The bottom line
We are obsessed by contemporary art. But are we being sold something that isn't there? It is fast, a
My new TV series about the Old Masters aims to redress the balance of power in the art world today. A new popular audience is obsessed by contemporary art. But I think they are being sold something that isn't really there: an all-in package of spirituality, depth and profundity. I am afraid the official institutions of contemporary art are just lying about this stuff.
Contemporary art is fast, amusing, brittle, entertaining. I like it. But I see it for what it is. Its visual level - the level of visual pleasure - is low. Its ideas level is high. Not that the ideas are highbrow - they're not - but there are very many of them. If you want the deep stuff, you've got to go to the past. And if you do that, you'll have a better perspective from which to evaluate the present.
Time, in the series, is always warped, the past folded in with the present: otherwise, why bother? The art of the past isn't good because of nostalgia, but because we're still sufficiently connected to those people to be moved by their expression of what it's like to be alive. The first episode looks at the culture of Titian, which wasn't mapped out in the way culture is mapped out now. No one had heard of museums. Titian's clients, in Venice and throughout Europe, bought his paintings to put in their own special power places: private chapels, churches, government offices and the palaces of merchants.
We're not the same as this audience. They were educated aristocrats and there were very few of them. There are millions of us. We expect democratic values and we don't expect a lot of kowtowing to social hierarchy. And connected to that, we don't expect to encounter a hierarchy of pleasure in art. We want it all to come at the same level. In addition, we want it all at once. And not for too long, because we want to get on with other things, such as watching TV and going to Tate Modern.
I think that some of this might be a mistake. In any case, we experience Venetian art now from a tourist point of view, a bit randomly, on holiday, on visits to museums and chapels. One way of getting more serious about art is to read about it. But even this is fraught. With books about the Old Masters, you tend to find the same old phrases, the same cluster-shapes of facts and dates and terms, which can often seem incredibly distanced from anything real. The writing lacks urgency. (In writing on contemporary art, you find the same automatic drone, just dressed in modern clothing. Thus "His depiction of the sumptuous brocades, damasks and silks is faultless . . ." becomes "She is very subversive . . .")
Even with relatively lively and alert art writing on the Old Masters, the writer is not conveying an established, immutable reality, which he has been clear sighted enough to comprehend, but merely a few facts, a few rephrased ideas, with a little bit of imagination. The point of getting through all this literature - don't get me wrong, much of it is quite enjoyable - is to acquire tools to help us find our way. En route, as well as struggle and effort, we've got to accept uncertainty - it's positive uncertainty, though. It's the freedom to think for ourselves.
Why is Rubens, say, good? Naturally, there is no single answer: it's a matter of entering a world of ideas that includes Rubens. Now there is something very distancing about Rubens. He doesn't offer us any of the smouldering enigmatic moodiness that we enjoy in Rembrandt and Velazquez, and to some extent Titian. In his art, Rubens is much more frankly an actor than those artists: he's an old stager, not an existential sincerist, and not remotely eccentric. He's all persona, no inner self. He doesn't have that hook of quirky individuality that a modern audience likes in its favourite art figures. He never did anything rash, never drank, womanised or broke the law. He was religious, he went to Mass every day. He designed his house in Antwerp to be a constant reminder of the greatness of the past, a shrine to ancient wisdom. He had ancient history read to him (in the original Latin) as he worked.
And the art itself is frequently vast, and there's loads of it: he painted more than 3,000 pictures. In one series in the Louvre, in which all the paintings show scenes from the life of the French queen mother in an outrageously sentimentalised, unreal way, every one of the 24 paintings is 13ft high. We look up and there are a lot of big-arsed goddesses in the sea, a lot of curtsying, trumpeting and larger-than-life swooning. Clearly, this isn't today's idea either of art or the ideal bottom shape.
Rubens was an international diplomat as well as an artist. He painted propaganda for the Church and for royalty. He owned castles. He was knighted three times by different world leaders. His most famous diplomatic mission was in 1629, when he travelled into what would have seemed to him, as a southern Netherlandic subject of Catholic Spain, to be the heart of the evil empire, England. And after nine months of tortuous wrangling with the English king, he managed to secure an agreement between England and Spain for world peace. As part of his mission, he painted Allegory for Peace for Charles I, showing Peace vanquishing War, and happy Civilisation reigning. There aren't many artists who wanted peace, not war, and who actually got it, even if it only lasted a few years. The equivalent today would be Antony Gormley's Angel of the North having a meaningful influence in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The key to Rubens is something that is before our eyes when we're looking at his work, but which we're not necessarily aware that we're seeing. It's not fat, sentimental nudity. We're not interested in that any more. And if we are interested in royalty, it's not because we believe the royals' power comes from heaven, but because we suspect that they don't deserve power at all and we want to see them cut down to size. Old mythological stories are of no interest to us, either, unless they've been recycled by Hollywood into science-fiction movies. Fatties, royals and mythology - they're all dead to us. But there is something we do always want which Rubens supplies, and that's pleasure. The form for it is painting itself, its capacity to be a language of pure feeling.
Imagine you're in the Prado now, in front of Rubens's The Three Graces: three life-size nude women. Now I'm going to tell you something about those outrageously big bottoms that I hope will simultaneously illuminate them and make them disappear. The pleasure isn't in what you think is before you: an artificial, distant and slightly tedious scene. You recognise what the painting is of, but you don't realise that it is also doing something mysterious. You believe in the illusion so much that you don't see that it's constructed out of melting paint. Focus on this. This is the bit that's for you. It's the bit that's still alive, that's connected to Rubens's own nervous system. What he felt as he painted those brush strokes is the feeling that you're now having: he wanted pleasure and so do you. And now you're both getting it.
Matt's Old Masters, a four-part series, begins on 23 November (8pm, Channel 4). The accompanying book is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20)