The painting and following essay to Arthur C. Danto came about as a result of finding substantive quotation from a letter I had written to him in 1995 in his book, After the End of Art. The letter was dated December 29, 1997 and contains much of my thinking at that time concerning the history and theory of painting. The following is Copyright © 1997 by Melville Holmes.
Dear Professor Danto,
“Painting Like Rembrandt” After the End of Art
With much appreciation I have read your recent philosophical discourse on the nature of art at the end of the 20th century, After the End of Art. It was delightful to find quotations from my June 1995 letter to you and that you thought it “a powerful communication, . . . about which [you] have thought enough to . . . build [the] last chapter of [your] text around it.” (p. 209) Reading to the end, however, I realized that a misconstruing of my dilemma eventually led you to create the “the artist who learned to paint like Rembrandt [who] discovered that the world had no room for his gifts, which belonged to another period altogether,” the tragic twin of Van Meegeren, the master of fake Vermeers (p. 217), and I am not entirely sure how this should be taken. Caricatures are usually reserved for public figures and not dissident artists whose work has rarely been seen so I probably should not call it that, though there is some confusion because of the close association between the ideas you seek to address and the man you describe. Upon reflection, there is no need to presume that the issue was here intentionally circumvented by converting the live artist to an easy to knock down “man of straw,” that is, substituting a less than vital disputation for the real one. Happily, there is enough evident misunderstanding, and the implications seem important enough for the modalities of art possible in our period, to warrant an attempt from my end to clarify the situation, in the hope that, through dialogue, we may even find the possibilities available to the contemporary artist to have been expanded.
Of the many reasons to be grateful for your text, perhaps the greatest is the way you have succeeded in laying out clearly, logically, and readably, the development and the condition of the present “art world,” at least in terms most widely circulated among its elite circles, from a philosophical perspective. Your panorama of the “Vasarian” period of representational art, followed by the Modern era dominated by “Greenbergian” abstract formalism, sets a stage whereupon the playing out of post-Modern art can be plainly viewed. We may now better reevaluate our options and constraints. You have displayed simply the governing philosophical background behind the moving forms of contemporary art. Many have picked up bits and pieces of concepts and words they repeat but are unaware of the theoretical character of artistic beliefs they take for granted, though as a painter whose motivation has been to show that serious, straight representational painting like that of the Old Masters can be done in these times, I have had to consider these questions for more than 25 years.
It is an abiding question whether, as so many have been taught, the quest for more perfect imitation of appearances, until photography came along, adequately summarizes artistic aspirations from Giotto to modernism, or indeed the thought of Vasari. He was after all not a realist but a classicist,1 in which system nature was to be improved upon by art, which alone could add harmony, grace, and beauty. If this “first period is marked by mastering ways to get more and more reliable pictures of the external world,” as you put it (p. 68), the story might as well have stopped with Van Eyck, at the beginning of the oil painting tradition, with maybe a little epilogue on linear perspective.
Of course there was a story, but since it was characterized by things other than imitation alone, it could also be debated whether the threat of photography to mimetic painting might have been more perceptual than real. That the prophecy of the smooth academician, Delaroche, that with the advent of photography painting was dead never came true may have more to do with a lack in the technology of photography than later events in the history of painting. Having perused hundreds of books and magazines on interior design over the years, one relatively rarely sees photographs in prominent positions, especially of any size, which may be at least partly attributable to the relative fragility and insubstantiality of the photographic emulsion, compared to, say, oil paint on canvas. Though some people want a mechanical look in their art, most evidently also want to see paint, and a human touch, Komar and Melamid’s surveys corresponding with what we largely see on people’s walls. In their first poll, 60% of Americans preferred very realistic paintings, but 53% favored seeing brushstrokes to a perfectly smooth, photographic surface.2
If photography never did have the power to kill mimetic painting and if, as in your thesis, abstract formalism is not sufficient as a philosophical “essence” of art, this is a serious one-two punch to the authority of those who announced the ascendancy of Modernism over all other artistic options on the basis of formalist theory. You have done another tremendous service in calling attention to the exclusionary dogmatism of much Modernist ideology, which seems at times to have been close to bigotry. Instead of being held as the one, true torch bearer of the onward progress of the human spirit in its time, Modernism can now be seen as simply another mode of art alongside the representational modes so many people love. If the theoretical “knowledge” which gave supremacy to those who claimed that abstract “purity” represented a legitimate and absolute change of cultural dynasty has turned out to be flawed and those who rose to the top by its means turn out to have been mistaken, the explanation might be found in the very scenario you, with rare honesty, laid out concerning the trends in postwar academic philosophy. An ideology became institutionalized. One couldn’t get into the system without conforming to it and, once inside, only the most stalwart could openly rethink. (pp.141-143) We are now culturally in a state of things after the collapse of theoretical Modernism perhaps analogous to present day Russia. There, it was once enough to invoke the higher authority of Party doctrine, but now communists must prove that they have something workable. Here, the knowledge of Modernist theory that distinguished the expert from the ignorant masses can no longer be appealed to. Now, without a “general theory of quality,” as you put it (p. 95), that can encompass all of art, the expert must redefine his or her criteria or fall into the appearance of mere subjectivity I complained of in my letter to you.
