|due to the mechanisms of the art market, issues such as reproducibility, high show-value, and the satisfaction of certain trends are just as important, if not more important than quality (Kallir 2007).
modernist theories and the modernist museum: from 18 century onwards these are the foundation of modernist art criticism – today ideas are modernist or try to fight modernism with pluralism
formalist theorists is important, as despite the diversity of their ideas, there is an underlying assumption – a commonality – behind all their theories, namely that there are set formal standards that we can apply to works of art regardless of the context and the content of the work and that quality judgments can be made according to formalist standards. The good work of art that is the creation of the detached artistic genius evokes the Kantian pure aesthetic experience which is then given access to and honoured within the cultural morays which define high culture.
- the genius
- The concept of the genius is a recurring idea within classical and modern art criticism, from Vasari through Kant and the formalists, the concept of the genius is present. The reason why the genius has been elevated to such heights is not only a social construct in order to support the hierarchy of western culture as the post-structuralists would say, but the concept was also introduced in order to find a place for art in society.
the genius =
one of the foundations of modernist art theory
above the ordinary creative or mental abilities.
e Jena Group, Weimar
theorists in 18th century northern-Europe. Emerging parallel with Romanticism, the Jena Group in Weimar, considered to be the first avant-garde group, introduced the new artistic persona, namely the (pure) ‘artist messiah’ who was seen as another face of the genius (Taylor 1992:32).
the role of the artist is transformed into that of a messiah, his task being to guide people towards the supernatural.
As stated above, good works of art are therefore created to represent the truth and to lead humankind to happiness and ultimately to enlightenment
the same attitude was adopted by modernist artists as well. The significant influence of the messiah-attitude also made its mark on modern art, and the avant-garde of the late 19th, early 20thcentury adopted this view as well.
Cubism, for example, wanted to show the abstract geometric reality behind the reality of appearances, Futurism, with its spiritual cleansing and industrial enlightenment theories became almost the state art of fascist Italy. Malevich stated that God was the end, the source and end of all light and depicted it in his Black Square (1915)
If we look at the theories demonstrated above, it becomes clear that the point where they connect with each other is at the saviour-role of the artist and the superiority of the work of art, created by the genius, or by the ‘artist-messiah’. The good work of art is the work that guides people towards God, as it becomes the tool of the new religion.
The ideal of the genius was re-introduced during the Renaissance4, and became a focal point of 18th century art criticism.
Rousseau and Diderot romanticised the ideal of the Renaissance artist.
The genius which could be either seen as the ‘artist messiah’, or simply as an exceptional talent soaring above the constraints of the human mind and language, creates the foundations of the theories of formalism.
He argues that aesthetic judgments are subjective due to the difference in individual taste, but at the same time taste commands universal agreement, as a beautiful object gives pleasure to everyone. Beauty, therefore, has to be universal somehow
impure aesthetic judgments, which depend on likes and dislikes, therefore they are seen as completely subjective
pure aesthetic judgments which are also based on feelings but they claim universal validity.
how can feelings claim universal validity if they are embedded in the subject and not in the object?
answer according to Kant is that pure aesthetic judgments are disinterested, meaning they can be objective and subjective at the same time
are not comparative, meaning that we cannot have expectations towards how the object should be or look like. –
one takes Mona Lisa or the sea for what it is
the ontological nature of the aesthetic object is not relevant:
the only truly disinterested judgment is the judgment “X is beautiful” where the nature of X is not considered at all.
Kant’s theory was the ideal starting point for formalism, which promoted the concept of art for art’s sake. The creation of the work of art is purposive art without a purpose, meaning that art is self-referential. The artist makes art with the intention of making art only, she/he does not make art in order to, for 22
example, express a message or evoke social change, but art-making for the sake of art itself.
formalist critics: Wolfflin, clive Bell, Roger Fry, Kenneth Clarke, Clement Greenberg,
Clive Bell 1181-1964
Bell argued that works of art provoke different emotions yet they belong to a certain group of emotions, which he identified as (the Kantian) aesthetic emotion. Should we find a common quality in the works of art, which provokes this emotion, the central problem of aesthetics would be solved.
should be some quality within a work of art with its combinations of line and colour, which is aesthetically moving. This quality and the fusion of 25
line and colour into a specific form, Bell identified as the ‘significant form’ which is common to all visual art. These significant forms are the carriers of the aesthetic experience.
