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Whistler or the… not so gentle art of making enemies

whistler arta

Sometimes, writers are accused by pragmatic people that they actually don’t do anything: just talk, write, comment things infinitely and solve nothing. Be it word, music or painting, they all serve what we call art and are defined by a certain immateriality. Where color and shape of a painting haven’t got enough impact on the aesthete’s eye, the word opens new horizons. James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) makes plenty use of it, simultaneously criticizing its role and influence in visual arts. He’d rather invoke musicality as a channel for expressing his pictures (that he often names “symphonies”, “harmonies”) instead of honestly accepting the fact that written / spoken metaphor is of a fundamental importance, in the end. At last, he will translate his works, using this accessible medium — the word — just for the sake of rehabilitating value for the painted images, which seemed quite “unpalatable” for the society and circumstances of that particular period. Thus, he turns to “literature” (contradicting himself!) and publishes “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”. This volume represents his trying to play critic and respond to coups given by professionals, authorities of the matter, whose comments he quotes and arranges in such a manner, so that they’d look like humbug. And what else should a reader make of them, looking at some statements lacked of a serious touch? “Glasgow Herald” describes him as “eminently vulgar”, F. Wedmore affirms that Whistler’s paintings are disgusting failures and so on… The painter combats the opinions of those who judge him (literally speaking!), but also explains his aesthetic goals. His approach of being at the same time artist and critic of his own works is one of great courage and avant-garde. Ultimately, who knows best what a creation means than the author himself? Like it or not (implication of words and other “strange” elements in art and aesthetics), Whistler doesn’t appear exactly persuaded that the right attitude is to “shut up and do it” (Goethe) and explains his “unfinished eccentricities” (“Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket”) as “abstractions which are not supposed to be correct representations of something, but symbols that everyone can interpret after their own imagination” (taking thus distance from his early naturalistic ways of painting!). Though he hesitated first in publishing “The Gentle Art…”, James Whistler must have sensed that his artistic fate depends onto displaying his beliefs and not to remain amiably silent. He didn’t accept being misunderstood by critics or that they should be the only ones offering an exclusive version of what his personal art meant. Objects, colors, sounds or gestures must eventually talk if there is any wish to surpass the phase of a mute mysticism. Pertinent or disputable still, Whistler’s affirmations amuse, annoy, justify in detail and sometimes appear as private revenges amongst the ones holding pens and brushes. Future was to confirm that even credible names in art and critic (as Ruskin) have made mistakes, too: true anonyms were venerated, while classics — underestimated, only time bringing the well-deserved resonance for their creations.

The final question builds up more of that whistlerian suspicion: how much of beauty analysis owes to human subjectivity and to reasons external of art? It is easy not to be accepted as a master from the beginning, as long as you put up dandy manners, willingly difficult, demanding, acidly — rebuffing behavior that chops off famous or less famous heads in trial courts and editorials.

The dedication of “The Gentle Art…” reveals encore une fois an uncompromising position of the artist towards his duties in art and the ones concerning informal public opinions: “To the rare few, who early in life, have rid themselves of the friendship of the Many”…

Gentle or not, the art of calling things as they are, might hurt some, but help those hunting for beauty and truth, no matter what cost and losses affect friendships and unanimous approval…

Copyright © Katiusha Cuculescu, 2004