Painting at Lascaux

After writing Sunday’s post I kept being nagged by this additional passage from Denis Dutton‘s New York Times op ed piece:

One trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: the pleasure we take in admiring skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall — where now and again the Homo erectus hairs stand up on the backs of our necks — human beings have a permanent, innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts.

We ought, then, to stop kidding ourselves that painstakingly developed artistic technique is passé, a value left over from our grandparents’ culture…The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art, on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist. That’s why looking through the history of conceptual art after Duchamp reminds me of paging through old New Yorker cartoons. Jokes about Cadillac tailfins and early fax machines were once amusing, and the same can be said of conceptual works…

Future generations, no longer engaged by our art “concepts” and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity…

But that doesn’t mean we need to worry about the future of art. There are plenty of prodigious artists at work in every medium, ready to wow us with surprising skills.

6 Replies to “Virtuosity”

  1. Nice blog, really cool stuff 🙂

  2. Love what Dutton says, and could not agree more. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks Jules and Glennie. It is a great passage by Dutton and so glad you connected with it too.

  4. Thank you so much for saying this. It really is the truth.
    I want to say more – but really, you said it all and very nicely.

  5. I’ve just finished reading Brian Boyd’s book “On the Origin of Stories,” which is an examination of the evolutionary adaptive need for art–specifically fiction, as he is a literary scholar–but Boyd begins his well-researched tome with a lengthy prefatory argument suggesting that art is something humans needed to develop in order to cohere and to compete as hyper-social animals. The admiration of skilled performances Dutton mentions here would be what Boyd calls the human social requirement for attention and attentiveness (in our “ancestral personality” traits). And Boyd clearly feels no deep love for Theory as a result; he tries to discern what makes art (stories) lasting.

    Needless to say, the Lascaux works rank among the pantheon of lasting human art. And much as I enjoy the playfulness behind some conceptual art, and the intellect behind it, and the skill in producing it, I’m not convinced that individual works of conceptual art can fall into the classic category of lasting art. On the other hand, the fact that people continue to explore art, narrative, musical, and literary techniques, ideas, and media widely and creatively seems to indicate that Boyd’s hypothesis is correct. The human animal craves art.

    1. Ann, such a thoughtful addition to what I wrote here originally. Boyd’s book sounds compelling–I am a book slut, I know, I want to sleep with all of them!–so thank you for mentioning it here.

      I, like you, do not write conceptual art off by any means. My beef is that it has crowded out other forms in the ecosystem. I’d like a more balanced field, one where there is room for the art craving animal in each of us to find its expression.

      Thank you so much for stopping by. I am a fan of your work.

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