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ASPECTS OF VALUE IN CONTEMPORARY PAINTING
Fred T. Martin

(as published in The College Art Journal, Volume XII, Number 4, Summer 1953, pp 321-328)  

IF THERE is a problem facing contemporary art, it is that we cannot tell the good from the bad. From this one dilemma come both the shibboleths and genuinely creative insights of our age. As an example of the former one can take the constant reiteration of the banality that there is no good or bad and that one should not speak of "quality"; and as an example of the latter one could cite the widely held notion, held since Nietzche, that perhaps now if ever has come the time for the arrival of the new. Few critics now dare to speak of good painting, though there is much decrying of bad. Rather, most of them engage in one form or another of "plastic criticism," the description of colors, lines, etc., and their supposed organization. Ultimately, questions of good and bad art have been replaced by questions of the organization or disorganization of the picture plane. However, if we apply this criterion of organization to painting as it is found in galleries and studios everywhere, we find that though it separates the ordered from the disordered it does not always separate the valuable from the worthless.

It has been the claim of science for many years now that value in science lies in order. Anthropology analyzes cultures just as a physicist analyzes atoms or the psychologist minds. All, atoms, minds, and cultures, are found to be dynamic interrelations of forces whose development in these relations of force can be predicted with more or less precision. The value of science is felt to lie in its predictiveness of natural events and in its resultant ability to control them; and the perception of order which is the basis for predictiveness is taken as an end value, a value which cannot be reduced to any other, in itself.

Science has our age under its thumb, we might as well admit it. All mankind including the scientists themselves are astounded by its achievements. Since it is so successful and since we are told that without its help mankind could never have gone as far as he has (assuming of course that he has gone far), we have come pretty well to believe that it would be best if we were to apply its principles to all phases of human activity.

From the very first stages of modern science‑at least from the Novum Organum‑one of the cardinal principles has been a belief in the reality of the mathematical formulation of the universe and a disbelief in the sensuous one. The worlds of Hobbes and Locke were both based on this, as is today the world of the atomic physicist. As an example of this disbelief in the sensuous world, today's atomic physicist, though he has absolutely no direct proof of the reality of his particles and waves, believes them to belong to an order of reality far prior to our world of mere colors, lights, mists, and objects. So the scientific age claims to have been built on the value of a certain kind of order, a kind of order describing for us a world made purely from objective elements and utterly divorced from that perceived by our workaday senses. In art also, as could be expected, such views as these are widely held. Order in painting is the criterion of value, both with reference to the inherent value of any given work of art and also in the ascription of originality, where a novel ordering of supposed more or less objective elements becomes the archetype of the new.

This criterion makes possible the contrasting of African with Greek sculpture, of Chinese Calligraphy with Kandinsky's early non-objective painting, and all of the other meetings of the arts in our present culture. (There is a scientific parallel here in the tendency of anthropologists to compare the organization of various cultures without too much consideration of the con­tent of such cultures, measuring the "height" of culture by its complexity -- a criterion of order -- instead of by its content.) We find it easy to appreciate the art products of the most varied cultures because we have come to see art as a matter of "style," to use Malraux's term, of form, instead of a matter of statement, of content. Though we realize that every form involves some­thing to be formed, we beg the question by claiming that the degree of forming is the important factor, and that the original substance which was to be formed is unimportant. In this way we arrive via a scientific predilection for order and a scientist's disregard for apparent reality at an unconscious assumption that form can be its own substance.

The final observation to be made is that good and bad in any age refer only to the valued and valueless and that consequently in our time good and bad have come more and more to refer to order and disorder and, in art, to form and its lack. It will be the purpose of this essay to prove that an error has been made in assuming as we have that value lies chiefly in order, and an attempt will be made to show in what other area it may lie. In order to begin, let us substitute for the usual equivalence of good : bad = ordered : disordered, the following, i.e., good : bad = valuable : valueless, and let us then follow the resultant chain of ideas to its final conclusion.