Though perhaps a mere coincidence, it seems worth considering that there were roughly as many years of the supremacy of Modern formalist theory as there were of Soviet Communism, and people at large were never deeply converted to either. It is a happy irony that it was the pioneering work of a pair of ex-Soviet dissident Modernists, the courageous artistic pollsters, Komar and Melamid, who first went to the people themselves, of every race, gender, educational level, and economic status, to finally ask them what they wanted in art. With humanity and a sense of humor they have given their report that, nearly across the spectrum, people prefer representational paintings and, to understate their findings, are largely unmoved by abstraction. You are to be thanked for bringing their watershed work into the realm of post-modern artistic philosophy.
There are many reasons to be grateful for your book, though there are also questions that arise from all you have brought out into the open, which may continue to be discussed for a long time to come. Your contributions are many and I shall continue to value your breadth of knowledge, humanity, and lively intellect. For the present, my own difficulties arise in the last chapter, which you note in the Acknowledgments “contains that part of this book for the sake of which [you] really wrote it.”
*** *** ***
The confusion in “my” chapter, Chapter 11, starts with the phrase “painting like Rembrandt,” which was not a phrase I had used to characterize my endeavors, though your term could work. The thing would be to agree on what we mean by it.
Looking back to my “epiphany,” I used that word to describe a kind of direct speaking, an intuitively received insight, as distinguished from wholesale acceptance of something I heard somewhere or developed through reason. One of the functions of our rational faculty is to test the validity of what comes by intuition and you are perfectly right to subject my little revelation to critique. It has two sides, corresponding exactly to the two conditions you develop as essential for a thing to be a work of art, namely (i) “a dignified noble humanity that transcends its own age and ours,” i.e., content and (ii) “a rich matrix of paint applied with the utmost intelligence,” i.e., the means of presentation or “embodiment.” On the first condition there is evident accord. There is such a thing as timeless, humane content and it is theoretically possible “to transmit that message ourselves.”
It is the second side, the means of presentation, about which you write, “Still, it does not follow that the painting itself, as painting, ‘transcends its own age and ours,’” and “we must find means other than those he used.” You proceed to speak of Rembrandt’s “heavy darks and mysterious lights,” his “style,” which you say “is too closely identified with him, and with his time, to be available to us to use.”
Here the argument you forged earlier in the chapter about historical constraints and the distinction between “use” and “mention” finds its presumed target, but I am somewhat at a loss to grasp in practical terms what you are saying is and is not possible to use, and here may be the occasion for a brief anecdote. Our great Ice Storm of 1996 left us without electric power for some eleven days, during which time candles were our main source of light, supplemented by burning logs in the fireplace, which were our only source of heat in the constant freezing, snowy weather. As I chopped wood in the middle of the night to keep our birds alive, it seemed this was reality and that industrial civilization and media culture are the fragile veneer that insulate us from the truth. One evening, a friend came over for dinner and our conversation lasted long into the flickering darkness. We found ourselves back in the world of Rembrandt, Le Nain, and Georges de la Tour! In one sense, Caravaggio’s own “transfiguration of the commonplace” merely liberated these and other artists from certain classical canons to take advantage of what was always there, and is still here, beneath the surface. I quite agree with you that the best art is rooted in reality and not mere surface imitation of the past. No one has yet said my work resembles Rembrandt’s but here, since I, too, have lived by candle and fire light, would the use of pictorial devices resembling Caravaggian tenebrism to translate my own “form of life” into painterly expression be “historically circumscribed” out of my reach? Artists have always “borrowed.” If you wrote this out of compassion for the many present day artists who are inspired by the Old Masters to warn them of a deadly pitfall, one wishes you were more specific. Lights and darks offer the only example to visualize the philosophically proscribed style. Here we face the basic lack of a clear boundary between historic style and eternal content. Intense chiaroscuro is implied to be a stylistic device adapted to the spiritual dynamics of the (so-called, very diverse) Baroque Age, which it is impossible for us to get back into, but it was also part of spiritual content that is still perfectly possible for us to understand, whether we agree with the theology or not. The essential, human meaning of light and dark does not change. With light we can see what things are. In darkness we cannot see where we are going. This is so elemental to the human condition that I am not sure why you used light and dark to characterize a style that we cannot “use” but only “mention” today. The illustration of successful mention that appears with the text we are discussing combines figures lifted out of Rubens and Picasso, not unlike a New Yorker cartoon (which I am not sure I get, even with the caption). How ought we to envision the unsuccessful use of Rembrandt you discredit here? If it was as like Rembrandt as Mr. Connor’s image is like Rubens, I would have called that an imitation. I hope you will clarify this because it is hard to imagine you would take such pains to philosophically come after the pastiche.
In any event, here is our initial semantic, if not philosophical, rift. You began to talk about style, in the familiar art-historical sense of pictorial conventions locked into discrete chronological periods. I was talking about the physical qualities of the paint, the material substance, and its method of application. The paint films of the Old Masters, generally, look different from that which contemporary artists are accustomed to squeeze from a tube. One is rich and complex, here fluid, there stiff, and in places deeply luminous. The other is dull and uniform, its light and shade and color all on the surface. Compare the paint of Rembrandt with that of Hopper. What I seemed to perceive intuitively was a beauty in the paint itself, the result of a material process that neither I nor anyone around me understood, but which struck me as timeless, independent of content, an ability to exploit the potentials of the medium that cannot be obsolete, but was lost track of.
