In praise of meaningless art

Sargent's painting is just a glimpse of two people in the grip of pleasure. And that's enough
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MATISSE SAID that he wanted art to be something that a businessman could relax with after a hard day at the office - rather like a comfortable armchair. He's been pilloried for saying so ever since, and I can't help thinking that we haven't got much further towards appreciating art when it is merely civilised, beautiful and consolatory.

We prefer our art to say something meaningful, to latch on to an important subject and, if possible, to contain a firm political proposition about the evils of colonialism, the First World War, or Thatcher's Britain. A painting of a bowl of flowers, a portrait of a duchess: these are obviously and inevitably trivial things, compared to a canvas 20ft by 10ft depicting The Triumph of European Union, or whatever.

I am exaggerating, but not much. The Tate Gallery has just opened a new and splendid exhibition of the work of John Singer Sargent. It looks like being one of their most popular shows - and I'm not surprised. If Sargent has been not much in professional critical fashion since his death, he has always been much loved by the public.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is, I understand, the Tate's single most popular painting, judging by the sales of postcards, and if urban sophisticates are tempted to throw up their hands at the masses turning up their noses at a nice Dubuffet in favour of an old painting of two little girls in a flower garden, they should go and have another look. Sargent is not automatically bad because he is popular, and the fact that millions of eyes have passed over some of his paintings does not diminish the freshness and security of his gaze.

But he is certainly at his best when he is painting subjects without much in the way of import. I can't imagine a painting more perfectly offensive to modern sensibilities than the late Chess Players. It was painted on holiday in Italy and shows Sargent's valet and a lady, in Turkish fancy dress, lying on the grass - and that's more or less it. A painting of his servant! And, worse, dressed up in the clothes of the oppressed oriental masses, out of which no amount of critical ingenuity will wring an allusion to the Ottoman Empire. It was painted, still worse, on holiday; and, worst of all, it was painted when Sargent ought to have been doing his homework, and should have known that the West was headed for disaster, and that Cubism was the only way to paint. But the Chess Players won't join in; it is just a miraculous, sun-rippled glimpse of a moment of two people in the grip of pleasure. And that is enough.

Apparently not, though. The response in the press has been distinctly snooty. Sargent is no good because most of his work is in the lower genres of portraiture, as they would have thought in the 18th century, or at best it is figures in a landscape; his subjects are trivial and (a neat leap of thought) his brushwork is superficial. He is no good, he is easy, and people like him because he is so terrible. Or something like that. Well, de gustibus non est disputandum, and people are perfectly free to dislike Sargent.

What is really worrying is the grounds on which this dislike is based: if a painting doesn't mean anything, it can't be good. And, instead of ignoring the chorus of denigration, Sargent's supporters have, mysteriously, joined in with its peculiar assumptions. The defence of Sargent should be based on the light and freedom of a painting such as Nonchaloir, the unconventional accuracy with which it observes a woman lolling inside on a hot Italian afternoon. But it has turned into an argument that sees Sargent's strengths in a weird, post-structuralist interpretation of his portraits of children. And, worst of all, in his well meant but completely misguided First World War paintings.

To read some people, you would think that Sargent's masterpiece was his enormous, embarrassingly stagey Gassed. It is certainly about a very important subject, and only someone of Sargent's prestige could have responded to an official war commission with a canvas showing soldiers blinded by mustard gas. Compared to a small picture of an Italian stream in sunlight, this is obviously an important statement about an important subject. The trouble is that it's no good at all; the scale is wrong and the composition a complete mess. But it ought to be good, because it's about the Great War, and is unmistakably on the right side of the argument. And, for some people, that seems to be enough.

I noticed the other day that people were not paying much attention to Gassed, but lingering over the watercolours, and matching Sargent's evident pleasure with their own. That, fortunately, is what, in the end, decides a painter's fate, and not a critic's view of what constitutes a waste of time and canvas.