A New Golden Age? Let Art Imitate Sport

Is Wayne Rooney today’s Raphael? If we treated art with the same seriousness as we do sport, our visual culture could flourish again

Jacob Willer

The imaginative energy of a society can be differently channelled. In Renaissance Italy it was channelled most effectively into painting, in Elizabethan England into theatre, in post-Reformation Germany into music. Historians have argued over why this imaginative energy became so precisely channelled in these various times and places; but nowadays it is more fashionable to challenge the assumption that the energy was, in fact, so channelled — now they prefer to list all the other little ways it went, in order to disqualify our concentration on that celebrated culture as more sentimental than scholarly. Their approach has had its effect, certainly. Once we thought of those Golden Ages with grateful, even pious, admiration, or sometimes with slightly envious awe. Now, revisionists and relativists have stigmatised the whole idea of a Golden Age. They are keen to tell us again and again that things were forever as messy as they are now. They point out that there have always been grumps bemoaning their times, even in so-called Golden Ages; and so, they declare, every judgment on culture must be suspicious because it is compromised by conventions of thought, or by personal attitudes and moods. Thus they seek to disorder all scales of values.

I think we swallow their arguments so easily because we cannot see much around us now to suggest what a cultural Golden Age is like. And we swallow those arguments too easily for our own good. I would like to discourage the relativists’ arguments by proposing that the conception of a Golden Age is useful to our cultural progress; take painting, for instance. 

When an admiring condottiero sent an artist to make Petrarch’s portrait, Petrarch wrote in a letter, “He would gladly have sent Zeuxis, Protogenes, Parrhasius or Apelles, if any such painters existed in our century, but since one has to be content with what the age produces, he chose the best among the very few there are . . .” The artists listed were made legendary for Petrarch by Pliny, a scholar of the Roman Golden Age already dreaming of that Golden Age in Greece. Petrarch — often seen as the father of the Renaissance — referred to antiquity for his standard; here we find encapsulated the sentimental driver of progress in European culture — the “classic” Florentine takes on the dream of the classical Roman about classical Greece. Petrarch was not to know that the most lustrous bloom of Renaissance thought, nourished by his own humanistic studies, would come in paint; this makes his letter of 1362 all the more poignant. Florentine painters had at that time fallen into a Gothic daze, following the brilliance of Giotto. In neighbouring Siena painting still thrived, though it all but died with the plague one year after. The great Sienese master Simone Martini was a friend of Petrarch at Avignon, but the Sienese favoured an almost oriental mode of miniaturised narrative painting that would have done nothing to satisfy Petrarch’s yearning for the grandeur of the antique. But Petrarch was no grump; I believe that, had he lived 60 years longer to witness the art of the generation of Leon Battista Alberti, he would have had something quite different to say in his letter.

In 1436 Alberti published his treatise De Pictura, at Florence. He began with a worry over the loss of the skills and learning that were common in antiquity, that nature had been “no longer producing intellects any more than giants”. But he used this device of Petrarchan golden-ageist rhetoric to surprise us with a tale of redemption, listing for us the names of his friends Donatello, Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia, Masaccio and Brunelleschi, whose various endeavours, Alberti declared, had matched those of the men of antiquity in art; he used the Golden Age to introduce the idea that his own age was, in fact, also Golden. And with friends like his we should not argue — it is an impressive list. If Alberti justified his claim to live in a Golden Age, then his list also confirmed Petrarch’s sorry judgment on the inferiority of painters he had known. Let no relativist try to convince you that Petrarch would not have been more impressed by the works of Donatello and Masaccio.

