Elitism and Its Discontents: Gripes of a Snob
Leo Segedin   |   November 8, 2006 |   Print this essay

After I gave my paper on definitions of art last June, I was told that what was missing was my own definition.  What did I believe art was?  Although I didn’t think that what I personally believed was relevant to my subject, I did feel that it would make a good subject for another paper.  In my paper, I had argued that there could be no satisfactory answer to the question, “What is art?” or “Is it a work of art?” because there is no one definition that includes everything that has been called a work of art while also excluding anything as not a work of art.   Because of the way in which the concept ‘work of art’ is used today, we can, if we wish, identify any man-made object as a work of art because it is beautiful or expressive or communicates an idea or whatever, but we can no longer expect all works of art to be characterized by any one of these definitions. 

There is a difference between words about art and works of art, however. Although I have an intellectual interest in art theory, as a practicing artist, I am not at all concerned with it.  The artists I care about make meaningful objects, not essays explaining their meaning.  As an artist, I do not define art. I make paintings – masonite panels with acrylic paint on them.  For me, these paintings are a means of expressing certain kinds of experiences which are not expressible in other media.  I find it useful to think of art as a sort of symbol system, a system that does not have a vocabulary or syntax and cannot be translated into verbal languages, but does have elements - lines, tones, colors - which, in certain combinations can represent objects in the world and give form to feelings and ideas.  Unlike words in a dictionary, in isolation, these elements are meaningless, but in combination, they can embody a very different, but also, in many ways, a broader, more subtle range of experience than words. One picture may not be worth a thousand words, but try to imagine a verbal description of a person on a passport. 

Along with the descriptive function, which it shares with photography, paintings can influence people politically, intensify religious beliefs, idealize or demean people, visualize urban and natural environments, explore perceptual processes, satirize society, tell stories, express feelings, probe the subconscious, symbolize concepts, appear as purely aesthetic or decorative objects and even be venerated as icons and mutilated as fetishes.  It can perform many of these functions better than verbal languages.

(William “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt head of Tammany Hall in 1880’s New York responded to political cartoonist Thomas Nast’s attacks in Harper’s Weekly by saying, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles.  My constituents can’t read.  But they can’t help seeing them damn pictures,”)

As with any symbol system, painting entails its own kind of cognition.  In order for a painting to be understood, it requires what can be called ‘visual literacy’, the perceptual skill necessary to ‘see’ it adequately.  Without visual literacy, a viewer can only ‘know about’, but not ‘know’ - that is, experience - paintings.

II

No one questions whether the ability to read English is a prerequisite to understand and judge American literature.   However, most people assume that the response of people with normal vision to the visual arts is merely a matter of taste and opinion.  Although we know that people will respond differently to what they see, we take for granted that people will see what we see regardless of their life experiences.  The ability to see seems to be as natural as breathing.  But although at a certain primitive level, this may be true, it is hard to realize the extent to which seeing is learned.   It should be obvious, though, that if we cannot see what is important in a painting, we will miss its significance.   It is an anthropological commonplace that Eskimo language categorizes the degrees of whiteness of snow and Zulus, the brown colors of cattle more subtly than we do.  Obviously, because we aren’t that interested in snow or cattle, we can’t see what they see.  This need for appropriate experiece is especially important in seeing 3 dimensional images.  For example, people who grew up in jungles and deserts will not be able to see geometric perspective in paintings.  On a more sophisticated level, in his book on Italian Renaissance painting, the art historian, Michael Baxandall, refers to what he calls “the period eye” – that is, “the equipment that a 15th century painter’s public (that is, other painters and “the patronizing classes”) brought to complex visual stimulations like pictures.”  A picture, he says, is sensitive to the kinds of interpretive skill – patterns, categories, inferences, analogies – the mind brings to it. 

