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Art for Whose Sake?

Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance

by E.H. Gombrich
Phaidon, 332 pp., $9.50

Considering the cult of beauty in the eighteenth century, in the period of Winckelmann and Mengs, Professor Gombrich writes:

The self-sufficient isolation of the picture began to present a problem to the admirers who made their pilgrimage to Italy. Travelers then, as now, found mere looking strenuous and somewhat disconcerting. The mind soon threatens to become a blank unless it is given something to play with—a story, an anecdote, a bit of gossip or background information. Guides and ciceront then, as now, knew of this human frailty to which we art historians owe so much.

So a form of literature was required which would create “a link with the familiar world of man.” The autonomy of aesthetic experience was no sooner asserted in theory than it was denied in practice. “The “familiar world of man” was irreversibly changing in the eighteenth century, when modern aesthetic theory was invented. With the success of Newtonian physics, and the Church’s loss of intellectual authority, sacred objects lost some of their previous sacredness. The natural order, and artifacts also, could be felt to be exciting and significant in so far as they offered clues to a detecting intelligence, rather than as analogies of the mysteries of divine purpose.

It is natural that the aethetic attitude, as a distinct category of experience should have been introduced by Baumgarten and Kant and others to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of spiritual significance from particular material objects, which had long served as emblems of a supernatural order. How can individual objects have at once the mysterious significance that makes them means of worship, and also be thoroughly intelligible as pieces in a larger mechanism? To a secular and scientific intelligence, the whole starry heaven in its lawfulness is an object of awe, rather than the individual star. The decay of an ordinary belief in sacraments must strip individual objects of their peculiar emotional power. The value of perceptions is to be found in their power to confirm or refute the general theories which the intellect has proposed in interpreting the natural order. Why then should men turn aside from their main intellectual interests to dwell on their perceptions of particular sensuously pleasing objects? Could this discrimination of the individual case be more than a trivial satisfaction? Interesting patterns and symmetries are properly interesting to the generalizing intellect, and is it not weakness of mind to need to appreciate them in some sensuous embodiment, in heard music or as illustrated by some perceived object?

THE CULT OF BEAUTY was a disciplined and philosophical answer to these Platonic doubts; a new home for the arts was to be found in the free and useless exercise of the imagination, which is sovereign in its own domain. So there is room for a new virtue, sensibility, alongside the virtues of the inquiring intellect: this is the virtue of the disinterested aesthete, who aims at no conclusions, and attends to no arguments, but who perceives intensely.

But then the ideal aesthete of theory became in practice a collector, and a collector needs to be a connoisseur, or at least the employer of connoisseurs. A connoisseur needs a method of finding “those links with the familiar world of man” which only the historian provides; otherwise he is without credentials. The aesthete’s perceptions could not by themselves provide a sufficiently credible basis for the operations of the art market. The extraordinary elaboration of art history in the last hundred years must owe something to the extraordinary development of the art market. But artists themselves, and not only aesthetes and connoisseurs, are governed by the history of art, unavoidably, as Professor Gombrich suggests; for they are always returning to a real or imaginary golden age of their art, forging works of art before they are found in the process to have created something new. Professor Gombrich touches many of these links with “the familiar world” in these eleven essays, nine of which are Renaissance studies, one on mannerism, and another on Reynolds.

His essay on the Medici as patrons raises a more fundamental question: What is the relation of that interest which we may count as aesthetic to the craving for luxury and for the accumulation of treasure? We are in a particularly favorable position to ask this question now, just because the grossness of the art market now compels one to associate painting with money and treasure more closely than ever before. Perhaps this association is not the aberration that a modern aesthete, such as Roger Fry, might suppose it to be. Perhaps taste in the visual arts, the faculty of the connoisseur, does not remain a contemplative faculty when it is exercised with any intensity. When a church, or a city, or a family, or an individual, displays its treasures and trophies, its works of art are signs of continual magnificence, like jewelry; they are made to illustrate the splendor of the house and its superfluities. The collection counts for more, at least in the eyes of the owner, than the individual objects that make up the collection. For the new man, or new family, “qualche gentilezza di cose antiche” is a necessary patina to be put on unvarnished success. The sincere love of visual art is often a search for a line into the past, and for this reason alone art history has never been an excrescence or an irrelevant pedantry, and least of all in the great periods, such as the Renaissance.

