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Aesthetics and Absolutes

Ralph Blumenau criticizes critics of criticism.

The history of the arts is studded with examples of art critics looking silly to later generations because they derided the work of men whose greatness is today regarded as unquestionable. Beethoven was criticized for the discord that opens the last movement of the Choral Symphony; Whistler was accused by Ruskin of flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public; the Impressionists evoked the contempt of the academies and first exhibited in the proudly named Salon des Refuses; Van Gogh sold only two paintings in his life and died penniless; and, on the other hand, we now think the inter-war mocking of the Victorian art became merely modish. As a result of all these critics being discredited, there are those, even in the highest places of today’s art establishment, who dare not make or back an aesthetic judgment, who are prepared to give gallery space for even the craziest experiments for fear that a future generation might likewise hold them up to ridicule for having rejected a work of genius. It often seems that the art establishment has simply lost confidence in its capacity to judge, not only from fear, but for a number of philosophical reasons as well.

Clearly there are no longer (if indeed there ever were) commonly accepted aesthetic values even among educated people: cultural relativism accompanies religious and moral relativism. We no longer accept so readily the criteria laid down by some high priest of aesthetics like Sir Joshua Reynolds. We smell narrow-mindedness and intolerance in attempts to work out (let alone lay down) rules of taste; and we are often quite unconscious of the narrowness and intolerance of iconoclasts who clearly enjoy the destruction of past values at least as much as the creation of new ones.

Finally, there is the revolt against elitism. There is the assertion that the experts’ pronouncements have no more validity than those of the ordinary person. In the words of the ‘sixties: “Who are you to tell me that Bach is better than the Beatles?”, or, more scoffingly, “Who are you to tell me that an arrangement of rectangles by Mondrian is any better than such an arrangement made by anyone at all, or that an action painting by Jackson Pollock is better than a doodle by you or me?”

Are there any grounds, then, on which we can base the assertion that there is some validity in aesthetic judgments? What is it that the expert can contribute to the appreciation of art?

There can surely be no argument about the statement that someone who has given much time to any activity tends to know a great deal more about it than someone who has not. I might assess the performance of a batsman simply by the number of runs he scores; but a cricket enthusiast might say of him that he was indeed an effective scorer of runs, but that his strokes lacked style, grace, fluency – all qualities of which the enthusiast is conscious because he has become knowledge able through much watching, comparing, discussing, and perhaps playing himself. If I were to say that I cannot detect these qualities, he would rightly pity me for what I am missing. Moreover, since I know that I have devoted no time to any serious study of cricket, I am very ready to accept both my deficiency and his expertise and discrimination.

Perhaps an element of native sensitivity comes into it as well. A violinist might play a note that is an eighth of a note too high or too low, and I might not notice it because my ear is not sensitive enough to hear such minute intervals; but I accept that to someone with absolute pitch the beauty of a passage would be spoilt by the slightest sharpness or flatness. To some extent most people can train themselves to hear more exactly, but this cannot be expected of someone who may be slightly tone-deaf. In the same way the relationship between rectangles in a Mondrian or between the figures of a Raphael may possess a subtle rightness which only a trained sensitivity can appreciate. Jackson Pollock discarded the great majority of the paintings in which he had allowed a large element of chance to play a part, and he exhibited only those few in which the chance configuration of lines, textures, and colours seemed to him “just right”; and critics trained in the appreciation of relationships have singled out his selection of action paintings from those of hundreds of avant garde painters whose works lack this delicate balance.

Of course there is no one definable criterion of relationships that is common to all trained critics: the subjective element must come into it. Asymmetry, for example, may create an exciting tension; but it can easily topple over into ugliness, and critics may disagree on exactly where the dividing line between these two might be. The disagreement may be due to their psychological response to tension: the point at which tension ceases for them to be exciting and becomes disturbing. Or it may depend even on the critic’s physical make-up: for example, whether he is himself tall or short. The point is not that there is an absolute relationship, but that the work of art is approached with aesthetic sensitivities to relationships of colour, line, texture or form; for this is at the heart of all great art, whether ancient or modern. The difference is merely that modern abstract art often deals entirely with such relationships, whereas earlier artists used them as a skeleton on which to build up some kind of representational matter.

Of course the representational matter is enormously important, too. Indeed, it may be powerful enough to appeal entirely in its own right to the untrained mind. Such a mind may respond to a representation of, for example, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus because of the appeal of the subject matter: a beautiful, wistful nude borne on a large shell towards the shore where an attendant is holding out a cloak ready to receive her.

But someone who responds merely to the subject matter as just described might derive exactly the same pleasure from a pin-up that may not be a work of art at all. The aesthetic response to this painting is on a different level. It will delight in the formal qualities of the work – the relationship between the shell and the shore, or between the shell and the architecture created by the figures, or between the flowing lines of much of the picture set off or contained by the rigid tree-trunks on the right. Then the representational matter evokes its own aesthetic response: the deliberate blend of Christian and pagan symbolism, representative of a period that tried to find a synthesis between the classical and the Christian world; the ambivalent meaning of nudity in the picture, playing on the quite unerotic symbolism contained in the phrase “the naked truth” which is veiled when it dwells on the land among men. The wistful expression of Venus then becomes not merely titillation experienced at the sight of a vulnerable and bashful nude, but speaks of the sadness that mankind cannot take the naked Truth. The picture becomes as rich in allusions as a great poem whose quality is revealed as layer upon layer of meaning is discovered by a mind which is trained in appreciation.

I hope I have said enough to show that a certain respect for the aesthetic judgments of the critic is defensible. The critic may indeed be fallible, bound by the conventions of his time, too ready to condemn the new and unfamiliar. He may also be too snobbish in rejecting what he has not tried to understand: the enthusiast of jazz and perhaps even of rock music can often discriminate more subtly between good and bad jazz, good and bad rock, than will a music critic who deems a study of these art forms as beneath him. When all this has been said, however, the worst offence, in art as in morals, is the stance that one man’s judgment is as good as another’s; that because there can be no absolute standards, there can be absolutely no standards. Ignorance is no sin; but there are things to be known, however imperfectly; there are sensitivities to be recognized, though these may occasionally have blind spots; and there are things to be learnt, to enrich our response to what great art has to tell us.

© Ralph Blumenau 1991

Ralph Blumenau teaches philosophy at the University of the Third Age, in London.

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