A man’s capacity to distinguish a certain kind of form or relationship of forms will have consequences for the attention with which he addresses the picture.  For instance, if he is skilled in noting proportional relationships, or if he is practiced in reducing complex forms to compounds or simple forms, or if he has a rich set of categories of red and brown, these skills may well lead him to order his experience of Piero della Francesca’s Annunciation, differently from people without these skills, and much more sharply than people whose experience has not given many skills relevant to the picture.  … Much of what we call “taste” lies in this, the conformity between discriminations demanded by a painting and skills of discrimination possessed by the beholder.

Although perception is derived from visual experience; it is also selective and constructive.   Even if we assume that the artist wants to represent ‘reality as it is’ or ‘as he sees it’ and we ignore such concerns as expression and aesthetics, it is still impossible for him to see or record all the visual phenomena potentially available to him.  Because we learn to see only certain aspects of ‘what is out there’, the artist’s idea about what he sees, what is important about what he sees and how he sees is an essential aspect of what his “realistic” picture will look like.  This is true whether or not the artist is aware of his assumptions.   Consider, for example, the following ideas about reality and perception:

  1. Perceptible reality consists of solid forms surrounded by empty space.  Light shines on these forms.   Part of the forms catches this light; the part of the form away from the light will be in shadow.  The color of the object is a secondary quality, in that pictures in black and white will show the fundamental character of what is represented.
  2. Perceptible reality consists of our sensations of it.    What we see are light rays which stimulate the retina of our eyes.  All that we know is based on such stimulations.  Light rays are of differing lengths, each different length stimulating a different sensation.  Light rays come from everywhere, not just from the light part of an object.   Light has color; shadows have color; objects reflect colors; light conditions constantly change, changing colors.   Our eyes see after-images or grow fatigued, changing the colors we see.   The colors we see are the result of the mixture of our sensations in the retina of the eye.  Pictures in black and white will not show the fundamental aspects of what is represented.

Compare the kinds of worlds, both visual and objective, which results from accepting these two concepts.   In the first, the world is solid, stable and relatively permanent.  In the second, the world is in a constant state of flux, all light phenomena being transitory.  In the first, the world is independent of man; in the second, it cannot exist without man’s perception of it.  In the first, color is of secondary importance; in the second, it is the essential aspect.  Color in the first is on the object; a kind of icing on a cake; in the second, it is in the eye.   Since the first concept underlies the Renaissance and the 400 years of Western painting that followed it and the second, the premise of the Impressionist painters at the end of the 19th century and a major influence on the art of the first half of the 20th century, it is apparent that the history of Western art is determined to a great extent by how the artist literally sees his environment.  In fact, we can even trace the whole shift from interest in the objective world to the subjectivity of much 20th century art to this change in assumptions about perception.

Most of us would have no trouble with the first concept and few of us today who are familiar with Impressionism would have trouble with the second.  Yet, in 1876, the French art critic, Albert Wolff in the publication, Figaro, wrote about a painting by Renoir:

…try to explain to M. Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of flesh in the process of decomposition with green and violet spots which denote the state of complete purification of a corpse.

Wolff literally could not see the painting.  He saw colors indicating reflected light which were supposed to mix in the eye as decay on the surface of a three-dimensional human body.  He still ‘saw’ in terms of Renaissance form.  He made a judgment, expressed an opinion, on the basis of ‘visual ignorance’.  

In denying the validity of Renoir’s painting, Wolff rejected his whole style and obviously would be unable to distinguish a good Renoir from a bad one.  Interestingly enough, when Renoir’s style became popular, the same blindness occurred.  Many people today like all of Renoir’s paintings, regardless of their uneven quality.  Much as what happens with many artists hyped by the art market, his famous reputation overwhelms their ability to see and discriminate. 

Learning to see is not always easy and can take time and effort.  Although there are visual elements and structures that can be pointed out, there are no words to recreate visual experience any more than one can translate the experience of music into words.   I taught about Cezanne for years before I actually learned to ‘see’ him.   I knew what to say about him, which is an intellectual activity, but when I finally did ‘see’ him, it was a sort of revelation.   I suddenly knew why his later paintings were more important than his earlier ones and why they had such a great influence on Western art for the first half of the 20th century.  I knew what the white areas in his paintings were about.  They were not just empty spaces - not indications of incompleteness, indecision or lack of skill as some critics perceived - but rather an essential aspect of the spatial structure of his paintings.  This enlightenment transformed the way I saw nature.  I was able to see that some of his paintings were more successful than others in achieving this goal.  And although I have seen some marvelous late Van Gogh drawings - the ones he did at Arles in 1888, for example - my judgment was that Cezanne was a more important painter than Van Gogh even though he may have been more difficult to see because I valued the construction of space more highly than the aesthetic quality of the expression of feeling. 

