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the best picture

Post #201 • January 28, 2004, 6:09 AM • 2 Comments

Aldous Huxley, The Best Picture (1938), regarding Piero della Francesca's Resurrection, 1463-65:

The greatest picture in the world.... You smile. The expression is ludicrous, of course. Nothing is more futile than the occupation of those connoisseurs who spend their time compiling first and second elevens of the world's best painters, eights and fours of musicians, fifteens of poets, all-star troupes of architects and so on. Nothing is so futile because there are a great many kinds of merit and an infinite variety of human beings. Is Fra Angelico a better artist than Rubens? Such questions, you insist, are meaningless. It is all a matter of taste. And up to a point this is true. But there does exist, none the less, an absolute standard of artistic merit. And it is a standard which is in the last resort a moral one. Whether a work of art is good or bad depends entirely on the quality of the character which expresses itself in the work. Not that all virtuous men are good artists, nor all artists conventionally virtuous. Longfellow was a bad poet, while Beethoven's dealings with his publishers were frankly dishonourable. But one can be dishonourable towards one's publishers and yet preserve the kind of virtue that is necessary to a good artist. That virtue is the virtue of integrity of honesty towards oneself. Bad art is of two sorts: that which is merely dull, stupid and incompetent, the negatively bad; and the positively bad, which is a lie and a sham. Very often the lie is so well told that almost every one is taken in by it - for a time. In the end, however, lies are always found out. Fashion changes, the public learns to look with a different focus and, where a little while ago it saw an admirable work which actually moved its emotions, it now sees a sham. In the history of the arts we find innumerable shams of this kind, once taken as genuine, now seen to be false. the very names of most of them are now forgotten. Still, a dim rumour that Ossian once was read, that Bulwer was thought a great novelist and Festus Bailey a mighty poet still faintly reverberates. Their conterparts are busily earning praise and money at the present day. I often wonder if I am one of them. It is impossible to know. For one can be an artistic swindler without meaning to cheat and in the teeth of the most ardent desire to be honest.

Sometimes the charlatan is also a first-rate man of genius and then you have such strange artists as Wagner and Bernini, who can turn what is false and theatrical into something almost sublime.

That it is difficult to tell the genuine from the sham is proved by the fact that enormous numbers of people have made mistakes and continue to make them. Genuineness, as I have said, always triumphs in the long run. But at any given moment the majority of people, if they do not actually prefer the sham to the real, at least like it as much, paying an indiscriminate homage to both.




January 29, 2004, 1:20 AM

Thanks for the excellent post, Franklin. Now if you could just make it mandatory for all artists to memorize it, preferably the minute they got into art school...



January 29, 2004, 3:39 AM

I wasn't aware Huxley was such an elevated being that he was capable of issuing such absolutist declarations without fear of contradiction. I must have missed that week of Sunday School.

Signor della Francesca may have saved Huxley some confusion had he written "Ceci n'est pas le Christ" across his painting to begin with (or as the case may be, "Cinon il Christ"). Huxley seems to be worshiping an ideal concept which can never exist, and denigrating a human practice which can never be perfect, despite its rare exceptional practitioners. I don't see the benefit of that.

But rather than trying to respond to Huxley directly, and saying something I'd almost certainly regret, I'll just quote something I read today on a blog maintained by an Iraqi citizen in Baghdad. Some may find it banal, but I have more sympathy for it than Huxley's ideological authoritarianism.

Ali Al-Wardi, an Iraqi scholar, once wrote "The truth never comes in one package. Truth is like a pyramid. Different people look at different sides of it and each one thinks his side is the ONLY truth and that the rest are wrong. They should look at the pyramid from above to see all sides and get the collective truth".

Or as a fellow engineer once said, "The good thing about standards is that there are so many of them." It was said in jest, but it's still true.

But why not quote Huxley himself, supposedly something he said in his final year: "It's a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'try to be a little kinder.'" I wonder what he might have written had he realized this twenty-five years earlier.



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