The joy of painting and the decline of the West

Blog by Robin Holtom
Henri Matisse, CC BY-SA 4.0. via Wikimedia Commons

'Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world' - Shelley

Suppose that Shelley is right and poetic sensibility (and by extension) artistic sensibility really does create the underpinning of decisions by the legislature. If so, a country with a taste for good poetry and art will make good laws. It also follows that bad poets and bad artists lay the foundations for bad laws.

The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross is a salutary lesson in this process.

For those who are not familiar with it, this is a TV series made in the 1980s supposedly to help ordinary people learn to paint pictures. In the series, Bob Ross teaches facile tricks of how to paint very unimaginative landscapes or blandscapes.

Much of the work is done with a palette knife and colours are invariably blended on the canvas rather than mixed on a palette. The audience are invited to copy what he does at home. There is never a suggestion that the landscapes should include observation from nature or indeed observation from work by any other artist.

Since Bob Ross never draws a figure or an animal in his pictures presumably he does not know how to draw such complex subjects. He continually reminds his audience that painting is very easy. He never makes mistakes. He finishes his lesson by saying 'God bless you.'

Why does it matter that an American made his reputation – and a lot of money, of course – from this quackery? Why is it rather shocking that BBC4 should repeat this programme for many weeks on end in 2020? Even as a cheap early evening broadcasting slot during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Surely it is a good thing that people try and do something with their hands? Perhaps Ross does encourage people to take up painting even if very badly.

Why does this disturb me so much? Perhaps I am just another artist whingeing about someone who made more money from art than me – especially an American?

The idea that there is a formula that can be followed mechanically for painting does suggest to me that the blind really can lead the blind. Not even the most hard-line Soviet Social Realist would suggest this as a teaching method.

Why were the programmes so appealing to a large number of people? Is it because Ross makes a difficult art look easy and makes it appear to need no real effort or thoughtful reflection? The painting is made in half an hour or so. The subject is more or less the same each time. Clouds, mountains, a river, trees.… Why do people not get bored to death?

The price of this kind of sleight of hand is very high. It obstructs any curiosity and spontaneity in the students – and these are the essentials of real creativity. This kind of programme creates an outlook of complacency and indifference to real observation. It encourages the idea that instant gratification is identical with creativity. It amounts, I believe, to selling one’s birthright for a mess of potage.

Of course, Matisse deliberately tried to make his painting look effortless – but, when you look into it, his work involves years of hard work. And, while a Matisse is distinctively by Matisse, no two pictures involve exactly the same procedures. The difference between Bob Ross and Matisse is that Matisse encourages exploration, change of mind, discomfort, anxiety even. The painting opens doors. Bob Ross and his kind slam shut those doors to inner exploration of any kind and leave us anaesthetised by easy superficial effects.

Mass media in themselves contribute to this fraudulent overconfidence. They work quickly and easily. We can meet people on Zoom from the other side of the planet in 'real' time. Events are broadcast on YouTube instantaneously. But we have yet to reconcile the mythical powers of modern media with our own pedestrian thought processes and cramped aspirations. We live in an extraordinary global village but it remains a parochial place with narrow, venal horizons.

Bob Ross is just one cause of this narrowing consciousness. My dispute of course is not with him personally but the values he unconsciously expressed.

It is the same trend that enables a student to pass high-level exams by copying and pasting from the internet – adding impressive reading lists and appearing well-educated while unaware of the vast areas of their ignorance. Such students rarely have a genuine breadth of vision so that ‘universities’ have become ‘diversities’, offering narrow, over-specialised, technical training with a garnish of academic respectability. These diversities seduce us into a never-never-land of perpetual adolescent omniscience.

Politicians exploit this ignorance. It is really ignorance of ignorance.

A vivid example of our spectacular historical ignorance emerged when right-wing extremists made Nazi salutes in support of Churchill during a demonstration against racism in Parliament Square in London.

If a person has not developed at least some habit of thinking for him- or herself, it becomes very difficult to distinguish bitter truths from the politician’s appealing lies. In such intellectually impoverished conditions, Boris Johnson, who is the 20th British prime minister to have been educated at Eton, can somehow persuade a majority of people that his interests are their interests and he is a man of the people.

The politics of sound bites and Twitter and such simplistic dualities – which have undermined our traditional political conversation – do need to be replaced with a refreshed politics of sensibility.

Because art involves a different sense of time – whether one calls this 'eternity' or simply a richer sense of historical context – it to some extent withdraws itself from everyday routine. It requires standing back. It creates a shock to enable a different attitude to the everyday. It is often ambiguous and requires a long view of things. It takes time to make and time to enjoy fully.

Art requires a measure of introspection and self-questioning which is an antidote to the current rush to superficial certainties and quick judgements. Scientific or religious dogmas slide away in the presence of good art. It is not a subject for logical disputing. As Blake said: 'I will not reason and compare. My business is to create.'

Perhaps the most important achievement of good art is that it presents a hard-won direct experience of TRUTH. The truths available from the arts are of a different quality and intensity to the truths of news bulletins. They defy any suggestion of 'fake news' because they are not really news at all. They owe their impact to the fact they are really very old, universal truths rediscovered and vividly expressed, refreshed and re-embodied in a new form. This is how the arts reveal their traditional, redeeming, prophetic powers.

Topics: Culture