Turner, Liberal Modernity, and the Question of Quality

Martin Myrone


Among its many achievements, the exhibition Turner and the Whale and the accompanying programme of scholarship and exchange effectively stages an unconventional encounter, a confrontation even, between objects generally kept at some distance from one another (both physically and conceptually): Turner’s Whalers pictures, normally held in the national collection of British art at Tate as part of the Turner Bequest, and other objects exhibiting other ways of representing the practise of whaling, in painting, in print, and in scrimshaw, objects of less obviously distinguished provenance and aesthetic character. Considered separately, these are materials that, I have immediately to confess, sit at the horizon of several areas of my interest and knowledge. It happens that I have been allocated the year 1845 in the Mellon Centre online chronicle of Royal Academy exhibitions, and this was the year and venue for the first public display of Turner’s paintings. And it happens that in 2014 I worked with Ruth Kenny and the artist Jeff McMillan in realising an exhibition of British Folk Art at Tate Britain, so I might be expected to have some kind of view of the ‘folksy’ material that accompanies the Turner paintings.[1] I am not though a Turner specialist in any meaningful sense, nor a specialist in scrimshaw or in whaling history. So it is the confrontation itself which I will comment on, insofar as it collides together ‘proper art’ and something else, something designated as low, popular or folk art.

That the confrontation takes this shape is, I think, an uncontroversial statement. Whatever value judgements might be made about Turner or about this other material, it is self-evident that Turner has, by force of two centuries of critical commentary, market exchanges and institutional activity, been classified as a great, or at least important artist, whereas scrimshaw, routine marine painting by untrained or locally trained painters, and documentary image making have, by the same range of forces, been classed as ‘low’. Turner has been located as a great and modern artist, elevated above and set aside from tradition and the past, considered as highly individual, entirely unique, and therefore deserving of special treatment. Scrimshaw and marine painting do not fit that equation, and are accordingly treated separately and differently from ‘great art’. More contentiously, I want to start to suggest that in this, we may also be able to see not just that Turner is embedded within a specifically liberal modernity – the political, societal and economic situation which gives seminal shape to the modern artist around 1800 – but that our apprehension of that artist is itself embedded within the same modernity.[2]

This may not be the primary or preferred way we envisage this material encounter. We might instead see the works and artefacts gathered around Turner’s paintings as providing documentary context, helping expose hidden or obscured meanings in Turner’s imagery, bringing to light the ‘real’ history embodied in these pictures. Or we might cast them as mundane counterpoints, by which we might deepen our understanding of Turner’s achievement. We get to see how special Turner’s treatment of the subject may be by comparing it to the efforts of the less talented and innovative. This is largely one-way traffic – I am not sure anyone is likely to use Turner’s painting in order to illuminate a scrimshaw image of whaling boats (although other contributions gathered here may suggest ways this could happen). For there is a profound asymmetry at work here, pivoting around the idea of aesthetic quality. In ways which may appear largely self-evident, Turner’s paintings might be characterised in terms of sophistication, quality, and depth; routine marine paintings or folk-art objects are more likely to be talked about in terms of obviousness, repetitiveness, simplicity, directness. With Turner, we have a name, a life, a context, an exhibiting history, a sense of value; we have a complex work of art which is also considered to be a personal statement, ready to be interpreted in relation to the facts of his life or our knowledge of his place within the art world of his time. With these other artefacts we have anonymity, or the kind of extreme obscurity that is next to anonymity. We may have surnames, but no first names, or no name at all. And we have, crucially, legibility and illegibility: the ‘other stuff’ is obvious, reveals its subject in graphically obvious terms, whereas Turner’s paintings are obscure, hard to read, they demand work and effort to distinguish the subject.

It is, of course, possible to recuperate these former things in a way that brings them closer to Turner, performing the familiar reclamation of ‘folk’ or untrained art as formally proto-modernist, primitively aesthetic.[3] They are nonetheless defined by same-ness; they cannot very readily, or to a high degree, be distinguished from other examples. They are treated as ‘routine’ – they are like other things, generic rather than individual. And Turner is, supposedly at least, anything but. He holds the apparently unassailable position of a titan of British art history, long entrenched as the “prophet of modernity”, as Sam Smiles has carefully elucidated.[4] If Turner was elevated to that position through successive commentaries and exhibitions through to the 1960s, it has been crystallised and disseminated in the contemporary art institutions that bear his name, in the Turner Prize, and at Turner Contemporary, Margate now routinely held up as model of the socially and economically transformative impact of ‘cutting-edge’ metropolitan culture. The freedom of his art, the splash and dash of his oil paintings, their murk or transparency, the prolific virtuosity of his drawings and watercolours, demonstrate a personal vision that defines the modern.