Our misunderstanding seems to stem from confusion over what constitutes the means of presentation, the style or the physical medium. Insofar as I wrote of a matrix of paint applied with intelligence and you then wrote about style, I imagine that you place the physical medium and its manipulation into a subset of style, and this is supported by your very broad definition of style in chapter 3 (p. 46), leaving the impression that your thinking on this has not changed since you wrote, in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, that “we may . . . reserve the term style for . . . what remains of a representation when we subtract its content.” Here I am admittedly somewhat confused as to whether we have an outright disagreement or are simply coming at it from different directions.
It would be nothing new for a philosopher-critic to relegate the craft of art to the realm of the insignificant. The more purely intellectual endeavors were long considered the most noble, and those who sought to lift the art of painting to the level of the Liberal Arts, or an occupation worthy of a gentleman, generally suppressed the rude, physical side. Leonardo da Vinci, in the famous Paragone, sought to elevate painting above sculpture partly because the latter so obviously involved the more sweaty, dirty labor.3 Vasari, in his commentary on Titian’s late manner goes on to say that though “it is obvious that his paintings are reworked and that he has gone back over them many times . . . this technique . . . makes the pictures . . . seem . . . to have been executed with great skill concealing the labor.”4 In this he seems to echo the concept of sprezzatura Baldassare Castiglione developed in his Libro del Cortigiano, the cultivated nonchalance befitting the perfect gentleman whereby “one may say that art is true art that does not appear to be art; nor should one strive for any other art except to conceal art.”5 Closer to our time, Bernhard Berenson regarded “all questions of technique as ancillary to the aesthetic experience”,6 ( an attitude that served more than one purpose. Not only was it unnecessary to undergo training in the painter’s craft to be an art expert, there was also less to complicate the authority of such an expert’s letters of certification). A carry-over of the ideals of an intellectual aristocracy into our own time might be found among those conceptual artists who, in pursuit of a pure artistic essence, made no art object, but offered a written description. Typically, while the “how” of art is necessary to its production, it has been considered unnecessary to its appreciation, or even its understanding, until recently. (The Fortune Teller attributed to La Tour is a case in point, where against the charge that it is a 20th century fake, it was able at least to be placed in the 17th century through pigment analysis.) Increasingly, major new books on artists include laboratory analyses and technical notes, showing appreciation of the physical realities earlier artists were always dealing with.
It might seem paradoxical that Vasari prefaced his Lives of the Artists with a lengthy technical section,7 until we realize that during this period the art of painting was inextricable from the technology of painting. Artists were trained in the making of paint and it was mostly made in the workshop. The masters of that Golden Age of painting, roughly the 15th-17th centuries, knew their raw materials directly and could adapt to their expressive ends the idiosyncrasies of their few pigments, often tricky in their reaction with oil media and among themselves. By the time we reach Reynolds, the supremacy of intellect over labor had seen the workshop replaced with the academy, and we find the incredible inconsistency of a man who sought to paint like the Old Masters but was, unlike them, so out of touch with his materials that his pictures are a kind of byword for technical failure. In a few more years, the artist’s materials industry had grown to assume the role it has to this day, when the trade secrets belong to the paint manufacturer, not the artists. In the 19th century, the procedures of the Old Masters, though imitated, had long since ceased to be a living tradition and had become the matter of speculation and inquiry.8
It is ironic that, by the late 19th century, when Impressionism seemed to have brought art really down to earth, virtually all artists were squeezing tubes, far removed from the wrestlings with the raw nature required in the age of Rembrandt. It is telling that in Greenberg’s attempt to trace progress toward “pure” painting, which you quote (pp. 73-74), he would put it this way: “The Impressionists, in Manet’s wake, abjured underpainting and glazes, to leave the eye no doubt as to the fact that the colors they used were made of paint that came from tubes or pots.” Right at the historic moment that art was at last supposedly dealing with its true self, honest, real paint, the philosopher’s pure essence of paint, was not a few earths and simple chemicals subtly bound together with the fluids of plants, not the great conservator John Brealey’s “colored muds in a sticky substance,” but industrial paints (e.g. Pollock) and commercial tube colors made on a huge scale, all modified to a uniform “buttery” consistency and a long shelf life.