Of course, others who see as well as I do or who see what I don’t see may disagree with me.  We may not make the same judgment any more than literate book critics agree.  Even an artist with the refined taste of Delacroix preferred Le Sueur to Poussin and Cimarosa over Mozart, at least in some aspects of their work.  He said of Le Sueur that “he has the art that is entirely lacking in Poussin, of giving unity to everything he represents” and of Cimarosa that he was “more dramatic” than Mozart and that his work had “that incomparable elegance…not more of perfection, but perfection itself”.

The fact that we can’t understand an artwork does not necessarily mean that it is bad or that if we can understand it, that it is good.  We should not confuse effusive descriptions of such works as is often found in art literature for positive judgment.  We are under no obligation to believe that what any particular artwork is about is worth while just because it is called a work of art or seen in a museum or represented in an art history book.   Since what we know of the history of art is based on the choices of historians, critics and museum curators as well as wealthy art collectors, the study of their selections is certainly enlightening, but our judgments should be independent of what is often their idiosyncratic, often biased taste.   Some artworks may be insightful or provocative, but they may also be inconsequential, adolescent or frivolous.  For example, the famous Barnes Collection contains some wonderful Cezannes but also some awfully banal Renoirs.  The problem with much contemporary art is not that it is meaningless, but that its meaning is often trivial.  Roberta Smith, the art critic for the New York Times, wrote of the Contemporary show at MOMA last September that it was an “unusually sterile” combination of “the obvious and the arbitrary”.

It may even be that that the importance we place on quality is overemphasized.    After all, a painting is not a fancy meal at an expensive restaurant nor does it deserve a comparison to other paintings such as we make between a Gordon and a Bombay Sapphire martini.  We don’t read important books merely to compare them.  At any rate, although judgment in the arts may ultimately involve a subjective response, understanding certainly must precede any consideration of quality.

III

The idea of art as a perceptual symbol system works to the extent that the art in question requires contemplation to determine its meaning, but it becomes problematic the more remote such experiences becomes.    The idea works for me in the making of my paintings and, and, although I can understand many different kinds of contemporary artworks, I respond most intensely to the works of others primarily to the degree that their imagery is similar to mine.   This way of thinking is what allows me to react to the subtle human emotions represented in Rembrandt’s self-portraits, to the horror in Goya’s scenes of human corruption and to see my world through the very different eyes of Poussin and Cezanne.   It is a platitude, but, in a sense, true, to say that no one saw a sunset until Monet painted it.   Renaissance painting taught me many ways to see forms in three dimensional space, the ways narrative can be dramatized, the way ideology can be visualized, the way posture and gesture can be expressive, even awareness of certain kinds of human relationships.   I like to think that it also gives me insight into the milieu in which these works were made, but not being a Renaissance Catholic, I certainly don’t have a religious response to, say, a Raphael ‘Madonna and Child’, as they would.  Nor is it possible.  Although I try to understand its original milieu and its associated references, at best, I end up with an approximation, which is more ‘about’ the experience than the experience itself.  

 Even more problematic is this idea as a way of understanding the art of non-Western cultures.  Over the years, many kinds of meanings have been projected into such objects by Westerners.   For example, anthropologists first saw African sculpture  as primitive, cultural artifacts perhaps to be seen in ethnological – certainly not art - museums and missionaries destroyed them as heathen idols.   Picasso and Gauguin saw its distortions of human form as powerful emotional expressions and as dynamic, formal structures, but not as skillfully made, culturally functional objects.  They were all influenced by African sculpture in terms of their Western sensibilities, not as Africans. 

