Contemporary art cannot be judged by the same notions of beauty we apply to old masters, writes
IN his recent article in Review (‘‘ Here’s Looking at You’’, June 13), University of Melbourne philosopher John Armstrong laments the passing of aesthetics as a way of thinking about art. ‘‘ It is an intellectual scandal that the question of artistic value is almost always ignored, dodged or postponed,’’ he writes.
Armstrong’s reasoning is that because our aesthetic engagement with works of art is subjective, it is excluded from the academic study of art, which seeks to reduce our knowledge to objective facts.
All of this is interesting, Armstrong contends, but it doesn’t touch the true goal of engagement with art: to be able to say, in a way that means something to us, what is so good about the work. Without a sense of aesthetics, we are unable to say what is of ‘‘ real and substantial value’’, why in some works and not others we have the expression of some ‘‘ deep human worth’’.
When read closely — and I hope I am paraphrasing him correctly — there is a subtle tension in Armstrong’s remarks. On the one hand, he advocates the aesthetic response because it is subjective; on the other, for him, it appears to indicate something objective about the work, some deep human worth.
Philosopher Immanuel Kant, on whom Armstrong draws, says neither of these things. Aesthetics is neither simply subjective nor objective: this, for Kant, was the antimony — two contradictory things that are true at the same time — he sought to overcome.
In an attempt to reconcile these two contradictory impulses, Kant thought of beauty not as universal but as universalistic. Aesthetic value was not a matter of individual preference or of anything found in the work but was suggested by a consensus around the work that, although always historically determined, hinted at some- thing beyond history. It was a brilliant and revolutionary idea, and without it aesthetics tends to degenerate into a solipsistic confirmation of one’s own cultural milieu or the assumption of common underlying human values: the classic markers, I would say, of conservatism, both artistic and political.
This conservatism leaves aesthetics defenceless, without the resources to defend itself against the challenges of modernity. Such a position is unable to explain how aesthetics might have fallen into disrepute in the contemporary discussion of art — beyond the suggestion of some vague academic conspiracy — and so can make only a feeble and impotent call for its return.
In other words, Armstrong fails to see that the true challenge to aesthetics arises not from without art but from within it. It is not its academic commentators who are to blame but the historical destiny of art itself.
And it ignores the possibilities and opportunities for thinking about art in ways that tell us why it still matters. It is perhaps no longer in terms of beauty that art is best understood but in terms of affect, fascination, immersion, spectacle. This is not a matter for lament — a useless nostalgia — but the opening up of art to an unknown and unpredictable future. The ultimate paradox may be that the next Kant in the history of art — in just that kind of cultural continuity argued for by Armstrong — would have to break in every way with the Kant we think we know now. They would have to rethink in just as novel and unexpected a way as Kant did the categories we apply to art.
To try to make some of this clearer, think of one of the iconic representations of an artist in the 20th century: Hans Namuth’s 1950 photographs of Jackson Pollock making one of his drip paintings. What is it that Namuth’s photos tell us? They give us two ways of making and thinking about art that run through its subsequent history.
On the one hand, we see Pollock in the process of moment to moment decision- making while wet paint is dripping off his stick. Like a great jazz musician improvising on a tune, Pollock is instantaneously taking into account where to put his next mark in terms of the proper balance, colours and the relationship of foreground to background that will make his painting right.
In this, Pollock continues while renovating the long tradition of composing a picture as one complete ‘‘ all- over’’, as critic Clement Greenberg called it, that had run through the previous 100 years, all the way from Manet’s Bar at the FoliesBergere through Monet’s waterlilies and Cezanne’s mountains, and up to Picasso’s portraits and still lifes.
Pollock, in this light, can be seen to be working through the problem of how to put together figure and ground that was left unresolved by the analytic cubism of Picasso and Braque.
Greenberg, the great critic of Pollock’s time, understood that it’s only in so far as a work belongs to a tradition that one can begin to assess its aesthetic quality.
It was this understanding of Pollock that led to a whole school of gestural abstraction and colour field painting, in which the most minute matters of pictorial composition and visual discrimination assumed an absolute importance. Each new contribution to the history of painting had to take on the full weight of previous history in trying to advance ways of successfully composing a picture.
Literally, but also metaphorically, the task of painting was how to declare its boundaries, how to mark itself off from the rest of the world, how not to be mistaken, as it grew more and more abstract, for anything else.
