Leo Segedin | 9/8/1998 | Print this essay
I believe that there are for the artworld significant traditional Western values which, with some revision, are still applicable.. Some of these values are perhaps still more preached than practiced, but nevertheless, without them, I feel that there really is little reason for us to make or look at art. To maintain for whatever reasons that all art objects are of equal value may be politically safe or make an obvious philosophical point about the unfairness of the museum system in this country, but it is also to trivialize art. For over two thousand years of judging art in the West. one major tradition has maintained that great art should convey something important and serious - ‘factual truth, religious belief, moral, social and political rightness’ - and its greatness would be in how well it succeeds. Think of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Chartres Cathedral, Tintoretto’s Scola de San Rocco, Ankor Wat. We no longer think that we have to accept the values underlying such works in order to recognize their greatness. We don’t have to be Catholic, a Neo-Platonist, a believer in classical values or a religious reformer to gaze around in awe in the Sistine Chapel, although our understanding of Neo-Platonism, classicism, and the Reformation enhances our response. In the same way, we can understand African social structures, religions and rituals without accepting or practicing them. We can also understand why Hitler and the Nazis succeeded in Germany, but be horrified by the Holocaust and we can also believe that ‘Triumph of the Will’ is a great movie, while finding its content revolting.
We no longer expect art to affect our ethics or morality (although recent art has attempted to do so) - as always and regardless of who made it - regardless of gender, race and ethnicity - some great art is still art which represents human values, must be about issues that matter to people even if we disagree about them. It must be more than something we hang on our wall simply because we like it. Great art can give us insight into reality, into ourselves and others, into culture and nature. Great art makes us see for the first time, is revelatory. Rembrandt transformed our way of seeing people, Vermeer, everything with greater clarity. Monet transformed our way of seeing light; nature never looked the same after we see and understand his work. Cezanne made us see space in a way which leads through Cubism and abstraction all the way to what we see in TV commercials.
Granted that all art is potentially revelatory if we are unfamiliar with it. If we are ignorant of what underlies, say, impressionism, second rate impressionist art can at first seem like a mess of paint, or ‘putrescent flesh in various states of decay’, but once you learn to ‘see’ it, its color becomes a revelation of light and air; you will understand why Monet is a better painter than all the thousands of his followers, why his late paintings are better than his early ones; you will be able to tell a good Monet from a lesser one; you will know why Monet is generally a better painter than Renoir even though Renoir is probably easier to like.
African art was revelatory to European artists at the beginning of this century because it was unfamiliar and opened up all kinds of new ways of seeing and representing, but it made no difference whether the sculpture which they saw was good or not. They were ignorant of its function and didn’t care. The art of children and the insane was also revelatory to these artists for the same reason. In this sense, African art was not revelatory to Africans Although they judged the quality of their art, its significance was functional, not revelation or originality. Such art was the source of originality in the West, but was not for the artists who made it. Originality was not a major value in Africa as it was in the West. If we are familiar with what has gone on before, we can see which works initiate ideas and which are derivative. For example, we can see one reason why Picasso is a greater artist than Gris..
Social functions alone cannot be the basis for an aesthetic or criteria. We cannot judge a ritual object on whether or not it achieves its goal. Fetish objects may be effective, but of little or no artistic significance. A Western plastic object may successfully serve a ritual function. An African might discard a ‘failed’ object; a Westerner might collect and display it. Knowledge of such function can add to our understanding of the object, but not its artistic value.
Significant subject matter does not in itself make for great art. Images about birth and death, fertility, mothers and children, men and women, heroes, the achieving of manhood, marriage, cultural myths, cosmologies, etc., may be necessary but not sufficient for the creation of important art
The same goes for ideas about subconscious projections and catharsis. Even if Jungian descriptions of the unconscious are valid, they do not distinguish artistic behavior from all other kinds of behavior. The neurotic and insane can give symbolic expression to their unconscious. Successful objectification may be necessary but not sufficient behavior and does not determine artistic success.
Some great art takes ideas which were already accepted and develops them to its fullest possibilities. We can see why Cimabue is a great artist. We can see why Michelangelo is a better artist than Ghirlandaio when we realize that their options were similar. What options does an African sculptor have and what can he do with them?
