Painting: Between Mysticism & the Commonplace

El Greco, 1586, oil on canvas, 180 in × 140 inches, Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain
El Greco, 1586, oil on canvas, 180 in × 140 inches, Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain

Through the lens of two great paintings - El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz (1586–1588) and Courbet's Burial at Ornans (1849–1850) - Stephen Persing traces painting's changing role: from a tool to provide answers to a tool of questioning, and considers what the "middle ground" might be for contemporary artists.

Persing writes: "The two greatest paintings of burials in western art speak to these ideas from vastly different approaches... El Greco’s expression of salvation after death, Courbet’s of the banality of loss... But from Courbet comes the first groundswell that still occupies artists today. He made this challenge to the old hegemony the center of his later art, as contemporary artists devote their art to questions, not answers. In this sense art has become more spiritual, while shedding traditional religiosity, walking the middle ground between mysticism and the commonplace. The spiritual essence—call it the divine spark, as these are artworks concerned with religion—is an essential component of the artist’s approach as well as of the subject being portrayed. Finding that expressive element is the challenge... Through Courbet, into contemporary art, the range of values and nuance available has ballooned, encompassing answers, questions, and that catalytic middle ground, like a Zen koan. This multiplicity of possible viewpoints, and the validity of seemingly opposed viewpoints, is the challenge for contemporary artists. They must choose their answers and their questions with care, or risk producing glib art, art without soul. The divine spark became a burden, or perhaps it always was one."