Someone recently wrote:

"It's hard to know what paintings are for anymore.... Why do people buy this stuff, and who is buying this stuff?... If it is possible to be Chardin, what does it mean to be Chardin in 2002 with the infinite circus out there?"

And a lot more like that. Fair enough. But it's easier to start at the beginning. Instead of what it means to be Chardin in 2002, and then what it means to be David Hockney in 2002, let's ask what it meant to be Chardin in 17-whatever, or what it meant to be Fragonard in 17-whatever.

If you'll forgive the language, what is art for? We can't figure out if David Hockney's paintings serve their purpose until we figure out what their purpose is.

Let's start with something T. S. Eliot said about poetry. He has many advantages over me in discussing questions like this. Among others, he's famous and dead, so you won't have the nerve to argue with him. "Poetry has to give pleasure." So art has something to do with pleasure. Which means, I suppose, that it has something to do with beauty, which is the name we give to that which produces that kind of pleasure, a certain mixture of sensual, emotional, and intellectual pleasures.

Two outdoor figure paintings. Which makes us feel better,

Fragonard - Blind Man's Bluff or  David Hockney - Skaters Venice ?

Before I wrote that question, I knew my answer. Then I looked again at the two reproductions. Now I'm not so sure. The Fragonard warms us with more sensual pleasure, in the textures of the cloth and in the implied sexuality of the pretty, blindfolded young girl. But there's an easy cheerfulness in the modern painting which even the lightest Eighteenth Century frolic is lacking. As the Moderns themselves love to say, it is purer. The same cheerful outdoor scene without the mass of distracting details.

Let's try another one:

Claude Lorrain - Seaport with Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba   David Hockney - Day Pool with Three Blues  

Two studies in blue, with perpendiculars.

The much more famous Claude is disturbing, and its problems have all been well targeted by the Moderns. We are shown the harbor as if through some kind of a window cut into the surface of something, but we are not even given a hint of what. We are shown enormous depth behind what is obviously the artificial plane of the painting. David Hockney doesn't allow these contradictions, doesn't cause us this insecurity. The plane of the painting is a well defined plane, and its frame is a well defined frame.

Here's a much easier pair:

Fragonard - Girl Reading   Picasso - Interior with a Girl Drawing  

The soft cloth over the soft flesh of the torso in the Fragonard give a pleasure which Picasso's sharp lines just don't have. And the impossible passages of color on the skin of Fragonard's girl remind us of a warm happiness in a way that Picasso's clean colors can't.

Maybe that's the point. Modern art is indeed purer. But the traditional forms are at least as pleasant, and remind us of the things we are happy remembering.

Three comparisons. One toss-up, one match to the Moderns, and one to the classicists. But maybe there's a pattern to it.

Poor Miss Lawrence didn't dare speak openly against Modern Art. She merely pointed out that it is the minimum which is art. It has less. Less of everything. Fewer virtues, fewer faults.


Spaces, not commas, please!