Between the times of Petrarch and Alberti, the attitude to the Golden Age had clearly changed. This was because the standard of accomplishment had changed. The standard had risen, at least in part, because of Petrarch’s golden-ageism; his and others’ tireless championing of antiquity inspired the next generations to find a higher artistic aim, and, as a result, Alberti found it far less of a struggle to content himself with the product of his age — he even pondered whether Brunelleschi’s dome would have been “unimaginable among the ancients”. Perhaps, to Petrarch, this would have seemed immodest. But perhaps, more simply, for Petrarch nothing could have seemed unimaginable to those ancients, because they were as gods compared to the shadowed men he knew. He could not have thought of surpassing the ancients; sensitive critic that he was, nothing he had seen suggested that they could be surpassed. Petrarch was preoccupied with the Golden Age myth because his own age was not golden. Alberti’s age was, thanks to Petrarch’s preoccupation, beginning to glow, and in that glow the significance of the myth was shifting.

Writing a century after Alberti, Vasari sought to “give a succinct account of the origin of that true excellence which, having surpassed the age of the ancients, makes the moderns so glorious”. Though Vasari still uses the achievements of antiquity as the measure for modern glory, he was less uncomfortable than Alberti in suggesting that his compatriots might have outdone old Greece and Rome in art. This was no longer an exciting heresy; he treats the triumph of his age as a plain fact. Vasari was sure that he lived in a time of at least one true giant, Michelangelo, whose statues “are in all their parts much more beautiful than the ancient… And the same may be believed of his pictures, which . . . [if we still had ancient pictures to compare] would prove to be as much higher in value and more noble as his sculptures are clearly superior . . .” 

We may be inclined to agree with Vasari’s admittedly somewhat brazen judgment. But Michelangelo would have been less sure. And Michelangelo would also have been less concerned with his own triumph. He was the humblest student of old art — not just of the ancients whom he idolised, but also of Giotto’s painting, from two centuries before, which Vasari thought imperfect. I wonder if the weakness in Vasari’s own painting, apart from a deficiency in talent, might be ascribed to his flippancy about the significance of older art. Vasari was so sure his age was the most golden that he succumbed to all its stylistic quirks, taking them for eternal principles. His painting is only of its own time, whereas Michelangelo’s is for all time. Here we see a different merit in the Golden Age myth: even in a very golden age, it is useful to have a model that is not susceptible to fashion — a model that is ancient, and rigid, and therefore sacred. As a Golden Age myth gives a measure for our modern works, it protects us from ourselves. It makes sure our eyes stay fixed on the horizon and not on our shoes. And to a soul as profound as Michelangelo, the Golden Age myth was as important to honest art as Original Sin was to honest living; we stand at a permanent distance from the Light, and so we remain mindful, and humble. We may have to be content with the product of our age, but, while we worship antiquity, that product can never fully satisfy us. And so the Golden Age is perennially useful, aiding our progress just as much in times of triumph as in times of aspiration — as much for Michelangelo as for Petrarch. Emphasising a Golden Age can encourage self-criticism, as well as ambition.. A well-reasoned, and reasonable, dissatisfaction with one’s own times encourages a sense of purpose; the satisfied man is not likely to strive for improvement. A humble disgruntlement is probably the healthiest condition for an artist — it is no surprise to find it in Michelangelo, whom Vasari called “divine”.

The Renaissance witnessed by Vasari is long past; but the story that he made of it should be more and more important to those involved in art. As Petrarch dreamed about the capabilities of Greeks and Romans, so we may dream about the capabilities of the men of the Renaissance. The Florentines are our ancients. The knee of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave may be richer in wisdom than the entire oeuvre of a modern artist; its quality shames us. Renoir, at the end of his very successful career, was growing weary of Impressionist trifles; as he set about his strangely smeary quasi-classical nudes he was reflecting on the power of our new ancients. “The [Renaissance] painters were all practising the same craft. It is this craft that we none of us entirely know, because, since we were emancipated from tradition, no one has taught us.” For painters, there is something tragic in contemplating Florence, because there they see the ruin of a rare society that would have accommodated and valued them — there was a full artistic community, not hidden away in garrets or galleries, but engaged in proud open conversation on the walls of all the streets. The Florentine artists communicated so much, so profoundly, because they could all communicate so fluently; modern artists despair over what to communicate, partly because to convey anything at all involves a practical struggle for them — Renoir’s own grapplings with style are painful proof of this. So Renoir is right to lament the loss of craft together with the loss of tradition. The loss of craft is the very sign of a broken tradition; the medium withers while the message wanes. Note that by now it is usual to think of the Parisian painters of Renoir’s age as still excellent in craft, most of them having been drilled in a strict old academy. That the sensitive among them already thought everything was lost just goes to show how much farther what we call art has by now drifted from its proper tradition — we are now left able only to squint at art’s earlier greatness. Let Renoir, who was nearer and could see a little more clearly, remind us and embarrass us with this fact.