We can be grateful that, in place of Greenberg’s inadequate concept of “flatness,” you have called attention to the brushstroke as coming closer to the essence of painting, though how much it was “invisible” during the period prior to Impressionism (pp. 74-76) might be considered further. There have been both smooth and rough surface painters, and their admirers, at least since the Renaissance. In the passage quoted earlier, Vasari distinguished between Titian’s early and late manner, the latter “executed with such large and bold brush-strokes and in such broad outlines that they cannot be seen close up but appear perfect from a distance,” and even distinguished false bravura in the works of imitators.9 Though the brushstroke was tied to the image, one may wish to discuss whether, as you would seem to allege, those who knew the fused enamel of Bronzino would have found the brushstrokes of Tintoretto invisible. The brush work of Chardin certainly was not so to Diderot when he wrote, “There is a magic in this art that passes our understanding. Sometimes thick coats of colour are applied one above the other so that the effects seep upward from below. At other times one gets the impression that a vapour has been floated across the canvas, or a light foam sprayed over it. Draw near, everything becomes confused, flattens out, disappears, but step back and everything takes shape again, comes back to life.”10
That astute viewers have long appraised the precise quality of an artist’s handling of paint is brought home in another contemporary impression of Chardin’s technique. “He has an unusual way of painting; he lays on his colours one after the other hardly mixing them at all, with the result that his pictures look almost like mosaics or point-carré embroidery.”11 Those who admire Chardin today can see the same things these men were referring to, the complex interplay of transparency and opacity that has a presence of its own, which brings us closer to the thing we are struggling with, whether the quality of a master’s paint is part of a style that is subject to historical restrictions.
Chardin’s remarkable feeling for paint is certainly part of the “gift” that makes his works outstanding among so many others, that personal mark called individual style. However, his procedure of building up his image via superimposed and juxtaposed opaque and transparent layers was, of course, not some inexplicable, “magic” touch but the essential oil painting method of the Old Masters that Greenberg treated as an arbitrary style which the Impressionists allegedly superseded in their radical leap toward philosophically pure painting. But where did this method of painting come from and what was the meaning of the Impressionists “departure”?
As technicians, the Old Masters were above all efficient. A color chart of Lefranc et Bourgeois’s finest line of oil colors some years ago displayed 138 colors. (That is just one company.) By contrast, the seventeenth century De Mayerne MS. contains some twenty-three in one of its longer lists, while the colors in ordinary usage were reduced to about thirteen. One major lacuna was the absence of a saturated opaque green, related to the lack of a reliable intense yellow. For this reason, we find the charming blue foliage in many old Dutch landscapes and flower pieces. A blue underpainting became green after a (fugitive, unfortunately) yellow glaze. Otherwise we see the beautiful green glaze, as on Renaissance robes, made from boiling verdigris in a conifer balsam. More felicitously perhaps, glazing expanded the palette in other ways. A given pigment may yield a cold, dead hue when mixed with white to achieve a certain value but, according to optical physics, when glazed over a white underpainting it becomes warm and saturated. Transparent glazes over light paint beneath are always warm, whereas light, translucent paint over dark is cool and bluish, for the same reason the sunset is red and the daytime sky blue.
Painting in light-transmitting layers accomplished much more than this, though; it it allowed light to be reflected from deep inside the painting to give the impression of glowing from within, creating paint that was sheerly beautiful in its own right. This may well have accounted for much of the hubbub about Venetian color. As the recent Sistine ceiling restoration has underscored (assuming there was not some chemical reaction with the cleaning agents as alleged by some), there was no lack of bright color in other Renaissance painting. What Titian and his followers had was glowing, resonant color. By the time we reach Rubens, an extremely economical method made effective artistic use of the different transparency of available pigments. In the Allegory of War (as I recall the title) in the Pitti Palace, for example, the cloak of one figure is (opaque) vermilion, while opposite it is an analogous one, only in a rich madder lake glaze, the two playing off of one another delightfully.
Rubens epitomizes yet another potential of glazing: transparent shadows. His consciousness of paint quality in addition to image making can be seen by his jealous avoidance of killing the luminosity of his shadows by adding white to them. Glazing shadows might be compared to the discovery made in the early history of animated films by the Disney people that if cast shadows were double exposed upon the scene, instead of just drawing them at one go, all the detail will be preserved. Otherwise they would appear unnatural, like dark smudges.
By the nineteenth century, advances in industrial chemistry lost no time to trickle down to artists’ materials and the Impressionists found the colors the Old Masters lacked available in convenient, portable tubes that enabled them to take into the field a palette of almost spectral hues with which to apply the discoveries in Newtonian color. As we have long been told, they were able to place a “pure” yellow next to a blue to get an optical green. That they held to the broken color method with any prolonged rigor has been pretty much discredited. Renoir, for example, modified his hues with transparent glazes on occasion and there can be found amazingly complicated mixtures,12 an indication of struggle and experimentation with the new potentialities.
The new materials were ideal for capturing the colors of nature in the quick oil sketch, but even their full coloristic potentials are not exploited by painting directly. If the picture has to be built up in more than one session, it only requires making the underlayer brighter than normal to prepare for glazes (which darken what they flow over) so as to gain their advantages. It is interesting to note that many of the most beautiful Impressionist works were obviously not done all at once but were built up over time to achieve those pleasing subtleties of adjoining colors, but Monet and Pissarro continued to apply opaque paint, even in shadows, with the result that the color and light are mainly on the surface. Would the world have thought any the less of Monet’s grand water lily paintings, say, if he had added viscous glazes to parallel the visual dynamics of light entering water, while keeping their relative abstraction?
