There has been something like a collapse of the arts in the 20th century-or so, I suspect, future historians will judge-and what we must look for, early in the Third Millennium, is a process of recovery. The whole of history teaches that men and women cannot live without art, and that art must be as good as they can make it. They were engaging in art long before they could write, perhaps even before they could communicate with one another fluently through speech. Art they must have; it is a human craving almost as strong as the need for food, drink, and sleep. If they are deprived of art-good art-for long, as sometimes happens in history, the craving, far from disappearing, becomes stronger than ever, and artists, often great artists, promptly arise to satisfy it.
The art of ancient Egypt, in the three millennia before Jesus Christ, illustrates this. The achievements of the Old Kingdom, which produced the pyramids of Giza and much else, were followed by a social and cultural collapse, known as the First Intermediate Period. When this came to an end, the Middle Kingdom arose, with astonishing suddenness, reassuming all the main characteristics of the art of the Old Kingdom, but with added brilliance: The best hardstone portrait-busts, for instance, date from this time. Again, a collapse followed, the Second Intermediate Period, followed by the New Kingdom, swiftly developing into the age of grandeur we associate with Rameses II and Tutankhamen, and Egyptian art continued until it was absorbed into the art of the Greco-Roman world.
The process of declension and recovery is more specifically illustrated in the depiction of pictorial space on flat or curved surfaces. This was a technical discovery of the ancient Greeks, which may be said to have been achieved by the 5th century b.c., as we can see from examination of Red Attic vases, and was transmitted to the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. Most of the paintings of Greco-Roman antiquity have disappeared, but we can observe at Pompeii and elsewhere that linear perspective had been mastered, along with the foreshortening of figures. These pictorial techniques are essential to the creation of genuine illusion in surface art-they make it far more exciting and open up endless possibilities of development.
But sometime after the 4th century a.d., they were lost. The process of their recovery, in 13th- and 14th-century Italy, has been brilliantly described in John White’s book, The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space. The excitement of the artists at being able to present realistic figures in genuine space was so intense, and the popularity of the new or recovered illusionism so enormous, as to constitute one of the principal dynamics of the Renaissance, so that within a comparatively short time artists were able to do everything the masters of antiquity could do, and a great deal more. If we take a long view of the history of art, the moral seems to be that collapses need not be final but can be the prelude to fresh advances-one step backward, two forward.
That a collapse has occurred in our own time is beyond doubt. Let me give one example. When, a few years ago, the sculptor Gerald Laing decided that Modern Art was a nonsense, or at any rate a blind alley, and wished to return to traditional representational sculpture, he discovered it was exceedingly difficult to learn the technology at that high level. He found modern textbooks useless. Then he was lucky enough to come across a copy of Modelling and Sculpting the Human Figure by Edward Lanteri, Professor of Sculpture at London’s Royal College of Art towards the end of the 19th century, from which he learned a great deal. He learned even more from the elderly Roman bronze-caster George Mancini, who had come to London to cast garden statuary before the First World War. He used exclusively traditional tools, such as bow-drills, believing that crude modern welding and grinding techniques, which make corrections to an ill-cast bronze possible, produce results that are inferior to a perfectly cast bronze. So Laing, by learning directly from Mancini, was able to take his place in a grand tradition going back to Donatello in the early 15th century, indeed in some respects to Nicola Pisano in the 13th.
This is one example. There are many others. In the second half of the 19th century, there were in Paris a number of studios where draftsmanship, particularly of the human figure, was taught to a standard probably never before approached, even in 15th- and 16th-century Florence, because the French master draftsmen were able to build on the Florentine corpus of achievement. Great foreign artists, like Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, as well as French students, were able to achieve levels of accomplishment in these studios that would seem almost miraculous today. Unfortunately, under the successive hammer-blows of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and their successors, this studio tradition, so long in the making, was destroyed. By the mid 20th century, draftsmanship as such was ceasing to be taught at all in the great majority of art schools, in France and everywhere else. Many students emerged from the schools less able to draw than when they went in; and as Vasari pointed out in the 16th century, without drawing-disegno-you cannot paint. The history of art suggests that the discipline, leadership, competition, and mutual instruction of a well-organized studio, whether it be the one from the Egyptian New Kingdom whose foundations can be traced in the Tell el-Amarna site (where the bust of Queen Nefertiti now in the Berlin Museum was found) or the great studio-shop of Verrocchio in 15th-century Florence, where Leonardo da Vinci, Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi, and many other masters learned their craft, is the best way-perhaps the only way-to achieve the highest levels of skill.