This heroic rupturing into modernity has its own complex narratives, although the paintings of 1840s represent a singular break, with subject matter and the commitment to figuration yielding, it seems, to the abstract will of the artist; pictures that, wrote Robert Rosenblum, “metamorphosed matter into some ultimate, insubstantial element of nature, an over-whelming power that evokes cosmological archetypes”.[5] That one of these images was used to promote the Tate Britain exhibition Late Turner: Painting Set Free, promoting (whatever the curators’ various wishes and the actual content of the show) such a progressivist account of the artist and aligning it with the values of contemporary corporate culture (the prominently acknowledged sponsors, EY), may suggest an unexpected point of convergence between the intellectual culture of the liberal metropolitan elite and global capitalism.[6]

Within the rich record of Turner’s exhibiting, the year 1845 may have special standing as one of those in which he presented pictures that seem to exemplify a rupture into modernity so authentic and profound that they baffled contemporaries, and were thus prophetic.[7] In that year he assumed temporary Presidency of the Royal Academy; but in that year, too, John Ruskin and other early commentators detected his final creative and intellectual decline.[8] Either way, it was the tipping-point. The Venetian pictures shown at the Academy in that year represent the continuing dissolution of the subject in favour of abstract light effects, and in this, perhaps, “the increasing recession of history, the redundancy of historical characters and the supremacy of the environment as a spectacle governed more by nature than by man”.[9] In the pair of whaling pictures, dealing as they do with the industrial exploitation of nature, present-day eco-theorists may detect the acknowledgement of the destructiveness of modernity wrought in paint. Taking another tack, the catalogue of the recent exhibition of Turner’s whaling pictures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York featured, prominently, works by Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella. Even if the textual narrative was a little more nuanced (introducing Melville as mediator) the visual effect of the catalogue page was a more direct juxtaposition of Turner and canonically heroic American Abstraction.[10]

The dating of works to “c.1845” seems to carry special symbolic weight in the established literature on Turner, being strongly favoured in chronological attributions attached to paintings which have often been seen as tipping over into abstraction or fancy. The date 1845 has a kind of gravitational pull, it is ‘hot chronology’ in Levi-Strauss’s terms, a date that seems to represent more than a calendar year.[11] So, Turner’s famous Norham Castle, Sunrise, predictably dated to c.1845, is a “touchstone for modern understandings of Turner’s later work as abstract or Impressionist, as if he could knowingly ‘anticipate’ later artistic trends”.[12]

Whatever implications might be drawn from these ‘circa 1845’ works, whether demonstrating a final flourishing of artistic genius, an experimentalism pointing towards modernism, a decaying talent, or a new ecological awareness, thus is revealed some historical, cultural or biographical point of special interest, and thus too is betrayed the idiographic bias of the discipline of art history – our concern that the particular, by which we mean also, the exceptional, should serve a representative function (representing something about the artist, about the historical moment, or about the possibilities of art itself at that juncture).[13]

In his contentious work After Virtue of 1981, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre identifies in the liberal modernity which took shape during Turner’s lifetime a decisive stage in the catastrophic fragmentation of morality which we still live with: what we possess now, he writes, are the “fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts”, meaning community and tradition, “from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality”.[14] What is left, instead, is emotivism – the validation of individual points of view, individual pleasures, and perceptions, viewpoints, feelings, pursued interminably, without resolution and without proper test or measure. Liberal individualism, in other words.

