I’m terribly sorry, but artistic rubble just doesn’t always inspire me

There must be some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist; possessing which, in the least degree, no work is altogether worthless. What is this quality? What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? What quality is common to Sta. Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cézanne? Only one answer seems possible—significant form. In each, lines and colors combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions.

(Clive Bell, Art, 1914)

The purpose of any endeavour has to be one of the most haunting torments for any structured mind. This applies to subjects deemed frivolous just as much as to serious ones and perhaps more than anywhere else to subjects, such as literature or art, that are so all-encompassing that they escape categorization altogether. If we leave literature aside, despite the obvious parallels, the purpose of art is a subject that has haunted me since childhood. In particular, I have always felt ambivalent about the idea that what a painting represents is in no way relevant to its artistic merit. In this I was spurred by personal experience. When my parents took me, at the age of nine, to visit room after room filled with depictions of martyrdoms and crucifixions at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, the revulsion induced by the subject-matter prevented me from any appreciation of the pieces’ artistic merits. The same unease gripped me when taken at about the same age to the vernissage of a new exhibition in Geneva’s old town, attended by that city’s most fashion-conscious people, and finding that the artworks consisted in piles of rubbish scattered about the floor. Surely, the little boy reasoned, the subject mattered—he didn’t enjoy it, however hard he was told to try. Indeed, he was repelled by it. Indeed I suspected that the patent absurdity, in my eyes, of this type of exhibition was precisely what attracted so many people to it—and that the fact that I did not share their ostentatious admiration of the piles of refuse priced at five thousand Swiss francs apiece hardly made me a Philistine.

I’m afraid I was gripped by precisely the same unease recently when attending the inauguration of the Boltansky exhition at Paris’s Grand Palais. The Guardian’s review, appropriately entitled Christian Boltanski: It’s a jumble out there captured the gist of what this was all about better than I could do here:

A great mechanical grab suspended from a crane plucks at a mountain of more old clothes, repeatedly lifting quantities of wretched sweaters, dresses and coats towards the roof of the Belle Epoque building, only to drop them again in a flurry of flailing garments and clouds of dust, back on to the 50-tonne mound. The process is as pointless as it is interminable. Boltanski has said he thinks of the grab as the indifferent hand of God, or one of those fairground amusements where you try to grab a particular toy, and always fail.

lBoltanski's piles of dusty jumble clothing lining the Grand Palais aisles
Boltanski's piles of dusty jumble clothing lining the Grand Palais aisles (Photo by Donald Jenkins on Flickr)

My distinguished friends from Paris’s cultural and political microcosm were of course ecstatic, while images of an artistically repressed childhood were suddenly conjured up in my own brain. I could not help reflecting that applying a strictly formalist reasoning, Boltansky rubble didn’t qualify as art. Its sole interest must necessarily lie in its context, in the emotions it aroused in the minds of those distinguished visitors, but not in the piles of second-hand, dusty clothes themselves. Clive Bell, whose view of the subject would have been, to an extent, derived from Kant’s [i], and ultimately from Plato’s [ii], would have surely taken the same view.

Formalism in art in no way implies conservatism. In fact, quite the reverse: only by freeing the beholder to like or dislike a work of art on its aesthetic merits alone can he escape the dictates of fashion or, indeed, the dictatorship of censorship or of official art. My innate eclecticism attracts me to abstract art just as much as, if not more than, it does to strictly figurative work. Yet I resent attempts by anyone, whether so-called structuralists, art critics or, more likely, society bores, to imprison the works of Picasso, Matisse or Paul Klee in a model conjured up by them for reasons that often have nothing to do either with the artist’s motives or in the reasons for which people enjoy seeing them.

Structuralism, in particular, by implying that the mental processes and social preconceptions an individual brings to art are more important than its so-called “essential” qualities, is a reason that I have always found incomprehensible at best and, at worst, that I have resented. It strikes me, without wanting to provoke anyone, that this as just as sure a road to artistic serfdom as its distant cousin, centralized planning, is a path to economic serfdom.

There is even an element of deception in the shackles of structuralism, which often seeks to imply that if you insist on viewing a work of art on its aesthetic merits alone, you are somehow reducing its enjoyment to that of an irrelevant form of “pure” art, opening you up to the accusation that you are somehow “conservative” or even reactionary in your artistic tastes when, in reality, formalism, by removing any bounds to the manner in which we enjoy art, is precisely the opposite. Clement Greenberg brushed away this view rather cleverly in a talk he gave at Western Michigan University, January 18, 1983:

I don’t believe there’s any such thing as pure art. It was an illusion. It was a necessary illusion, apparently, for modernist artists and it helped produce some great art and some great poetry. A necessary illusion for Mallarmé, say, and for Valery, and maybe even for Ezra Pound. It was a necessary illusion for Picasso and for Cézanne. There is no such thing as pure art, or pure poetry, or pure music. Anyhow I don’t believe there is such a thing.

I’m sure there must be something in M Boltanski’s exhibition that justifies the considerable sum spent on it by Monumenta, the “outstanding, ambitious artistic encounter” that invites, each year, “a leading international contemporary artist […] to create an exceptional new work for the 13,500 sq. metre Nave of the Grand Palais, in the heart of Paris.”

Oh well, at least I got to take some rather pretty photographs.

  1. There is a difference between Bell’s views and Kant’s though. What is distinctive about art is that purposiveness is accompanied by some specific purpose. With fine art, that purpose is the communication of ideas. This purpose introduces a social dimension that is absent from mere entertainment. To concentrate exclusively on Kant’s Analytic of the Beautiful is to encourage an overemphasis on design and thus an extreme formalism that is contrary to Kant’s actual views. There is an interesting perspective on this in Burnham, Douglas. “Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) Theory of Aesthetics and Teleology” (2006). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. This needs to be approached with caution. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy points out: “Plato’s aesthetics is a rich subject—maybe too rich. For the striking feature of Plato’s dialogues in this regard is that he devotes as much time as he does to both beauty and art, but treats the two oppositely. Art, mostly represented by poetry, is closer to a greatest evil than any other phenomenon Plato speaks of, while beauty is close to a greatest good. Can there be such a thing as “Plato’s aesthetics” that contains both positions?”