David Thompson


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January 07, 2009



You might be interested in this new blog which collects Anthony Daniels and Theodore Dalrymple essays:





Of possible additional interest to your readers, if you'll forgive me:


Peter Risdon

I think the Doctor was misfiring there.

There certainly has been progress in art, as well as regress. Ancient -> Classical -> Mediaeval -> Renaissance was progress, regress, progress. More modern artistic progress has indeed involved looking at the world with fresh eyes: Impressionism, Cubism. These were indeed progress although it does not follow, either in science or art, that later work will be better than earlier work. It does follow, though, that a later artist or scientist should know more and have a bigger toolkit than their predecessors.

It is also true, surely, that an artist is likely to have learned all these traditions, just as a scientist does with different traditions.

I think what has happened with the sort of Art Dalrymple is criticising is that it has ceased to be art as was previously understood and practised. It's a different thing entirely, a creature of institutional state patronage. This creature has unappetisingly large dollops of self-importance, elitism, bovine conformity masquerading as edginess, pretentiousness and bullshit mixed into its genes, as well as some of the things that can be found in the artistic tradition.



“It does follow, though, that a later artist or scientist should know more and have a bigger toolkit than their predecessors… I think what has happened with the sort of Art Dalrymple is criticising is that it has ceased to be art as was previously understood and practised. It’s a different thing entirely, a creature of institutional state patronage.”

It’s worth reading Franklin’s post (linked above), which touches on the issue of what is taught and, perhaps more importantly, what is required to attract attention, funding, etc.

Chris S

“It does follow, though, that a later artist or scientist should know more and have a bigger toolkit than their predecessors"

Which would be representative of the continuing progress in the science of materials and the increasing volume of works of art and the cataloging of it's techniques. It's not really the progress of art but the skillsets and materials now available to be used in it's creation.

Big "A" art simply changes, it does not get better. The tates of the viewer/culture of the time determines if it is "good". The tates will constantly change while the "work" remains static.

Personlly I'd love an exhibit like David is proposing. I'd pay lots of money to have other people view it.

Peter Risdon

David, yes it's an excellent piece.

Chris, I meant they understand perspective, have figurative skills, know how to use the way the eye works to construct images out of points and blurs (pointillism and impressionism), can use supra-realistic techniques (expressionism, cubism) and so on. These "tools" developed on a timeline.


Regarding Rothko. It's not that his paintings are better than Chardin's. But he's painting in the era of photography, and that changes everything. By Rothko's time, painting has lost its role of figurative representation. So it becomes more abstract. We forget that painting and drawing used to do the work virtually of passport photographs. Henry VIII agreed to marry Anne Of Cleves after seeing Holbein's painting of her, only to find her uglier and fatter in real life. It's like those MySpace photos people take from odd angles. Don't go on a date with someone based on that. You'll be disappointed.

Old art forms decline, while new ones come into being. The great new art form of the 20th Century was film. It began as a lowbrow conjuring trick - a "magic lantern". Both Georges Mélies "Le voyage dans la Lune" (1902) and Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Oddysey" (1968) are magic lantern flicks. What else is the druggy colour rush of Kubrick's Star Gate but a magic lantern?

The rise of the movies (and later TV) changes the traditional storytelling medium, the novel. We get abstract dream-novels like Finnegans Wake, which completely abandon regular storytelling. And we get the novels of Stephen King, which take inspiration from the movies of Roger Corman, and which seem destined to complete themselves by becoming films. Graphic novels are another response to the rise of the movies, but I'll bow to David's superior knowledge on that area.

I think computer games are art. Or at least, they're in the process of becoming art.


It's a complicated question, and possibly an unhelpful question to ask. I'm thinking of the two art forms that I know most about, literature and music.

It depends on what exactly you mean by 'progress'.

If you mean by that, that art develops and changes over time, so that the 'art' of one century is a different phenomenon to the 'art' of previous centuries, then the answer is no. People are still practising and recognising as art now musical forms that were developed millenia ago. Think of the revival in renaissance music that occured in the mid-20th century, or the revival of Bach that occured in the mid-19th century. People occasionally make snobbish judgments about whether revived art forms are 'authentic', or whether it is acceptable for people writing in century-old styles, but some of the greatest artists have gone back to tradition and found their own personal voice in doing so. Vaughan Williams 'Fantasia on Thomas Tallis' is an excellent example of this, there are many others.

If by 'progress' you mean that artists use traditional techniques and add to that new and experimental techniques that they develop over the course of their career, in order to better achieve artistic goals, better express personal ideas, or simply to add further things of interest to their artistic voice, then yes. There are clear examples of this - in music (through the development of the modern scale in medieval times, the discovery of homophony and polyphony in renaissance and baroque times, and the progress through to chromatic harmonies and atonality in the romantic and modern eras) - and in the arts (the development of the modern novel form and the modern poetic forms).
In this case the progress depends somewhat on an agreed artistic language at the outset - so musical history through much of the renaissance to the present relies on a particular tuning, equal temperament, to achieve its harmonic and melodic effects. And poetry relies on forms developed in the renaissance and enlightenment eras, as well as the literary/mythic heritage from Christian and Greek cultures.


What interests me is the extent to which art production and commentary has been overshadowed by theoretical concerns, the focus of which is as much political as aesthetic, perhaps more so. I’m thinking of books such as Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, which is peppered with arch references to Lyotard, Derrida and Foucault, and features tendentious statements like this: “The antinomy between artists and intellectuals on the one hand and capitalist production on the other has been annihilated or has disappeared by attrition.”

