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 …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.