Sunday, 20 September 2009





Art criticism as we now know it has been in existence for a comparatively short period of time. Although Vasari in his Lives of the Artists offers verdicts on the quality of some of the art works he discusses, these judgements occur only in concise form, with minimal indications concerning the basis upon which they are put forward. For example, when discussing Masaccio's fresco of 'The Crucifixion' in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, he remarks:

"But the most beautiful thing, apart from the figures, is the barrel-vaulted ceiling drawn in perspective and divided into square compartments containing rosettes foreshortened and made to recede so skillfully that the surface looks as if it is indented."


One main criterion, with Vasari, was certainly the idea of technical progress in art – certain artists seemed to him to be especially meritorious because they offered more and more sophisticated methods of representing external reality. Other artists discussed in the Lives are sometimes condemned for abandoning the guidance of nature - Vasari, for example was critical of the way in which Pontormo succumbed to the influence of Dürer:

"The charm of his own early style, which had been given to him by Nature, full of sweetness and grace, was greatly changed by that new intensity and effort, and much damaged by his chance encounter with that German style."


When what is now recognizable to us as art criticism appeared in the mid-eighteenth century, the tendency was to see paintings, not in technical or scientific terms, but as a variant of dramatic art. Denis Diderot, in his Salons praises certain paintings by Greuze as supremely effective mechanisms for delivering and explicating a dramatic event. Here, for instance, is his commentary on a sketch for a painting called The Ungrateful Son, exhibited at the Salon of 1765:

"In this sketch everything is understood, put in order, characterised and clear: the pain of the mother but also her weakness for the son she has spoiled; the violence of the old man; the different reactions of his sisters and those of the little children. Also the insolence of the ungrateful son, the reticence of the old soldier who can't resist shrugging his shoulders at what is happening in front of him. The barking dog is one of those accessories that Greuze knows how to imagine with a taste that is special to himself."


As will be seen from this, Diderot pays a great deal of attention to gesture and facial expression, but little or none to what we would now describe as formal values – the distribution and relationship of forms within the picture space.


He is also interested in a fairly simplistic version of domestic and political morality. For him Greuze’s genre-paintings are moral emblems, and, similarly, the paintings of Boucher, for which he professes a dislike, both reflect and are representative of the corrupt morality of the French court.


With the coming of Modernism, this situation changed radically. First Cézanne, then the Cubists, and after them again purely abstract painters and sculptors such as the Russian Constructivists, taught critics and through them their audience to consider works of art primarily in terms of relationships of form.


At about the same time these methods also began to be applied retrospectively to pre-Modern productions.


In particular, the great connoisseur Bernard Berenson taught spectators to think of paintings not in terms of the stories they told but in those of what he called ‘tactile values’. In a certain sense, this represented a return to Vasari – imagined tactility could be related to the greater sense of experienced reality that Vasari looked for in the painters he admired.


It must be noted that Berenson had commercial as well as purely intellectual reasons for promoting this change of approach. He made his living by acting as principal consultant to the great dealer Duveen, who was busy selling off the art treasures of Europe to a new generation of American millionaires.


Almost all of these millionaires were self-made men without any great depth of education or culture, and many were in addition Jewish. The majority of the masterpieces that Duveen had to sell featured Christian iconography. Berenson’s approach allowed Duveen’s plutocratic clientele to attach itself to the aristocratic culture of the past while ignoring the inconvenient question of subject matter. The tactility of the Madonna’s form, the sculptural fullness with which her physical presence had been rendered by a great Renaissance master, took precedence of her identity as a sacred figure.


In various guises the formalist approach remained applicable to most – though certainly not quite all – Modernist manifestations till after the mid-point of the twentieth century. Major exceptions included both the ‘readymades’ of Marcel Duchamp and the related ‘objects’ [rather than sculptures] produced by some leading Surrealists. Meret Oppenheim’s fur tea-cup is a case in point.


A crisis point was reached, not with Surrealism, but with the Minimalist art that first made its appearance in the mid 1960s, At first sight, Minimalism seemed the absolute apogee of formalist doctrine. However, Minimalism, with its insistence on the unitary, or alternatively on the open-ended sequential use of identical forms [as, for example, in some of the sculptures of Donald Judd], actually reduced formal analysis to a condition of impotence by making it visibly otiose.


