it's funny but there's always still a place for a kind of classical art criticism, pre-danto (much less craig owens and rosalind krauss), pre-harold rosenberg, even pre-clement greenberg. it's still right back in bernard-berenson-era exquisite connoisseurship, the cult of the masterpiece, etc. people, or at any rate their biographers and canon-formers, even basically treat picasso and (god help us) warhol this way. i suppose it's important because that's still an almost commonsensical approach to art. this piece by andrew butterfield in the new york review, however, shows what can go so horribly wrong.
The ravishing application of paint, the luscious brushwork, and the startling compositions of the two pictures impress all who behold them. But just as fundamental to the pictures’ power is Titian’s poignant exploration of the tragic themes of the myths he represents. Rarely before had any artist looked with such unblinking concentration, and such deep empathy, at the vulnerability and the injustice that are an inescapable part of mortal existence.
it is remarkable that butterfield says almost nothing about the paintings themselves except at that level of generality. but even their mere lusciousness - titian's notorious or obvious sensuality - is incompatible with what he says later in the piece, to wit:
Titian...seems to stress the unfathomable and unmerited cruelty of the gods. Looking at these pictures, it is easy to think of Gloucester's anguished cry in King Lear, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/They kill us for their sport."
really, honestly, this array of unveiled delectable virgin flesh? if the painting is an influence on rubens, that is precisely how, and through him renoir etc. butterfield's reading makes the work so profound that he misses what's right on the surface: it might be a playful allegory of the battle of the sexes; the eroticism of seeing and of being seen, central to heterosexuality; titian is the most het of painters. the painting is...coquettish. my god her little diva-esque lap dog is yipping at him.
at any rate there's no need to blow the thing up like a balloon into an incomparable trans-human achievement ("the painter Lucian Freud, for example, recently called them “the most beautiful pictures in the world”) to appreciate a good painting: skillfully made, witty and so on.