did it change? And what does it mean? Is that where the God Particle enters the picture?
This is What Changed: The worlds most influential art thinkers eventually came to accept that art can ALSO BE humanity's window into the artist's mind and psyche--into his or her emotions.
When and Why Did It Change? It is not necessary for my purpose here to pinpoint either the date of or exact sequence of events that brought that change, but you can bet that Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychiatry, had an influence. Another influence, and you are welcome to date it, was the point in art history when artists had finally figured out how to make images look exactly like what they saw through that window.
Consider that even during the Renaissance, artists, including Rembrandt, failed to totally master the skill of depicting precisely what they observed, but they were getting there. The "universal genius", Leonardo da Vinci, did nearly realize perfection in painting the elements of lighting, linear and atmospheric perspective, anatomy, foreshortening and characterization. Those elements had been challenges that had preoccupied and defeated to a certain degree all the best artists up through the Early Renaissance. Leonardo's improvisations and inventions in the use of oil paint enabled him, and succeeding artists, to depict light and its effects on the landscape and on objects somewhat more naturally (although stylized to a degree) and with greater dramatic effect (which was his more influential contribution) than had ever been done before. The Mona Lisa demonstrates that beautifully.
Leonardo's drawings of dissected cadavers advanced the understanding by succeeding artist's of skeletal and muscular anatomy, as seen in the unfinished St Jerome. His depiction of human emotion (that dramatic effect) in The Last Supper set the benchmark for emotional religious painting. But examination of all the art of that era will discover a multitude of examples in which the best of artists fell short of perfection in depicting what we now refer to as photographic likeness.
The art of Leonardo's younger contemporary, Michelangelo, extended the potential for artists in a very different direction. Michelangelo, in his painting and his sculpture, demonstrates no interest in the depiction of any natural object...except the human body. His near perfection in depicting the human body is demonstrated by his creation of the enormous marble statue of David and the Pieta, in St Peter's Basilica, Rome. Michelangelo then set about leading a giant expansion of the expressive possibilities of human anatomy. He claimed to have painted 10,000 figures in his life, all of them unique. His commission by Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling resulted in a supreme advance of art's ability to perfect figurative composition, which was to have profound effect on every subsequent generation of artists. And still the task of learning to depict reality was not finished. By 1658, roughly 200 years after Michelangelo and Leonardo, the ability of an artist to recreate a likeness of natural objects, the human body and the atmosphere they inhabit finally culminated in the near-perfect paintings of Johannes Vermeer. After the work of Vermeer and a few of his contemporaries, artists were free of ignorance and awkwardness regarding depicting things and could focus more on advancing the artist's ability to depict atmosphere, mood and emotion. That emphasis persisted until the advent of Impressionism.
The emphasis on depicting atmospheric-mood presented an exciting array of challenges for artists of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, several of the leading strategies of the era becoming formalized into particular schools of emphasis, or movements of art. Romanticism, Naturalism, Barbizon, Aestheticism, Luminism and many other movements advanced the making and appreciation of art further and further along the road to emotionalism in which nearly every aspect of a work of art may be sacrificed if doing so enhances the expression of the artist's mood and emotion in regard to the subject matter.
Let's return to the window again to point out that the leading artists through the 19th and early 20th century were still adhering to the basic presumption that the artist's obligation was to focus their observations and depictions outward onto the world. True, they were beginning to overlay their depiction of the outer world with a number of interesting emotional glazes originating from the inner world--the artist's own inner being. Impressionists like Van Gogh and Cezanne, Cubists like Braque and Picasso, and others of the late 1800s and the transition into the 20th century were becoming adept at inserting their emotional bias and perceptual theories into their art. But they were a long way from moving to the other side of that window and totally focusing their artistic observation and expression on the inner world.
It did appear though to the casual observer that all the challenges in art had been addressed and conquered to one degree or another. Apparently, all that is left for the artist is to pick one of those old challenges and try to master it in a different way. And some observers suggested that art is dead, used up, passed by.
So far...We have been told by one school of thought to stand on the inside of the window and make art about what you observe out there. Do art work that concerns itself with that view of the world. They instruct the artist that there is nothing more to do, unless you want to incorporate in the artwork some evidence of your own individuality. Apparently, we artists are to accept that posterity will judge us by how much cleverness and sensuality we employ to express first that outside world and second our unique bias concerning that outside world.