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Leonardo

To the Rescue of Art: Editorial


Author(s): Rudolf Arnheim
Source: Leonardo, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1986), pp. 95-97
Published by: The MIT Press
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To

the

Rescue

of

Art

Editorial
One thing that seems to occur, and perhaps ought to occur as one gets older, is that one's thinking
changes location. In the building that houses our interests one begins to move toward the attic and the
basement, away from those central floors where the practical life and the issues of the day are being
tackled.
The attic-that is the lofty place where philosophy dwells. To my mind, the move to the attic is not a
change of occupation. Philosophy is not really a discipline of its own. Rather it is the superstructureof
each discipline-in our case that of the practice and the history of art and the study of the functions of
art in society and in the life of the individual. The pursuit of each discipline implies questions that have
a way of remaining unexamined or of being taken care of in a slipshod, irresponsible way. Take as an
example the 4uestion: What is art? People are reluctant to deal with it. They find it embarrassing,
unnecessary, unanswerable. Yet, inevitably, the question is being answered by implication in every
artist's or art historian's or critic's practical conduct; and if the answer is not good enough, neither will
be the conduct it inspires.
Problems like these shed their particularembodiment as one's thinking moves to the attic. They stare
you in the face, naked like a model without its clothes. They are what it all comes down to in the last
analysis. And the time for that last analysis gets to be now or never.
Then there is the basement of the building that houses our interests. The basement is the foundation
on which it all rests. Unless that foundation is sound, the whole busy production on the central floors is
shaky, questionable, exposed to catastrophic crises. And here again fundamental questions,
philosophical principles, constitute the building blocks. When they are of cheap material and sloppily
put together, they make for danger upstairs. Thus after you have labored on those central floors for
many years without drawing explicit conclusions from the danger signs, the time comes when like a
thoughtful home owner you take a flashlight and descend to the basement to knock at the walls and the
supports.
Most of us will agree that in our particular area of work and at this particular time those supports
sound hollow. In practice as well as in theory the very existence of art, its basic nature and values, is
being disputed. It is a disease, easily diagnosed but not so easily understood in its causes. I cannot do
more here than point to some of the symptoms. In the practice of the art world the most significant sign
is that anything goes. Some very good art is being made in our time, but, as always, much is mediocre.
This, it seems to me, is no longer acknowledged. Not that the average critic likes everything he sees, but
the fact that something is too simple, too shallow, too easy, or too vulgar is no longer a cause for
disapproval.
This decay of the standards of value pervades our civilization. How much can be done about this
illness I do not know, but one of its consequences is a more manageable evil, one we may be able to
combat. The decay of standards has led to the theoretical assertion that aesthetic value is a mere
illusion. The notion that art can be good or bad is supposed to have no basis in fact or, at best, to rely on
purely subjectivejudgment. This view has devastated theoretical reasoning like the Black Death, to the
extent of being practically unopposed.
It is easy to find examples of this fashionable attitude. I will refer to a recent article I came across in
Leonardo,written by David Carrierand entitled "On the Possibility of Aesthetic Atheism: Philosophy
and the Market in Art" (Leonardo18, 35-38, 1985). Carrierdescribes usefully what he calls the cynical
approach to aesthetics, without, he says, either adopting or rejecting it himself. He fails, however, to
present the opposite position and thereby stacks the cards in a manner that prevents him from truly
clarifying the issue.
Aesthetic atheism is meant to refer to the view "that people might cease to believe that artworks
possess the qualities traditionally called aesthetic" (p. 35). The aesthetic atheist, says Carrier,wants us
to stop making art. To parallel religious atheism, such a doctrine would have to go beyond asserting
that people no longer apply aesthetic standards or that the art produced now no longer meets such
criteria. It would have to propose that art objects never possessed and perhaps cannot possess the
properties we call aesthetic. I am reminded of a joke that circulated some years ago about someone
saying: "God is dead, Art is dead, and I myself do not feel very peppy!"
The notion that art can be done without is maintainable only if, in a myopic fashion, one counts art
among the minor things that come and go in society, things like hoop skirts or tobacco smoking. Let me
compare the situation with another area of human needs: it is as though one were to reason about
things to eat not by talking about food as an indispensable nutrient of organisms but about Japanese
sashimi or Greek retsina wine-things liked by some but unknown to others. The idea that artistic
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LEONARDO,

Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 95-97, 1986

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95

experience does not exist becomes inconceivable as soon as one thinks about art as it must be thought
about in the attic, namely, in a broad, biological manner as an essential aspect of how human beings
cope with the task of life. Human beings face the challenge of dealing with a world that seems puzzling,
hard to comprehend, unpredictable. They are vitally in need of making sense of their environment.
Science and art are the professionalized versions of the two ways our minds have developed to that end.
One of them, science, is the extraction of intellectual principles that enable us to understand observed
events. The other, art, lets us experience the powers constituting the world in clarified, orderly and
impressive images. If we were deprived of one of those two means of handling our existence, we would
survive either not at all or in an inhuman manner.
Instead of dealing with art as some fundamental function such as perceiving or thinking or the
instincts of procreation or self-preservation, the author of the article I quoted chooses to deal with the
art market, a scene that seems indeed to demonstrate that artistic value has been replaced by the sales
price. A Rembrandt drawing is a fine thing, but this is not why thousands of dollars are paid for it. And
people who have enough money to afford any price but cannot afford to trust their own sense of quality
buy things they should be able to recognize as ugly or silly. The art market is indeed a rewardingsubject
of investigation. But to believe that the art marketcan be used to tell us what is art is as politically naive
as to assume that the forces running our particular capitalist society are the laws of nature.
Not even in our own setting is the art market anything more significant than an embarrassing
distortion of the innumerable blessings receivedevery day by millions of people. Think of the art lovers
that crowd the museums and put pictures on their walls. Talk to artists about what their minds gain by
what their hands produce. Their standards of quality, as I observed earlier, may be shaky; but the
genuineness of their aesthetic experience should not be doubted.
It is here, however, that our fashionable sceptics interrupt us. They insist that the beauty and the
greatness supposedly possessed by some works of art are nothing but arbitrary standards imposed
upon us by the culture in general and the critics in particular. These sceptics may not deny that artistic
experience exists, but they assure us that since one man's Picasso is the other man's Norman Rockwell,
one picture or sculpture or music is as good as the next. This doctrine, known as aesthetic relativism, is
less patently absurd than the atheism we heard about, but for that reason it is all the more dangerous. It
takes off from the obviously correct observation that different people enjoy different things and that
works of art highly praised at one time are dismissed as inferiorsome other time. In fact, under varying
conditions people do not even see or hear the same things. A Romanesque mural we look at today is not
the same picture its contemporaries saw in the context of their own religious and stylistic conventions.
From these undeniable facts there derivesthe idea of the work of art as a tabularasa, an empty screen
with no properties of its own, upon which one projects any character and value one chooses to find
there. The result is the vision of a ghostly world populated by meaningless things and by deluded
persons who agree on nothing and therefore can agree on anything.
It does not take much observation to discover that the notion of the tabularasa does not fit the facts.
Modified though an image may be by a particular observer's idiosyncrasies, it obviously is not an
empty screen. A distinctly shaped object presents itself as a stimulus, as psychologists call it.
Psychologists will also tell us that, with the exception of hallucinations, all percepts are responses to
stimuli and that, to act as stimuli, target patterns must possess a character of their own.
The next thing we realize when we examine the relativist's tricks is that the responses to works of art
cannot be said to be arbitrary. Every time a given target meets a given percipient, the resulting
experience derives lawfully from the characteristicsof the target in its interactionwith the propertiesof
the perceiving mind. We can tell with some assurance, for example, why Mussolini liked futurism
whereas Hitler did not. With enough psychological insight we are able to understand and even to
predict what will happen when a mind of known qualities receives the equally known properties of a
piece of art. Given the variety of minds, this does lead to an infinite variety of responses, but the strict
lawfulness of all of them is a far cry from the nihilistic vision of the total arbitrarinessthat is supposed
to be the outcome. And, of course, once the irrationalityof the situation has to be given up, the doctrine
loses much of its attraction for its cynical defenders.
What we are left with is not the kind of chaos some unhappy people enjoy. It is ratheran aspect of the
world in which we are lucky enough to live-a world in which a colorful variety of infinite appearances
is held together by laws that allow us to envisage the underlyingorder and to find our way. Nor does the
variety of responses mean that they are all equally valid. In practice we all operate on the assumption
that what we call good or bad, beautiful or ugly, is objectively so; and even the theorizer who holds
forth on the relativism of all values gives in tacitly when it comes to a painting he acquiresfor his living
room or the woman he loves.
What justifies this violation of the relativist's own standards?To speak of values such as good and
bad or beautiful and ugly makes sense only when one answersthe question: Valuable for what?A good
painting is one that is good for satisfying certain needs; and those needs vary. But the needs cannot be
said to be all of the same level, if we accept the demand that they help to develop human nature to its
fullest and richest realization. Once we commit ourselves to this ideal and are aware of the virtues it
entails, we can indeed prove that in entirely objective terms a Picasso serves the demands more
effectively than a Norman Rockwell, a Beethoven quartet more than a pop concert. The values
promoted by the greater works are the obvious ones: intensity, depth, originality, essentiality, clarity,

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Editorial

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truthfulness, and so forth. This still leaves everybody free to prefer the equally objective values of
noncommittal shallowness, mindless stimulation, trivial sweetness, or violent confusion. I see no
objection to this, provided we can agree that the difference matters.
Rudolf Arnheim

InternationalCo-Editor

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RICHTER, 2nd Ed. P116. Oxfordl
University Press (I939).

Editorial

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