Reynolds' Discourses on Art

Reynolds’ Discourses are like a Westminster Confession of Faith for classical Western art – a formal expression of received ideas offered at the final moments of those ideas’ influence. The introduction to my edition called Reynolds’ theories a “coda” to an age of art about to give way to Romantic individualism. That seems about right. Some thoughts on the passing pages…

Reynolds agrees with Johnson that studying by inclination is best. Johnson elided a full idea, but Reynolds goes into greater detail by qualifying this advice as appropriate only for intermediate students who have been disciplined in the fundamentals of their pursuit and oriented toward the Good, True, and Beautiful. Assuming Johnson thought along the same lines as his fellow Club member, then, this sentiment is pretty far from the rubber stamp on autonomy that people want to make it.

Speaking of the Club, Reynolds describes artistic inspiration and borrowing in the same generational terms that Burke used to describe civil society in general. Maybe it has already been written, but there is clearly a book in the relationship of ideas between Club members. (And how natural law informed those ideas.)

Reynolds describes true wisdom as sensing one’s imperfection and having the humility to grasp collective observation. He takes it as obvious that the subject (Nature) is so complex that no one man can achieve a perfect perception through his own capabilities. Going back to the WCF, I wish that evangelicalism would understand this is just as true vis-a-vis systematic theology, confessions, and streams of Christian faith.

Reynolds’ hierarchical thinking is very classical and very impossible to imagine on this side of the Western democratic revolution. He perceives that all arts have a lower form and a higher form. The lower appeals to common taste and is judged correctly on accuracy to particular nature. The higher form requires cultivated taste and is judged by the extent to which it transcends particular nature to achieve an imaginative vision of Nature in General – e.g. the perfect beauty of mythical Helen vs. the particular beauty of the artist’s model.

And speaking of taste – as the higher forms are artificial, and clearly not natural (e.g. opera or grand historic painting), it’s to be expected that people are not born with that taste. They’re born with the “seeds” of it, which must be ripened into cultivated, artificial taste. And to some extent you have to fake it until you make it. I’ve found this to be true about many things in life – the will to appreciate something precedes the appreciation, which does not invalidate the authenticity of the appreciation. We commonly understand this about whiskey and tobacco but our democratic, individualizing context makes us reluctant to admit it about art, music, literature, etc. “Eagerly desire the greater gifts,” after all. (I jest.)

As an aside, Reynolds often mentions the issue of access to the great works. If you were a young painter in England in the 18th century and unable to take the Grand Tour, the only access you had to Michelangelo et al. were engravings. Sobering to think about in our age of exquisite, high-res reproductions via Google Art Project, museum websites, etc.

The Discourses are easy to quote without context and mock. But considering the context and his aim, as well as the full range of ideas from I to XV, Reynolds holds up. He appreciated an apparent contradiction in the received notions about art and set out to preserve them by reconciling them. He did that by drawing distinctions between classes of art and arranging them in a kind of Platonic hierarchy with different criteria of judgement appropriate to their differing objectives. You can, of course, disagree with his presuppositions about Nature in General – as Hazlitt did in The Champion.

But Reynolds isn’t an unthinking reactionary to be skewered with pull quotes. He set out to give conservative, pedagogical discourses in keeping with the dignity and responsibilities of the Royal Academy. He didn’t deny the potential truth to be found in the then-unproven theories of his day, but he knew that it wasn’t the right context to be pushing those theories.

I’ve heard Coleridge and Reynolds accused of unwittingly kicking off the dissipation of art through endless prosaic theorizing. That may be true, but Reynolds seems to inveigh against that very kind of theorizing in his last discourses. He advocates for practical manuals of mechanical technique instead, and admits that artists aren’t the best at expressing ideas in words.

The main tension in Reynolds seems to be between rationalism and irrationalism, or supra-rationalism. Artists need (nay, must use!) rational principles in their work, but also intuition. For Reynolds, intuition is often called sentiment or feeling, but those are just vulgar terms for what is really a body of accumulated experience built by lifelong application of, yes, rational principles. These artistic impulses seem irrational, but they are actually supra-rational – transcending rationality while being wholly based on it.

I’m not convinced that these discourses fully reconciled the relationship of genius to craft.

It’s poignant that the final Discourse was given so close to the end of his life, in full knowledge that it would be his final oration at the Academy. Regardless of how you feel about his presuppositions, his death was a loss of elegant and civil discourse. And painting theory aside, Reynolds gives plenty of general advice on learning an artistic discipline. I wish I’d read him before I started trying to write novels.

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