Efforts have been made to recreate for Westerners the context in which the art of Africans originally had meaning, none of them successful.  Some theoreticians try to avoid this problem by assuming that art is fundamentally a universal, formal language and converting the perception of all art objects, no matter what their origin, into the same kind of contemplative aesthetic experience. (This is the idea underlying Clive Bell’s notion of “Significant Form”, Sir Herbert Read’s, “40,000 Years of Modern Art” and Andre Malraux’s imaginary “Museum Without Walls”).  However, although there is a little scientific evidence for believing that all peoples respond similarly to certain visual forms, there is not enough to generalize this research into a universal aesthetics.   Also, other research indicates that African and most non-western art as functional objects have different formal requirements than paintings hung on walls or sculpture on pedestals in Western museums and require different standards for judging their success.  When Africans first sold their art objects to Westerners, they sold what they considered to be their worst products and the buyers couldn’t tell the difference.

The universalistic assumption takes for granted that everyone should see all art in terms of Modernist Western aesthetics and it is not hard to conclude that such an expectation is a form of Western colonialism.  This is what happens when we place African masks in museums, when we exhibit them to show their affinities to modern Western art (such as was done in the disastrous MOMA’s exhibition, “Primitivism in 20th Century Art”, a few years ago).  Since we can’t wear them and perform the related ritual dances, they are contemplated for their formal characteristics and for their historical and cultural interest, which is certainly not the way the Africans who made them would see them.

After African masks produced by Senufo woodcarvers became commodities to be sold on the streets of Paris or in New York art galleries, their forms were seen as beautiful rather than grotesque and the language which had described their original functions became sales pitches, a sort of exotic mystique superimposed on the objects.  African countries now have their own national museums, present their art objects as part of their national art heritage, just as Western nations do, some wanting the return of their looted cultural treasures from Western museums.                                    

IV

The fact remains, however, that the more you know, the more you can see, and as the anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, in a study of the art of non-Western cultures, says, you do the best you can.  Unfortunately, visual literacy is no longer generally considered to be a necessary requirement for perception of artworks.  Art has become much like politics and psychology; everybody has an opinion about it regardless of how little they know. Although people may disagree about their responses, their judgment ultimately becomes a personal matter and one cannot argue about taste.  Many people who attend exhibitions are visual illiterates who expect easy pleasure rather than insight.  For them, artistic awareness seems to be something you might catch by exposure, like a disease.   In order to popularize it, museums advertise art as some kind of popular entertainment, apparently competing with TV, movies and rock concerts.  They determine success by the number of people attending exhibitions, by book, poster and souvenir sales. Novelty and kitsch take the place of significance.  A few years ago, the gift shop at the Art Institute was enlarged at the expense of exhibition space, and since then, more exhibitions in several of its galleries has been eliminated in order to make room for small sales areas in which items such as towels with details from Seurat’s La Grande Jatte  are displayed.   Van Gogh’s mutilated ear is better known than the quality of his calligraphy.   Picasso’s sex life is more provocative than his “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”.   Second rate blockbuster shows such as the Alexander, Tut and Vatican exhibitions are intended to bring in the largest crowds rather than present the most significant artworks.  The argument for such exhibitions is that the museums need the resulting income.  In other words, in order to continue to exist; museums must become something other than why they originally existed, i.e., the collection and presentation of the major art works of our and other cultures.  The result is that the perception of art becomes, at best, a quick fix rather the satisfaction of serious contemplation.