IN ANOTHER ESSAY Professor Gombrich mentions a possible connection between greed and aesthetic enjoyment; the lust of the true connoisseur may be interpreted, he suggests, as a displacement of the need for oral gratification. The metaphor of taste, of its delicacy and refinement, is an unavoidable one, in the original theory of pure aesthetic enjoyment. The luxury and visible richness of that which has been made ready for the connoisseur’s delight is for him a kind of feast, something to be savored. The appetite for the most refined and well-prepared objects, unlike a normal response to music and to poetry, is very far from being ideal just because it suggests the possibility of possession, of gross hoarding. The true prince must have his painter with him, together with his cooks and valets. Even the work that is inspired by Savonarola’s doctrine, or by precepts of aestheticism, or that conveys a message of poverty and social revolution, will probably become a delicious prize, valuable goods in some rich collection. However savage and destructive the artist’s intentions, and however spiritual his own ambitions may be, he leaves behind him a rare material object, which can be valued, bought, and sold, and which, as a coveted lump of matter, will have an enduring independence of his intentions. The millionaire’s Van Gogh has been captured and tamed. A Pop painter may try to disappoint the greedy connoisseur by offering him, under the spotlights in his gallery, a packet of soap powder or the parts of a rusty machine; no cuisine, nothing well prepared, nothing rare and therefore precious. Is this art? If the historians of art will explain how these gestures came to be made, and if they will show that the parentage of these works is of the right kind, that is, that the inspiration was derived from a respectable source, then it certainly is art; the connoisseur will put the objects on display as treasure. If we can rely on the historians and critics to keep up their running commentary on derivations and influences, and so to keep the book of the peerage of European art up to date, the packet of soap powder will in its day contribute to “qualche gentilezza di cose antiche.” Dada is securely in the book, even though the dadaists may not have wished their outrages to become treasures and trophies. The complicity between historian and aesthete, the nexus of connoisseurship, is too deeply entrenched to be easily interrupted, in spite of the gallant forays of the antiartists. The complex institution holds together, and without it we would scarcely know what to make of aesthetic experience in the visual arts. We would not know how to look at the objects if we did not regard them as examples of a new phase in a continuing story, and as a new generation of a single family. The act of putting an object, whether it has been picked up in the street or processed in the studio, on the walls of the gallery and under the lights, is the act of bringing it into a relation with all the paintings that have been hung in galleries before. So the imagination which is required in the perception of the object is, in part, a historical imagination, a sensitiveness to the continuing metamorphoses of visual ideas and forms: but only in part.

PROFESSOR GOMBRICH makes allowances for the exaggerations of their own importance to which historians are liable, and not least the historians of art. Behind the institution of the enjoyment of art, the galleries, the scholars and the amateurs, there is a mystery: he insists that we still know little about the enjoyment of painting and of sculpture as a phenomenon of the human mind. There is a tendency, which Professor Gombrich carefully avoids, to substitute historical understanding of the development of an institution for a scientific understanding of the existence of that institution. Historical understanding is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of understanding the emotional force of a painting; for one needs to know why the emotional force depends upon actually seeing the painting, and not just upon knowing what it is like.

Professor Gombrich does lead one through the necessary history to some of the wholly unanswered questions in psychology; either here, or elsewhere, he writes about the perception of physiognomic properties and the problem of expression and about the mechanisms of caricature and graphic wit. The speculation about oral gratification, already quoted, is just one hint towards a more fundamental type of inquiry. As iconography and the historical method of interpretation had their roots in connoisseurship and the consequent necessities of attribution, so the psychology of perception will provide some of the theory behind that twentieth-century painting and sculpture which rejects the cult of beauty and the established notion of the fine arts. Contemporary painters and sculptors seem driven to raise the more fundamental question in their work—“Why are painting and sculpture important at all?” and the “why?” looks to a psychological answer in terms of the needs common to the species. But the difficulty in making this “link with the familiar world of man” is that mystery exists at both ends: we know very little about the emotions associated with perception in the familiar world.

Professor Gombrich is strongly influenced by empiricist philosophy and in default of positive evidence will only speculate very discreetly. For the full power and extravagance of a possible new phenomenology of perception one would have to turn to the works of Adrian Stokes on Greek art, on Michelangelo, on architecture, and on modern painting. * Mr. Stokes is a painter, an interpreter of modern painting, and a historian who has developed an interpretive style of his own, which interweaves a psychology of the emotions with acutely sensitive visual description. He refuses to separate, even for the purposes of exposition, the discerned emotionally expressive features of an object from the formal relationships. The effect of his writing is to blur the distinction between the inner world of emotions which a man is ready to project upon appropriate forms, and the concrete perceived forms which are invested with the feelings. He is encouraged and sustained in this manner of writing by a psychological theory, that of Melanie Klein, which looks everywhere for remnants of the concrete thinking that is characteristic of schizoid states in childhood. His descriptions are sometimes baffling, but he seems to me quite often to reproduce in prose the emotional force of certain forms, particularly architectural forms; he is a profoundly imaginative critic.

Professor Gombrich is writing principally in an academic setting and for strictly academic purposes. He will not report, or use as his material, the wilder subjectivities of visual experience. As an empiricist in philosophy, he avoids like the plague any suspicion that he might be advancing quite untestable opinions. There is no vivid visual writing in this book, only theory, historical fact, and simple description. These essays do not convey the intellectual excitement of Art and Illusion. They are the lectures and occasional reviews of a very learned and judicious scholar.

  1. *

    The Invitation in Art, Chilmark Press, 1966.

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