Minimalism claimed to be art without subject matter - "the thing in itself". In reality, it did have a subject. It was self-reflexive - art about art. Its defenders, Judd in particular, indulged in a ferocious polemic, designed to demonstrate that all other forms of twentieth century artistic expression were inferior, thanks to their reluctance to rid themselves of a tainted ant-aesthetic complexity. Critical support of Minimalism supplies a good example of the way in which moral values, when thrown out of the front door, promptly re-enter through the kitchen. It was Judd who once opined, in typically blunt style: "There's serious high art and then there's everybody else, all equally low." That is, he embraced a traditional idea of quality while embracing artistic methods that seemed by their very nature to exclude it.


The Minimalist enterprise had one unexpected effect. It seemed an increasingly easy and logical step from an art that consisted of objects as forms-in-themselves, without qualifying relationships to other forms, to an art where the object was absent rather than present.


Artists were encouraged to glide from one situation to another by the fact that Minimal art objects, thanks to their programmatic lack of complexity, could easily be created from written, or even purely verbal, instructions. The artist could even sell the right to embody a particular work in physical form, in accordance with a copyrighted description provided by himself. There was no need for him to be present when the physical embodiment came into being.


From this situation, it was again only a short step to the idea that physical embodiment was unnecessary - an artwork could exist as no more than a pattern of thought. In those circumstances, of course, any process of formal analysis became inapplicable.


At first Conceptual Art tended to concern itself with issues that were still connected with ways of seeing, and ways of thinking about what was seen. A good example of this phase is Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs [1965] consists of an actual folding chair, a photograph of a chair to the same scale, and a dictionary definition of a chair.


Soon enough, however, Conceptual Art began to deal with things that were nothing to do with how the objective world was perceived. The process was speeded up by the rapid politicization of the avant-garde art world that took place during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Under the influence of the charismatic German performance artist and teacher Joseph Beuys, who described his own political initiatives as "social sculpture", artists discovered that exhibition spaces devoted to contemporary art could provide effective platforms for the propagation of minority views. Ethnic, sexual and other minorities acquired a resonant, well-reported voice by this means.


This necessarily brought with in the re-entry of the very thing that formalist critical analysis had been most concerned to banish - the narrative voice in art.


The Conceptual impulse was not the only major change that overtook the world of contemporary art at this point. It was accompanied by the increasing prominence of new forms of expression - installation, performance, body art and video. None of these submitted easily to an analysis of formal relationships, though there were of course cases where interpretation could be forced into some kind of formalist mould.


Nearly all of these new forms had an integral link with the notion of narrative - someone who witnesses a performance or looks at a video instinctively expects to be told a story, even when the frustration of this presumption may be part of the artist's purpose. Where narrative elements are fragmentary, contradictory or ambiguous, the spectator commonly reacts by trying to supply the missing links for himself. In this respect, spectators tend to behave in a manner closely akin to Leonardo da Vinci's famous analysis of the way random blotches or markings on a wall can be read, if one is in a certain frame of mind, as a meaningful figurative composition.


The return to narrative, so conspicuous in very recent art, reinforces the anti-formalist tendencies inherent in the means of expression that now seem to have the preference of contemporary artists.


In general, though the means of expression are now so very different, the role played by art in our society seems to have reverted to a pre-Modernist situation, where the artist offered a large bourgeois audience public narratives of all kinds, often with strong - some would say crude - moral overtones of a sort that Diderot and his contemporaries would certainly have recognized.


The social and economic mechanisms that support and promote this narrative, morally oriented art bear a close resemblance to those that existed during the closing years of the nineteenth century, with events at Tate Modern, for instance, replacing the Paris Salons and Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions that the early Modernists mocked and opposed. One can even observe that our art scandals - events that have so powerful a role in promoting contemporary art - are more or less the same as they were in the days before Modernism was invented. In particular they dwell on the theme of sexuality, which played a prominent role in Salon art throughout its history, but which has a much less integral connection with the Modern Movement than it is fashionable to suppose.


If we look back to the beginnings of Modernism, we can perhaps see that certain kinds of Modernist art work - abstract painting in particular - were paradoxically condemned as immoral because of their form, rather than their content. By proposing a new way of seeing, they appeared, to some people at least, to threaten the foundations of society. We have had a long time to discover that this was not, and never could have been, the case. Now we can comfortably return to being shocked, not by the form of art, but by its content. At the same time, however, we are forced to acknowledge that, where great tracts of contemporary art are concerned, the analysis of formal relationships is irrelevant. 


This site was last updated 20-09-2009