REVIEW BY ADRIAN HEATHCOTE
In the heady rush of 80s Conceptualism the notion that Art was made — crafted — by Artists who were intimately familiar with the materials that they employed was dismissed as having no significance for what was truly essential: the Idea. Following suit, art education came to focus less and less on the elements of craft and more on what could be called the philosophy of art, often a jumble sale of pieces from various French Deconstructionists whose purpose was to create an artistic mind-set which was then meant to operate neutrally in whatever material context it found itself. To “get” the piece the viewer was asked to contemplate the idea and pay no attention to the often shabby, after-thought execution.
Iona Singh’s book wants to remind us that the materials matter; that how the work is made matters. However, it is not simply a reminder that art involves, or should involve, a superior artisanal expertise. Interwoven into this theme is a Marxist philosophical justification: Marxist materialism points us away from pure unhistorical Ideals and towards an aesthetic praxis. But Marxism as understood by Singh is meant to require a sensibility that incorporates poetry and feeling, a sensitivity of perception and emotional response. “I contest that alienation itself functions in the discipline of art history to generate a failure to incorporate a sensual physical aspect to the theory of art.” (p. 11)
So, the argument of this complex book, might be summed up using this unifying notion of alienation: modern society has become alienated from a direct understanding of the material nature of the art process, which is also an alienation from the sensual, feeling aspects of the art work itself. This has had an effect on artists as well as on art “consumers”.
The first chapter then is on Vermeer, in particular on his apprenticeship in handling raw pigments and building his work by laying down coloured grounds. As Singh notes, these coloured grounds have a subtle but determinative effect on the finished works. (Many people naively seem to think that light bounces off the surface of a painting before reaching the eye — not so, the light also penetrates through the semi-transparent surface and is differentially reflected from all of the ground layers; thus the colour and degree of transparency of these ground layers alter the surface appearance.) The Flemish School (or Schools) had mastered these effects in oil very early on and it is fully in evidence in the work of Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin. The guild system, operational in the Low Countries, was a very effective system for keeping and perfecting these secrets, and also for passing them along to the next generation, to the extent that they were still accessible to Vermeer two hundred years later.
Singh argues that the mysterious, or spiritual, quality that people find in Vermeer is the result of these guild techniques. She believes that critics have downplayed their importance in order to focus on an ill-defined ideational reading, which is more acceptable to middle class art consumers. There is “an attempt to assimilate the work into modern bourgeois ideology and aesthetics” by neglecting the artisanal qualities in favour of these more transcendent analyses. “To sanction one of the best examples of “high” civilization as the product of manual expertise and construction and not a lofty spiritual occurrence undermines the class that needs to promote the spirit over labor.” The point about the neglect of the physical process is well taken — though I’m not sure why one has to choose between it and an appreciation of Vermeer’s “spiritual” qualities.
Vermeer is followed by Yves Klein — or more accurately, by a very interesting discussion of the effects of natural and synthetic pigments on human perception.
Singh has curated a great deal of interesting information on the subtleties of human colour perception. She argues, convincingly, that there is a tight indissoluble relationship between the chemical characteristics of the pigment and the way the colour is perceived. Add to this the compounding effects of the binder and we have the basis for understanding why not all colours are created equal. Particularly, Singh argues, the development of synthetic dyes and pigments has had a negative effect on our relationship to a now highly coloured world. The industrialisation of synthetic pigments is held responsible for this — and of course the vast multi-nationals who control the process. Held up as a model against this we have Yves Klein, whose IKB shade of blue is meant to show synthetic colour done right — outside the petrochemical industrial complex. It is a thesis that only convinces so far: what is not mentioned by Singh is that the startling characteristics of Klein’s IKB paintings are due to the binder, which is PVA glue, readily available from any hardware store and by no means separate from that same industrial complex.
Chapter three is on Uccello and visual syntax. The thesis is that there is such a visual syntax present in the way colours play off against one another is subtle ways, through oppositions. Singh notes that Uccello’s idiosyncratic choice of binders for his colours and the way he deploys his ground makes for interesting visual effects. Fascinating, and the discussion made me want to know more.
By contrast, the chapter that follows made me want to know less. It is a Marxist view on Feminism and though the reader is left in no doubt of the author’s sincerity and engagement it says nothing at all about art and no attempt is made to link it up with the concerns of the book. Making that link would not have been too hard, I think, and I don’t know why the author decided not to do it. As it stands it forms an ideological interlude.
More interesting is the following chapter which offers a criticism of contemporary art. Part of this criticism is that artists are not fully utilising the materials of art to fully stimulate the senses. Thconversion of this criticism into a proposal for how things would be better if the petrochemical industrial complex were to step aside and let artists manage their own use of pigments is much harder to make out, however. One has visions of busloads of would-be artists chipping away at lapis lazuli mines in Afghanistan.
The ill-fittingness of the Marxism presented here is striking enough to make one pause and ask: what has gone wrong? Indeed it suggests a criticism of the entire Marxist project — a criticism that Marxists will not welcome, but then we have had a century to get used to their disinclination to self-reflection. Marx was essentially a conservative: he was looking back to the time when guilds ran the crafts and where artisans were self-employed, and, if sufficiently skilful, prosperous. A world of small towns, with skills and artisanal knowledge passed down from one generation to the next. This ideal world was broken up by industrialisation — and once broken up, lost forever. Confusing past with future, Marx projected a world running in reverse: where the self-ownership of the labour would be had after the revolution. It was a Renaissance world being passed off as a future utopia.
Singh I think has absorbed Marx’s rear-view vision and it is striking that her examples of art done right has come from a time before industrialisation took hold — which is also a time when Marxist critiques have no force. Vermeer, Uccello, even Turner are working at a time when they were the beneficiaries of a transmitted artisanal knowledge. Moreover they were successful, self-employed, in command of their own labour. Thus there is a huge jump in her analysis from Turner to Klein — missing out all of Modernism, roughly from 1860 to 1960. Which is precisely the time when artists were most sympathetic to Marxism — most notably among the Surrealists. But these artists are not Singh’s heroes and heroines. They don’t feature at all.
One can hang on to two points of agreement. Firstly, artists should take heed of Singh’s criticisms of their distance from an understanding of the physical-chemical properties of pigments and mediums. She writes here with force and clarity. Secondly, industrialisation has caused us to lose more of value than we could ever reckon. Whatever it pretends, with its supposed social-political pop-critiques, contemporary art is simply an investment opportunity for hedge fund managers. It is doing nothing. Singh leaves no doubt of her sincerity in offering her analysis and her wish for a revolutionary future. I see no possibility of any such revolution, or none that will leave us better off, but I like that there are writers like Singh who are prepared to hope for it. For that her book is well worth reading and should be given careful attention.
Some minor quibbles. In a list of materialists (p. 5) Abelard, Spinoza and Schopenhauer ought to be replaced by Hobbes and D’Alemebert, or Diderot. Descartes cannot seriously be blamed for capitalism (p. 133). Likewise similar claims about the British Empiricists — that Hobbes, Locke and Hume are the ‘product of the advanced growth of manufacturing in Britain’ — are wildly unhistorical (p. 134). Often when dyes are mentioned, indigo is left out; but it is far, far more important than the dyes that do get a mention. And lastly, for the publisher: readers want footnotes, not endnotes. Take note!
Singh has written a book in which there is an original, important core that requires serious consideration. Recommended.
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