The attack on value in 20th century art

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  • Hisrq o/European Ideas, Vol. II. pp 481-491. 1989 Printed in Great Britam

    0191~6599/89 $3.00 + 0 00 0 1990 Pergamon Press plc



    In the Victorian era a whole variety of cultural critics launched debates which continue to resonate in our time. Responding to conditions which have not improved in the last hundred years, the poet and critic Matthew Arnold sought to defend high culture from the predatory types to whom he assigned the epithet Philistine. The so-called barbarian aristocrats he described more mildly as children of the established fact who could respond only to art and ideas that were soothingly familiar. The emergent and increasingly numerous middle-class of bourgeois philistines he described as stiff-necked in their resistance to anything that had pretensions to being really serious or demanding. In fact, Arnolds criticism is chiefly directed not at the idle rich or at the poor and uneducated but at the middle-class, who had opportunities and advantages but in effect wasted them. Writing in Culture and Anarchy in 1867, Arnold wondered why it should have been so hard for the philistines to accept that certain things were better than others, that it was possible to erect standards by which to evaluate quality in art and in experience generally.

    Arnold had good reason to believe that the middle classes of his day had no use for serious art, and that they regarded with contempt persons who dedicated themselves to producing first-rate paintings and poems. But those of us who grant much of what Arnold says are generally reluctant to accept his definition of culture as the study of perfection. Like other ideas, perfection in our time is thought to have more to do with the eye of the beholder than with the intrinsic virtues of a particular painting or poem. Maybe-so we have been taught to feel-the resistance to any idea of a best painting, or a best poem or play or sculpture, is a healthy resistance. Maybe the contempt Arnold had for people who read crap instead of Jane Austen, who responded more warmly to commercial illustrations than to the paintings of Turner, was no more than an expression of Arnolds elitism. Maybe the fuss and bother about masterpieces was only the effort of certain people-like Arnold-to make themselves feel important at the expense of others.

    If this sounds familiar, it should. Though the museums in New York and Boston and Paris and London are packed with middle-class culture vultures determined to soak up masterpieces, there is a strong sentiment on behalf of the new, the raw, the uncooked, the defiantly imperfect and even unworthy, which dominates the scene today. Arnolds Philistine no longer exists in the way Arnold described him. Today, Arnold would direct his criticism not at a newly affluent person with no patience for serious art but at a reasonably well educated person who has been conditioned to deny that there are masterpieces or that it is

    *Department of English, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866, U.S.A. 481

  • 482 Robert Boyers

    worthwhile to discriminate between one painting and another by invoking exalted standards. Such a person might well be able to rattle off the names of dozens of famous painters and demonstrate an acquaintance with the permanent holdings of the Met, the Tate, the Louvre and the Uffizi. But that acquaintance would not inspire any special reverence for the ideal of perfection in general or for the ravishing merits of particular paintings. The successor to Arnolds Philistine would be stiff-necked in a new way, resistant not to the necessity of looking and learning but to the idea that it is spiritually and intellectually beneficial to make distinctions expressed in the vocabulary of value. Arnold today would direct his attack at those who feel they are too sophisticated to discriminate by using terms like flawed, easy, glib or pandering. Its okay today to like one thing more than another, but its not okay to believe youre right to like it, or to feel that your preferring Julian Schnabel, say, to Lucian Freud or Anselm Kiefer is somehow a sign of an essential vulgarity or deficiency in you. Arnold often stressed the importance of a conscience in intellectual and aesthetic matters, so that a person might actually feel ashamed of responding to something unworthy. Today, anyone who felt ashamed that way would be a candidate for therapy, and would promptly find a therapist whod tell him to abandon guilt and love himself for liking whatever he liked.