That Impressionism mainly abandoned indirect painting may be more due to unwillingness to give up the immediacy of directly transferring optical impressions than pure rebellion against everything from the past. It might be argued that direct painting is a more honest use of the new paints than trying to imitate the look of old paintings, but it does not follow that opaque paint is more honest paint. Some pigments are transparent and it violates their character in a way to use them otherwise, or misses their potential, but to understand that requires knowledge. With artists at such far remove from paint making, it is understandable that the Action Painters would not have thought to add to their repertoire of primal paint manipulations the spreading with a huge brush of juicy glazes over their violent, thick brushwork, or of wildly wiping the fissured surface to leave paint only in the hollows, as an abstractionist analogy to the pure painterliness Rembrandt applied to representation with his purposefully sculpted impasti. After the “end of art,” this would seemingly be an avenue one is free to explore in both mimetic and non-mimetic painting, unless it would be construed as a style somehow patented by another age.
There is an underlying question of whether the artist is bound to use commercial artists’ materials or may go back to the simpler technological order that gave rise to glazing and scumbling: intimacy with materials through making paint from the stuff of raw nature- oils, tree resins, colored earths- and artificial chemical compounds. Having, in pursuing the validity of my vision, deeply studied the chemistry and technology of pigments, oils, and resins, I have discovered, partly on ecological grounds, a basis for doing just that, but this seems to go beyond a philosophy of art into one of technology and cannot be developed in this context, though I would like to learn what you think of the idea. At this juncture, I am back to wondering if this technology should be classified under style, because if it is, all the diligence I have expended in taking responsibility for making my works examples of technical integrity would be a waste of time, at least in the eyes of those who appear to use Wölfflin’s historical perspective as a guide to current practice, and I need to know if I should change my ways.
*** *** ***
Your discussion of style in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace begins with its etymology and proceeds to describe specific paint qualities as extensions of the marks made by a stilus. You go on to fairly conclude that “style is the man.” Rembrandt’s paint would not then be chemistry, physics, and technology, but part of his style. If that, in principle, is historically indexed (as in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum), many are in serious trouble and need to take note. Dale Chihuly’s liaison with traditional Venetian glass blowers would be suspect, as would anyone who recovered, for whatever use, a lost technical process. I am presently finding style used to govern too many things to keep track of.
If style can be “taken to define, philosophically, what it is to be an artwork” as, in your example, mimesis is itself a style, then it is unclear how style would fit with means and content, which also propose to be minimal conditions for something to have the status of art. I can see only three possibilities. It could (a) make up a third essential quality, in which case we would have (i) content, (ii) style, and (iii) means or medium, unless style was thought, (b) to encompass both means and content. In that case, we would still have to distinguish both means and content in some way apart from style, which would almost be synonymous with “art.” “To be art” would be above all “to have style.” We could distinguish various media, like painting and sculpture, as sub-groups under style, but content would be broken up into style’s historical periods and we would lose transcendent meaning and possibly art, as we know it, as well, with only history remaining. Alternatively, to equate the style with means of conveyance (c), defies the common-sense understanding of means and boggles the mind. We would retain timeless content but everything would have to be reclassified (if it would even be possible), irrespective of medium, or we would be back at (a) or (b). Because style contains so much more than the physical means we would, to speak accurately, have first, a Baroque about religious ecstasy (incidentally a marble sculpture) or a Mannerist about the Visitation (incidentally a painting). It would not be enough to think of an oil painting about dignity in spite of physical deformity (incidentally Baroque), a bronze about harmonious spatial relations (incidentally Modern), a polychrome wood sculpture about a Brillo box . . .
If “to be a work of art is to be (I) about something and (ii) to embody its meaning,” the Brillo Box by Warhol does give cause to look to our definition of art. The object by itself says nothing about itself. One must turn to the context in which it was created and displayed to find any message about, say, a link between the art market and industrial consumerism. Inasmuch as the issue it confronts us with is that there is no distinction between the art object and the “real thing” (though from the pictures I have seen, the joints reveal it to be made of plywood, not cardboard), which was strictly true of the readymades, it is not yet clear if these things would ever have been art if they did not appear in the art environment. If a garage mechanic takes the shell of an old carburetor and puts in on his shelf because he likes its shape, would he be an artist and it be art? If not, why not? If so and he moves and, in the process, throws it in the dumpster because he is tired of it, would a work of art be destroyed, or would it cease to be art? People do this sort of thing all the time, so it seems evident that for a definition of art to include plain “real things” in any meaningful way needs an Art World to declare them so. Their ontological status as art does not, by the present definition, reside in themselves in any obvious way but requires them to have been put forward by certain bona fide artists, unless indeed everything is art and everyone is an artist, in which case the philosopher would have nothing to define, though the critic would be in the business of ascribing value.
If we agree that not everything is art, and must look for means, content, and perhaps style, then with Brillo Box we may wonder if a Brillo box qualifies as content, though, as sculpture, it has means. With the readymade, neither is there means of presentation, unless it is the art world itself, if Duchamp was the artist. With both there is also the question of whether they can have style, unless “real-thingism” could be a style, though your thesis says that, with these, the narrative of progressive styles has come to an end, which may imply that style is not essential for a thing to be art, and doubt has just been cast upon content and means, or on Fountain and Brillo Box. It seems imperative to work out this inconsistency because to lose them, as art, would be a disaster, given the broad freedom opened to us, by the latter especially. Without an inclusive, philosophically sound definition of art, people would be stuck, by default, with “pure” Modernist abstraction, i.e., the world’s Most Unwanted art (let the skeptical visit Komar and Melamid’s Web Site for a glimpse into the dire horror of this possibility) or just pure anarchy.
