Some years ago in an article, ‘Sir Herbert Read and the Power Bequest’ (Meanjin Quarterly 1/1964), Professor Bernard Smith pointed to the shortcomings of modern art criticism. Sir Herbert, he thought, had to bear a large measure of responsibility for ‘the gobbledygook, the verbal molasses, to which art criticism has been debased in recent years’. Not that Sir Herbert’s prose was ‘anything but felicitous’, but that the Grand Old Man of popular art writing had ‘no real use for criticism’.
There is no doubt about the existence of ‘gobbledygook’ in contemporary art criticism. It even comes from critics of impeccable taste. For example, Bryan Robertson, of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, has an outstanding record as a critic who has ‘discovered’ great and original talent among young, unrecognized artists. Yet he can describe the painting style of Sidney Nolan as ‘sweet, muscular lyricism’ and give the following interpretation of one of the famous Ned Kelly series:
Kelly rides down to the burned and shattered Glenrowan Hotel and the scene is like some new spoilation of another Garden of Eden: we are not sure whether Kelly is the cause, the disrupter—or the reverse—the guardian, centaur-like and rooted in his own country, and now the avenger.1
Perhaps Dr Smith had standards of art criticism in mind when he helped to organize the UNESCO Seminar on Criticism in the Arts held during 20-24 May at the University of Sydney in the temporary headquarters of the Power Institute, although the discussion groups embraced literature, the visual arts, music, drama, film and television. The Seminar programme included ‘examining the function of the critic in the arts’ and ‘discussing the problems of contemporary criticism’. Any common ground or divergence of critics in the various arts was also to be investigated.
So far as the visual arts were concerned, these central questions were barely tackled. Although some of the main speakers in the plenary sessions raised stimulating and controversial issues, the problems they hinted at were rarely taken up at the afternoon group discussions. There, the speakers too often confined themselves to observations of a philosophical or psychological nature. Specific works of art were rarely mentioned, and the writings of contemporary art critics were spared critical examination.
However, another difficulty soon became apparent. Quite apart from any question of the critic’s ‘function’ or of ‘common ground’ between the various arts, there was a marked division of opinion on the very nature of art criticism itself. On one side was the critics’ ethereal world of ‘taste’, ‘intuition’ and the complexities of aesthetics, and on the other the more academic camp of the art historians, or ‘cultural relativists’ as they were soon labelled.
The main exponent of the ‘taste’ school of thought was the distinguished American art critic, Clement Greenberg. ‘Taste’, declared Mr Greenberg, ‘is the first credential of a critic’, but it cannot be ‘demonstrated’ to others. To attempt to demonstrate or explain taste would cause art to disappear or become irrelevant, lost in the conceptual wilderness of ‘classes’ and ‘definitions’. The primary obligation of the art critic, he contended, was to point to ‘quality’ in a work of art, and then perhaps express one’s reaction to it. Mr Greenberg practised what he preached. At a public colour slide showing of some recent work of the New York abstract expressionists, he pointed but did not explain. ‘I like this one’, he often enthusiastically exclaimed, ‘it shows real taste’; and at the other end of the scale, ‘this boy has a lot to learn’.
Mr Greenberg and his followers must be given their due. Even Tolstoy could not define art, and the most evocative verbal description is no substitute for the artistic experience itself. But the position is not hopeless. That the written word can be used to convey insights into the most complex work of art has been demonstrated by many writers in the past. When one hears Dr Arnold of Rugby exclaiming:
I cannot bear to stand for half an hour looking at pictures or landscapes that I know nothing about, or girls with fruit, or cottages, or schoolboys, or anything of that sort2
one tends to ask, ‘would a Berenson have helped?’
I think so. In fact, enlightened art criticism is today one of the most pressing needs of our society. More and more of the materially comfortable are turning to the art pages of their newspapers in the hope of adding a dimension to their lives, looking for a key to the mystery of modern art or even those paintings in the National Galleries which have cost them so much money.
But is it necessary to teach people to see? Doesn’t one merely have to open one’s eyes? Is not looking the key to understanding and appreciation? For some paintings this is true enough. For example, Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, even in the worst reproduction, conveys something of its vitality, and the subject matter is clear to any observer. But what of a painting such as ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ by Leonardo da Vinci? How can the art critic or educator help make ‘the invisible visible’ in such a complex work of art? Banal as it sounds, he may give or ask for a simple description.
‘Simply tell me what you see’, the great German art historian Adolf Goldschmidt asked of his pupils in Berlin in the ’twenties, and the technique is still valid today. A simple case may serve as an illustration. Almost everyone is familiar with Leonardo’s famous portrait of Mona Lisa. It has been printed on cards accompanying penny bars of chocolate, reproduced in newspapers, exploited in advertisements. But how many can describe the background on each side of the figure? Or remember how La Gioconda is holding her hands? Is she seated on a chair or on a balcony? What style of dress is she wearing?
Some might challenge the relevance of such detailed questions. But these questions were far from irrelevant for Leonardo, and only a limited view of art can see all his artistic skill concentrated in that mysterious smile. Not that it was unimportant to him. The enigmatic smile was a revelation of that ‘complex inner life’ the depiction of which, Sir Kenneth Clark tells us, was one of Leonardo’s chief aims. But did not Leonardo also believe that rocks were ‘part of the earth’s bones’, and were thus as worthy an object of study as human anatomy? Is it irrelevant that the pose of La Gioconda was ‘a great formal discovery’ gratefully acknowledged by Raphael and Corot in their work? Does not ‘quality’ in art include compositional skills?
