The broadcaster Andrew Marr has written A Short Book About Painting to try to address the question: what does it mean to do something (painting) well and why does it matter? Marr has been an amateur painter since his teenage years, but after a frightening stroke in January 2013 his hobby gained much greater urgency.
Suddenly he feels he’s running out of time “to make images that are alive and self-confident enough to hold their place on a wall”. So he will no longer be content sitting in a field turning out competent but derivative impressions of hills and cottages. He will strive to produce something more meaningful, and the book contains plenty of vibrant examples of his latest, more abstract, work.
He reminds me of the famous line from the poem in which Robert Browning imagines the Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto reflecting on aesthetic value and what constitutes perfection in art: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?”
At the same time, Marr is worried that mainstream art schools no longer teach the “skills, dodges and wheezes” used by artists down the centuries. “Nobody is taught today as he was back in the 1950s,” he wrote in the Sunday Times in October. “Sooner or later, our visual culture will pay a hefty price.”
I can see why Marr thinks this matters, and why, in an age of flat screens and short attention spans, he gains such satisfaction from the craft of painting – the hog’s-hair brushes, canvas, oils and pigments. It takes time. It is hard to do well. And it offers a route to transcendence.
The philosophy was well expressed by the Arts and Crafts designer CR Ashbee: “Something beautifully done, be it a jewel, a lithograph, a basket, a cathedral, may reveal the Truth.”
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