In considering your treatment of the historical philosophy of art, it occurs to me that we are looking not only at something that may or may not have a philosophical, perhaps metaphysical essence, we are dealing with changing language. As David Carrier referred to, quoting Gombrich in the paper to which you respond at the beginning of Chapter 11, “arte” during the Renaissance (Vasari’s age), in a very generic and uncontroversial way, meant “skill” or cunning. More recently, art became value-laden. To be “art” (Art), whatever it is, was to be something spiritually very important, but with this arose discord, because we have seen two polarized camps develop out of the Modernist revolution, with traditionalists (e.g., realists) on one end and the avant-garde on the other, with each one prepared to say the new art of the other side is “not art.” With Brillo Box, the “mere real thing” designated as art, this is all changed, though many on both sides have not caught on to this yet. It sometimes takes a generation for a significant contribution to be broadly recognized, though I hope this is not the case with your insight on this because, Professor Danto, I think you are on the right track, linguistically and philosophically, and we just need to go further, in fact, all the way!
Who is art for and what is it for? Is it essentially for artists to express themselves, philosophers to think about, honorable art dealers to offer to discriminating collectors, or a vast company of mercantile parasites who see artists as a non-unionizable labor force? In the end, the philosopher encompasses the most, but in this everyone is part philosopher, because in this egalitarian age there is no more room for attitudes derived from class distinctions. Art, per se, cannot be for any special group. Most simply, art is for people. And what do people do with art? Well, they look at it, consider it, respond emotionally and intellectually to it. In short, they contemplate it. All the disparate things known as art are, in their “artness,” treated somehow as objects of contemplation. A work of art is anything made by human beings that is set apart as an object of contemplation, beyond any other use it may have, from the still life painting to the fine Greek amphora no longer used to hold anything to the gallery installation, even to the temporary, conceptual project or the found object set on a pedestal. Natural things like rocks or dry leaves can be treated this way, though to be as faithful to the root meaning of the word “art” as we hope to be with “style,” it seems more meaningful to exclude them here, unless a person is considered to have exercised some art or cunning upon them.
The radical egalitarianism opened up may take getting used to for some, who are set in the old ways. There would be no distinction between a toreador on black velvet and a drip canvas, as being art, nor would there be a distinction between somebody’s aunt Elsie, whose picture is in the family room, and Mark Rothko, whose painting is in the museum, as being artists. No longer does one need to worry over who says a thing is art or not, because anyone can tell. Nevertheless, with the question of whether or not a thing is art finally settled, the work of the philosopher and critic is far from over, for now may begin the real task, a philosophical basis for the attribution of value. After Duchamp and Warhol, we know that there is nothing special, per se, about being art, there being no distinction between art and real things. Anything can be an object of contemplation and we are faced with the crying necessity for a general theory of quality, the need to determine relatively how much an artwork is worth contemplating.
That is not the job here, for we are on the trail of means and style, but this does help with our need to see if content is still there. The hang up for so long, giving rise to a great deal of hocus-pocus, has been people’s confusing a value judgment upon content with the presence of content at all. A thing was not art if they did not like the content or considered it unworthy. The only hope I can see of convincing certain people that Brillo Box can be a work of art is this inclusive definition. Because a work of art can be anything, so can content. Art can have true philosophical weight, as I call it, treating the great issues of the human condition, or it can be entirely superficial and trivial. It can be idiosyncratic or universal. Content can be timeless or transitory. Knowing that worthless subject content would not deprive a thing its status as art, nor would weighty content make it any more an art object (Brillo Box and The Surrender of Breda are both art), we can confidently turn to look for means of presentation.
“Means” is defined as “that through which, or by the help of which, an end is attained,” so the question to ask is how is the content conveyed? By definition, and to be even found by the senses, an artwork has to be an object, that is, physical, so the most rudimentary form of the question is what is the artwork made of? This way, the means is the physical component and what is necessary to make it, now including all traditional and non-traditional media. A distinction can then be made between the means of display and the artwork’s own means. The means of a readymade would be the manufactured material, not the pedestal. (As an object of contemplation, it makes no difference, as being art, that the artist did not make Fountain nor design Brillo Box. That distinction, attribution of responsibility or credit, would be a sub-class, parallel to the categories that would arise in ascribing worth to content. We would likely end up with sub-groups under artists of, say, makers, “discoverers,” and “appropriators,” but that branch of knowledge can be left for those who have time for it later, as can the governing questions of whether performance art belongs with theater and whether the performer or the stage is the means). Naturally, an oil painting’s means of presentation is oil paint on linen, oak, etc.