The first thing we would note is that this second grouping, the one based on value rather than on order, automatically includes the first, though the first does not include it. If the number one be added to two, five, and six and the sum be taken, an organization will have been made. But the organization will have no value until we learn that it was not one, two, five, and six that we added but rather that each number was a man (or an orange) and the result was men (or oranges). The organization will have no value until its content has been made specific because the value hinges on what the specification may be. Modern painting and many of the other modern arts have become convinced that form alone is valuable, that it was the numbers rather than the things that were counted that were important. Sheldon Cheney, for example, in one of his older books (Expressionism in Art) seems to believe that the important thing in painting is `planetary movement'; and, although he captions his chapters with titles such as Mysticism, The Importance o f Meaning, he yet believes that planetary movement makes a mystical picture art, not that mysticism makes a picture with planetary move­ment art.

To mention an instance both more common and more recent, it is becoming apparently more and more widely held among artists (and thus, it is to be hoped, among critics) that a picture, to be good (of value, liked, or something) must spread evenly over the whole surface of the picture plane, that that whole surface must receive equal emphasis, and that there must be no "void" areas in the picture. This notion seems to guide a great many if not the most of the younger generation abstract‑expressionist, (the so-called vanguard) painters, though it seem nearly totally absent among the elder practitioners of this school. What is to be noted here is not so much the "form" itself as that for which it stands; for, notwithstanding their form, or perhaps, even in spite of it, we must determine whether these pictures have any value beyond form. Have they any value based in the original substance from which they are shaped, or from some other, as yet unanalyzed source, or, perhaps, have they no values at all except formal ones?

It is certainly true that these paintings do have value for the person who paints them, even if he will not tell us in what that value lies other than form; for he keeps them, wants to show them, and oft‑times sacrifices some personal gain for them. However, we must decide if they have any other values, ones somehow intrinsic. We must discover if they have values for any other use than to tell (by way of their formal type) to their creator that he is an artist, a member of that brotherhood and so with some claim to regard over and above what every one else gets or fails to get.

Actually, a terribly vital problem is centered here. It is simply the old question, Who are we? Have we any value, any use over and above our function as producer and consumer? There is probably only one institution in the history of man which has been regularly charged with answering this question, with supplying man with the ecstasy, the going beyond himself, the conviction of transcendent purpose or value, necessary for life. This institution is of course religion. Many people today think that religion, at least in the west, is dying. Others claim the reverse. But, for either to have such notions shows that for them the possibility exists that at least it may die. If it may die, its ecstatic function may be eclipsed. But this function must be absolute, for to doubt for an instant that man is more than an animal or a machine is to doubt it forever. Therefore, for many people religion can be said to be dead, at least in this function. However, though man may be only a buyer of brands, though there be no holy church to confer on him his godhead, might there riot be some race apart, some race of men more than men‑a race of artists? To belong to this group, then, would be to live again, to know the ecstasy without which life is worthless.

Why not go back to the young painter (most of the old ones who have recently changed their style are the same) and take another look at him? Is he finding in painting merely a substitute for religion‑ in other words, is art his claim to being different, to being important for himself and not merely as a brand buyer or builder of Hooper Ratings? I believe that frequently this is exactly the case, that art is his claim to "being," that it is his ecstasy. Back then to our original problem: Why are his works valuable, first of all, to him? They are valuable as signs that he is of the elect, and they mean to him that he is different, an individual, worthwhile in and for himself at least in so far as he is an artist. Have they any value for us, since they don't prove us to be members of some holy band? None that I can see, unless we join the small devoted group of appreciators without which the holy band would die.

Why must they be vanguard works by the way? Because in the making of vanguard works the value, the affirmation of one's own important existence, is greatest; for everyone in the vanguard knows that he is "making reality for tomorrow" (for yesterday's and today's are dead). Besides, the vanguard is attacked from all sides and one feels a martyr for it just as one feels for one's own soul in the present day world. And as a last inducement to join the avant‑guard there is the fact which everyone knows: that the modern world is built on progress and that art is not different from refrigerator making in this: that every year it gets better and better. And so the value of his paintings lies not in the original substance from which they were built but is rather an expression of his personal relation to them. They are expressions of his faith that salvation shall come to him because he is a vanguard painter and that only as such will his life have value. The works have no intrinsic value to him; their only value is as proof that he is a member of the elect. But, even though his works have value to him only as badges to show his membership, might they not have some value to us as revelations of a new reality, since this revelation is the avowed function of the vanguard of which he is a member?

