The National Gallery of Art is currently running an exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite art. The pre-Raphaelites came into existence in 1848, just at the beginning of the Victorian period. They opposed what they believed to be excessive classicism in art and design, and hoped to revive an appreciation for the Gothic style supplanted by the Renaissance in general, and, according to them, Raphael in particular.
I can admire the pre-Raphaelites to an extent. I too believe that the modern west has greatly undervalued the medieval period, including Gothic art. One can better appreciate the era when we realize that the Gothic style was the first time the west departed from the “Classical” style since ca. 500 B.C. The Church developed something distinct and original with Gothic art, which had a playful extravagance and boyish charm. We don’t often think about “playfulness” when we think of a medieval cathedral, but I submit that, for example, the location of Mt. St. Michael’s Cathedral out on the farthest reach of the Norman Coast has a glorious “why not?” quality.
The stained glass celebrated not just an unusual variety of people, shapes, and Biblical themes, but also an extravagant variety of color.
It seems that it was primarily this use of bold color that attracted the Pre-Raphaelites. So much then, for the background information. What about the art itself? Does it succeed?
Aye caramba! This is just awful stuff, an overdose of schmaltz and sentiment on an unusual scale.
What went wrong?
Some might argue that their art failed because they were not good artists, but this simply begs the question as to why they lacked talent. They obviously had certain technical skills necessary to create good art. Some might point to the problems within the Victorian era itself, but this would exclude the possibility of any great art in the Victorian era, and Dickens, Van Gogh, and Stravinsky (among others) put that theory to rest.
I think the problem is not their mission, but their method. Some months ago I discussed Toynbee’s theory of “Renaissances” and how they operate in history (my review of his book is here, and some thoughts on its application to music are here). In summary, Toynbee believes that
- Borrowing from a “living” (i.e. currently existing) civilization, artist, or art form will usually lead to beneficial new creation, but
- Borrowing from a “dead” form (i.e. civilization, artist, etc.) will mean the calling up of a ghost, which will lead to a sterile act of creation, a stillborn attempt at achieving meaning.
The pre-Raphaelites show all of the characteristics of reviving a dead ghost of a long forgotten form. The “ghost” constricts them, and so they try too hard, and end up producing sterile art that cannot move us in any way.
Strange as it may sound, I thought about Toynbee’s theory again when a friend sent me an article about the burgeoning heavy metal scene in, of all places, Botswana. Here we have an example of one people group attempting a birth of something new in their nation not from a dead past, but from a living present. While I have yet to hear any music, these pictures may give us a clue as to whether or not they will succeed.
Ok, perhaps we see a bit of rote copying in terms of the motorcycle and the leather, but still, who wouldn’t want to be that guy?
Again, the leather is “pretty standard,” but the cowboy hat is very cool, and he pulls it off.
No way western metal heroes like James Hetfield or Bruce Dickinson could ever pull off such a graceful yet arresting pose.
I look at this guy and think “Super-Hero,” and again, I love the hat.
Without hearing any music, I am encouraged and intrigued by the possibilities in Botswana. Sure, they borrow some metal conventions from the west, but they also seem to be putting a distinctly African stamp at least upon their image. One senses vibrancy here, whereas all the color in the world cannot take away the dead feeling I get while looking at the pre-Raphaelites.
All this proves once again, beware of the influence of a dead past.