Teaching about art history opens one's eyes to opinions cast by experts in the field of “expert” opinion makers. Few people in my parents’ circle discussed controversial topics in front of children, so nothing about his work was common knowledge. Certainly, nobody would have spoken about how they felt about art or what another person’s lifestyle happened to be. We tended to follow the adage of the time: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Nobody did.
When dad took our family to museums neither he nor mom commented on anything. We were “drug around” to see the works and usually taken to a beautiful nearby garden before going home. No one in the family discussed who did what, nor how they felt about anything seen. The family conversation must have been pretty typical of the era because few people since have related much difference in their own family life from that time period. So taking classes in art history, and then teaching them, woke me up to career-long discussions in the value of “this” genre of art versus “that” kind of art.
As a naturalist/ realist painter and sculptor, it was always the first question I asked my professors in undergrad and graduate school: “What makes a work of art valuable?”
Professor Marshall Daugherty, the head of the Mercer University art department and my sculpture professor, told me without cracking a smile. “That is the hardest question every artist asks and one that has no answer. You will answer it yourself when you get through grad school.” Well, I never did. It still troubles me because I agree that “art is the IDEA, and not the execution” pf a work. It’s logical that the “first” of any new concept is the model for mass productions of things. A good example is the wheel: Without the wheel (or the Egyptian roller-mechanism) we’d not have anything that rolls. But the wheel is utilitarian. It was not meant to be a thing of beauty. Therein lies the dilemma: If something is useful, or done for a purpose other than standing alone as a thing of beauty - is it art?
Enter N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell, illustrators for magazines, product ads and books. Wyeth’s illustrations were what kept me reading “Treasure Island” as a kid. I knew his name and Rockwell’s because we had a subscription to Saturday Evening Post and Scribner’s Classics.
The college art school standard for a year of art history studies was and is still Janson’s History of Art, Volume I and II. By the time we’d get to the spring semester, everyone had a good idea of why ancient Egyptian pyramids, Greek Acropolis and Roman Colosseum were “art” and why knock-offs made for export were not. Getting closer to the 20th century, the number of painters increased and so too did sculptors. Architects, who stood out in earlier centuries, seemed not to number at the same rate as sculptors and painters. It seemed at the time you just can’t improve on a post and beam structure. For a time there were many painters (like Monet, Renoir, and even Picasso) making their name in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Oil paint was being made commercially allowing painters to work outdoors and not have to use unstable oil paints on canvasses.
So what happened with Wyeth and Rockwell? According to his online biography, Wyeth himself said this about the difference in painting and illustration:
“Painting and illustration cannot be mixed,” he said. “One cannot merge from one to the other.” But why? Why isn’t the illustration Wyeth did “Jim Hawkins Leaves Home” or “Treasure Island” as valuable as a painting as his “Still life with Onions,” or his “Chadds Ford Landscape”? All are beautiful.
The answer is hard to understand, but the answer is simply “IDEA.” Whose idea was it? Was it one assigned by a publisher? For “Jim Hawkins leaves home,” yes. That was a publisher’s idea and not Wyeth’s. The “Still Life” and “Chadd’s Ford”? Well, they were Wyeth’s idea. The latter two are in museums and valued into the six figures or more.
It is the same thing for Rockwell’s gorgeous Post illustrations. What would I hang in my home? Probably anything either painted, regardless of whether it was an illustration or strictly a “painting.”
If anyone has an item for this column, please send it to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.