Robert Atkins calls his new book ArtSpeak a “Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present,” citing 146 terms, such as Neo-Geo, Spatialism and Pathetic Art. The fact that such a book gets published tells the sad story of art in our time.
ArtSpeak brings to mind a small book about great art and what makes it great that the noted art critic Charlotte Willard penned in the ‘60s for children. Her view was that great art speaks to people separated from each other by continents and even centuries.
Willard went so far as to define great art, saying it is the fruit of the past with seeds of the future. One of her picks was the art of early 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner, who studied the work of 16th century painter Titian for color and spent months copying it to get the secret of his power.
Far ahead of his time, Willard made plain, Turner sensed that color was light and light was color and painted things never captured – formless things like wind, speed and mist. Turner, then, became an Impressionist before there was such thing. Nineteenth British art critic John Ruskin, extolling Turner’s work for its “truth to nature,” even believed that Turner was better than the Old Masters at capturing the natural world.
I mention Turner (Willard mentions several other greats) because the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has mounted 120 of Turner’s works focused on his preoccupation with the sea. The show is a kind of illustration of Willard’s point that great art bears the fruit of the past and the seeds of the future.
Most importantly, it speaks to people who talk different languages separated from each other by continents and even centuries – “artspeak” be damned.