The means of presentation, in the strict sense, is therefore the physical medium: stone, clay, bronze, and so on, and each requires some technical process to be formed into anything and some level of skill, which is in keeping with the original arte. As for style, its Italian form, stile derived from the Roman writing instrument as you have noted, was a word Vasari avoided, “referring to the manner in which a literary work was composed, as [he] prefers, instead, the word maniera (derived from the Latin manus or manualis, meaning literally ‘the hand’ or ‘of the hand’). according to Julia and Peter Bondanella, referring to the scholarship of James V. Mirollo.13 Above was discussed some of the confusion I have with placing means altogether under style. Here may be a way out. The hand (manus), literally, holds the stilus. I want to be cautious not to arbitrarily mingle together root meanings with altered, later usage and fall into more confusion, because we deal here with words that often overlap. “Style,” as commonly understood to mean personal style, the way one master’s hatchings are different from another’s, as everyone’s handwriting is different, arises as the skilled artist forms the physical medium to give “body” to an initially incorporeal idea. Style would reside between the content and the (technical) means. While the craft of art may function as an invisible servant, so that a thing may be, as Vasari wrote, “executed with profound art, while that art is nevertheless concealed,”14 it should not, especially in an egalitarian age, be counted inferior. These three would then be co-equal: the content, the style, and the material means.
This gives a basis to distinguish between an artist’s style and his means, or to use a word that better expresses what I have in mind, his method, which would involve such things as the sequence of painting operations, the degree of finish or detail in preparatory drawings and underpainting, the viscosities of paint, etc. Though it may be possible to discuss “styles” of technology, method (means) is easily distinguishable from the other common understanding of artistic style that arises when creative or inspired people innovate something that others develop, use, or copy and we discern in retrospect the pictorial conventions and other broad constants characteristic of an age.
At this moment in history it seems especially valid for artists to consider technological alternatives to wholesale consumption of any and every commercial artists’ material that is offered for sale. If you have seen the finished book of conversations with Suzi Gablick, in which your fascinating Barcelona talk with her appears, you may have noticed that among the artists’ dialogues, there was such deep concern about ecological impact that there were expressions of grave doubt over how to justify continuing to produce art. One couple’s view was so apocalyptic that they indeed did give it up to learn subsistence survival in wild nature and the author never heard from them again. Though this action may be extreme, the anxiety over man’s industrial ways is widely shared and I think it is fair to ask if we need 138 colors. (Personally, I am opting for a simpler approach, as you will have gathered.)
A general theory of artistic quality on the means side of things may not, without overreaching, be able to include judgments upon technology or ecology. A philosophy of art may have to be satisfied with what is visible in the work. Since, “after the end of art,” referential content can no longer be considered an impurity, Greenberg’s severe reductionism may be replaced with a more liberal view, though it need not be out of keeping with his affirmation that each art form has an essence and should be true to itself. Ideally, a painting may still be expected to communicate as painting. To the degree that a painting is able to convey its intended content without supplemental literature it would be deemed the more successful. I mention this to suggest a possible kernel from which might grow a criterion of economy of means within an art form. This would support a traditional view that has endured even during Modernism, that a work of art is complete when the content is realized, making way ultimately for something akin to virtuosity, though to avoid undue emphasis on technique, the evaluation of means and content would have to go hand in hand. In this time of post-history, an expansive alternative to the minimalism advocated by Modernism, could emerge. Beside the single brush stroke of a particular kind as representative of pure painting, we can set the concept that painting reaches its full potential when it accomplishes the most, while our knowledge of paint technology assures us that command of a wide array of paint types is in no way inconsistent with principles of efficiency, and this brings us back to the center of our topic.
When I wrote to you that what I saw in Rembrandt represented to me “quintessential artistic virtue and, because timeless, such a thing could be done in our day also,” this is what I had in mind, that here was a perfect marriage of content and material means. The message of human dignity is contained in a matrix of paint that, though it has a kind of life of its own, offers no impediment to the viewer’s comprehension. The beauty of glowing oil paint ennobles the subject. In our agreement over timeless content, at least we can be sure of this. For conveying this timeless content, this way of painting works. We could possibly call such an integral union of elemental technology and humanizing content “painting like Rembrandt,” though I would want to avoid confusion with imitating his personal style.
*** *** ***
If “to transmit that message ourselves,” it would be desirable to “find means [or style] other than those he used,” it would help to study the possible parameters of different means and styles with different kinds of content. We have not yet discussed what in art after “the end of art” or even after the Old Masters actually carries this ennobling, timeless content though I very much would like to hear your views. Your acceptance of employing past styles if they involve “mention rather than . . . use, in the spirit of the joke” makes such work “part of the present art world” but I did not hear you say that it is timeless.
An artist comes to mind whose work at least appears to possess a timeless quality and, while maybe not universally embraced by “that network of critics, museum curators, collectors, and professors that constitutes a sort of cartel of received opinion about what is permissible to admire in the art of our time,”15 his work has received such significant critical attention as to find a place for him in the present art world, even though his use of “Rembrantesque tenebrism” has been acknowledged to derive from another period altogether! It is Odd Nerdrum, whose gripping, portentous canvases I was privileged to see this year at the Frye Museum in Seattle, about whom I have not heard your opinion. He seems especially appropriate to consider in our context because, as Hilton Kramer, amazingly, put it, “Nerdrum paints as if Manet, Cézanne, Mondrian, and their many heirs had never existed. He doesn’t parody modernism, he simply ignores it in favor of another tradition . . . But it would be a mistake . . . to see his art as irrelevant to the temper and spirit of the modern world.” The explanation for this openness to ostensible stylistic anachronism, coming from a man not usually associated with the traditionalist camp, may be found in the content, which is thought to be philosophically modern, as “in their vision of human nature and its atavistic impulses, Nerdrum’s paintings are as bleak and unforgiving as anything found in the writings of Nietzsche, Freud or Heidegger.”16 Evidently, this combination of means and content works though, at least in Kramer’s eyes, the message is not precisely the same kind of timeless humanity we saw in Rembrandt.