We should be brave and admit that no Michelangelo lives among us, and nor has any lived for a long while. In art, our age is as far from Golden as any has ever been. This admission could be as useful as it is obviously true. It makes us ask ourselves the practical question: how did our new ancients, the Florentines, get so good in their craft and found such a rich tradition? To understand how art once grew, and may grow again, look at the way sporting culture now thrives.

During the past two decades sport has been approached more scientifically. The study of the maximisation of athletic potential must have contributed to a rapid improvement in sporting achievement in almost all fields. In athletic sports, the best sportsmen now are almost certain to be the most accomplished there have ever been. That is not to claim that the sporting talents of today are of a new magnitude; it is just that they have had to work so much harder. The triumph of sport, which I think we are witnessing, depends on talents fully developed. The talented now have to be perfectly disciplined athletes, and be aware of all current tactical and technical expertise just to stay competitive. Only then, because they are the really talented, do they distinguish themselves by invention, in order to succeed — thus they necessarily embellish the craft, redefining what is possible. This new excellence is very exciting. We all like to see achievement beyond that which we could ourselves conceive; we thrill to the raising of our expectations and yearn for their being surpassed again. And so we, the public, come to engage all the more with sport.

Of course, the more scientific approach to sport cannot have emerged from nowhere. Surely it responded to a demand; and it required considerable funding, and therefore it may be taken as a sign of a pre-existing, probably growing, general fascination with sport. But the new sporting excellence, partly brought about by the new approach, has inevitably broadened and heightened that fascination. There are now so many more casual sports fans, and across all strata of society; and so many of them will pay top prices and travel hundreds of miles to cheer a favourite protagonist and witness the new skills — they have been inspired. Britain’s most read newspapers regularly devote more pages to sports than world news. And the very nature of comment on sport has changed; the analysis is more expert, for sure, but there is a more urbane style as well. This new commentary even likes to find moral significance in sport and draws from it general lessons for life. The new excellence in sport delighted people, then it made them think. Sport is no longer just a social pastime — it is a serious subject.

Sport is now popular as a folk ritual, an entertainment, a scientific study and an intellectual stimulus, all at once; its proliferation in our culture ensures its progress. Children growing up in our culture absorb this enthusiasm, and they take sport’s significance for granted. By rewinding and replaying the countless video compilations that are available, they study and perfect all the new skills, emulating their idols. The result can be that what was amazing professional skill a few years ago becomes ordinary for the playground — and the commonplace can even come to embody bad taste. Talents of the next generation will have to be even more inventive, not just in order to succeed, but so as not to seem vulgar. Here we see a craft growing into a tradition. 

Our imaginative energy now seems most efficiently channelled into sport. We should recognise that just as we care about sport, so did the Renaissance Florentines care about art. Art was popular, and exciting, and they were addicted to its progress. As the modern child lies awake at night fantasising new moves to perfect on the sportsfield, so the Florentine dreamt of new foreshortened poses, more elegant draperies, nobler bearings in painted heads. The Florentines were fiercely competitive in art; Vasari told how when all the young artists were practising, copying Masaccio’s frescoes, one of them became so inflamed by envy of Michelangelo’s superior ability that he punched him and crushed his nose. They may have been high-minded in the Renaissance, but they were still driven by simple passions. The urge to outdo rivals, and to impress an eager audience, was then, as it always will be, a major driver of real excellence, and so of progress. Just as craft and ambition shrivel when unappreciated, when well-tended they may flourish more finely.

