Issue 19 : Spring 2005
One of the first things I remember being told by Peter Lasko was that bad art could not be dated. I dont recall what particular Dark Age excrescence prompted his remark; only that it came as something of a relief to a first-year undergraduate already overwhelmed by a weight of dates in centuries I hadnt seriously thought about before, attached to unfamiliar objects, produced for patrons I hadnt heard of, in places I could rarely even spell with any confidence. After 25 years in the business, however, I am beginning to suspect the old man was wrong this time.
The idea of an art that transcends our scholarly chronology of style simply by its ineptness is a seductive one, but it does not stand up to analysis. For a start, how do we know that an object is bad art? I may reject the efforts of Tracey Emin because I am not interested in her sex life and I dont think she can draw, but for others she is an important artist producing socially relevant work. Peter Laskos pronouncement was meant to shock us; we knew that we were art historians, not critics, and that the quality of the objects on view was not our concern.
This train of thought was prompted by a relief I came across in St Peters church at Moulton in Suffolk, in the course of my fieldwork for the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain & Ireland. Moulton was the first of many churches I planned to visit that day, and I had prepared by reading Pevsners entry in his Buildings of England volume. He noted only that the original Norman nave had shafts at its corners, and although aisles had been added at a later period they were still visible outside. These I duly photographed, and then because I was fresh and enthusiastic, and Pevsner sometimes misses things, and there was a list of key holders pinned to the door, I made the effort to get inside. An impromptu vestry had been screened off at the end of the aisle by a curtain, to conceal a scruffy bookcase, a sink, and some fuse-boxes and there, under a shelf, was a large relief sculpture. I managed to get some light on it, and found that it showed a pair of figures, male and female, of the type usually called exhibitionists. This seemed to explain why it was not more prominently displayed; this and the carving style. The layman might call it crude, and rejoice in the triple ambiguity of the word, but to describe the carving style without labelling the artist as inept or the subject matter as offensive is by no means straightforward. Non-medievalists might wonder why we might want to. Why, in effect, we are unwilling to reject such an object as bad art. The answer is that notions of what is good and bad are to some extent matters of fashion. If we are historians we must at least make the effort to avoid infecting the past with our own preconceptions, and the further back we go into the past, the less reliable our instincts will be. It would be easy, for example, to dismiss as inept many of the capitals in the crypt under Canterbury Cathedral, produced around the year 1100, were it not that they were carved for the metropolitan cathedral of England. That alone should tell us that at that time and place they were work of the highest quality; that they were meant to look as they do. Clearly the Moulton relief demanded more investigation, but the only reference I could find was in Mortlocks Suffolk Churches.
"In the curtained vestry," he wrote, "there is an ancient stone panel carved with two figures; a man with his arms raised in prayer and a woman with her hands folded over her belly. It appears to have been part of a larger design and could conceivably represent Adam and Eve."
With the image before ones eyes the description seems unexceptionable, but Mortlock does not illustrate it, and his bland words entirely fail to convey the savage power of the piece. The references to prayer and to Adam and Eve, and the failure to describe the squatting postures that emphasize the genitals combine to suggest something much more decorous. Only the unsettling word "ancient", chosen in preference to more conventional chronological labels like Norman or Anglo-Saxon, and bearing the suggestion of a primitive and alien world, offers a clue to what we might find behind the vestry curtain.
I do not pretend that I can date this relief with any accuracy. It is certainly 11th or 12th century, and if pressed I should vote for the second half of the 11th, but it seems to me to be a work that is knowing in its crudity. It derives its strength from a deliberate attempt to shock. It may be crude, but it is not bad art.
Ron Baxter, Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture