The Truth About Art: Reclaiming Quality

The Truth About Art: Reclaiming Quality

by Patrick Doorly


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‘Both knowledge and truth are beautiful things, but the Good is other and more beautiful than they.’ — Plato, Republic, 508e. This book traces the multiple meanings of art back to their historical roots, and equips the reader to choose between them. Art with a capital A turns out to be an invention of German Romantic philosophers, who endowed their creation with the attributes of genius, originality, rule breaking, and self-expression, directed by the spirit of the age. Recovering the problems that these attributes were devised to solve dispels many of the obscurities and contradictions that accompany them. What artists have always sought is excellence, and they become artists in so far as they achieve it. Quality was the supreme value in Renaissance Italy, and in early Greece it offered mortals glimpses of the divine. Today art historians avoid references to beauty or Quality, since neither is objective or definable, the boundaries beyond which scholars dare not roam. In reality subject and object are united and dissolved in the Quality event, which forms the bow wave of culture, leaving patterns of value and meaning in its wake.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781780998411
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 08/16/2013
Pages: 222
Product dimensions: 7.80(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Patrick Doorly was educated at St John’s College, Oxford; Stockholm University; and the Courtauld Institute of Art. For much of his career he taught critical and theoretical studies to students on studio-based courses in art and design. Since 2000 he and his wife have lived in Oxford, where he divides his time between writing and teaching art history at the university’s Department for Continuing Education.

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The Truth about Art

Reclaiming quality

By Patrick Doorly

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2013 Patrick Doorly
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78099-841-1



1.1 Art or Fine Art

Art with a Capital A

'There really is no such thing as Art.' With this teasing sentence E.H. Gombrich began The Story of Art, his celebrated introduction to art history. First published in 1950, this book was revised sixteen times over the subsequent half century (while selling over 7 million copies), but that opening sentence remained unchanged. Professor Gombrich (1909–2001) was keen that his readers should enjoy paintings and sculpture without feeling intimidated by the mystique wrapped around Art in the modern era. There are no wrong reasons for liking a statue or a picture, he assured us. Art with a capital A has no existence, so as his narrative unfolded, Gombrich revealed something of the social significance and aesthetic merit of his selection of outstanding paintings, sculptures, and architecture, without troubling us further with the phantom.

Yet a niggling doubt remains. If there is no such thing as Art, how can a Story of Art be written? Gombrich had followed his opening sentence with the rider, 'There are only artists'. If Art has no existence, who are those artists, and what should we call their work? My inability to dismiss Art with a capital A quite so readily was reinforced early in my career by encounters with students on studio-based courses in art and design. My task, in the jargon of the day, was to facilitate their learning some art history, while equipping them with a critical and theoretical framework within which to develop their own practice as aspiring artists and designers. Naturally we began with the assumptions they brought to the course, the unreflecting commonplaces about Art that are current in society at large. In this wider world, Art with a capital A is certainly assumed to exist. It is created by artists expressing themselves, breaking rules, and displaying originality, or capturing the spirit of the age and challenging society's assumptions, or all those things combined, compromised by the demands of earning a living. For no one should presume to tell an artist what to do, and when artists are ignored or ridiculed, that is the price they pay for being ahead of their time. Furthermore, the greatest Art transcends all rules and boundaries to achieve the sublime. This is the preserve of genius, artists who transform how we view and respond to the world. Faced by the loftiness of these expectations, art students embarking on their calling might be forgiven for feeling somewhat intoxicated by the prospect before them. If Art with a capital A has no existence, how could these beliefs reappear, year after year, among each new cohort of students?

These ill-defined notions about Art are deeply entrenched in the culture of the Western world. Never mind that they do not fit the practice of most European painters and sculptors of the pre-modern past, nor that of similar practitioners in non-Western societies. They permeate our language, so that even an art historian of Gombrich's immense erudition was obliged to employ their vocabulary, implicitly endorsing a concept that he knew lacked substance. Like an unvoiced superstition, the spectre of Art not only directs our thoughts, but also controls the language with which we think and speak about it. This 'no-such-thing' also fills countless books, catalogues, magazines, and broadcast programmes, and is implicit in any number of artefacts on display in museums and galleries the world over.

In one sense Art is a folk memory of battles won, transmitting down the generations the triumph of reason over chaos, inspiration over reason, freedom over constraint, hirelings over their erstwhile masters, and, more recently, a heroic avant-garde over a moribund establishment. Once a campaign has achieved its objectives, however, its slogans lose much of their meaning, even among those who still chant them. An avant-garde, for example, implies a grande armée following behind. Yet when only the vanguard is noticed and celebrated, every artist must strive to march in the forefront. Perhaps the public at large now represents the lumbering masses, visiting museums of contemporary art where they struggle to appreciate the proffered novelties as redefinitions of contemporary culture. 'But is it Art?' they ask with a grin, knowing that the question admits no generally agreed answer. Despite Gombrich's many lucid and learned publications, written over a professional career spanning six decades, Art with a capital A remains on its lofty throne, shrouded in mystery.

Might a better account of Art replace this modern orthodoxy, with its wearisome obscurities, contradictions, and posturings? When I encountered such an alternative, which was simple, robust, and rich in explanatory value, I resolved to test it on a fresh intake of foundation students. 'What is art?' I asked them, while they were still content just at having found the right seminar room. It was their first week on the course, and the class gazed at the unfamiliar figure before them with incomprehension. Was he mad or was he teasing? Or could it be – a more alarming thought – that they had missed something in their earlier lives, and that within the profession of art and design, such a question could not only be asked, but also answered?

I offered guileful encouragement: each of them had signed up to a foundation course in art, so presumably they had some notion of the subject to which they had committed a year of their lives. Eventually one youth declared, 'You can't ask that', to which I replied, with unkind sophistry, that I had asked that. Three weeks into their course they would have rebelled, but in week one at a new institution, before they even knew their fellow students, they lacked the norms against which to judge what was, or was not, acceptable behaviour.

I had to gauge the students' mood as carefully as they were trying to judge mine. The last thing I needed was a rehearsal of the commonplaces outlined above. Each of those assertions has an interesting history, usually traceable to a German philosopher, but our time was insufficient to explore them. So I suggested, and the class agreed, that big questions are often best managed by dividing them into smaller parts. 'Art' was both a word and something for which the word functioned as a label. Which of those aspects should we tackle first? The 'something', they decided, with meaningful smiles appearing on two or three faces. If had been playing games with them, they would be happy to repay me in kind, and I was one while they were many.

With a little encouragement, each student agreed to write down a list of activities which they would happily call art. From these individual suggestions we would compile a shared list, spot the feature common to all, and presto, we would have our answer. After a few moments of silent thinking and writing, each student in turn contributed a couple of arts to a list on the whiteboard. Painting, sculpture, literature and music quickly appeared. Photography went up without a murmur. We had excluded terms with 'design' tacked on (fashion design, graphic design) in order to concentrate specifically on 'art'. Cookery got in after a brief debate: the age of celebrity television chefs was already upon us. 'Jumping on and off a bus' prompted louder discussion. This action depended on the old London Routemaster double-decker bus, whose open rear corner allowed passengers to step on and off at traffic lights or in traffic jams. The more intrepid could jump on or off the bus as the vehicle made its stately passage through the city's traffic, when they would need to hit the ground running. (A comparable art was recognized in early Greece, when young men would invite a god to choose the best among them at leaping off and on a racing chariot.) Eventually we had to create a holding bin in one corner of the board in which contentious arts could be placed, while we matured in judgment.

Our whiteboard was looking like a longer version of the three columns in Table 1 when another student, having spotted a trend in our arts, proposed 'picking your nose'. He held his own amid general groans and protests while looking me in the eye, until the others fell silent and followed his gaze. Would I allow 'picking your nose' to be an art? Whether I did or did not, the class now had an opportunity to unite against me, something that no teacher can allow, particularly not in the first week of a year-long course.

There is an art of sorts to class management, which is a branch of the art of survival quickly acquired by all teachers. I knew enough of this art to maintain eye contact, thus inhibiting the emergence of subgroups, and sidestepped confrontation by claiming that we were compiling their choice of arts, not mine. Would they allow that 'picking your nose' was an art? A welcome uproar was restored. 'Yes!' 'No!' 'If picking your nose is an art, then anything can be an art!' At that insightful observation we paused and took stock of our progress.

Eventually we resolved that if any activity could be an art, designating some practice as 'art' said nothing about its content. It did however say something important about how such an activity was performed. We apply the word 'art' to any activity that can be done well or badly, and the art lies in doing it well. The group tried hard to think of some action that did not admit of being done well or badly. The search proved surprisingly difficult, and eventually we had to settle for 'pressing a switch'. A light can be turned on or turned off: it cannot be turned on well or off badly. There is no art to pressing a switch. So we had arrived at an initial hypothesis on the nature of art. An art is an activity that can be done well or badly, and an artist is someone who habitually does it very well. A work of art is an outstanding accomplishment.

Some restlessness remained among the class until we introduced art with a capital A. The arts in our right-hand column sounded more like Art. Plato (ca 429–347 BCE) had called them the imitative arts, I informed them. He had written that all arts could be divided into making, using (or doing), and imitating, and I had divided their proposed arts on that basis. The distinction between the three columns, which had previously eluded them, now provided further scope for argument. For each of Plato's 'imitative' arts could also be placed either under the 'making' or the 'doing' columns. The class rejected the whole concept of an imitative art. Art was the real thing, not an imitation of anything: that much had surely been demonstrated by the pioneers of abstraction in the early twentieth century. And what was music imitating? Plato was not an authority to whom they felt inclined to defer.

When the time came for the class to disperse, some uncertain smiles came in my direction. Smiles are gratifying to a teacher, and our discussion had succeeded as an icebreaker, a necessary function of a first lesson. Furthermore, by uniting against Plato, the students had tacitly allowed me back on their side. But they rightly suspected that there was more to art than we had so far discovered.

The Aim of Art

In their responses to the question 'What is art?' some of those students had clearly proposed whimsical and provocative examples. Spoken language is dynamic, and dictionaries can only track the changing meanings of words from one edition to the next. Old words are adapted to new needs, and new words are constantly being borrowed or coined. Did the list of arts we had compiled in class push the meaning of art beyond accepted usage?

In the college library I searched the book catalogue for titles beginning with the words 'The art of ...'. The examples in Table 2 represent a tiny selection from the huge hit-list generated by the search.

The reader may well consider the subject matter of most of these books not to be Art. For the moment, however, we are examining only how the word is used, and a book-title represents deliberate and formal usage. To be sure, authors and publishers may be drawing on the prestige of Art for subjects that do not merit its status, but in none of these titles is the content of the book ambiguous. Plato's designation of the arts in the right-hand column as imitation clearly does not persuade everyone today, though (reading up from the bottom) modelling is plausibly an imitation of the thing modelled, while games and competitive sports (basketball and chess in this case) may count as imitations of war by non-lethal means. Illumination, etching, drawing, spray-can art, and sand painting loosely correspond to the first art of imitation mentioned by Plato, that of the painter (zôgraphos; 'life-drawer'). Perhaps 'playing' is a more useful label for this grouping, but Plato's word decisively influenced the subsequent history of these arts, so for the moment we shall retain it.

More interesting than the students' choice of arts was their ready acceptance of excellence as their common objective. All the books listed above do not simply give instruction in how to make knots, or baskets, or sandwiches. By introducing the word 'art', they offer to teach us how to make knots, baskets, and sandwiches well. I had taken this insight from Robert M. Pirsig, whose Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, An Inquiry into Values, is listed at the bottom of the middle column. That book describes the author's remarkable investigation of quality, or rather Quality with a capital Q. It has remained in print since its first publication in 1974, attracting many admirers both for its content and for the intellectual rigour with which Pirsig pursued his enquiry. Despite that, the book has been largely ignored by scholars, probably because Pirsig – though an academic insider since childhood – rejected the format and writing style favoured by universities and their presses. It may also be that the title does not suggest a work of enduring intellectual value, at least not to those who miss the reference to Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery (1953).

In the decades that followed the foundation class described above, I found Pirsig's proposition that 'art is high-quality endeavour' fundamental to a fresh appreciation of both art and Art. Twenty-one years after the publication of his book, Pirsig confirmed his earlier judgment. He told a 1995 conference in Brussels on Einstein Meets Magritte that he had never found any need to modify that formulation.

