Caravaggio and the Art of Convention…
Today the Wall Street Journal carried a half page article discussing Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter with a full-color reproduction (I’m just thankful they didn’t convert it to their Hedcut format). It isn’t every day that you flip through the WSJ and see a) somebody being crucified (upside-down no less), and b) an icon of western art.
It’s a great painting, I truly love it, and I will resist the temptation to start talking about it. The article itself was a mostly uninteresting paean to the power of art to inspire pity and compassion. What did intrigue me, though, was the author’s remarks about Caravaggio’s break with the traditional portrayal of this scene. Apparently, there was a fairly strict convention that always showed St. Peter after the cross had been lifted up in place, whereas this canvas shows the event unfolding; in the middle of the action. It caused a real stir, and it set me to thinking about the role of convention in today’s art.
Everybody knows that modern art is all about subverting paradigms, breaking traditions, and shattering conventions. Yeah Yeah Yeah, It’s all been done and novelty is an end in and of itself. The past has been wiped clean and there are no more standard iconographies to rebel against.
I’m not so sure. I wonder sometimes if many conventions aren’t even subconscious until somebody really bold comes along and shakes things up… then everybody realizes “Hey, yeah, we’ve been painting St. Peter already on the cross all along… how about that!”
The art world is fractured, but even so we all work in one stream or another, even if they are seemingly unrelated; Abstract Expressionists over there, Realists over here, Surrealists down there… etc. BUT… you don’t learn to paint like Jackson Pollack by looking exclusively at Lucian Freud, and vice versa. Each stream has it’s own set of traditions, values, and most likely, well… conventions. If you want to be a good Abstract Expressionist you’d damned well better be steeped in Jackson Pollack… and you WILL absorb some of his style.
I’m not asking the question because I’m looking for molds to shatter; I’m not interested in innovation for novelty’s sake… I think that’s the ultimate expression of intellectual and artistic bankruptcy. And I certainly don’t know the answer; I’m not clever enough by half. I guess I’m just asking the question… I know I’ll be having a closer look from now on.