But finding significant form within contemporary works is just as difficult as it is to follow Wölfflin’s ideas. Moreover, Bell never explained clearly what significant form really was and neither did Roger Fry, who resorted to mysticism when there was a need for explanation. They both commenced with empiricism, but when concepts such as subjectivity and feeling needed explanation, we are left with controversial answers such as taking art to spiritual heights (Lang 1962:169
He believed in the hierarchy and domination of superior art, rejected popular art movements, and looked upon the artistic tradition as a change of styles which manifest the works of the artistic genius.
The one artistic style which he put on a pedestal was Abstract Expressionism. Its timeless quality, the ignorance of subject matter, lack of figuration, the focus on only two dimensions and its self-referential aspect, were the ideal points for formalist critique. Abstract Expressionism was also seen as the allegory of high art, which was understood and accessed only by art professionals. G
Greenberg, along with Michael Fried, are considered to be the last great modernist critics, the last heroic protectors of high art and formalism.
the answers regarding what defined good art were straighforward: the artist was identified as the genius, who created an eternal masterpiece, independent from content and context, the quality of the work was foremost in the work. The work itself could be mapped and uncovered by the practiced eye which was open to the ideal (significant) form.
The modernist museum – its role and criticism
In terms of fine art, the museum legitimised the underlying rules of formalist criticism. The pieces, which were displayed in the museum were considered by theoreticians to be masterpieces, and in return, the museum ensured the masterpiece status of the work through museum practices
the modernist museum colluded with the Kantian theory of aesthetics. Its goal was to legitimise the detached superior status of the artist and to save the arts from the lowly art market by ensuring their display within this structure of high culture.
the ultimate goal of an artist was to be displayed in a museum
it was proclaimed by the cultural elite (and touted by the museum itself) as an institution for the preservation and protection of high culture.
it advertised and promoted national cultural wealth as well as a nation’s enriched cultural heritage
but there are problems with the museum:
an old broken seashell, a painting by Mark Rothko, an Egyptian statue made for ritual or a conceptual installation by Kosuth, can all be found in the very same museum, displayed in a very similar manner where, there is no differentiation (1990:28).
We do not have access to the works as their context and content remain hidden from us, and since we now only have the visual object to deal with, we can only appreciate the works for their visual attributes. This is where the viewer falls into the trap of formalism
If all objects are forced into the same system of judgment, namely formalism, they lose their original meaning.
As the above example demonstrates, judging all works of art for their formal attributes destroys the intrinsic meaning of the work of art.
If meaning is destroyed, how are we able to make proper judgements about the quality of a piece of art?
Since the museum is not able to step out of its historical legacy of modernist judgments, it enforces its formalist attitude onto all kinds of art, it expands the theory onto all kinds of objects, suffocates them in formalism, ignores their context and meaning, and therefore it does not give leeway for other possible judgments on quality.
|the art market cannot be taken as a reliable agency of adjudication.
The concept of the genius is an acknowledgement that we as viewers or lay public cannot understand what art is.
the genius becomes the basis of Kant’s theory of the artist creator, the academically educated genius,
the ‘artist messiah’ behind the great works of art for the Jena Group or for the formalists.
artists, who were placed in a realm above society, were going to show the path to the spiritual or transcendental.
aiming towards the perfect order which was already present in nature, but that we fail to see it as we are corrupted by industrialisation and urbanisation
Kandinsky with his geometric abstract work wanted to show the path to a new spiritual kingdom, which
Le Corbusier was designing his buildings in the name of the White World where pure forms guide us to a better, spiritually clean society (Taylor 1992:83,113).
De Stijl, illustrated similar ideas in their art and architecture.
Mondrian painted his works in order to map the transcendental reality through basic geometric shapes and colours p16
Both the artists of the Renaissance and artists of the following eras had to satisfy the taste of the ruling class, artistic liberty was limited by the taste of the commissioner
They argued that true values, both social and artistic, had evaporated from 18th century culture due to the emergence of luxury states. The art of the 17th and 18th centuries repulsed these philosophers who were convinced that the role of art was to portray true human qualities, therefore they argued heavily against the art market and luxury states which favoured ‘kitsch’ as opposed to true or intrinsic quality pictured by the artist-messiah (Mattick 2003:32,3
By ignoring everything besides form, the early followers of formalism believed in the eternal nature and relevance of a work of art, claiming that the only aspect which mattered, was that art was made for art’s 19
sake, the work was always self-referential, as it was seen as a unique entity in the world, detached from all other objects and thought
the work of art is independent even from its maker
but not from the genius of the maker
Art is also independent from society
no need for special training to understand a work of art, or trained eyes with specialised schooling
formalism destroys the bourgeois privilege of art enjoyment
formalism had put high art up on the pedestal, made it universal, unique and detached it from the practical or other theoretical aspects of life.
formalism rose out of the aesthetic theory of Immanuel Kant
Kant excludes all other 21
considerations such as practical, moral or personal gratification from the aesthetic” (Wilkinson 2004:80).