(Peter Plagens, in The Nation, Oct 30, “Gradually the museum became a kind of high-end design showroom (You’ve seen the painting, now buy the poster) and a fun outing for the whole family, a theme park minus the rides)

V

 After World War II, many artists rejected traditional ideas about art.  They became more self-searching and analytical, as they tried to determine just what they were doing when they made art.  The subject of art became art.  As a result, contemporary art objects became more intellectual and abstract, and, therefore, less comprehensible to the general viewer.  At the same time, however, possibly influenced by what was happening in the artworld, the notion that the making of art - what became known as ‘the creative process’ - was a valuable activity took over the popular imagination.  “Creativity” became the new buzz word, especially among educators.  Creativity was good for you and since creativity had personal, psychological value, it soon replaced craft and skill as the prime process in the making of art objects. Psychologists, like Rollo May, told everyone that they had the capacity to be creative.  Because the emphasis was on the experience of the creator rather than the quality of final products, everyone became an artist.  Art activities were as meaningful for children and retirees as for professional artists. Art became relaxation, recreation and therapy.  The differences between various kinds of ‘creative’ activity were minimized and elitism, the notion that some art objects were better than others, was to be avoided at all costs. Distinctions in significance or quality in the products of different artists, ages, cultures, ethnicities, classes, even levels of skill became unacceptable and politically incorrect.  Sincerity was all that mattered.

(This idea also equates the formal impulse behind the making of an African fetish figure with that behind the making of Picasso’s self-portrait.)

If art was the making of beautiful objects, it was a frill activity, to be supported financially by a few sophisticated, rich people. But if art was creativity and personal expression, it could enrich everybody’s life.  It, therefore, became socially useful and deserving of public patronage.  TV programs, books and magazine articles on the subject appeared encouraging participation in the arts.   Art courses in community centers sprung up all over the country.  As art became perceived as a way through which we can understand the cultures of other peoples, private foundation grants began to go to grassroots organizations promoting intercultural programs rather than to superior professional artists.   Federal funding for popular art programs were established in 1965 with the National Endowment for the Arts. Government funds subsidized Aunt Matilda’s quilt-making as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Funding, however, is forbidden by Congress from going as direct grants to individual, professional artists.    According to Ronald Berman, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, in the debates about funding the arts in 1979:

The social functions of art were emphasized in their variety, the debates suggesting that art displaced adolescent violence and anomie, encouraged craftsmanship, discouraged crime, and offered new opportunities for employment.  Art was an alternative to drug addiction, an auxiliary to prison rehabilitation, and a solution the problem of old age.  Exposure to art might relieve inner-city tensions and possibly improve the tone of the adversary culture.  Most appreciated of all was the effect of art on the distribution of funds in its name -on regionalism.  Hundreds of associations had sprung up under the influence of federal support for the arts, and they were necessarily connected to the economic life of congressional districts.

VI

After all these gripes, I have to say that I do understand the importance of learning about the art of other cultures, having taught a course based on that recognition for over 30 years.   I believe that by seeing through the art of others we learn that ours is only one of many ways to see the world.  Also, there is no question that artists from non-western cultures make beautiful, collectible objects.  I can enjoy the art of children and the untrained and I am fascinated by the images produced by the insane.  But, although I believe that artists like Henry Darger can make meaningful works, I also believe that traditional Western Fine artworks have far more to offer us and that, obviously, the work of some Western artists is more significant than others.  Although the canon for quality or taste changes over time and once discredited works are occasionally rehabilitated, I believe that the work of artists like Rembrandt and Goya will continue to be more meaningful for us than that of Girodet and even Pissarro.

Having taught art to non-art people for 40 years, I have no problem with the idea that everyone can be creative and make art.  I do believe that the creative process is useful, psychologically beneficial and that everyone can get pleasure, gratification and other benefits from such activity.  For me, creativity is a way of problem-solving and although I find that making paintings is work and that gratification usually coming after the successful completion of a work, it’s OK with me if others find it recreational.  I accept the probability that art activities have therapeutic value for the neurotic and the insane.  I believe that federal, corporate and private organizations promoting intercultural awareness through art should be supported.   My problem as a professional artist is that little of this public involvement has anything to do with the creation, understanding or judgment of significant works of art.  I believe that the making of visual art can be of high cultural value even though much of it today is not and that, because painting has the capacity to express important experiences, its perception, however problematic, should not be treated as thoughtless, effortless entertainment.  It seems to me that, rather than spending time debating whether any particular object is a work of art, it would be better to spend at least some of that time learning how to see it.

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