Leonardo Thinks

TO THE RESCUE OF ART by Rudolf Arnheim

Historical Opinion by Rudolf Arnheim

Rudolf Arnheim comments on why art remains important to society and cultures.
To the Rescue of Art

One thing that seems to occur, and perhaps ought to occur as one gets older, is that one’s thinking changes location. In the building that houses our interests one begins to move toward the attic and the basement, away from those central floors where the practical life and the issues of the day are being tackled.

The attic-that is the lofty place where philosophy dwells. To my mind, the move to the attic is not a change of occupation. Philosophy is not really a discipline of its own. Rather it is the superstructure of each discipline-in our case that of the practice and the history of art and the study of the functions of art in society and in the life of the individual. The pursuit of each discipline implies questions that have a way of remaining unexamined or of being taken care of in a slipshod, irresponsible way. Take as an example the question: What is art? People are reluctant to deal with it. They find it embarrassing, unnecessary, unanswerable. Yet, inevitably, the question is being answered by implication in every artist’s or art historian’s or critic’s practical conduct; and if the answer is not good enough, neither will be the conduct it inspires.

Problems like these shed their particular embodiment as one’s thinking moves to the attic. They stare you in the face, naked like a model without its clothes. They are what it all comes down to in the last analysis. And the time for that last analysis gets to be now or never.

Then there is the basement of the building that houses our interests. The basement is the foundation on which it all rests. Unless that foundation is sound, the whole busy production on the central floors is shaky, questionable, exposed to catastrophic crises. And here again fundamental questions, philosophical principles, constitute the building blocks. When they are of cheap material and sloppily put together, they make for danger upstairs. Thus after you have labored on those central floors for many years without drawing explicit conclusions from the danger signs, the time comes when like a thoughtful home owner you take a flashlight and descend to the basement to knock at the walls and the supports.

Most of us will agree that in our particular area of work and at this particular time those supports sound hollow. In practice as well as in theory the very existence of art, its basic nature and values, is being disputed. It is a disease, easily diagnosed but not so easily understood in its causes. I cannot do more here than point to some of the symptoms. In the practice of the art world the most significant sign is that anything goes. Some very good art is being made in our time, but, as always, much is mediocre. This, it seems to me, is no longer acknowledged. Not that the average critic likes everything he sees, but the fact that something is too simple, too shallow, too easy, or too vulgar is no longer a cause for disapproval.

This decay of the standards of value pervades our civilization. How much can be done about this illness I do not know, but one of its consequences is a more manageable evil, one we may be able to combat. The decay of standards has led to the theoretical assertion that aesthetic value is a mere illusion. The notion that art can be good or bad is supposed to have no basis in fact or, at best, to rely on purely subjective judgment. This view has devastated theoretical reasoning like the Black Death, to the extent of being practically unopposed.

It is easy to find examples of this fashionable attitude. I will refer to a recent article I came across in Leonardo, written by David Carrier and entitled “On the Possibility of Aesthetic Atheism: Philosophy and the Market in Art” (Leonardo no.18, (1985): 35-38). Carrier describes usefully what he calls the cynical approach to aesthetics, without, he says, either adopting or rejecting it himself. He fails, however, to present the opposite position and thereby stacks the cards in a manner that prevents him from truly clarifying the issue.

Aesthetic atheism is meant to refer to the view “that people might cease to believe that artworks possess the qualities traditionally called aesthetic” (p. 35). The aesthetic atheist, says Carrier, wants us to stop making art. To parallel religious atheism, such a doctrine would have to go beyond asserting that people no longer apply aesthetic standards or that the art produced now no longer meets such criteria. It would have to propose that art objects never possessed and perhaps cannot possess the properties we call aesthetic. I am reminded of a joke that circulated some years ago about someone saying: “God is dead, Art is dead, and I myself do not feel very peppy!”

The notion that art can be done without is maintainable only if, in a myopic fashion, one counts art among the minor things that come and go in society, things like hoop skirts or tobacco smoking. Let me compare the situation with another area of human needs: it is as though one were to reason about things to eat not by talking about food as an indispensable nutrient of organisms but about Japanese sashimi or Greek retsina wine-things liked by some but unknown to others. The idea that artistic experience does not exist becomes inconceivable as soon as one thinks about art as it must be thought about in the attic, namely, in a broad, biological manner as an essential aspect of how human beings cope with the task of life. Human beings face the challenge of dealing with a world that seems puzzling, hard to comprehend, unpredictable. They are vitally in need of making sense of their environment. Science and art are the professionalized versions of the two ways our minds have developed to that end. One of them, science, is the extraction of intellectual principles that enable us to understand observed events. The other, art, lets us experience the powers constituting the world in clarified, orderly and impressive images. If we were deprived of one of those two means of handling our existence, we would survive either not at all or in an inhuman manner.

