Monday, May 22, 2006


Alcalá de Henares/Toledo.

The starving artist's dilemma.

Well, as I mentioned before, Madrid is not my favorite city, so at the earliest opportunity I found the excuse to daytrip away. :D

There are lots of UNESCO World-Heritage sites near the capital which I wanted to see, but since on Mondays most things are closed, best today to go somewhere where the important thing is the city, not the museums.

Ergo Alcalá de Henares, a sleepy little town with lots of schools (and no wonder, since a big part of its claim to fame is its university and several old colleges intimately tied to cloisters and monasteries, as well as the place of residence of some literary greats, like Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega), and cathedral chapels that are closed/boarded up but are painted a la "trompe l'oeil" to give the visitor an idea of what they (should) look like inside. But other than the fact that it has some mildly interesting history (or rather, more precisely, other than the fact that it happened to be where some famous people lived at for a while) I cannot really see why this place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is not even quaint. {shrug}. So I ran away as soon as possible (it is a tiny town, 2 hours is plenty of time to see it) and headed up to Toledo instead.

Aaaah, Toledo. Now this is a beautiful town. Should've started from this one, I ended up regretting a bit arriving there in late-afternoon. The Cathedral is absolutely beautiful, there is very fine stuff in the treasure, among them a super-elaborate custodia and a Bible of San Luis, of which only 1000 copies were ever made, and is an exquisite illuminated manuscript kept in pristine condition.

Here too, I saw some paintings ("El Apostolado") by El Greco that I was, again, absolutely certain I had seen somewhere in Oviedo before, and possibly too, even, at the Museo del Prado just yesterday (I wasn't quite sure of this last one since I'm not a big fan of El Greco and therefore the rooms dedicated to him at the museum received my very perfunctory visit). What? Did he make the copies, or is my memory serving me wrong, or are the tourists, again, being fooled? This bugs me. A lot.

Turns out, there are 4 copies of "El Apostolado" lying around. One, at the Cathedral in Oviedo (I was right!), one at the Museo del Prado (right again!), and two in Toledo, one at the Cathedral sacristy, where I noticed them for the third time, and another, at the El Greco museum just two corners down the street (as it turns out, there also seems to be 2 more sets, but these sets are incomplete--the full Apostolado is, of course, a set of 13 paintings). Now, the reason this bugs me (and the fact that the viewer is not told about the copies immediately) is not, so much, because of the far too prevalent spread of disinformation (something I've never tolerated with much benevolence), in places where one seeks to acquire some (one would hope, quality) knowledge (one just needs to take a look at the tourist groups--the ones coming in scholastic tours in particular, to see that the acquisition of knowledge is not really a major concern for most tourists, in spite of all the cameras and brochure-thumping and guidebook reading that occurs, quite pretentiously, I think, or is even done without in the case of young pre-pubescent kids who are more interested in scandalizing their contemporaries by pointing out to each other the anatomical [in]accuracies of greek sculptures). No, what happens, you see, is that the fact that a work as famous as this one turns out to be only one of four (or six, actually) sticks a very sharp thorn into one of my favorite "trigger topics".

Every interesting person, you see, has at least one or two of what I call "trigger topics". These are concepts, questions, or ideas that such a person has taken some time to think about and develop, and has subjected the premises, reasoning and conclusions to some sort of testing, or at any rate tries to subject them to testing (via conversation, in most cases, or texts read, or things seen, or whateverhaveyou) as often as possible, perhaps because the topic is fun to discuss, or because it is provocative, or because it needs to be disproved, or because it is important to the person in some way or another. These topics, too, always have a brief magic sequence of words that start an unstoppable deluge of thoughts. I have a friend, for instance, with whom you only need to stand in front of, then look at him in the eye, and with an as straight a face as you can muster say to him: "Capitalism sucks." Then brace yourself for the barrage of forceful discourse that will follow, extolling the virtues (no, that doesn't do him justice, he would not agree with this choice of word...."the simply common sense, logical and obvious benefits") of such an economic system, complete with a sophisticated arsenal of historical examples and accurate statistics supporting his virulent denunciation of other (paraphrasing, "appaling in their absurdity") systems and their implementations that can very easily go on for two hours or more. Do the same thing with a family member of mine, substituting the words "There is no God," and, if you're feeling particularly mischievous, do so right after Sunday mass for added effect. And while my family member's discourse style is milder, perhaps a bit more benevolent, even, than my friend's, what they both have in common is the messianic nature of the conversation, and the fact that the topic will be explored, once started, throughout its most recondite corners until it is either exhausted (and how can this topic ever be, for instance, when it has occupied the greatest minds of civilization for many many centuries?), or you are. :). But you see, the point is, what is fascinating, what is so enthralling and the reason to ever purposely seek to trigger these kinds of responses in the interesting people you know is not, of course, to irritate or provoke an argument (though there may be some of that too, surely, especially if you're deliberately acting obtuse or playing devil's advocate in order to curb the hypnotic oratory and create a space to iron out possibly weak details or links in chains of reasoning), but because in such people, it is clear that they have taken a good deal of time to think about the views they expound, their examples and evidence are well informed, and their conclusions solidly supported by their observations and experience. You may or may not agree with their axioms (for they may or may not fit well with your own experience), but there is no doubt that their conclusions follow impeccably from these axioms, that what they say is intelligent, complete, well-reasoned and considered globally in all of its ramifications, and what's more, there is most of the time, even when you do not agree, a lot of things in there that you may not have thought of before, that make you see things a little differently (in a richer way, always), in the end.