Donald Kuspit went further to write in his foreword to a recent book on the artist, “Nerdrum shows that Old Master style is far from petrified. To relegate it to the museum is to sell its possibilities short. It can be used flexibly and creatively to make a point about the contemporary lifeworld. Above all, Old Master style suggests that there are certain constants in life, especially suffering.”17 Kuspit speaks of a “reified, codified Old Master style that can in fact be found in no particular Old Master.” Is this the “use” of a style, or is it Nerdrum’s own style, that arose as he sought to embody his “spiritual response to the post-catastrophic period we live in . . .,” perhaps after finding the avant-garde modes of his earlier studies insufficient for what he needed to say?
Either way, Kuspit may be right when he says, “To turn to spiritual Old Master style is to show disillusionment with modernity and secularization in all its aspects. It is to declare the inadequacy of modernity: It caused more suffering than expected. Indeed, it naively believed its technological, ideological utopias would end suffering. The Old Masters understood that human suffering would never end, and they mastered it in a way the modern masters never could: from the inside rather than the outside. Modern style is dehumanizing and unempathetic compared to Old Master style.” If so, the validity of the content, means and style of Nerdrum’s depressing vision of a post-apocalyptic, devastated humanity seems to bear out the truth of Kuspit’s quotation from Winnicott, “The breakdown that is feared has already been.”
This post-existentialist pessimism casts the benign or neutral view of post-history we have been discussing into a different perspective. The existential state of post-Modern man is much worse than anyone thought. Kuspit sums it up this way: “Nerdrum’s pictures are about fear of a breakdown of civilization that has already occurred and must be defended against as well as acknowledged. The desolation of his pictures does the acknowledging . . . and their beauty does the defending.”
Can beauty be a defense against the collapse of humanity? The beauty Kuspit sees may be of means or style, but not the subject content and, frankly, in contemplating Nerdrum, I do not feel defended enough. Interestingly, in one of his most Rembrandt-like pictures, the artist paints himself wearing armor. Mostly, his figures are a kind of people who have lost everything, who are void, though they continue to exist. By contrast, Rembrandt’s sorrowful Rabbi, though poor, is somehow rich, and if there is reality in our intuition of the transcendent, of a beautiful, humane content, then there is solid ground for optimism. We might then have a philosophical basis for beauty that would indeed expand the possibilities available to contemporary artists. “Beauty promises, in [your] phrase, to ‘transfigure the commonplace’ of our everyday existence. Its reemergence could transfigure contemporary art as well.”18 Thus wrote Kathleen Higgins in a response to a piece you had written. In your accompanying response to her, you wrote that, “If she can work this out, she will have made an immense contribution to moral theory and, more important, to moral life. It is up to her to show that what she calls beauty really is that and not something more like wisdom.” It may turn out that the two are not fully separable. Whosever job it is to find out, the philosopher, the artist, or both, we may also find we are all in this together. Given the importance of the task, there is much room for further dialogue. Do you agree?
1 Rosenberg, Jakob. On Quality in Art, Criteria of Excellence, Past and Present. Bollingen Series XXXV-13. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press; 1967. See Chapter 1.
2 Melamid et al. “Painting by Numbers: The Search for a People’s Art” The Nation 258:10 p.341
3 Richter, Irma A. (Translated by). Paragone, A Comparison of the Arts by Lenardo da Vinci. London: Oxford University Press; 1949. pp. 94-95
4 Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Translated by Julia and Peter Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford Univrsity Press; 1991. pp. 503-504
5 Clements, Robert J. Michelangelo’s Theory of Art. New York: NewYork University Press; 1961. p.66
6 Thompson, Daniel V. Foreword by Bernhard Berenson. The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting. New York: Dover Publications; 1956. p. 7
7 Vasari,Giorgio. Vasari on Technique. New York: Dover Publications; 1960.
8 See for example: Eastlake, Charles Lock. Materials for a History of Oil Painting. London; 1847.
9 Vasari; 1991. op. cit.
10 Wildenstein, Georges. Chardin. Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society; 1969. p. 21
12 Bomford, David et al. Impressionism: Art in the Making. Yale University Press; 1991.
13 Vasari; 1991. op. cit., pp. xii-xii. See Mirollo, James V. Mannerism and Renaissance Poetry: Concept, Mode, Inner Design. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press; 1984. p. 4
14 Rosenberg. op. cit.
15 Kramer, Hilton. “Odd Nerdrum: A maverick sets acts of violence in alien landscapes.” Art and Antiques. January, 1996. p. 86
16 Ibid. p. 86-87
17 Hansen, Jan-Erik Ebbesatad, Foreward by Donald Kuspit. Odd Nerdrum. Oslo: H. Aschehoug and Co.; 1994.
18 Higgins, Kathleen Marie. “Whatever Happened to Beauty: A Response to Danto.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 54, no. 3 (1995), pp. 281-284
Copyright © 1997 Melville Holmes