We may see this in how Turner’s pictures were recorded as being seen in the 1840s. The critics in 1845 and 1846 gave accounts of viewing as actively individualised, activating the individual – you needed to stand back, perhaps well back, squint your eyes, make an effort, and then “one can make forms out of those masses of beautiful, though almost chaotic colours”.[15] Freedom is thus staked out at a distance from legibility. The Times in 1845 said of the Whalers - “The greater portion of the picture is one mass of white spray, which so blends with the white clouds of the sky, that the spectator can hardly separate them, while the whiteness is still continued by the sails of the ship, which are placed in defiance of contrast”. The review goes on to talk of Turner's “free, vigorous, fearless embodiment of a moment. To do justice to Turner, it should always be remembered that he is the painter, not of reflections, but of immediate sensations”.[16]

If such critics are not among the most obviously critical of Turner’s works – those who slated the lobster-salad messiness of his whaling painters probably deserve that appellation – these comments are nonetheless intended, surely, to register a sense of the difficulties involved in seeing these paintings, the degree to which they engage individual, subjective, un-measurable and emotivist standards of judgement. We should perhaps take more seriously those critics, generally dismissed in the modern literature as conservative or ignorant, who failed to see much in pictures like the Whalers series – who saw in them fragmentation, incoherence, obscurity. These critics were not prepared to stand back and believe. What if, perhaps, Ruskin was right to recoil from these pictures (“altogether unworthy of him”)?[17] But if we allowed ourselves to recoil now, not because these pictures fall short of some technical standard of representational clarity, as such, but of socially meaningful legibility. After all, the nobodies who populated the exhibitions and galleries of 1845 without drawing undue notice to themselves, and who lurk in masses in our museum storerooms now, may have served themselves, their patrons, their communities, as much as, probably rather more than Turner. The nameless or obscure painters of standard marines had more ‘context’, more of a community setting and purpose, than Turner. What if we started to see Turner’s extreme individualism – whether by this is meant his “unique genius” (as traditional art history and the art market would have it), or his uniquely individuated representativeness of an historical moment or cultural theme (as “newer” or academic art history would have it), or his “freedom: (as marketeers and global corporations would have it), not as good things, but as bad, as registering a distance from the possibility of virtue imposed by liberal modernity?

  1. On the Royal Academy ‘chronicle’ project, see http://www.paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk/projects/ra250. On ‘British Folk Art’, see http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/british-folk-art and Ruth Kenny, Jeff McMillan and Martin Myrone, British Folk Art (London: Tate Britain, 2014).

  2. For perspectives on liberal modernity and its definition, see Simon Gunn and James Vernon eds, The Peculiarities of Liberal Modernity in Imperial Britain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

  3. See Martin Myrone, ‘Instituting English Folk Art’, Visual Culture in Britain, 10.1 (2009), 27-52.

  4. Sam Smiles, J.M.W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 115.

  5. Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (London: Thams and Hudson, 1975), 205.

  6. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/late-turner-painting-set-free

  7. Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, 2 vols (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977), I: 235-239.

  8. Sam Smiles, ‘Decline and Fall: Turner’s Old Age and his Early Biographers’, in David Blayney Brown, Amy Concannon and Sam Smiles eds, Late Turner: Painting Set Free, exh. cat. (London: Tate Britain, 2014), 60.

  9. Margaret Plant, Venice: A Fragile City 1797-1977 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), 97, n.129, quoted, with certain reservations, in Ian Warrell, Turner and Venice, exh. cat. (London: Tate Britain, 2003), 28.

  10. Alison Hokansan, Turner’s Whaling Pictures, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 73 (2016), 44-45.

  11. On the cultural-historical utilization of “hot chronology”, see James Chandler, England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Literary Historicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). There are thirteen oil paintings dated to c.1845 in Turner Worldwide (at tate.org.uk), together with the four works documented as exhibited that year; two paintings are dated speculatively to c.1844, alongside the seven works documented as exhibited at that date; all nine of the paintings of 1846 were exhibited, with no speculative attributions to that date. Three more works are dated to c.1844-45. The date ‘c.1845’ thus has a disproportionate pull.

  12. Brown, Concannon and Smiles, Late Turner, 221.

  13. On the idiographic character of art history as a discipline see Whitney Davis, ‘Art History, Re-enactment, and the Idiographic Stance’, in Peter Mack and Robert Williams eds, Michael Baxandall, Vision and the Work of Words (London: Routledge, 2015), 69-90.

  14. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981; London: Duckworth, 2007), 2-3.

  15. The Athenaeum, 9 May 1845, quoted, with other commentaries, at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-whalers-boiling-blubber-entangled-in-flaw-ice-endeavouring-to-extricate-themselves-n00547.

  16. The Times, 6 May 1845, quoted, with other commentaries, at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-whalers-n00545.

  17. John Ruskin, Modern Painters (1843), quoted as at n.15.