Even this has been questioned. At the Seminar one speaker thought that ‘quality’ could be seen in a painting ‘at a glance’, while at the other extreme another believed it could be detected in the smallest fragment of a painting. The detail of a hand, or even a finger, in a portrait or group painting could reveal the artist’s skill to a trained observer and imply the quality of the remainder of the work.
Both these positions can be challenged. Experimental psychology has recently shown that vision is not as simple as one might think. In his small but classic work The Psychology of Study, Professor C. A. Mace writes, ‘In a momentary glance we perceive, at best, less than a ten millionth of what is before our eyes. It is sometimes said that the normal man cannot take in in a single glance more than about seven separate items’. One immediately thinks of Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’. Whom do we leave out? Yet as Professor Edgar Wind noted in his Reith Lectures of 1960, if we do leave out some of the figures in this monumental work, or fail to understand their significance and meaning, the composition itself cannot be read correctly. He writes,
By following the argument in Raphael’s painting we discover visual accents, modulations and correspondences which no one would notice who did not follow the thought. The visual articulation of the painting becomes transparent, and it reveals itself infinitely richer than a ‘pure’ vision, moving along the figures without grasping their sense, could possibly perceive. The eye focuses differently when it is intellectually guided.3
Professor Wind also has something to say on the cult of the fragment. The connoisseur of art, he believes, has ‘a disposition to sacrifice everything for freshness. His test is pure sensibility, a feeling for the authentic touch, and so he cultivates the genuine fragment, turning all art into intimate chamber art’. Professor Wind adds that although this ‘freshness’ as revealed in a fragment may be a suitable diagnostic tool of the connoisseur, to make it the sole or supreme criterion of artistic quality is a narrow view of both aesthetics and art.
Of course, only in a limited sense is the modern art critic a connoisseur in the old sense of the word. He does not identify masterpieces for rich clients. His job is much wider, and in a social sense, more valuable. By vocation and training he must resemble Oscar Wilde’s ‘true man of culture’;
… he, who by fine scholarship and fastidious rejection has made instinct self-conscious and intelligent, and can separate the work that has distinction from the work that has it not, and so by contact and comparison makes himself master of the secrets of style and school, and understands their meanings, and listens to their voices, and develops that spirit of disinterested curiosity which is the real root, as it is the real flower, of the intellectual life ….4
He must also possess sufficient literary skill to be able to re-create his experiences for the common reader. In order to bring the work of art to life he will need the widest range of critical equipment available, including the tools of his counterpart, the art historian. But he can make use of any method whatsoever as long as it works. ‘Who cares whether the critic leads us up the garden path,’ asked a questioner at the Seminar, ‘as long as he leads us into the House of Art?’ This is the whole crux of the matter. Does the criticism work? Does it, in fact, lead us into the golden halls of art, or does it leave us standing out in the cold forecourt, with perhaps more knowledge of the critic than of the work of art itself?
The art historian in his critical role must also ask this pragmatic question. Does his critical method work? If one takes the advice of the late Professor Erwin Panofsky given in his essay ‘The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline’ (later republished in Meaning in the Visual Arts) and gathers as much information as one can about a work of art—its age, author, medium; compares it with others in its class; examines writings on the aesthetic standards of the period; tries to identify its subject matter; separates the original contribution of its maker from that of forerunners and contemporaries; studies the formal and structural principles of the type of art concerned; and familiarizes oneself with the social, religious and philosophical attitudes of other countries and periods in order to correct one’s own subjective feeling for content—if we do all these things, will our aesthetic perception change accordingly? Will we then have a ‘recreative aesthetic experience’ which will be deeper and richer than that of the seeker after ‘pure’ form, or that of the ‘naive’ beholder, who merely ‘knows what he likes’?
Again, I think so. From my own experience, and the experience of my students, I have found that such investigations—even though it can be argued that they are not investigations into ‘art’—are invaluable in gaining an understanding of artistic periods and movements and a fuller response to individual works of art. Like most, I was familiar with Bernini’s sculptural group of ‘Saint Teresa in Ecstasy’. But after reading the text of St. Teresa herself, in which she vividly describes her ecstatic experience of the seraph with his ‘resplendent face’, Bernini’s masterpiece gained an unexpected imaginative dimension; there was a new fusion of form and content.
Some of Professor Panofsky’s criteria, will of course, be unsuitable for the criticism and analysis of some aspects of modern abstract art. One may not expect the critic to supply the date and social background of a work by say, Bridget Riley. But surely there are many occasions when the critic can profitably place the work in its context, compare it analytically with the work of other artists in its class, and relate this class to general movements. Again, the critic can profitably integrate his response to the work with his grasp of its wider background. One can also hope that he will begin to see his role as something more than ‘fault-finding and censure’ (Webster) and that something of his enthusiasm for a vital and important movement will infect us as much as his insights into a particular masterpiece.
Image credit: Akifukami
- Exhibition catalogue of paintings by Sidney Nolan, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1957, pp. 3-4.
- Quoted by G. Boas, The Heaven of Invention, John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1962, p. 38l.
- E. Wind, Art and Anarchy, Faber and Faber, London, 1963, p. 63.
- O. Wilde, Works, ed. G. F. Maine, Collins, London, 1948, p. 980.