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What Is Art?

Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art

by E.H. Gombrich
Phaidon, 184, 135 plates pp., $7.50

Professional students of the arts, and intellectual generally, could do worse than choose Mr. Gombrich as a model for the kind of seriousness their job requires. Not that many can match his learning; and those who can may lack his power to make it accessible and give it relevance. The title of this book has an uncovenanted propriety. Gombrich has a hobby horse, which is that the truth matters, and nobody can be excused for propagating untruth; and his lectures, though light and civil in tone, are meditations in the sense that to each topic he brings the full powers of his mind. Fourteen are collected here. They have the qualities, and many of the interests, of the author’s Story of Art and Art and Illusion, but they develop these interests in different and equally valuable ways. They cover much diverse territory, since the author believes that Art History has inescapable and complex relations with many other subjects—anthropology, religion, psychology, etc., and that truth depends upon our recognizing this and doing all the work the situation calls for.

Probably the fundamental thesis is this: “the innocent eye sees nothing.” We see what, in one way or another, we are disposed to see. What disposes us may be in some degree biological, but it is primarily cultural; what we see is what tradition enables us to see. Thus the representation of reality is a task for two, artist and spectator, the latter enabled to read the signs of the former. It follows that explanations of art as expression and as communication, as usually formulated, are very defective. Image-making is the creation of substitutes, and requires both a prior need for such substitutes, and a community of perceptual skills or predispositions that will make them seem adequate. As to communication, Gombrich characteristically asks the information-theorists about the conscious, and the psychologists about the unconscious varieties. Then he tries “to formulate his results in such a way that…they become accessible to his colleagues in other departments.”

I hope they will attend. The whole problem of symbolism in the arts is illuminated by his patient exploration of the simple truth that all communication involves prior understanding between transmitter and receiver—that information cannot be conveyed where there is no scope for choice between understood alternatives. In other words, symbols, like signals, are meaningless outside some determining context, some accepted scale or structure of significations. We learn these structures, perhaps merely by our education within a particular culture, perhaps because we grow familiar with a particular convention or because a particular artist teaches us to recognize them in his own colors, tones, or themes. Until we are disposed to detect these structures our eye or ear remains innocent. Neither expression nor communication is possible in an unstructured medium. If you deny this you are forced into some theory of subliminal communication; but the psychologists will not support you. Or you will take refuge in some Hegelian formula, the time-spirit or the class struggle; and you will be routed by Popperian logic. So, in the end, there is no need to pity the man who sees himself as staring, in an existential nightmare, at a blank canvas, which he must cover without help from anything outside himself. He is the victim of nothing but bad theories.

The participation of the spectator is a theme familiar to readers of Gombrich’s earlier books. It occurs here, for instance, as a thread in the argument of what may be the most important of all the chapters, the one on “Psychoanalysis and Art.” The point is that the painter’s developing skill—as between, for instance, Botticelli and Raphael, Raphael and Titian—must be matched by the spectator’s power to read the picture; the process may be thought to culminate in the demands of the Impressionists. As it goes on, there is a growing sophistication in the spectator, who willingly foregoes easy satisfactions, and can represent this restraint as a refinement of taste. Sometimes he makes gustatory or even moral condemnations of past art which can no longer provide him with such opportunities for self-denial.

Gombrich is willing to introduce psychoanalysis at this point, and with his usual power to select the crucial instance, concentrates on Picasso. The Demoiselles d’Avignon was planned in an old, though executed in a new manner—first it was a slightly sentimental brothel-picture with elements imitating Cézanne; then it was deliberately distorted, its illusionism sacrificed to new notions of structure, because at this exact point Picasso’s private conflicts acquired artistic relevance. And that crisis in painting also contained the potentialities of psychological regression. The argument is too complex to render here; but since then there has been a deliberate regression in painting, to the point we have now reached, where all the resources of reason are needed to prevent a total return to “oral” gratifications and the annihilation of structures.

This perfectly constructed lecture, so exactly adapted to its audience of psychologists, leads to consideration of the broader implications of Gombrich’s work. The business of the teacher and the intellectual is “to preserve the texts and disciplines on which a revival of rationality could ultimately be based.” The scholar’s job, in short, is to get the past right. Why should this matter to the artist? First, “because truth is better than lies,” but also because we should have learned how disastrous it is to act on false notions—“myths” about the past. Sense and clarity are even more important in the humanities than in the sciences; without them we shall once again live to regret those “unswept corners of our intellectual universe [where] the germs of epidemics are bred.” Anti-semitism is merely one instance; and remembering such instances, we shall not underestimate the importance of clearing away that vestigial Hegelianism which “sees the styles of the past merely as an expression of the age, the race, or the class-situation,” and tempts the living artist to think he “should go and do likewise and express the essence and spirit of his time, race, class, or, worst of all, the self.”

Gombrich has therefore more than pedagogical motives for worrying about the part played by intellectual error in the breaking of communications in modern art. “If there is anyone who is in need of undistorted memories it is the artist in our world.” Critics of the other arts can take up the story. In poetry, for example: the familiar assumption that troubled times call for unstructured poetry has been attacked by Yvor Winters as “the fallacy of imitative form”—a chaotic age gets chaotic art—but it is still dominant. Readers of Donald M. Allen’s The New American Poetry must be struck by the imitative chaos of some of the work there, the poetry of the unstructured howl; nor can they avoid (since it is probably a psychological impossibility to do so) the conviction that the good poems in the book are those which meet, or subtly transcend, trained expectations in the reader. On another issue, we can learn from Gombrich what is wrong with much “myth-criticism” and with the fashionable practice of reading Blake, Byron, Keats, Shelley, or Yeats in terms of a symbolism whose values are learned only from an occult structure not represented in the works themselves.

These are slight instances of the value of this extraordinary book to readers who are not aestheticians or art historians. One may add that, as usual with books from this press, it is beautifully made, abundantly illustrated, and of unbelievably low price.

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