The essence of an artwork
Certain works of art present themselves to us by means of an “effect”, which is important to distinguish from the work in its essence. For Joukhadar, a good music lover, for example, should be able to recognize and appreciate the value of a piece whether it is interpreted by a soloist, a small ensemble, or even by a symphonic orchestra. He recounts one of his experiences:
“I had my friends listen to Orpheus, Liszt’s wonderful symphonic poem, remarkably transcribed by Saint-Saëns for violin, cello and piano trio. It was only by listening to the orchestral version that they appreciated the beauty of the melody, the message, the beauty of the chords and the harmony, whose essence was nevertheless better reflected in the trio version. Subjectivity plays an obvious part here. It is true that orchestration is an art, but the music itself exists in its beauty, even if it is expressed in a more simple form or by means of only one instrument. The trio version made it possible to appreciate much more directly the beauty of certain chords. My friends could not enjoy the music in its pure state; the effect of the music interfered with their appreciation.”
Of course one can appreciate orchestration as an instrument to transcribe the potential of a composition, its essence, but one must not confuse the two. One may be deceived by the resounding effect of an orchestra in a symphonic work that is pompous but poor in substance. It is necessary to be conscious of the work in its original state, such as it would be if transcribed for a single instrument.
For Joukhadar, an exceptional illustration of this was created by Liszt who allowed us to enjoy the same work in several forms. Moreover, it was interpreted by Liszt himself: he took up the Cradle song for piano in his symphonic poem From the Cradle to the Grave, as well as his Angelus for piano, which was taken up in a string ensemble and also for large organs. The same is true for the version of Orpheus for organs, by Liszt: “it is sufficient to simply not be distracted by the organ and to concentrate on the essence of the music.” Joukhadar thus regrets that many works pass unnoticed in spite of the very great beauty they contain.
It is thus imperative to learn to distinguish the essence of a work of art from the effect; it is indeed the essence that should be the object of our appreciation.
The place of exhibition
The prestige of the place of exhibition (museums, galleries, etc.) is another element that disturbs the appreciation of the value of a work. For Joukhadar, it is disquieting that certain works would pass unnoticed in an ordinary setting. The first exhibitions of urban graffiti surprised the public, who until then looked with an eye of disapproval at this urban invasion of stencil painting and compared it to vandalism.
As loyal customers of an establishment that would have us accustomed to products of prestige and quality, would we be captivated by any new offering, losing all discernment even before a commodity of little value? Our conditioning to give absolute confidence to museums dates from their origin at the beginning of the 19th century. In fact, the collections originally exhibited were exceptional works selected by princes and monarchs with immense financial resources and advised by knowledgeable and faithful connoisseurs. At the time when photography did not exist, the public’s emotion was undoubtedly extreme in the face of the joy and privilege of seeing such marvels. Having belonged to monarchs, these masterpieces, exhibited in palaces, surely had an almost religious influence. The prestige of these institutions and of what they displayed has even manifested in current language, in expressions such as “museum piece” to express the rarity and the exceptional quality of an object.
After the Revolution, the Louvre was transformed from royal residence to a public institution that submits its masterpieces to the multitude. Its first visitors were not yet under the yoke of an incessant media hype to promote an artist, school, or trend. They came to be instructed, to be inspired, to be filled by the grandeur of the masterpieces. There was a certain harmony between curators, works and the public. There were, of course, fashions but no cacophony, no immense gap in the estimation of a work and artistic sensibility. There was not really a brilliant artist totally misunderstood or a trend under- or overrated, but rather fashions that passed and masterpieces that lasted. This is undoubtedly due to the closed and narrow circle between artists and sponsors. Rembrandt, Greco and Goya could cause a certain difference in perception, but not really a misunderstanding. Their work, up to the middle of their careers, was part of the artistic trend of their time. Tired of tinkering with their paintings, they began to neglect certain details and rules of form in favour of the essence. Their approach was not really revolutionary, but was not to the taste of the time which considered that one could work on the essence while taking care of the appearance.
Joukhadar observes that the cacophony begins with the birth of conservatories and schools of fine arts and their competitions, such as the Prix de Rome, with the salons and especially the press. It was in the nineteenth century, with the appearance of a large number of participants who exert their influence on the artist as well as on the public, that we see the emergence of profound dissonances between institutions, artists and the public. Today this is the rule, especially with regard to contemporary art.
The uninterrupted flow of objects enriching the old collections has generated a succession of museums and specialized events, without undermining the prestige and influence of the museums.
Joukhadar invites anyone who wants to build an artistic sensibility that is honest and accurate, to worry about this interference and this influence on his lucidity. To free our eyes, it is important to ask ourselves a legitimate question: what would have been the fate of contemporary works if the institutions into which they have infiltrated did not exist? Would they have even existed? We must not forget that it is these same institutions which have destroyed immense artists such as van Gogh, as it is true that no one wanted his works during his lifetime.
It is vital, in any approach to true artistic analysis, to avoid the temptation to overestimate a work because of the institution which exposes it, and especially to avoid the serious mistake of underestimating a work solely because it is outside this institutional yoke.
The signature of the artist
The fair evaluation of the artistic quality of a work is also obviously hindered by the influence of the artist’s signature. If, as a result of restoration or laboratory analysis, a painting previously considered as belonging to a particular school, or as an anonymous variant, proves to be genuine by the hand of one of the greatest masters, we suddenly see it propelled to the centre of all interests. It is legitimate to question the process that has transformed our perspective and relationship to the work. Why is the same picture seen by thousands of visitors for decades and only given the benefit of an absent-minded look, suddenly worthy of the greatest interest? Was the work misunderstood and underestimated, or is it now overestimated?