Is it sensible to talk of art in such all-embracing terms, including the art of the sandwich in the same breath as the art of fresco painting? As a postgraduate student of the history of art I was fortunate to be taught by John Shearman (1931–2003), one of the outstanding scholars of Italian Renaissance art of his generation. Professor Shearman once remarked to our tutorial group that Masolino was a much better painter when he was working with Masaccio (the creator of Early Renaissance painting), for on his own, Masolino's frescoes were 'little better than wallpaper'. I was to find that remark helpful. Paintings may be studied for any number of reasons, for they are social documents that might record, for example, changing religious beliefs or changing fashions in dress. They also preserve developments in pictorial style, codes of non-verbal meaning, and much else besides. But art historians pay more attention to some pictures than to others because they are better painted.

We can illustrate this point by examining the celebrated frescoes in the Brancacci chapel in Florence, which early sources tell us were painted by both Masaccio and Masolino. On one wall of the chapel, St Peter Preaching (fig. 1.1) is painted to the left of the window, while the Baptism of the Neophytes (fig. 1.2) is in the equivalent position on the right. Both frescoes are flanked by a painted Corinthian pier in one corner of the chapel, which stress the pretence that the wall has vanished, presenting us with two views of figures in a landscape. This illusion is much better sustained in the Baptism, where the people stand firmly on the receding ground, and St Peter and the neophyte he is baptizing turn towards each other in pictorial depth. On the opposite wall, by contrast, the preaching St Peter is in pure profile, so that he looks past the crowd we must suppose he is addressing. Beyond the screen of kneeling foreground figures, the painter has depicted a pile of heads with no thought as to where their bodies might fit beneath them. Peter's left foot appears to hover above his right, while on the opposite wall the equivalent foot is turned into depth, where it can both balance and bear the saint's weight.

Both of these paintings aspire to pictorial illusionism, but careful observation reveals how much more successful one is in this regard than the other. Peter's haloes are an obvious give-away (figs 1.3 & 1.4), with a flat plate behind the head on the left wall, while the foreshortened halo on the right is seen from our vantage point. On the left the regular waves of Peter's hair appear to be well observed, until we see the tousled hair on the right, with curls straying over the ear, and wiry whiskers forming the beard. And just look at those ears! How much more interesting are the hollows and ridges of the ear on the right wall, compared to the simple twist that does duty for an ear on the left. By referring to documented paintings by each painter, we can be confident that Masaccio was responsible for the Baptism of the Neophytes but not the St Peter Preaching, which in this instance is rather better than wallpaper because Masolino could draw on his younger colleague's nearby example.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements iv

List of illustrations and tables vi

To the reader x

1 Mystery 1

1.1 Art or Fine Art 1

1.2 Art or Craft 7

1.3 Enlightenment Categories for Art 12

1.4 Imagination 16

2 Aesthetics 21

2.1 Philosophers on Art 21

2.2 Pirsig's Critique of Aesthetics 26

2.3 Gombrich's Critique of Plato 31

3 Genius 39

3.1 Roman Genius 39

3.2 Genius with a Capital G 42

3.3 A Most Divine Artificer 44

3.4 The Transformations of Myth 52

4 Virtue 57

4.1 Roman Virtus 57

4.2 Shakespeare's Excellence 59

4.3 Blotless papers 65

4.4 Counter-examples 74

5 Sublime 77

5.1 The Rules of Art 77

5.2 The Breaker of Rules 88

5.3 The Rules of Drama 93

6 Romanticism 97

6.1 The Noble Savage 97

6.2 The Sleep of Reason 101

6.3 Romantic Art 104

7 Transcendental Art 111

7.1 The Invention of Art 111

7.2 Hegel on Art 118

7.3 Plotinus on Art 122

8 The Metaphysics of Quality 127

8.1 A Comprehensive Metaphysics 127

8.2 Static Patterns of Value 130

8.3 Art and the MOQ 137

8.4 The Good is a Noun 140

9 Canons of Art 145

9.1 Art Historians on Quality 145

9.2 Canons of Excellence 149

9.3 Value-free Humanities 153

9.4 Restoring Art to Art History 159

10 Anti-Art 165

10.1 Criticism 165

10.2 Marcel Duchamp 166

10.3 The Anartistic Legacy 173

11 The Truth about Art 175

11.1 Art and Quality 175

Appendix 181

The Unilever Series 181

Notes 189

Bibliography 201

Index 205

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