Portrait of the Artist

Painting as an Art

by Richard Wollheim
Princeton University Press, 384 pp., $45.00

The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts were inaugurated by Jacques Maritain in 1952, and in subsequent years, Kenneth Clark, Herbert Read, Etienne Gilson, E.H. Gombrich, and Siegfried Giedion gave public talks at the National Gallery which, expanded and rewritten for publication in the Bollingen Series, made significant theoretical and historical contributions to the understanding of the arts and their interrelations. During the decades that followed, many important figures in the field gave their best to these presentations, and the set for 1984, which Richard Wollheim was asked to give, has now been published. It is one of the more accomplished volumes, not only in its philosophical elegance, clarity, and grip, and in its apt selection of illustrations, but also in the provocative and revelatory quality of the text when it turns to particular works, although a reader unfamiliar with contemporary philosophical discourse may find this characterization difficult to apply, since the argument of the text is dense, continuous, and often technical. One can find something to question and contend in nearly every line—a circumstance which leads to the best sort of intellectual exchange.

Painting is certainly a familiar activity. Some people paint their nails, others houses, still others plates. There are those who paint in prose, and those who sell scenes of merriment—along with sunsets and sailboats in gross lots—to enliven hotel walls and stultify, for sleep, the traveler’s eye. Starving artists auction off sofa-sized canvases at nearly nothing an inch, while rich ones lacquer lobbies and long public halls for a bundle. There is nothing we can immediately discern in what Elliott Carter is doing when he composes that would lead us to differentiate it from what Irving Berlin does, unless, of course, we looked at the notes; both James Michener and John Barth must fill the page with words that say themselves in sentences; souvenir mugs and richly glazed vases sit in the same kiln, baking away like so many city bodies on the beach. What is there about one procedure that sets it as far off from the other as a bike’s bell is from the ringing of a church’s changes? What were Daumier or Lautrec contriving that the tabloid illustrators couldn’t? Each covered emptiness with color; each made marks; each peddled his product. What makes the act of painting into an act of art?

Questions of quality are not currently thought to be the correct questions. A tolerant pluralism is politically expedient and commercially profitable; relativism sounds liberal and inclusive, welcoming every sex, age, race, and nation; certain kinds of skepticism save one from the labors of disproof; elitism smacks of elitism, the acne of the upper crust; and not having to take a stand allows one the immediate luxury of sitting down. “Quality” is a word wet with the salesman’s saliva; intellectuals ring up ideas on a register imported from France, and render freshly apt the expression “the treason of the clerks.”

Quality, we are told, distinction, and what are called “refinements…

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