ON QUALITY IN ART – PART 1
I guess when we talk about the value of art in our present time, it is because of the astonishing prices that are paid for acquisition of a work of art be it a painting or a sculpture, whether it is the work of one of the old masters or that of a contemporary artist. We are all the more puzzled when we think about the fact that Van Gogh never sold a painting during his entire lifetime, may be one, but now his paintings sell for millions of dollars and their acquisition is not only a matter of great pride but also as an investment for an art gallery or an individual collector or a corporate house. We have even had fund houses floating art funds. Why so, what are the justifications for such a development?
Before we really come to the question of the value let us see what is it that we look for when we view a piece of art. We would necessarily talk in terms of the quality of the work involved. So what do we mean by quality in art? We always think that a painting has to be beautiful to be a piece of art, like landscapes by Constable or a painting by Rembrandt with their perfection in lighting and well defined shapes. There is technical perfection and we marvel at the skills of the artist. That is “we always assume that all that is beautiful is art, that what is not beautiful is not art, and that ugliness is the negation of art. This identification of art and beauty is at the bottom of all our difficulties in the appreciation of art.” Quality is confused by beauty, taste or style. We should beware of this confusion and avoid identifying quality with any of them.
What is beautiful varies from individual to individual. Whether artistic value can be objectively traced in a work of art or whether it is only subjectively felt and is simply a matter of personal opinion then a common agreement would fall within the realms of aesthetics and philosophy.
I remember that when I was in
on a short visit, I
had gone to the Louvre and since I did not have that much time I had to
literally run through the museum, but I did manage to spend quite some time in
the Italian section. When you arrive at the museum it appears that all roads
lead towards the ‘Mona Lisa’ but for me this paled into insignificance when
compared to the massive religious paintings adorning the Italian section. The
next day I was at the Musee d’Orsay and as I stood there in the halls
surrounded by the paintings of Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Cezanne and other
impressionists and Van Gogh it was a pilgrimage fulfilled for me. Paris
So what was it that made me spend more time at the Italian section and the Musee d’Orsay then the rest of the Louvre? That was because that’s what I preferred, that’s what I liked. A subjective appreciation, is’nt it? Both the museums consist of various other priceless works of art and so do all the museums in the world. Whether I like them or not they are undoubtedly of great value. So over and above subjective appreciation there is an objective element which defines the value of art.
Jakob Rosenberg in his book ‘On Quality in Art’ when talking about artistic value says “Artistic value or ‘quality’ in a work of art is not merely a matter of personal opinion but to a high degree also a matter of common agreement among artistically sensitive and trained observers and to high degree objectively traceable. Our value judgement is a composite of ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ elements.
Quality may be sensed in a work of art without a proper approach and analysis, but it cannot be fully appreciated without these means and without a thorough and definite effort on the part of the observer.”
For any individual the most important part of his psyche is his imagination, this is what allows him to explore his subconscious. For an artist it is the urge to convey, create a work through which he is able to translate his feelings or emotion. Each one of us is different and we see things and feel differently. But it is the artist who is able to express and connect with an audience.
Our mind functions in two different ways while trying to understand a work of art. One is the through the direct experience of the external world, i.e the immediate perception of an image and through symbolic representation i.e the image plus its mental associations. It would be relevant to quote Van Gogh’s own words here to help us understand and feel through the artists own eyes “a painter as a man is too absorbed by what his eyes see, and is not sufficiently master of the rest of his life. I myself am quite absorbed by the immeasurable plain with cornfields against the hills, immense as a sea, a delicate yellow, delicate soft green, delicate violet of a ploughed and weeded piece of soil, regularly chequered by the green of flowering potato plants, everything under a sky with delicate blue, white, pink, violet tones. I am in a mood of nearly too great calmness, in the mood to paint this.” (From his letters to his brother Theo). This is a mood of direct experience which he is talking about and when we do gaze at this painting we are also overcome by that mood of too great calmness which he talks about and translated it into his paintings. It is this capacity to retain and express it through a medium that distinguishes the artist from others. Each one of us have felt carried away by certain direct experiences but our ability to sustain it is limited.
At the other extreme we have the artist who translates his experiences of the external world into symbolic representations associating his experiences with his consciousness, beliefs and emotions. Herbert Read while quoting Whitehead says “an artist of the symbolist type is creating a combination of forms and colours which will convey a meaning, and in art this meaning always has an aesthetic or emotional tinge. Art of this kind may therefore be defined as ‘the symbolic transfer of emotion’, and this definition is at the base of any theory of the aesthetics of art.” We can see the significant shift towards symbolism with the latter day movements of Surrealism and modernism, whether in the paintings of Salvador Dali, Kandinsky, Mondrian or Paul Klee.
For a true understanding of the quality of a work of art, apart from our own subjective appreciation, it would be necessary to understand that the development of art has run parallel to the evolution of human thought through the ages. I intend pursuing this in my subsequent postings on this subject. (Reference – Herbert Read’s ‘The Philosophy of Modern Art’)