I’ve enjoyed reading the debate over this painting below that I posted here last week, and I’ve been very careful (though tempted) to wade in myself.
I haven’t, but I will now.
The painting was done by the Soviets’ leading figurative painter, showing Russian fighters defending the Soviet city of Sebastopol from Nazi invaders. The question I posed when posting it was: does heroic art like this supersede the politics it celebrates? In other words, is good art didactic, or something else?
While you’re considering that yourself, add this sculpture to your mix if you like, a piece of Soviet agit-prop called ‘A Cobblestone Is the Weapon of the Proletariat,’ which got no comment at all when I first posted it:
Or this piece of music (part one of three). It was said to be Hitler’s most-loved piece—by the composer most-played by the Nazis—and played over German radio the day of his death.
So does painting, sculpture and music such as this supersede the politics it celebrates (or in the latter case was used to celebrate)? Simon contends it can’t, especially (as he contends with the painting above) if the art was done by a slave to celebrate a slave state. He says, “Generally some knowledge of the subject matter is helpful in that you might understand the art better.” That’s true, it’s helpful – especially if there’s some obscure symbolism or something going on. But I agree with other commenters in saying with good art that while it’s helpful to know more, it’s certainly not essential.
Because a piece of art stands on its own. What we see with that sculpture above, for example, is primarily the theme of determined resistance. The young man’s brows are furrowed, his eyes focussed on his goal, his whole (slightly lumpen) being coiled into one super-human action. He could just as easily be resisting Czarist cossacks, Soviet tanks, British redcoats or Iranian militia – the key qua art is that he is resisting. And not without hope. In essence, the piece says that goal-directed resistance has power in our universe.
That’s a theme that transcends ideology, and even politics. (Compare it with the look in the eyes and face of the Michelangelo and Bernini Davids, however, two other examples that could be used here, to see a very different conception of where human goal-direction starts. Do you see it?)
Anyway, that in a nutshell is why good art transcends its politics—and why so much purely “didactic art” is so bad; why so much so-called didactic “art” is generally more the former than it is the latter. As Ayn Rand concludes:
Art is not the means to any didactic end. This is the difference between a work of art and a morality play or a propaganda poster. The greater a work of art, the more profoundly universal its theme. Art is not the means of literal transcription. This is the difference between a work of art and a news story or a photograph.”
A piece of art stands on its own. If it’s good art that expresses its theme superlatively (which is the job of every artist, no matter his theme) then it says to the observant viewer that this is what the artist sees as essential in the universe, as fundamentally “metaphysically” important—and it’s on that basis that you respond. Either with a “values swoon” (if you agree), or with loathing (if you don’t).
In this context, Painter Michael Newberry argues that the important point in understanding a painting, for example, is to grasp that “the canvas is the universe”:
In art criticism one should analyze the artwork without outside considerations. This means that the theme of a painting, for instance, should make its message clear without any prior knowledge of what the painting is about. We have to be like detectives and look for clues within the painting itself.”
For help in seeing what he means, and in detecting value judgements in paintings without any prior knowledge of the subject itself, you can’t go past Michael’s own excellent piece ‘Detecting Value Judgments in Painting,’ which is chock full of examples, and itself stands on its own as the best practical description of the skill that I’ve seen.