Instead of dealing with art as some fundamental function such as perceiving or thinking or the instincts of procreation or self-preservation, the author of the article I quoted chooses to deal with the art market, a scene that seems indeed to demonstrate that artistic value has been replaced by the sales price. A Rembrandt drawing is a fine thing, but this is not why thousands of dollars are paid for it. And people who have enough money to afford any price but cannot afford to trust their own sense of quality buy things they should be able to recognize as ugly or silly. The art market is indeed a rewarding subject of investigation. But to believe that the art market can be used to tell us what is art is as politically naive as to assume that the forces running our particular capitalist society are the laws of nature.

Not even in our own setting is the art market anything more significant than an embarrassing distortion of the innumerable blessings received every day by millions of people. Think of the art lovers that crowd the museums and put pictures on their walls. Talk to artists about what their minds gain by what their hands produce. Their standards of quality, as I observed earlier, may be shaky; but the genuineness of their aesthetic experience should not be doubted.

It is here, however, that our fashionable sceptics interrupt us. They insist that the beauty and the greatness supposedly possessed by some works of art are nothing but arbitrary standards imposed upon us by the culture in general and the critics in particular. These sceptics may not deny that artistic experience exists, but they assure us that since one man’s Picasso is the other man’s Norman Rockwell, one picture or sculpture or music is as good as the next. This doctrine, known as aesthetic relativism, is less patently absurd than the atheism we heard about, but for that reason it is all the more dangerous. It takes off from the obviously correct observation that different people enjoy different things and that works of art highly praised at one time are dismissed as inferior some other time. In fact, under varying conditions people do not even see or hear the same things. A Romanesque mural we look at today is not the same picture its contemporaries saw in the context of their own religious and stylistic conventions.

From these undeniable facts there derives the idea of the work of art as a tabula rasa, an empty screen with no properties of its own, upon which one projects any character and value one chooses to find there. The result is the vision of a ghostly world populated by meaningless things and by deluded persons who agree on nothing and therefore can agree on anything.

It does not take much observation to discover that the notion of the tabula rasa does not fit the facts. Modified though an image may be by a particular observer’s idiosyncrasies, it obviously is not an empty screen. A distinctly shaped object presents itself as a stimulus, as psychologists call it. Psychologists will also tell us that, with the exception of hallucinations, all percepts are responses to stimuli and that, to act as stimuli, target patterns must possess a character of their own.

The next thing we realize when we examine the relativist’s tricks is that the responses to works of art cannot be said to be arbitrary. Every time a given target meets a given percipient, the resulting experience derives lawfully from the characteristics of the target in its interaction with the properties of the perceiving mind. We can tell with some assurance, for example, why Mussolini liked futurism whereas Hitler did not. With enough psychological insight we are able to understand and even to predict what will happen when a mind of known qualities receives the equally known properties of a piece of art. Given the variety of minds, this does lead to an infinite variety of responses, but the strict lawfulness of all of them is a far cry from the nihilistic vision of the total arbitrariness that is supposed to be the outcome. And, of course, once the irrationality of the situation has to be given up, the doctrine loses much of its attraction for its cynical defenders.

What we are left with is not the kind of chaos some unhappy people enjoy. It is rather an aspect of the world in which we are lucky enough to live-a world in which a colorful variety of infinite appearances is held together by laws that allow us to envisage the underlying order and to find our way. Nor does the variety of responses mean that they are all equally valid. In practice we all operate on the assumption that what we call good or bad, beautiful or ugly, is objectively so; and even the theorizer who holds forth on the relativism of all values gives in tacitly when it comes to a painting he acquires for his living room or the woman he loves.

What justifies this violation of the relativist’s own standards? To speak of values such as good and bad or beautiful and ugly makes sense only when one answers the question: Valuable for what? A good painting is one that is good for satisfying certain needs; and those needs vary. But the needs cannot be said to be all of the same level, if we accept the demand that they help to develop human nature to its fullest and richest realization. Once we commit ourselves to this ideal and are aware of the virtues it entails, we can indeed prove that in entirely objective terms a Picasso serves the demands more effectively than a Norman Rockwell, a Beethoven quartet more than a pop concert. The values promoted by the greater works are the obvious ones: intensity, depth, originality, essentiality, clarity, truthfulness, and so forth. This still leaves everybody free to prefer the equally objective values of noncommittal shallowness, mindless stimulation, trivial sweetness, or violent confusion. I see no objection to this, provided we can agree that the difference matters.

Rudolf Arnheim (1904—2007) was International Co-Editor of Leonardo for many years. A bibliography of his Leonardo articles, reviews, commentaries and letters, published from 1968—2000 and compiled by Patrik Lambelet, is available at http://leonardo.info/isast/spec.projects/arnheimleobib.html.
ISSN No: 1071-4391
Author: Rudolf Arnheim, International Co-Editor
Originally published in: Leonardo Vol. 19, No. 2 (1986), pp. 95-97
Print: ISSN 0024-094X, Online : ISSN 1530-9282, DOI: http://www.jstor.org/pss/1578269
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