Commentary by Michael Taube
The Interim

On June 20, three paintings sold for a combined $32,000 at London’s Bonhams auction house – an astonishing 20 times more than the original estimated value. Interest in these paintings far outpaced an Auguste Renoir sculpture, which was withdrawn due to a lack of bidding interest.

Who was the painter that was all the rage at Bonhams that day? A chimpanzee named Congo.

In the late 1950s, Congo created a series of abstract paintings that attracted international attention. Famous artists such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro had Congo originals in their collections. And Salvador Dali once remarked, “The hand of the chimpanzee is quasi-human; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal!”

How fascinating. Well, the hand of this writer just slapped his forehead and he’s still shaking it now.

To be fair, Congo is not a unique example.  There are some zoos and organizations that exhibit paintings by elephants, and sell them for $350-700 on average. And if there is a market for this type of art, people naturally have the right to profit from it.

Yet, this isn’t a question of dollars and cents. It’s a question of taste and standards.

Sure, we’ve heard the old saying “art is in the eye of the beholder” more times than we care to admit. We’ve heard countless tales about artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec not being fully appreciated until after their deaths. And we’ve seen everything from a pornographic image of the Virgin Mary to cans of excrement, aborted babies to a crucifix submerged in urine, put on display at supposedly reputable art galleries.

But this isn’t an attack on French Impressionism (which I like for the most part) or a critique of modern art (which I can’t stand for the most part).  Rather, my true concern is the increasing lack of interest in the great painters and sculptors, the Old Masters. For it is this drop in interest in traditional art that may partially help explain why modern art has developed into a type of anarchistic freedom of expression.

As Paul Johnson wrote in Art: A New History, “Art is fundamentally about order, whether the canonical or the new currently has the upper hand. We must always look for the underlying order which runs beneath the surface of the battle, to see that it is healthy and intact, and strong enough to sustain the dynamics of change. For once art loses its fundamental order, it becomes disorderly and therefore ceases to sustain a moral society and may, in fact, become a menace to our happiness.”

It’s true. To understand art and fully appreciate it, you must go back to the roots of European society. You have to study the Baroque and Renaissance periods, where paintings and sculptures were often commissioned by kings and queens. You have to examine the glory of religious paintings and architecture to see how art, perspective and the natural order developed.

Furthermore, Thomas Craven wrote in Men of Art that the modern painter is “ignorant and ineffectual.” As he explains, a modern painter “refuses to accommodate himself to the intensely stimulating materials of an industrial age, ineffectual because his isolation binds him to a narrow aestheticism that scarcely touches reality.”

Therein lays a major problem with art today: what modern artists regard as reality is nothing more than figments of their imagination. And since we can’t read minds, many of us struggle to figure out why modern art should be called just that, art.

It’s easy to say a bunch of squiggly lines represents an oppressed society, and even easier to find art critics who’ll chime in with their support. But if you can’t interpret these squiggly lines as a real image, it’s virtually impossible to appreciate it. If anything, it leaves you wondering why you wasted good money on the admission fee to the museum or gallery.

But when you look at the Old Masters, you understand what their paintings are about and marvel at their glory. Consider El Greco’s religious themes, Diego Velazquez’s creations of Spanish rulers, Michelangelo’s statues, Rembrandt van Rijn’s portraits, and Johannes Vermeer’s beautiful interpretations of Dutch society. There was an order in their society, and they painted life as realistically as they could (or, in some cases, were allowed to).

Some modern artists, including Impressionist painters and Canada’s Group of Seven, understood this principle. The vast majority of modern artists, however, believe the Old Masters presented an archaic, old-fashioned view of society.

Many modern artists openly attack religious institutions and societal norms, feeling it is their right – some believe even a duty – to be society’s critics. They waste taxpayer money earmarked for the arts and create avant garde art exhibits that children shouldn’t be allowed to attend.

Art is the glue that helps hold the fabric of society together. So, it makes sense that our moral values and societal standards are sort of following the same radical and rebellious patterns as modern art.

With attendance going up in modern art galleries and museums, and going down in traditional institutions, this pattern is not about to change. If anything, it will probably get worse with time.

Michael Taube, an occasional contributor toThe Interim, is a freelance columnist for theToronto Sun.