Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Some thoughts on taste in art

Thomas Lawrence courtesy of artrenewal.org.

One of the comments I received tonight asked "What do you mean by taste? Can you elaborate on that?" OK, Will do. I think I will do that by listing the attributes of taste in a bulleted list. I like those, they make it easier to lay out my thoughts in an orderly way.

Artists don't talk so much about taste these days and my concern with it may mark me as a little archaic. But it is good to know about just the same. This is a difficult post to write, but I will do my best.

  • Taste is a quality that art may possess, it was, until our grandfathers time, thought essential and a characteristic of the finest art that set it above the merely pretty or mundane. It was one of the things that separated the fine arts from the baser products of the ordinary world of commerce and illustration.
  • Our best historic art is full of examples of excellent taste, and I think it is this which separates that which is lasting, from that which is not. It is therefore best learned from historic sources .
  • Art that has taste appeals to the higher instincts of the viewer, it is cool, that is, it never screams at the viewer but is measured and refined. It is often a restraint of color and design, and a moderation of subject matter away from the extreme, the cloying and the vulgar. It is neither cute or morbid, It is never obscene, or just the newest incarnation of a tired idea we have all seen before. It is nether retreaded or spiky.
  • Art that has taste tends to be quieter and appeals more slowly and over a longer period of time, rather than expending its impact like a firecracker, it is meant to charm and edify the viewer for the long run. It neither dates nor does it partake of the vagarities of short lived fashions. It strives for the eternal and eschews the suddenly fashionable.
  • Rather than attempting to shock , taste speaks quietly and reasonably. It may have power but not flash. It is not vulgar but dignified. It keeps its pants on. If you were painting something with which you must stand before God himself, taste would be your watchword.
  • Taste respects its viewer, treating that viewer with the greatest possible respect. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill spoke with taste, Larry Flynn and The Cable Guy do not. Taste is noble and elegant.
  • Taste places quality above comerciality, its opposite is what I call "heightened cheese content". Taste values worksmanship, but neither flaunts it or imagines technique the function of art, but merely its means. It uses technique to carry its appearance, and not as its purpose.
  • Taste is ethics in art, the highest form of artistic ethics, the finest thing, the high road. It doesn't make the most saleable art, but there are always clients who want it. It is seldom the brightest thing in a show or gallery, but it is often the thing that speaks to you every time you see it, rather than expending its force in the first instant it is seen. It makes art that can be enjoyed for a lifetime, that will always appeal to the viewer, even as their knowledge and discernment increase.
  • Taste lives in the color, the proportions , the design and every aspect of a painting. It is never sentimental, sensational or cloyingly sweet. It is quiet, restrained and understated.
  • Taste is what often separates the good from the great, The best artists almost always have it and the also rans usually fail because of its lack.
Gee I hope that worked, that was hard!


Dot Courson said...

Those were stunningly beautiful words! Well done-and tasteful too. You are such a gifted and talented person, and I love your writing almost as much as your painting...
That was just lovely!

Unknown said...

Thank you, well done.

Linda Crank said...

Thank you...beautifully written and thought through...

Unknown said...

excellent, just excellent! I wish I'd had this post to give to the person who suggested (in all seriousness) that I put an old fashioned lantern in one of my still lifes , with it lit "like one of those paintings of cottages with the lights in the windows"
"Quiet and refined" - I like that phrase.

Nita Leger Casey said...

You have said it so well!
I admire the way you write all the things I would think about but couldn't never put into words like you do,you have a gift with words.

Jo-Ann Sanborn said...

This post will be a classic, well thought and tastefully written. Thank you.

Philip Koch said...

This is a maddeningly hard topic to nail down. One of the sobering reminders of this in American art history is that the Ashcan School painters like George Bellows and John Sloan were widely condemned early in their careers as lacking taste.

Certainly there is a need for art to feel authentic. When things are truly well painted, the darnedest things can work- for example the wonderful American painter Abbott Thayer depicting his family members as winged angels. It should have looked ridiculous and cheesy and instead comes off as completely believable, tender, and deeply moving.

