Con­tem­po­rary art can­not be judged by the same no­tions of beauty we ap­ply to old masters, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Rex But­ler

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

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