Let us admit that there is no hope of ever rivalling the dead

One can’t study the masters too much—I mean, from the amateur’s view-point; in the case of an artist it depends on the receptivity of his temperament. Velasquez didn’t like Raphael, and it was Boucher who warned Fragonard, when he went to Rome, not to take the Italian painters too seriously. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it sometimes stifles individuality. I think it is probably the belief that never again will this planet have another golden age of painting and sculpture that arouses in me the melancholy I mention. Music has passed its prime and is now entering the twilight of perfections past for ever. So is it with the Seven Arts. Nevertheless, there is no need of pessimism. Even if we could, it would not be well to repeat the formulas of art accomplished, born as they were of certain conditions, social as well as technical. Other days, other plays. And that is the blight on all academic art. “Traditional art,” says Frank Rutter, “is the art of respectable plagiarism,” a slight variation on Paul Gauguin’s more revolutionary axiom. No fear of any artist being too original. “There is no isolated truth,” exclaimed Millet; but Constable wrote: “A good thing is never done twice.” Best of all, it was R. A. M. Stevenson who said in effect that after studying Velasquez at the Prado he had modified his opinions as to the originality of modern art. Let us admit that there is no hope of ever rivalling the dead; yet a new beauty may be born, a new vision, and with it necessarily new technical procedures. When I say “new,” I mean a new variation on the past. To-day the Chinese and Assyrian are revived. It is the denial of these very obvious truths that makes academic critics slightly ridiculous. They obstinately refuse to see the sunlight on the canvases of the Impressionists just as they deny the sincerity and power of the so-called post-Impressionists. The transvaluation of critical values must follow in the trail of revolutions.

From James Huneker’s “The Melancholy of Masterpieces.” Collected in Ivory, Apes and Peacocks (1915).

Velázquez_–_Bufón_don_Sebastián_de_Morra_(Museo_del_Prado,_c._1645)
Portrait of Sebastián de Morra, Diego Velázquez

 

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