Candle in the Wind said...

Lots of food for thought ...

Karla said...

Thank you for this post. You are profoundly wise. I cannot help but see the parallel between art and life itself i.e., good character. I hope you will consider publishing your blog. It is extraodinary.

Pat Walker-Fields said...

Very good~~ I agree completely~~!!

mariandioguardi.com said...

There is lovely, very thoughtful and tasteful writing here , Stapleton. (No sarcasm in my compliment). And all that you said is true. But that doesn't mean that there isn't more that is also true.

And Philip,
I agree,this is a tricky topic.The French "Impressionist" were also condemned.

The Ash can artists were the first artists in the MFA that caught my attention,as a child. I recognized my neighborhood in their work: it was called "art"! It was real (as I knew reality) and looked beautiful.

(We still called trash cans -ash cans at that time in Boston.
My drawings ,as a kid then, consisted of turned over trash cans, back porches and laundry lines. Now, throw a new color TV set showing cartoons in here, mid sixties, against the bleak urban scene and I woke up like a Dorothy in OZ. No going back.)

Time will tell all art's story; for the tasteful, the tasteless, the quiet, the shocking and the unknown.To be continued. How exciting!

willek said...

It appears you have given this subject some thought, Stape.

willek said...

Now can you tell us how to install the sublime into our work... and please don't say you will know it when you see it.

Shelley Bittick said...

Some thoughts on Stape:
- elegant

Deborah Paris said...

You knocked it out of the park, Stape, with this one. Such a delight to read. Thank you.

billspaintingmn said...

Bravo! This is the best! Bravo!

kev ferrara said...

Very insightful.

Was wondering: How does the supernatural spookiness of, say, Inness fit in with your ideas on taste? (For the same reason I wonder how tasteful you find Howard Pyle's Attack on a Galleon, or Frazetta's Death Dealer?)

terry said...

Hi Stape,
I think the key point is focusing on what the artist finds beautiful and restraint, stopping and letting the viewer create the finish, leaving room for the viewer to experience their own emotion. Leading to a new view, insight into their world.
I'm a great grand mother, and appreciate the way a small child in their open discovery of their world, can illuminate ours.
Thank you so much for this endeavor. You are bringing us all along on your wonderful journey and letting us discover your hard won truths in our own world.

This comment has been removed by the author.

This is a great post, Stape, and my many thanks go out to you for sharing with us.

As Terry is, I'm a great-grandmother too. I still feel the child in me always eager to see, to learn and create.

Blessings to You,

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hey there! Glad to know you are well!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. Hi to my friends in Cincinnati!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Almost never do the civilians suggest something that would be in the best taste. Usually they lobby for heightened cheese content.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You know I am not well groomed or very formal myself. The paintings are the best thing about me. I myself may not be tasteful at all.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am preparing a post in which I will argue that the ashcan school was in the best of taste.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I love food.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am a fool. But I do write a lot.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. Hope the workshps are going well. I miss Rolling Fork.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am soon going ton generate a post defending the ashcan school from that charge.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes, LOTS of thought for many years. It is one of the things that drives my art.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The sublime can be eassily installed with 3/4 sheetrock screws and a phillips head screwdriver. The trick is having the raw materials.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Please see picture on blog with pearls.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Please see picture on blog with pearls.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. I am flattered.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. I hate those Bravo towels though.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am going to duck the Frazeeta question, the Inesses are tasteful to the extreme.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. I am glad I have been useful.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. I have been blessed. I am glad I didn't get what I deserved.

MCG said...

Going through all the old posts tonight, and loving this blog as I am, this is the only post I find disturbing on a few levels. Sargents portrait of Madame Gautreau, Manets Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, Olympia...all considered vulgar, tasteless, scandalous work in their time. Perhaps its the word "taste". Like "beauty", it is limiting. Beauty, taste, are subjective and temporal. Aesthetics are important. There is more to aesthetic power than beauty or taste.
Well, more than I need to say in a blog comment; I enjoyed the post.