Athorough or even virtuoso command of technique is not all there is to making good art. At times, as we can observe in music or film — forms in which no one doubts the importance of skill — it can even run the risk of being a distraction from the more important questions of meaning, insight and moral vision. Occasionally a great artist, such as Donatello, seems to be striving against his own facility, and in Chinese art too the value of a certain spontaneous awkwardness could be appreciated.
In the late 19th century, as the art academy reached its pre-modernist apogee, there was an overproduction of highly trained artists with little to say, and this duly led to a modernist reaction against the idea of systematic training. It is almost a cliche, and not always accurate, to repeat that the first generations of modernists nonetheless had the benefit of a thorough formal training, but it is certainly true that the best of them were highly skilled.
Monet’s training was patchy by the standards of his time, but his understanding of tone and colour was extraordinary, allowing him to make beautiful pictures where a less able painter would have produced banality or kitsch. Picasso’s classical training probably has been overstated, but it is true that the works of his analytic cubist period, for example, are the products of great skill and a capacity for highly refined formal and tonal discriminations.
The effect of modernism on art teaching, however, was ultimately disastrous, for it implied that technical training, and even skill, were superfluous. In Australia, we can see artists between the wars trying to find viable formulas for painting, between the fraying academic tradition, the rather bloodless and ultimately neo-academic rehashing of Cezanne or cubism, and pleasantly decorative but lightweight design. And then during the wars, our first real avant-garde, with Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and others, abandoned technique altogether in the quest for something like authenticity of expression.
These artists did succeed in producing some of the most memorable images of mid-century art in Australia. But the so-called Angry Penguins also made a great deal of remarkably bad art, without direction, rationale or any kind of consistency or quality control. And the consequence that we have seen in the following generations has been a tendency to poor training, low expectations in art schools and hundreds, if not thousands, of graduates unequipped with the competence to embark on any kind of sustained career as an artist.
Many artists have been reticent about acquiring skill or improving their technique, fearful that this might inhibit their creativity. In reality what greater skill does is expose weakness or absence of inspiration, which can be camouflaged to some extent by clumsiness or gimmickry. Art schools and teachers have an interest in promoting the idea that all their students are potential artists, when in reality only a few have the special combination of ability, inspiration, integrity and the capacity for hard work that such a career demands. So schools generally don’t encourage the rigour that would soon reveal the lack of these qualities.
But facing the truth about one’s level of ability is a prerequisite for improvement — a fact that would be blindingly obvious in a field like music — and it is this habitual and even institutionalised depreciation of skill that explains the failure of so many artists to develop. Time and again a young painter shows promise in early work, and then settles into formulaic repetition rather than taking the risk of growing into a better, deeper, more articulate artist. And the result is that the majority of paintings exhibited in commercial galleries are more or less vacuous self-pastiches, timidly clinging to sterile mannerisms that are mistaken for a personal style.
The prejudice against skill and application helps to explain the ambiguous place of Lloyd Rees in the history of Australian art. He doesn’t fit into any standard narrative, and especially not into the modernist myth according to which painting was supposed to pass through successive phases of liberation from servitude to the observation of the phenomenal world until it reached the end of art history with the solipsistic climax of flat abstraction. Lloyd Rees: Painting with Pencil Museum of Sydney. Until April 10 The Giant Fig Tree Balls Head