Milan Kundera writing recently quoted Proust from "In search of lost time "In this novel...there is not one incident that is not fictional...not one character à clef says Proust - Kundera went on to say he wrote it not in order to talk about his own life but to show his readers their own lives quoting Proust again "The reader's recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth’ those lines says Kundera define the very art of the novel.
I am a great admirer of the writing of Kundera, having bought and read a number of his books - I like his identification of Cervantes as the first great modern writer - 'a magic curtain, woven of legends hung before the world (this sounds like a poem by Yeats -"I made my song a coat"...) Cervantes sent Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose".
What is content in painting? This remains an old chestnut uncracked by a dismayingly vast number. Barnet Newman once said 'Aesthetics for the artist are a bit like ornithology for the birds'. So often I read a review of an artist and read of content explained in terms of an exterior subject matter - be it political, social, sexual, historical etc. I've long since given up trying to explain this in any context that allows me to sound clever - I am much happier with the definition of the reviewer being a self important idiot. - Forever bringing the art into an area that he or she feels more familiar in - It becomes a sort of cultural mugging.
When I was a student I frequently went to the National Gallery when in London (good place to snooze in surreptitiously too)- walk up the steps and turn left and you were in rooms of paintings of Madonna and Child - a cornerstone subject of renaissance art - it is impossible to be in a room of paintings that share a common theme (same as an abstract artist's work in series) and not compare them. Which one is the best? If the subject matter is the same then what is the criteria used here? The best painting is the best painting period - not the best painting of ... everything else is baggage - egotistical baggage at that. Manet shocks Paris with le Déjeuner sur l'herbe and a year later he's painting bunches of flowers. All art that avoids dealing with the mechanics of fact (Kundera calls it the ethic of the essential) is like a cake at the mix stage - tasty in a small dose maybe but it has not experienced fire it has not become art - this cake mix approach is what we are wading through at present - it is decadent time - Kundera laments that literature is in the process of killing itself through an insane proliferation. Much the same could be said for painting. Better to turn the oven up and get on with it.