Great art must have adequate formal means .Good intentions are not enough. Some ideas are better presented than others. A great work of art develops the potentialities of its formal structure and materials. Knowledge about an art form gives us some idea about what its possibilities are. We can ask ourselves, what are the possibilities of an art form? What are its limitations? Do cultural requirements limit its possibilities? Some art forms merely repeat themes with minor variations. After we become familiar with an art form, we find some forms ultimately obvious, boring and predictable while others are more interesting, develop more original variations. In this respect, art about life is more important, ‘better’ than conceptual art about art because in this kind of art, once you get the idea, there little else to look at.
On the other hand, an aesthetic based on notions primarily of form, beauty or taste, even craft, trivializes art. Art that is about life, about the 'human condition', is more important than art about form or beauty.
Great art is renewable, can be seen again and again and remains rich in perpetual possibilities. Although any object can be reinterpreted within any new context - sociological, philosophical or political - objects designed to be meaningful art objects, have more potential, more significance, more value, for this purpose. Although new meanings can be found for great works, their significance does not lie essentially in the stories and myths, history and provenances, commercial value, popularity or the biography, psychology or status of the artist, but rather in what is intrinsic to the work.
Scale is important. This does not mean that we might respond more deeply to a Rembrandt self portrait or a Vermeer city scape or interior, a small watercolor or manuscript illustration, but rather that all other things being equal, larger works like the Sistine Chapel or Ankor Wat will be more important than smaller works.
Both Western and African art is often described as ‘creative’ or ‘expressive’ in a positive evaluative sense, but at best these terms are descriptive. Murders can be creative and expressive, but are not positive behavior. Children can be creative and expressive, but their art is childish. Such terms may describe necessary but not sufficient behavior. A word which means ‘creative’, referring to both the creation of the universe and the making of a sculpture, is found in some African languages; the word ‘expressive’ is not.
Expression, originality, authenticity or correct attribution, even rarity of an art object do not in themselves indicate its value or quality.
Some of us will remember that, back in 1961, Northeastern - then Chicago Teachers College North - was established as a teaching institution which, along with education and liberal arts programs, also had a ‘world cultures’ agenda, one of the first such colleges in the country. Our founding Dean Jarvis was given a mandate to develop and implement a curriculum which reflected as equally as possible the major populations and cultures of the world. Such courses as Comparative World Cultures and World Geography were introduced. Efforts were made to teach Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Hindu and even Swahili because these were the among the world’s major languages. We created multi-ethnic student bodies and encouraged student study and work abroad. The art department introduced major art history courses about the art of Africa, of China, Japan and Korea and I developed an introductory art course called Art in Society which presented, along with Western art, the art of non-European societies. These ideas about the teaching of art were radical for their time. The traditional way of approaching such materials was either through Western art masterpiece appreciation courses or through chronological historical surveys which usually began in prehistoric times and ended in contemporary times giving the impression that the history of art was a linear progression culminating in the higher reaches of Western Civilization. Many of us objected to such ethnocentricism. In the visual arts, representations of reality could be accomplished through images other than three-dimensional ones. Images using base lines, schematic contours, hieratic proportions, perspectives with no vanishing points or horizon lines were just as legitimate as Renaissance perspective, chiaroscuro and contraposto. Such images represented experiences which were just as real as western illusionism. There were many ways of seeing and representing the world and each were equally legitimate.
The issue for most of us was cultural representation, not judgement. Although the established Western canon did include artworks which we thought were great, we felt that it also refused to include many works which should have been considered. The canon included very few artworks by women, African-Americans and other American minorities as well as art from non-Western cultures and, therefore, did not seem to be based on any justifiably broad and teachable criteria by which to make legitimate judgements. At the time, I rejected the concept of art appreciation as demeaning to art. I believed that art courses should have a content at least as objective as that of literature and the social sciences. For me, it was a matter primarily of cognition and perception, not aesthetic sensitivity or taste. One did not teach Dostoevsky, American history or politics (or for that matter, science and mathematics) appreciation courses as if it were a matter of improving the taste of students; why teach the visual arts that way? In class, I discussed concepts of art in different cultures, Western definitions of art, how different cultures represented form and space, how an art object was constructed and its historical and social contexts. I thought, let them learn as much as they can and make up their own minds about what was great art.