Painting Earns Its Stripes

Article excerpt

A question of some moment in Renaissance thought was whether sculpture was inferior, equal or superior to painting. The texts in which the issue was mooted were called paragone, in which the two arts were compared, usually to the detriment of sculpture. Sculpting was a dirty, noisy, earthy activity.

The sculptor was an artisan-think of the fact that sentencing someone to "hard labor" has meant condemning them to break rocks. The painter, by contrast, was an artist, and the subtext of the paragone is the social ascent of the painter, from the status of artisan to that of humanist scholar-a poet, say, or a philosopher. Painters sit while sculptors stand. Painters in their studios are elegantly garbed while sculptors are covered head to foot with stone dust. Seated before the easel, exerting no greater physical effort than is required to hold a small brush, the painter can listen to poets reciting sonnets, or scholars reading aloud from the classics, or singers and musicians filling the space with sweet harmonies. The spirit of the paragone is nowhere better expressed than in Jan Vermeer's The Art of Painting, recently on loan to the National Gallery in Washington, DC. An artist, shown from behind, is painting the Muse of History, using a female model. He is handsomely dressed in slashed velvet and wears a beret. The model, in a blue silk gown, is crowned with laurel, and she holds, together with a horn of polished brass, a copy of Thucydides. Light pours into the studio, illuminating a large ornamental map on the facing wall. Imagine what would happen to so rich a map-or to the opulent Oriental hangings-if they were in a sculptor's studio instead! The painter's costume, incidentally, belongs to an earlier century. So Vermeer situates the painter at the intersection of historical time and geographical space, since the place where he is painting is shown on the map. He is clearly a person of refinement and learning.

The history of art is full of paragone- style disputations: between craft and art, for example, or figuration and abstraction. But paragones also appear when the structure of society begins to give way, making it possible for a previously disfranchised group to move upward-or when an enfranchised group finds its status challenged, as with men by women today. In the Renaissance, sculptors more or less accepted the arguments from the other side and aspired to find modes of expression that emulated the condition of painting, using, for example, panels with very low relief rather than free-standing figures. At a certain point, at least in the history of art, the terms of the contest are altered so profoundly that the roles are actually reversed. In the present art world, for example, painting is very much on the defensive. And if there is anything to such reports from the front as Susan Faludi's, men have lost any sense of place or point by comparison with women, whose consciousness has been raised and their various superiorities celebrated. So men are uncertain whether to become more like women, as sculptors sought to emulate painters, or to find some elusive masculine essence.

The two paragones are in fact connected. Painting was challenged in the seventies, when increasing numbers of women undertook to become artists, and feminist theory began to characterize painting as something by and for white males, at the same time deconstructing the institutional structures that artificially supported male privilege. "Time was," Kant writes, "when metaphysics was entitled the Queen of all the sciences.... Now, however, the changed fashion of the time brings her only scorn; a matron outcast and forsaken." Until the seventies, painting had been Queen of all the arts for most of art's history. "No conflict in its history," Thomas McEvilly has written in The Exile's Return, "has been as severe as that of the last generation: painting's disgrace and exile, around 1965."

In my view, 1965 is a few years too early. …