Anyway, such is, for me, the trigger topic: "What is art?". (Oh, and by the way, interesting things happen when those three trigger topics intersect. For instance, if you're ever at a loss for exciting dinner party entertainment, ask each one of us in turn, respectively, whether artistic pursuits should ever be state-funded, what role God plays in artistic inspiration, and which of these, if at all, best serves art's purpose, if any. Then sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the fireworks. Long-lasting entertainment guaranteed. But back to the main story...). As explained before, I can (and have, in the past) go on for pages on this one, so I'll spare you, and say simply that the reason El Greco's four (or six) copies annoyed me so much is because, according to my way of thinking, art should be "non-reproducible".

But what about photography, you say? Or lithographs? Or movies, that can get played at will? Are they not art? Yes, sure, what I meant by non-reproducible is, "the creative process should be non-reproducible" (and that is why copies of art are not "art", even if made by the same artist. The creative process that inspired and engendered the first work is no longer present in the copies). And here of course I open a tree of conversation thread possibilities that is part of the reason I could go on for hours, and it is the whole question of what do I mean by "creative process". T.S. Eliot hints a little bit (albeit rather faintly) about this in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (he also says some other things about the nature of art in there that, even though I do not exactly agree with, are nevertheless quite interesting, which is why I point you to the article), and without going too far into it, with my explanations of why I think this way or that way and not another, let me just summarize that art, in my opinion, needs to have (or show evidence of) a creative process that has an intent (an intent to create something beautiful), a purpose (art has a purpose and a "reason for", it does not stand by itself for its own sake!), good execution (the expression of art has a set of conventions, a "form", that needs to be perfected through much study--art is elitist!), and a little seed, a "spark", if you will, of "talent" (and again what I mean by "talent" is in itself its own little conversational detour). There is more, of course, many more particulars and conditions and criteria (I only gave you four--there are more), which would include things like why I consider Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" "art", but not Shostakovich´s orchestration of the "Tea for Two", and why, to the chagrin of my aforementioned unapologetically capitalistic friend, I think "art" cannot be used as a means to feed yourself, for in selling it (or, more precisely, in creating it with the specific purpose to make money, "productizing" it, if you will), it no longer is "art".

Which brings us back to El Greco. According to the curator at the Cathedral of Toledo, El Greco made so many copies of his work because he was starving (he died quite poor), basically, and by selling more copies of a successful work he would make more money. Whether this conjecture is true or not I don't know (I have found several curators already that rather than admit they don't know something they will happily invent things or give you their own, not always well-informed, theories), but assuming it is then do you see the irony here? One unique copy, and it would be invaluable. Six of them, and it cheapens, no, it destroys everything. One unique copy, and you die of starvation. Six of them, you feed yourself a little longer, but starve humanity for posterity.

Tragic, isn't it?

5 comments:

Carlos said...

Well and therefore your answer for the half-completed works: in creating a half-copy you don't recreate the original to its fullness -- but copying to halfness does, in a sense, preserve originality (both of the original and the copy). Oh and how the tragedy is greatly resolved! For isn't it true that half copies sell anyway, by virtue of fame alone, as if facilitating the food of the day, where the original is kept as priceless? (I wonder whether the "full" copies do not contain a flaw as if to dissociate from the original? If I were an artist, and observant of your axioms of art, wouldn't I alter the copies, introducing an extra dense brushstroke here, an extra pine-leaf there, in such away as to make such "imperfect", that only one original exist? I may be mistaken, but didn't DaVinci do something like?)

Carlos said...

The quandary that you pose can be resolved yet another way, I think, by defining the artist's "masterpiece" as that set composed of the "original" together with the "copies," and not treating each as singly different. In such a manner, El Greco paints his Apostolado but which is not whole until all "copies" done by him are finished. Such idea suggests a problem of very different nature, which is this: if all paintings are (collectively) the "masterpiece," why is it (the masterpiece) fragmented, placed a distance apart, as opposed to together in a single gallery?

Elisa said...

Good points, what you say about including the copies collectively as part, in itself, of the work of art, especially. But I still claim that the copies, even if purposely made "imperfect" (which is what I'm guessing you mean by "half-copy"), do not have the things that make a creative process a creative process. They are inspired in something that has already been inspired in something else, they exist, because something else was created first to express or try to say something. As such, I claim, they are therefore useless, since they don't tell us anything new (unless in altering the copy you are purposely making a type of statement. But this is hardly done with a simple change of brushstroke, or by mistake. If the copy is to say something, mean something, be "art", in other words, it needs to have an "intent" to say something, I claim, not an "intent" to simply reproduce/recreate something that has already been done before). Why would I ever want to have a copy, when I can have the original? And if the copy is made imperfect on purpose, then where is the other element, "execution" (i.e. the intention to make things good, not intent to make things flawed on purpose), that I claim real art requires?

Both Monet and Liechtenstein have sets of paintings that are of the same thing (I'm speaking of their paintings of Rouen Cathedral), and they are "imperfect copies" since each of the paintings in the set is a variation on the theme of the Cathedral and, while each painting looks similar to the other ones in the series, it has its very marked differences. But, again, the works, the variations, are not inspired on themselves, or previous editions of themselves, like a copy would be. Each of them, with its variations, is always inspired in the original substance: the Cathedral. Not paintings of the Cathedral.

*That* is what matters. That, what makes the difference.

Torsten said...

Your aforementioned capitalistic friend is actually not chagrined by the assertion that art cannot be used as a means to feed yourself.
He is chagrined by the financing of art by taxes doled out by a government body..any other means of financing art is fine with him...for example, you getting together with some friends and deciding to finance one or several artists deemed worthy, with your own money.
Just thought I had to correct that :-)
Hope you will find more "true" art that will inspire you!

Elisa said...

;)