Tag Archives: disciples

Parsing The Criteria Of Great Art

ancient-blake
"Ancient" by William Blake
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Originally published on September 17, 1996

Landry wrote: This reminds me of an argument I had with my friend Brad who is a painter. He said that painting is art and writing is craft. What do you think?

Someone should kick poor mad William Blake up out of the grave. He called Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples the greatest ARTISTS the world has ever seen about the same time his friend Thomas Paine was facing the wrath of the English & American church leaders with his revolutionary AGE OF REASON, written mostly while sitting in the Bastille awaiting the guillotine for refusing to badmouth his friend King Louis, whom Paine held in high esteem for the king's much needed assistance to the colonies during the war against the English crown. Uh, now THAT reminds me of a peculiar intrigue Tom Wolfe's THE PAINTED WORD invoked with his fictional world reknown artist (this was a book about the NY painting scene where one's greatness as an artist is inseparable from the superior qualities of the particular THEORY of the art, brownie points for the thinker, nee writer once again, it seems) who while sitting in an unremarkable bar in an unremarkable mood suddenly had a great idea. He had only a glass of water and a paper napkin at his disposal. He quickly dipped and began etching, but just as suddenly as the idea had dawned in his mind's eye the world famous artist collapsed on his barstool and expired. Obviously his etching evaporated, but the question remained in Wolfe's assessment, was the idea that the now dead artist had expressed ever so briefly been that artist's, and therefore, perhaps the world's greatest work of art?

william-blake
William Blake
Blake did it all in a sense, a man of deep thought and adroit action like American contemporaries—with his large body of wood etchings, paintings, poetry, his literary criticism, his anti-clericism, his involvement in the politics of his day, his strange mystical nudism, his sagacious love for his wife, all tempered by his touch of madness, and yet he called Jesus the GREATEST ARTIST. This same Jesus who never wrote or painted a damned thing except to draw some line in the sand, and there are those biblical scholars who amazingly even claim this was an apocryphal tale (now famous as the "he who is without sin, please please cast the first stone" scene) they insist was inserted by later scribes. This viewpoint leads of course to the idea that ideas are the guts of art, NOT shapes, lines, colors. Paintings may certainly express an idea, or several, but one is never exactly sure what that idea is unless the artist is part of that Clement Greenberg (the NYC art don) regime boasting an idea per brushstroke...

So it goes without saying that I tend to agree with Blake that it takes everything you've got to create art, but then (to answer your question), can paintings lie, cheat, and steal the way words do?

GT