The Power of Art
by Simon Schama
The power of the greatest art is the power to shake us into revelation and rip us from our default mode of seeing. After an encounter with that force, we don't look at a face, a colour, a sky, a body, in quite the same way again. We get fitted with new sight: in-sight. Visions of beauty or a rush of intense pleasure are part of that process, but so too may be shock, pain, desire, pity, even revulsion. That kind of art seems to have rewired our senses. We apprehend the world differently.
Art that aims that high – whether by the hand of Caravaggio, Van Gogh or Picasso – was not made without trouble and strife. Of course there has been plenty of great art created in serenity, but the popular idea that some masterpieces were made under acute stress with the artist struggling for the integrity of the conception and its realisation is not a "romantic myth" at all. A glance at how some of the most transforming works got made by human hands is an encounter with "moments of commotion".
It's those hot spots in which great risks were taken that The Power of Art brings you. Instead of trying to reproduce the un-reproducible feeling you have when you are face to face with those works in the hush of the gallery or a church, the series (and the book) drops you instead into those difficult places and unforgiving dramas when the artists managed, against the odds, to astound. "Every artist thinks he's Rembrandt", Picasso once joked, but there would come a time when he thought so himself!
All the artists in our series – and some of the contemporary artists on our website who have joined in its spirit to reflect on them – have felt part of this craft of exhilarating trouble. I hope, when you watch the programmes, you too get to feel the heat.