Mystery and Modern Art

My post is not about the “mysteries of modern art.” Most of it less of a mystery than a fraud. While there are a handful of interesting and talented post-impressionist artists, most of what you see in the way of abstract works are either incompetent or pretentious. I was reminded of this while reading R. Austin Freeman’s novel The Unconscious Witness (1942) which came at the end of a long career of superb storytelling. What set Freeman apart from his contemporaries was the realism of his works. He pioneered the forensic mystery tale, in which most of the legwork was done by specialists rather than amateurs. He also created the “Columbo” style or “inverted” plot in which the crime is presented first in complete detail and the rest of the story reveals how the protagonist, Dr. Thorndyke, investigates the case.

In The Unconscious Witness the crime is observed by a middle-age artist, Thomas Pedley, who does not in fact realize that a murder has been committed. But he does notice the odd behavior of two men and a woman while painting near a woodland on the edge of a housing development. Dr. Thorndyke eventually puts in his appearance and solves the murder.

What is just as interesting as the mystery is Freeman’s discussion of art. The author was in fact an amateur artist who felt that many contemporary “expressions” of creativity were so much humbug. As Pedley politely explains to a devotee of modern art:

I know nothing about this modernist art excepting that is a totally different thing from the art which I have always known and practised. And we can’t discuss it because we are not speaking the same language. When I paint a picture I aim a beauty and interest: and since there is nothing so beautiful as nature, I keep as close to natural appearances as a I can…. But, apparently, modernist art avoids truth to nature and any kind of intellectual or emotional interest. I don’t understand it at all!

How does the “fashion for freak pictures” work? Pedley puts it this way: “All you have to do is paint something quite unlike a normal picture and leave it to the high-brows to explain it to the multitude.”

It is unfortunate that Freeman’s works are no longer readily available. The best place to start is the Dover anthology by E. F. Bleiler, The Best Dr. Thorndyke Detective Stories, which is still available in used copies. Under Bleiler’s polymath editorship through the 1970s, Dover was an excellent source of lesser-known fiction classics. For whatever reason they have dropped most of those titles from their catalogs. The best alternative is a good library that has not discarded all its older volumes.

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