[James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, ca. 1875]
The opening stage direction of Beckett's Happy Days specifies that the backdrop behind Winnie, representing "unbroken plain and sky receding to meet in far distance," is a "very pompier trompe-l'oeil backcloth." Pompier? I muttered to myself like Krapp, then like Krapp scuttled off to the dictionary. Pompier is of course French for "fireman." L'art pompier, surely what Beckett means, is a derisive term for 19th-century academic art, salon art, art that puts a high premium on a certain notion of realism, and on a high degree of "finish." "Fireman's art."
John Ruskin saw Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold in June 1877 at The Grosvenor Gallery, & it so troubled him that he wrote about it in Fors Clavigera, the number dated 18 June:
I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.There followed one of the best-known dramas of art history: Whistler sued Ruskin for libel; Ruskin, when the case went to court the following year, was incapacitated, or he would have given some doubtlessly memorable speeches. His attorney, cross-examining Whistler, elicited the following memorable exchange:
Attorney: Can you tell me how long it took to knock off that Nocturne?Whistler: Two days.A: The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?W: No; I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.
As Tim Hilton points out in the second volume of his monumental John Ruskin, the "only aesthetic issue of the trial," it emerged, was that of artistic "finish," the degree to which the artist worked over the objects represented on the canvas, removing the marks of his own hand – the rough brushstrokes, the paint-spatters, the hasty blocking-in of colors fields – until the canvas became a "window" to a represented world. Ruskin's old associate the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones testified against Whistler, as the Times reported:
Mr Edward Burne-Jones said that he had been a painter for twenty years, and during the last two or three years his works ahd become known to the public. Complete finish ought to be the standard of painting, and artist ought not to fall short of what for ages had been acknowledged as essential to a perfect work. The "Nocturne" in blue and silver representing Battersea reach was a work of art, but very incomplete... Its merits lay only in colour. Neither in composition, nor in detail, nor in form had it any quality whatsoever...The trial's outcome was grim: the jury found for Whistler, but awarded him an ironical farthing of damages – and no costs. Ruskin's lawyer fees (£400) were paid by his many admirers; Whistler jauntily wore his farthing at the end of his watch-chain, but was bankrupted by his own legal fees.
Clearly Ruskin was on the wrong side of history on this one: the future would belong to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and so forth, & highly "finished" art – whether pre-Raphaelite or otherwise – would become the province of Socialist Realism and Norman Rockwell, both complex & highly interesting traditions universally poo-poo'd by art criticism.
But I still find myself fascinated by, even hankering for, high "finish" in artworks, even in artworks that are strictly speaking non-representational, "abstract." Not sure I buy the old epic narrative of abstract expressionism baring the souls, the psyches, the unconsciouses of its practitioners. Or that I'm interested in it. I'm interested in the evidences of painstaking craft, toil, reworking – even if that toil is paradoxically in the service of effacing itself & producing a "casual" surface. Maybe I have a kitsch streak: I prefer Puvis to Monet, Tom Phillips to Jackson Pollack.
Allen Ginbsberg: "First thought best thought."
Me, to workshop: "First thought (usually) crap."
My student Michael: "First thought lunch; second thought crap."
Just finished Tim Hilton's John Ruskin: The Later Years (Yale, 2000), an enormous brick of a book that just gets sadder & sadder as it nears its inevitable (it's a biography, after all) end.