The stories of Pollock trimming the edges of his canvas after completing his paintings to provide a meaningful cut- off point are revealing: they tell us that the boundaries distinguishing it were an important part of the work. If we look at Blue Poles in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, for instance, we will see how the eight vertical lines running across the canvas give the work an internal rhythm and rhyme with the outside frame.
This problem of composing a picture that holds together is an essentially artistic problem that Pollock understood himself to be working through and that connects his ‘‘ all- overs’’ with a whole line of similar works from within the history of art. It is indeed this concentration on the definition of the medium that can be seen to run through any number of 20th- century art forms: theatre is about the conventions of the stage, music about the sounds of the instruments, poetry and the novel about language.
This is the modernist reading of Pollock and it precisely allows taste or aesthetic judgment, both by Pollock when making his paintings and by us in looking at them afterwards.
But there is another, equally powerful way of understanding Namuth’s photos, one that in many ways is more convincingly demonstrated by the subsequent course of art, and that is the postmodernist one. In laying the canvas on the ground and walking on it, Pollock does away with the distance necessary for aesthetic reflection. The work and the artist leave the rarefied realm of art and enter the everyday world of objects.
Pollock no longer composes his paintings but performs them and what is important is not their final form but the process of bringing them about. This is the reading of his work originally put forward by Greenberg’s great intellectual rival at the time, Harold Rosenberg, when he dubbed Pollock’s work action paintings.
What is emphasised is not opticality ( Greenberg’s term for the way something looks) and the problems of composition but tactility and the refusal of composition. Pollock, in a sense, is no longer making paintings but unidentified artistic objects that are more like a mural in their architectural scale or a sculpture in the way we share the same space as they do.
If one looks at Blue Poles carefully, one will indeed find bottle tops, matches, coins, footprints and handprints: all evidence that this is not a work inhabiting a transcendental aesthetic space but an object subject to the same strains and stresses as the rest of us.
It is this understanding of Pollock that has led to such heterogeneous artistic movements as performance art, minimalist sculpture and installation art. None of these properly belong to a prior history of art; we can hardly bring relevant artistic comparisons to bear. They are not really art at all and the experience they offer us is not an aesthetic one but more like theatre, amusement, a game or an intellectual puzzle.
This is what, for example, allows for the modern forms of so- called political art ( another of Armstrong’s betes noires) with their preoccupation with challenging the preconceptions of viewers and making them the subject of the work. All this can be understood as flowing from Pollock’s inaugural gesture of entering the work of art itself.
The result, for those who believe in art in the sense of unchanging, ahistorical values — deep human worth — is undoubtedly depressing and disillusioning. Art no longer offers an escape from everyday life, a higher realm of feeling and reflection, but is absolutely rooted in the world. Indeed, as much as anything, art attempts to destroy what it sees as the aesthetic illusion, the false alternative that art seems to offer to real social change. However, it is not by avoiding this situation or denying its origins in some deep logic inherent in Western art that we may think about it properly. It does nothing — as the impotence of critics railing against contemporary art every week testifies — to call for the return of the aesthetic, to the way things used to be.
Today everything is different. Museums have to rethink how they present art to gallery- goers. Gallery- goers, for their part, have to rethink how they engage — or not — with art.
We can judge a good art critic, or indeed a philosopher, as one who does not rush to judgment, who understands that all the categories by which we think of art ( beauty, aesthetics, human values) are questioned by art, who refuses to generalise and instead discusses specific cases. At least in part, we must seek to judge art in terms of the criteria it sets.
To do otherwise is simply, speaking, to beg the question.
It is perhaps not finally a matter of conservative and progressive critics but of better and worse. I, for one, have not entirely given up on the possibility of the aesthetic evaluation of art but would say that aesthetics is in crisis, and has been at least since Baudelaire’s famous remark to Manet that he ( Manet) was the first in ‘‘ the decrepitude’’ of his art.
philosophically Rex Butler lectures in art history at the University of Queensland.
Masters new and old: Opposite page, top, Jackson Pollock at work in 1950, photographed by Hans Namuth; below, Pollock’s Blue Poles hanging in the National Gallery of Australia; this page, Rembrandt’s SelfPortrait as the Apostle Paul , 1661