TO THE STUDIO, AGAIN
Hence the first point I wish to make about the recovery of art in the new millennium is that it is likely to be based upon a renewal of the studio tradition. There are, in fact, signs of this happening. Some public art schools in the big capitals are beginning to teach draftsmanship and related skills again. Students enjoy acquiring and practicing these skills because they are more testing than the tedious "inventiveness" of putting animals in tanks of formaldehyde or presenting an unmade bed as sculpture-all the excesses of the final wave of Modern Art. The best kind of studio is one presided over by a recognized master practitioner of the craft, who is also a genuine pedagogue, and I suspect that the coming revival of the studio will occur when successful painters and sculptors begin to admit students onto their premises to watch and learn, and have their work subject to criticism. It will not take much to bring about this revival because this form of instruction, as centuries of experience proves, is by far the best way for the young to learn. If only two or three leading artists, in one of the big centers like London, Paris, or New York, set up their shops, the results will be so quick and spectacular that the practice will spread. It may be, however, that the studio revival will come about outside the main 20th-century art centers, in one of the capitals formerly behind the Iron Curtain-Warsaw perhaps, or Budapest, or even St. Petersburg. The long years of Communist thought- and art-control had the effect of nourishing deep-seated resentment against all forms of cultural domination, including that of Modern Art itself, so that unpredictable and creative rebellions are likely in those parts of the world. The same may also be true of China, where the authoritarian regime is now decaying and such excesses as the Cultural Revolution, with its destructive frontal assault on all forms of traditional art, have produced long-term forces that will eventually manifest themselves in dazzling displays of art. I am also hopeful of seeing strange and exciting creative forms emerging from Japan, where artists have for two generations been engaged in superficial imitations of the Modern Art of the West and have found it rebarbative. China and Japan represent artistic traditions of great antiquity, strength, and complexity, which have avoided the self-destructive dynamism of Western culture and are due for a renaissance that, like the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century, may produce new standards of excellence and creativity. I expect to see, early in the new millennium, all kinds of cross-fertilizations and new currents in the great Eurasian landmass, with places hitherto more famed for commerce, like Singapore and Shanghai, becoming international centers of art and craftsmanship. We have to rid ourselves of the notion that leadership in art is the permanent prerogative of the West.
WHERE ARE THE NEW MATERIALS?
What has surprised me, during the last half-century, has been the failure of artists to take advantage of technological progress, especially in chemistry, to work with new materials. Art has been highly experimental in form, which has produced only satiation and sterility, but curiously conservative in its media. It is true that, from the early 1920s onward, artists used wood, bricks, metal, and rags to concoct sculptural forms, and they glued all kinds of material on canvas to produce "paintings." But these are fashion tricks, con art, mere stunts, designed to shock, an ephemeral form of display now ancient and cobwebby. But for the actual practice of art, even those artists most closely linked with Modern Art have continued to use lead pencils and charcoal sticks, oil paint and gouache, pastels and watercolors, all traditional.
Painting in oils, the standard technology of two-dimensional art still, is now half a millennium old. Artists have in recent times dabbled in new media like acrylic, but the vast majority of them stick to oil-on-canvas. It would be hard to think of any other occupation involving extreme dexterity of hand, mind, and eye, where the basic tools have remained more or less stationary for five centuries.