Indeed, it seems likely that true culture, in order to thrive, needs this sort of obsessive interest which is first inspired by excellence, then inspiring of excellence. In sport, excellence is respected and rewarded; in art it is by now common to ridicule excellence, to dismiss it as stultifying (perhaps this is because we are so unfamiliar with artistic excellence that we cannot fully recognise it or appreciate it, and so it makes us uncomfortable). The effect of such weak-minded prejudice is that we can no longer take art seriously — we have lost interest. Yes, we can fund art as much as we like and build monstrous mall-like shrines for it, but we don’t make it matter to people. People are often happy to gawp or sneer at it, or invest in it — that is how the art world lives — but this is only proof that they do not genuinely care for it at all. Art has become irrelevant. Its excellences are forgotten; its proper appeal is lost. 

The purpose of art had become confused as, in the course of the 19th century, the constitution of art’s public changed. And art had begun to revolve too much around essentialising arguments; questioning art’s transcendental role dampened the pressure to inspire, and thus it dampened also the competition between artists in inspiring.

There are many reasons for decline in art. Philosophers will tell us that we have lost our ideal, and they are probably right. Declinism may be dreary, but it is not necessarily wrong. How could we stop the arguing and rediscover an ideal for art? Our sporting culture shows that significance may be found in extraordinary practical achievement; purpose can sometimes follow excellence, because to witness excellence is invigorating. So, I wonder, might we rediscover some of our ideal, and thus some of art’s purpose, actually through art, if we can make it exciting enough? To do so, we shall need to study hard and still rely on some pioneering talents to rouse us. It is a curious shame that no one would expect an aspiring sportsman, or musician, or practitioner of other expert crafts, to accomplish much if his skills were not sufficiently developed by the age of 14 or so, and yet it is commonly assumed that for painting or sculpture a university course is education enough. We will have to treat the practical refinements of the visual arts more seriously than that if we hope to see talents better developed. Until then, though it is already familiar to us in sport, in art we can only dream of a situation such as Goethe imaginatively described as Raphael’s:

He was born with the most promising natural gifts and grew up in a time when art was pursued with utmost dedication and interest, hard work and perseverance. Masters showed the way and led the novice to the threshold, and he only had to take a final step to enter the temple of art.

That was the way in the Golden Age. But if we would dream of a Golden Age for art in the future, then we have also to dream, lovingly, of a Golden Age in the past — merely to study it is not enough. Provision for the skilling of talent alone will not suffice; art is more complicated than sport, after all. And it is more important. For the talented artists of our future to take that “final step to enter the temple of art” we must take our dream of the Golden Age as our cause. Then the dream can become a true measure for their work. And it will be their natural consolation. No one with a dream of the Golden Age is a grump; the declinists are so dreary because they are more interested in lamenting the errors of our present than in exalting the glories of our past — a failing from which Petrarch was protected by his very modesty. Petrarch would have felt the vital truth Confucius told: “The Master said: I was not born with knowledge but, being fond of antiquity, I am quick to seek it.”

When we ourselves find the modesty to agree with the Master, we will laugh (with Democritus) or cry (with Heraclitus) at the exemplary modern foolishness that led Carlo Carrà, in one of those odious Futurist manifestos, to write:

 . . . we have come to the conclusion that the Great and Famous Art of the Past is, in fact, a very trivial thing . . . [it] should be looked upon as a great joke based on moral, religious, ethical and political foundation.

But if so many of us continue to treat the art of the past as Carrà commanded, then there can be little hope for better art to come.

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