Thus, art for Kant, has no functional or moral value
it ignores the personality of the artist, but argues that works of art are born through the artistic genius, the same artistic genius as explained by Agamben. The artistic genius is able to grasp the pure universal aesthetic experience in order to channel universal beauty.
independent from society, independent from the monetary system, distanced from objects in use. The work of art is therefore an end in itself.
a strict methodological framework for the understanding of artworks and the identification of what a good work of art should be or look like.
linear versus painterly, plane versus recession, closed versus open, multiplicity versus unity, absolute versus relative clarity, provide a very detailed and rational analysis of works of art
Wölfflin, like Riegl, followed a Hegelian model in which he argued that the spirit of each period or time frame determines artistic creation. The artwork is determined by the temperament of the individual, the nation and the period
also able to make quality judgments through this methodological framework.
Wölfflin’s methodological framework can no longer stand as a foundation for judgments regarding contemporary pieces
roger fry 1866-1934
both bell and fry believed in significant form being connected to aesthetic exerience
a good artwork consisted of the playful coming together of the rhythm of lines, mass of bodies, space, light, shade and colour
Kenneth Clark (1939: xiii) writes in the introduction of Last Lectures as follows: “Post-Impressionism brought to a point Fry’s growing conviction that the literary element in painting, its dramatic or associative content, was aesthetically insignificant. It led him for the first time to entertain the idea of an art depending for its effect solely on the relations of forms and colours, irrespective of what those forms or colours might represent.”
chapter 2 from kantian high taste to marxist criticism
Who decides the difference between good and bad art?
look at the theoretical base for ‘taste’ and who those individuals are who have a taste for art, what social position they hold and what motivates them to become judges and judgemental.
the high and low taste concept, based on the Kantian pure aesthetic experience. This is an elitist view that can also be connected to the modernist museum.
Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) who was a Marxist theorist who argued that high taste was constructed by the ruling aristocratic elite, that it was nothing else but a social construct which had to be deconstructed
Kant is the start of high v low art and art v craft
pure aesthetic experience
For Kant, everything that falls outside of the pure aesthetic experience is considered to be secondary, subjective, and therefore derogatory.
Art should be associated with free play without any other purpose.
diderot and rousseau also had the distinction between good and bad art
18thcentury French criticism by Diderot and Rousseau also deals with the same problem.
during 18thc market began to expand this meant that
public taste started to influence artistic production. In order to make a living, the artist was forced to satisfy the low taste, petit gout of the public. subject matters and styles became associated with good or bad art some artists tried to combine both eg chard and greuze
The elite and the formation of taste
the author implies that taste is fleeting and has little reality and speaks about abstract expressionist painters in Hungary today who sell to americans
vekony says that artists
artists are made to follow given trends. Necessarily, within a trend good and bad works could be executed. Who are the people who decide which trend to favour and what is good within that trend?
the majority of the art world professionals come from educated, middle-class or aristocratic circles
The ability to see and judge via the grand gout was practiced by the privileged as it was seen to belong to the ruling class. In this sense, judgements of taste did not only classify the work of art, but also classified the people who were capable of making these judgments (Mattick 2003:
Bourdieu calls habitus
“Habitus creates a class identity in the form of a unified practice of classification, as choices are made.
taste classifies the classifier; because in a class society all distinction has status implications
As art, following the formalist direction and Kantian philosophy, is not about function but about form, not about work but about play, it is for the privileged. It is for those who do not want to dirty their hands. So the circle closes and the idea behind art creates certain social practices and in return these practices keep the idea alive. From this social class the artistic elite is born; ones who are seemingly under the spell of the work of art but in reality they control the art market and the artist. In the case of contemporary art the situation is even more complex because of the diverse arenas of art, where the artist is subjected to the personal taste of judgment-makers and to the trends and fashions of the artistic elite.2 p43