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What Is Art?

By Martin Weinberger

( Article orginally published September 1944 )

The question "What is art?", like so many other questions of a similarly fundamental nature is usually ,asked by two entirely different groups of people. There are those who, like Pilate asking: "What is Truth?", shrug their shoulders without waiting for an answer because they do not believe there is an answer to the query. And there are also those who honestly confess their ignorance of art and sincerely desire to be told in so many words what it is all about.

The vast majority of art lovers belong to neither of these groups for the very simple reason that they ask no questions about art. If hard pressed for an explanation why they admire a thing without being able to say why they like it or what they like in it, they will reply: "I don't know what art is but I know what I like." Now, as we have begun to do the asking, naturally we are not going to be deterred by this cryptic answer, but will continue to ask: "Well, what do you like?"

I imagine that in nine cases out of ten the answer will be: A beautiful woman or a beautiful landscape. There is nothing wrong about that. Titian painted beautiful women and Ruisdael or Corot painted beautiful landscapes. But I doubt whether our representative of the vast majority really means that. He is thinking of the charming cottage under the large elm trees where he spent his last summer vacation and how nice it would be to have a picture of such a delightful spot permanently before his eyes. And if he should prefer beautiful faces or beautiful bodies he also would like to have a reproduction of them in his home because he likes the real thing of which they are an image.

It now appears that our naive art lover has an aesthetic theory although he is certainly not aware of it. He believes that there are certain things in nature which most people conceive to be beautiful. He further believes that it is the aim of art to be beautiful and that this aim is achieved by reproducing beautiful things. In other words, our naive art lover does not love art at all, but the objects represented in paintings, drawings and sculptures. One may suspect that 'a good color photograph of these objects will satisfy hint as much or perhaps even more than a representation of the same objects by the mighty brush of a Titian or a Corot.

At this point a somewhat more sophisticated art lover might interrupt the discussion to declare that even ugly things are considered worthy of the artist's attention. Renibrandt painted portraits of some posiIively hideous old men and women. Where, then, is the redeeming quality to be found that turns these ugly faces into great works of art? Our new friend will say, in the convincing likeness. So now the emphasis is no longer on the beautiful object but on the skill displayed by the artist in giving to his work the greatest possible similarity to the object it represents, no matter how beautiful or ugly that object may be.

It is an old and popular idea about art that is here being developed. It appears in the ancient Greek story of the contest between the two famous painters. Zeuxis and Parrhasios. Zeuxis painted grapes so convincingly "real" that birds came to peck at them. Triumphantly he turned to Parrhasios, whose painting had not vet been uncovered. asking him to remove the veil. But as he looked more closely he saw that the veil was painted and that he had lost the contest because he had only deceived birds while lie himself had been deceived by Parrhasios. Equally well known are the epigrams about the bronze statue of a cow by the great sculptor Myron, which (if we believe them) was courted by all the bulls in the neighboring fields.

Of course such sinrple-minded stories, invented by poets who then as now knew little about the figurative arts, do not represent the aesthetic creed of the Greeks. The horsemen of the Parthenon frieze, the paintings on a Greek vase to not try to make the spectator believe that they are "real" horsernen, pasted on the wall of the temple or "real" men and women of diminutive size stuck onto the curved surface of the vessel. On the contrary, they are monumental abstractions from nature giving in their simple outlines only the absolutely essential features. And the same is true of the sparse and delicate brush strokes of a Chinese landscape scroll. Where the photographic reproduction heaps hundreds of unnecessary details the Greek or the Chinese artist suppresses all those traits found in his natural object which seem unessential to the expression of his aesthetic ideal.

Now this is almost the reverse of what our friend, the naturalist, had suggested. Instead of trying to copy nature as faithfully as possible clown to the sinallcst detail the artist is now asked to make a selection from it. But a selection "according to his aesthetic ideal. The naturalist had avoided this pitfall by downrightly copying everything. Are we returning to the "beautiful things" which our other friend who "knew what he liked" wanted to be reproduced? No, of course not. His aesthetic. ideal does not tell the artist. what objects he should choose but what features of these objects he should consider essential.