I’m thinking of the endless platforms and discussions in which it’s assumed that art’s primary function is as a vehicle for political transformation - or rather, as a vehicle for *discussions* about political transformation. As Brian Ashbee noted in his essay, A Beginner’s Guide to Art Bollocks: “This is not art to be looked at; this is art to talk about and write about. It doesn't reward visual attention; it generates text.” And if a person’s art doesn’t readily lend itself to generating text – text of a certain kind – that may be a disadvantage. The more art is couched in textual terms, or in terms of “radical practice” and “raising issues,” the more likely it is that students will find themselves being judged as much for their political sensibilities as for their aesthetic ones.


From Franklin’s article:

“They [young artists] also see that this critical class values beauty only to the extent that it lies on a conceptual framework as an optional coating of aesthetic lacquer. If you desire the attentions of this critical class, you will act accordingly. That means putting high premiums on novelty, justifications, and piquant ideas (which need only the most superficial examinations - the merest hintings qualify as an ‘addressing’ of them), and letting the highest reaches of beauty go.”



Hi TimT

When artists go back they usually get it wrong, and that's what makes the results interesting. My favourite movement in all Beethoven is the Hymn of Thanksgiving - in the Lydian Mode no less - from his A minor String Quartet Op 132. Beethoven may imagine he's going back to the Renaissance, but there's nothing in Palestrina that sounds anything like that. It sounds modern - even to our modern ears.

Western classical music is a byproduct of notation. We have composers (and the performer/composer distinction) purely because we have notation. Indian classical music is subtle & complex. But it's not notated. The subtleties of "meend" & "gamak" in Indian music are pretty well impossible to notate in western script. As in jazz, the performer is also impromptu composer.

Recording music, whether on wax cylinder or iPod, has revolutionized music every bit as much as notation did. I guess recordings are like films, and concerts like theatre.

Do you know the "Symphonies Of Wind Instruments" by Stravinsky? It's inspired by the "jump-cut" techniques of film editing. Stravinsky writes maybe six different pieces of music, then chops them up and abruptly jumps between them. Cubism is also an influence...


That's fascinating Georges. You could probably say the same thing about the drive by early 20th-century composers to find out about 'authentic folk music' and popular music traditions - the results, produced by Bartok and Vaughan Williams and their contemporaries were fascinating, groundbreaking, beautiful, and if peasants ever heard it they would probably have found it revolting. Despite this the line we were generally given when taught Bartok, et al, was that it was authentic.

Though possibly medieval and pre-medieval experiments in notation and the musical modes may have sounded weird to medieval ears as well!

I have a copy of the Symphony of Wind Instruments on my desk as it happens, and it's interesting to hear about its origins.

David, I hate going into art galleries and being pressured to read the notes to the paintings/exhibits. I hate that crap so much! I'm there for the pictures, not the explanations. If an artist is more interested in the explanation than the picture then possibly they should consider taking up a career in journalism, rather than gulling the public into believing that they are artists.

Mind you, some of my favourite stuff - Monty Python skits, for instance - will probably seem the same in 100 years time. They make so many obscure cultural references and rely on so much shared knowledge of cultures and classes that it won't be long before they will need to be studied and footnoted before they are understood, much like T S Eliot's 'The Wasteland', or Ulysses. I think C S Lewis may have anticipated culture of this sort in his excellent essay 'Lilies that Fester'. I'm not sure if he proposed a better alternative or not.



“I’m there for the pictures, not the explanations.”

It’s often been my impression that more effort goes into the explanations, awful as they are. And the more artists shy away from aesthetic criteria and retreat into “cleverness” or political “relevance,” the more textual validation seems necessary, if only to fill the gap where aesthetics should be. I now seldom visit galleries. The last time I nosed around my local gallery, the highlight was a small woollen cigarette. It wasn’t well made and the point of it escaped me, but it’s the only item I can recall from the visit.

I’ve no particular objection to woollen cigarettes, or ephemeral tat in general. As regular readers will know, I have a soft spot for tat. But I do resent wasting my time roaming around galleries in a futile search for something impressive, while being told that the tat on offer is in some way important. And I also resent the fact that the gallery and its contents are publicly subsidised.

Spiny Norman

"And I also resent the fact that the gallery and its contents are publicly subsidised."

Oh, that annoys me no end. My grandmother was a self-taught painter who spent most of her life as a "starving artist" who paid the rent, when my father was a boy, by retouching 4x5 negatives. Her real work was (mostly) portraits of Native Americans... very old folks in particular, in vivid detail. They are quite moving, but her style and subjects were much too "old fashioned" for galleries of the day (or now). "Marketing" was not something she was good at, or had much interest in.

When I see the self-indulgent dreck that passes for "important" art, subsidised by government grants, I can only cringe.


"We have learnt nothing" remarked Pablo Picasso on seeing the prehistoric paintings of the Lasceaux caves. Scruton and Dalrymple have a point. Being technically trained and having had a technical career, I find the smug hubris of arty types particularly tiresome and frustrating.

However, it is necessary to divide art into painting/sculpture; music; architecture and literature/film/theatre. The first is well characterised by Dalrymple, and Robert Hughes seminal TV series of the 1970s well demonstrated how modern art had run into the sand. Music and architecture cannot function without tradition - no one would listen these days to "music concrete", and Stockhausen's more experimental works are not much performed to my knowledge. In architecture, some engineering knowledge is essential, and the best architects (Gaudi, Calatrava, Foster) were/are also competent structural engineers.

It is in the realm of Literature, Theatre, Film and TV that this trend is most pernicious. The need to be "edgy" and trendy has led to the likes of Tynan, Pinter and Michael Moore's deranged politics, and their skill with words makes it difficult for those of us who know of the complexity of the current world (and of the impossibility of truly understanding it) to frame a pithy refutation. The consequences of this situation is that we are forced to learn how wrong their ideas are through ghastly political and cultural errors.

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