This conservatism is all the more remarkable in that, as Theophilus noted eight hundred years ago, oil is most unsatisfactory. It is time-consuming. It is messy and smelly. It makes the achievement of really delicate effects extremely hard. Even fine canvas provides a rough and unsympathetic surface. The business of multiple brushes, which have to be washed thoroughly at the end of each painting session, a heavy, clumsy palette, which must be cleaned and scrubbed, the mixing of linseed oil and turpentine, and other "vehicles"-all these laborious aspects are surprising survivals. They discourage plein air work and make painters heavily dependent on studio facilities. And studios tend to get into disgusting messes-witness photographs of the astounding squalor in which Francis Bacon produced his "masterpieces."
Given the ever-growing ability of chemists to produce materials to order, I cannot believe that this dependence on such an unsatisfactory medium will continue. Indeed my guess is that a systematic revival of the studio system will quickly produce a switch to new materials, which will enable painters to achieve the highest effect of clarity and luminous color, while drying quickly, being easy and clean to use, and allowing the most delicate and sensitive brushwork. I also expect the new media to have the essential properties of watercolor-transparency, washability, creative blending, and what might be called X-factor surprise effects. In a hundred years’ time painters will be working on far more convenient, transportable, easily trimmed, and responsive surfaces, in a great variety of materials matched to the genre of work proposed, and they will be using mixed-media techniques of stunning subtlety and invention. The net effect will be to make a painter’s life easier, to raise his standards and simultaneously his productivity, so he can make a decent living and at the same time produce quality work at modest prices. It is astonishing that almost all the present forms of reproduction of two-dimensional artwork involve 19th-century technology-or even earlier methods-and have been only marginally improved since. If we consider the transformation of acoustic recording techniques, since the first wax cylinders of the 1880s and 1890s, and the present quality and cheapness of, say, operatic recordings, it is lamentable that the visual arts should have been so badly served by printing technology in the 20th century. This state of affairs will not continue, and I expect an early revolution in the way artists themselves will be able to replicate, and so sell, their creations.
Sculpture, too, is due, indeed overdue, for a technological transformation. While it is vital that the traditional techniques I have described should be retained, taught, and improved upon, better materials ought to be available and means devised to take some of the hard labor and expense out of sculpting in such materials as bronze. Few sculptors-even fewer than painters-make a decent living; a lamentably large number go bankrupt, and these include famous figures. The basic cire perdue bronze-sculpting technology goes back to the Greece of the 5th century b.c. and even beyond, and, though improved and modified by some modern devices, it is still horribly daunting and industrial, a great deterrent to women sculptors and many men also. Shockingly few contemporary buildings contain sculptural elements-fewer than at any time in recorded history-and cost is the main reason. In the next millennium we will face this problem. Giant chemical firms will make studies, identify the problems, and solve them. Sculptors will benefit, and proliferate; buildings will be adorned, externally and internally, and future generations will live in a world ornamented and uplifted by forms and shapes in a vast variety of new materials, which will humanize the strident lines of architectural progress and make cityscapes less daunting.
ARCHITECTURE: THE PLACE TO BE
The use of sculpture and other decorative features on a huge scale will be one way in which architecture will recover from the sleep of reason and beauty that has marked its brutal progression through the 20th century. Architecture has been the dark art, the victim of false ideologies-of functionalism, of collectivism, of egalitarianism-that have produced terrifying quantities of buildings of immense size and stupefying ugliness, all over the world. But the worst is past. Lessons have been learned. Architects have now largely abandoned ideology and are returning to style as their guide. The opportunities are immense-indeed, I happily predict that the 21st century will be an age of great architecture, and this is the profession I would now recommend to any intelligent and well-organized teenager who is thinking of making a career in the arts.