What, then, is "essential"? No answer can be given to this question because every period and every country has its own ideas on this point, in other words its own aesthetic ideal. If a Greek painter of the fifth century B.C. and a Chinese painter of the twelfth century A.D. could each have made a picture of the same model, it is more than obvious that they would have chosen very different features as worthy of representation and that consequently the two paintings would hardly have resembled each other.

Neither is there any rule establishing the degree to which abstraction should be carried. To the inexperienced eye Rembrandt will not appear abstract at all and he certainly is much less abstract than an Italian "primitive" like Botticelli, 200 years before Rembrandt's time. The one has as good a right to follow his own aesthetic ideal or, to use a less ambiguous expression, his own style, as the other; and it is impossible to proclaim Botticelli greater than Rembrandt or vice versa merely because one happens to he in favor either of a severely abstract style or of the opposite. But even Rembrandt, where he seems, to come unbelievably close to his model, suppresses details that seem unnecessary, and gives greater prominence to others that will emphasize the expression on a face or model or the roundness of a form. If we could cotupare a landscape painting by Rembrandt with a photograph of the actual landscape that was his model, the photograph would appear confused, lacking order in the distribution of forms over the surface of the picture; lacking balance between forms and air space, because the photograph is nature's slave, while the artist is the pupil, but at the same time also the master of nature.

At this point an even more sophisticated member of the "vast majority" will step forward to say: "I agree with this. The artist controls the expression o1.' his figures and thus interprets their character. By carefully composing his scene like a stage director he gives dramatic intensity to his work. He shares with other artists the style of his country and of his period and therefore we can learn from him how people lived in a certain time and at a certain place."

Our new friend is not wrong although he sees only a by-product of art. It is a fine thing for an artist to express emotions or dramatic action, but if he is a real artist that can never be the main objective of his art. Poetry and music are much better equipped to represent sentiment and dranta. And while it is amusing and instructive to study in works of art. the ways of men in different times an(] countries, that is not what we meant when we spoke of a national style or the style of a period. Just as the man "who knew what he liked" placed emphasis on the beautiful object and not on the work of art, so our new friend sees only the psychologically or historically interesting object.

The man who wanted art to ape nature could never explain the beauty of a work of architecture or a piece of furniture, because there is no model to be found for them in nature. Would our new friend be more successful? A Greek temple or a Gothic cathedral show little dramatic activity, a Renaissance chest is hardly an emotional object, and to be interested in these things merely because they illustrate the conditions under which people lived in a certain age would seem to underrate their value as symbols of a philosophy of life.

We may call the temple serene, the cathedral sublime. But how can we do that since neither of them has a face whose expression we can read? In the slint pillars and pinnacles of the cathedral rising upwards, so little remains of the heaviness of matter that we feel this to be the true expression of an age which turned towards the immaterial, an eternity beyond this world. The same slimness, the same hollowed-out character is to be found in every Gothic statue or Gothic painting; it imbues the figures with a devoutness that is more profound than anything one can read in the expressions on their faces, their attitudes and gestures or their actions. The harmony and self-reliance of the Renaissance world appears in its churches as much as in its paintings; its sculpture or its furniture. There is now no tendency to extend forms upwards or sidewards immoderately, everything is self-centered, but also in complete harmony with its surroundings; a column is neither too slender nor too massive in relation to the space into which it is set. We may find the proud individualism of the Renaissance expressed in the. face of a Raphael portrait. However, we will certainly find it not only in the face, but in the entire setting of the portrait within its frame, in the balance and proud independence of all the parts.

The style of a period in the deeper sense of the word does not signify the kind of decoration it uses in its buildings. We can speak of Gothic style and think of tracery and pointed arches, of Renaissance style and visualize classical capitals and round arches. In its more profound meaning style appears in every artistic utterance of a period, symbolizing its last and loftiest ideas. These ideas are expressed in terms of roundness and hollowness of forms, of balance or willful disturbance of forms and colors. Inseparable as these ideas are from the forms which symbolize them they cannot be equally well expressed in any other medium, in language for instance. If that could be done, then the figurative and decorative arts would be superfluous just as music would be superfluous if its ideas could be adequately expressed in any other way. It is this mute and yet so eloquent language which we call art.

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