Aesthetics & art?

Formal qualities of "modern" art by JW Harrington

I've greatly enjoyed reading "The value of modern art," a 1948 lecture by Meyer Schapiro, published in the compilation Worldview in Painting: Art and Society.  He wrote with a perspective that is rare for someone in the midst of major changes.

Schapiro attempted to analyze the formal qualities of the contemporary art of his period with the same eye that art historians train on art from their past.  “In the same manner that we are able to distinguish the art of the Renaissance from the art of the Middle Ages, the art of Egypt from the art of Mesopotamia, by careful observation of the forms, so we discern in the immense diversity of modern art a broad constancy in its structure and expressive means” [138].

1)   The artist leaves clear signs of the act of painting.  “Hence, in modern painting, the touch or stroke is so very pronounced” [138].  The trace of the act of painting becomes an important part of the form of the painting.

2)   “The modern painter treats the surface of the canvas as a concrete definite tangible ground, as an object in itself” rather than a transparent window into an image somehow beyond the canvas [139].

3)   “The work is so designed or constructed that the composition though well ordered looks undesigned, independent of any a priori scheme.  The artist does not aim at symmetry or a legible pattern” [139].  “The result is a constant interplay among chance, incompleteness, and the final order, completeness and rightness of elements” [140].  Schapiro presented this as a manifestation of the modern emphasis on individual creativity, self-expression and (re)invention.”

4)   “in a modern painting, the artist preserves in various parts of the work the traces of the original instigating object or experience,” [140], rather than hiding the original impetus or pattern under a beautiful representation of a scene.

I cannot but agree with these generalizations of the formal qualities of mid-twentieth-century painting, and conclude that they represent the ascendency of the artist as individual auteur, visibly placing her/his creative ideas and process at the forefront.


Inspiration and rationality in art: an early Romantic view by JW Harrington

From Schiller’s Aesthetical and Philosophical Essays, 1795.
Published in English translation by Harvard Publishing Company (New York), 1895.

Excerpt,  pp. 246-7 (boldface added)

"I believe this to be the test to distinguish the mere dilettante from the artist of real genius. The seductive charm exercised by the sublime and the beautiful, the fire which they kindle in the young imagination, the apparent ease with which they place the senses under an illusion, have often persuaded inexperienced minds to take in hand the palette or the harp, and to transform into figures or to pour out in melody what they felt living in their heart. Misty ideas circulate in their heads, like a world in formation, and make them believe that they are inspired. They take obscurity for depth, savage vehemence for strength, the undetermined for the infinite, what has not senses for the super-sensuous. And how they revel in these creations of their brain! 

"But the judgment of the connoisseur does not confirm this testimony of an excited self-love. With his pitiless criticism he dissipates all the prestige of the imagination and of its dreams, and ... leads them into the mysterious depths of science and life .... If nature has endowed him with gifts for plastic art, he will study the structure of man with the scalpel of the anatomist; he will descend into the lowest depths to be true in representing surfaces, and he will question the whole race in order to be just to the individual. If he is born to be a poet, he examines humanity in his own heart to understand the infinite variety of scenes in which it acts on the vast theatre of the world. 

"He subjects imagination and its exuberant fruitfulness to the discipline of taste, and charges the understanding to mark out in its cool wisdom the banks that should confine the raging waters of inspiration."