The reason is three-fold. First, information technology and its application in internal circuiting of buildings opens up opportunities for designing them in radically different shapes that produce vistas and effects never before seen in structures. Second, the growing range of new materials available can be used to make such shapes not only more exciting but variable, once the deadening principle of functionalism is scrapped. Third, the world is becoming richer, and wealth is spreading, not just geographically but down the social ladder. Land resources are finite and values grow steadily, so men and women are increasingly concerned with the quality of what they build or rebuild. That is the opportunity for the architect to revert, using modern forms and materials, to the old tradition of display, ostentation, and elaborate fantasy, which in turn gave us the Gothic and Baroque, with calming intervals of classicism.
··Music provides some of the same paradoxes as painting: an almost infinite willingness of composers to experiment with the kind of sounds they can score on a music sheet, with a willful ignorance of, and indifference to, the way in which those sounds are produced. For most of the 20th century, the more daring composers have been trying to break free from traditional tonality, evolved over half a millennium, and on the whole have failed because the public will not accept the noises that result. It is a damning and unprecedented fact that more than 80 percent of the works played at public concerts in New York and London in the closing years of the 20th century were in fact written before the year 1914.
Yet in other ways musicians remain destructively conservative. The composition and structure of the orchestra has not changed during the 20th century in any important respect; nor has the type of instrument used or the way in which it is made, nor for that matter the way in which opera singers are trained to use their voices. Composers do not seem to show any interest in the physics of sound. Yet the way in which vibrating columns of air are produced offers endless opportunities for experiment with the means. There is, for instance, the emerging science of cryogenics, sometimes called deep-freezing. That can have seemingly magical effects on a trumpet or flute made in traditional fashion, and indicates what might be produced by radical alterations in design-or entirely new instruments specifically created to take advantage of temperature variations. This is only one small example of the application of science to music, but it indicates to me that we shall be hearing many completely new sounds in the new millennium-music of the spheres, indeed!
There is a difference between writing and the other arts. As Evelyn Waugh often remarked, most people feel they are ignorant of music, painting, and architecture, and therefore can be imposed upon. But they know how to read and write, and therefore the book is not a mystery. They follow their tastes. For three quarters of a century, the literary experts have been insisting that Ulysses is the greatest written work of the modern age, and that Finnegans Wake points to the future. But the public takes no notice, and James Joyce has had no successors. Traditional forms of writing predominate. Indeed, writing is too conservative. The 20th century is the first for over seven hundred years in which no new form of writing has emerged, unless you count the feeble attempts to apply the drama to broadcasting as a new form. So an explosion is overdue, and we can expect it early in the 21st century.
AFTER A VANISHING, A REAPPEARING?
It could be argued, in general, that forms of artistic expression in the 20th century, while superficially experimental, have been in reality deeply conservative in the models and materials used, and that is why they have so often descended into insulting parodies of traditional creations-what is Picasso, other than a man who spat in the face of Velasquez? And one reason that they are so conservative, at bottom, is that they are the servants and products of free-spending states, which believe that it is part of their public responsibilities to subsidize the arts. Whereas an individual patron, spending his own money like Federico da Montefeltro or Cosimo de Medici, may back innovation and genius, state spending by committees and bureaucrats or politicians merely reinforces existing patterns, especially those claiming novelty. Hence it does positive harm. No state in history has ever spent more on the arts per capita, in the years 1960-2000, than France. And what do we find? France now has no outstanding poets, novelists, or playwrights, no painters or sculptors of the slightest consequence, no architects worth employing and no front-rank composers. The immense fertility of the years 1910-50 has vanished as if it had never been.
One thing I predict with confidence is that early in the new millennium, state subsidy of the arts will largely disappear. And it will happen quite suddenly. There is a parallel here with government-to-government cash transfers to poor nations, which, from the 1950s to the early 1980s, were conducted on an enormous scale and seemed one of the fixed geopolitical facts of life. It took a long time for Western governments to realize that such aid had the sole result of keeping incompetent governments in power. But once the penny dropped, the practice ceased, and any assistance is now hardheaded and left to, or channeled through, the market. There will come a point, probably sooner rather than later, when we will decide that the arts too must be left to the market and the vagaries of individual taste. Then they will be free to flourish.