    Of course any question of value is always bound to be fraught with difficulty. Even an old-fashioned, unrepentant Arnoldian knows it can be hard to get someone to share your premises. But you face another kind of dilemma entirely when you confront someone who tells you that standards are a screen or cover by means of which a dominant class attempts to control the market or set the terms of cultural debate. Why has Rembrandt for long been considered a great painter? Ignorant souls may have thought his reputation had something to do with various kinds of technical mastery combined with the painters mysterious capacity to individualise his subjects, to make them breathe their own air, assume their own space, even think their own idiosyncratic thoughts. Not so, we are lately instructed by an eminent art historian named Svetlana Alpers, herself a distinguished specimen of the contemporary type Arnold would mistrust. In a book entitled Rembrandts Enterprise, MS Alpers tells us that what we had been foolish enough to regard as the unique individual presence achieved by Rembrandts subjects was nothing special after all. It was just another marketable effect, the individuality effect , as MS Alpers calls it. Rembrandt was thus not a great painter with an extraordinary vision. He was a salesman, like everyone else, and what he was selling just happened to be a product-the individuality effect - which would-be bourgeois individualists have especially coveted for more than three hundred years. Rembrandt may have been more skillful in achieving the desired effect than others who aimed at it, but to think of his paintings themselves as therefore entitled to special esteem is ridiculous. To use those paintings as standards by which to judge other works would be to fall for the ideas of beauty, mysterious sufficiency, and visionary intensity which may no longer be permitted to tempt us.

    The problems we confront when we talk about value today are, then, different from the problems with which earlier generations have grappled. The English writer John Ruskin in 1843 made a case for the painter J.M.W. Turner which shocked some of their contemporaries, and there is no doubt that Ruskins attack

  • The Attack on Value in 20th Century Art 483

    on traditional conceptions of artistic value has had far-reaching consequences. But its hard to draw a straight line from Ruskin to Svetlana Alpers or, indeed, to many young painters on the scene today. Ruskin argued that artistic rank could not be established by judging the quantity of errors or faults in a painting. It was no more reasonable to condemn a landscape by Claude Lorrain because of obvious errors in the handling of perspective than to condemn the poems of Shakespeare because he couldnt spell. When it came to the late paintings of Turner it was necessary not only to forgive obvious errors but to perceive a beauty in the failure which none are able to equal. To appreciate the perfection of Turner was, for Ruskin, to abandon narrow ideas of value and accomplishment. The obvious failings in late Turner paintings were to be regarded as signs of impatience and passion belonging to a supreme artist who feels too much, and knows too much, and has too little time to say it in. One could not excuse slovenliness in paintings generally, or make a general virtue out of impatience or uncontrollable feeling. But one could work to see what was fine and special in a particular case, and then conclude that the flaws in this case were somehow inextricably bound up with the achievement. The perfection of Turner was to be seen in his sense of priorities. The value one attributed to his late paintings had everything to do with his vision and his intensity and his determination to express the inexpressible. A sense of value more focussed on the niceties of ordinary execution would be unable to make a case for a great painter like Turner.

    In our own century the most innovative and radical assault on the idea of aesthetic value was launched by Marcel Duchamp. This assault was made possible by Duchamps invention of the work of art as a machine for producing meanings, quite as Octavia Paz has described it. So persistent was Duchamp in his effort that he entirely redirected attention away from the art object as the sensuous embodiment of values and towards the object as a critical idea. Think, for example, of a Duchamp ready-made. By presenting anonymous objects as works of art, Duchamp initiated the critique of aesthetic value which remains so important a part of the art scene today. Duchamp did not want his urinals or bottle racks to be appreciated for their charm or grace or symmetry. He wanted his objects to make a statement, to demonstrate that anything could be made to seem acceptable if it became familiar, and that modern art could be useful only if it refused to appeal to values or to constitute a value in itself. The ready-mades were to be seen as critical gestures, expressions of an ironic disdain for ordinary aesthetic values and for the refinements of sophisticated taste. They were to signify the artists freedom from all conventions of value, craftsmanship and inspiration.

    Such a project obviously represents a considerable development beyond anything to be found in Ruskin. Duchamp in effect argues not only that