Well, then, what is the nature of this vanguard, the nature of its aims, and its sources? Does its works reveal a new reality? To take the questions one at a time, the concept of vanguard arises of course from the fact that some artists consciously believe that they have an historical purpose, a purpose which is generally described by aestheticians as "the integration of new materials (forms, techniques, and subjects) into the tradition." The artists themselves generally take a more dramatic view of their aims and believe, especially today, that they are creating a whole new tradition. The idea of a vanguard first became popular in the late nineteenth century, though the seeds of it are certainly present back at least as far as David, who made probably the first conscious modification in the tradition of western painting. Vanguard means, really, those who are on the fore front, those painters who see into the haze of tomorrow and paint its painting today. Their origin lies, then, in a concept of history and of inevitable progress in art; their aims are to heal the consciously felt wounds of their age.

But does vanguard‑ness automatically mean value in art? The vanguard artist bases his claim to value on a theory of history and progress in art. He assumes somehow that every true vanguard artist down through the ages has stood on the shoulders of the man who went before him, that the generations stand pyramided reaching toward heaven and that he is at the top. He would, of course, be the first to admit that many of the pyramids have been built inside out or upside down (the Impressionist or Nabis for example), but he would insist that his at least is built on true lines.

In science each man builds on what each other man does, science too is such a vanguard pyramid. There is a conceptual framework holding the whole structure together, and each man's task is to illuminate a facet of the entire building, showing either how even in this spot the formula for the entire building holds true, or else that relations are such here as to call into question the entire formula as held until now and to suggest consequent modifications.

Every scientist works with the symbols of every other, and this very fact of the precise communicability of symbols proves to the scientist their truth -- unless B gets exactly the same experimental results as A and is able to draw exactly the same conclusions, the whole experiment is suspect. There are then three earmarks of scientific pursuit. The first is universal applicability of laws, the second is the universal validity of mathematical formulation, and the third, the result of the first two, is the usefulness of and the necessity for universal exchange of information to the end that each scientist may add his appropriate piece to the whole. If we were to look for an historical term which could sum all this up, we would say that it is "progress," the continual growing and enriching in time of a continuing organism. It is for this reason that observations, conclusions, etc. made a hundred years ago have now only an historical, not a vital, interest for us. The organism of science has grown beyond them, and has robbed them of their aspect of vital truth, leaving them only the historical interest connected with any stepping stone.

The vanguard artist in most cases subscribes to this view of science, but he applies it to art as well. He makes this application in these ways: He usually believes that the art of the past is of purely historical interest, and that it commits errors as foolish as believing the sun revolves around the earth. He thinks that each artist of the vanguard must build on the work "the discoveries" of each other. He believes that these "discoveries" are embodied in a freely communicable, precisely interpretable language, a language as flexible as mathematics, where the formulas and the discoveries of an Einstein can be applied to astronomy or atomic physics. He therefore believes that it is necessary to know exactly "what they're doing in New York" because that is believed by him to be the center or artistic discovery, just as a scientist might be interested in knowing what is being done at an Institute for Advanced Studies. He even has his Einstein in the person of Hans Hoffman or some other artist who is supposed to be in the very forefront of discovery. All of this forms a coherent, well organized body of thought as well as action, and for this reason if no other, if value lies in form, it is probable that these conceptions are valuable and that the vanguard artist is doing valuable work.

But should it be that value lies not in form but is perhaps the sperm of chaos, then far other will be our view of artists' lives, and our attribution of their worth. Suppose we assume then (merely for the sake of argument, if only for a reduction ad absurdam) that value lies not in the net of form cast over chaos but rather that it lies somewhere in that very chaos itself. Perhaps it may even lie throughout chaos, dwelling immanently there like some have said God does in the world. Then the aspect of a picture which has value will not be its form but will instead be the primitive substance which was formed and which is now frozen somehow forever in that picture's net of art.

To begin to hunt the lair of value in the land of chaos (if it be there at all) we might analyze the very objectness of an object. It is a thing separated from things, and it is present. Insofar as it is present it has no past or future, nor can it have such, for the very conception of presentness is a contradiction of past and future. Just so, too, if the thing be lighted in this present; for then dark will have been annihilated forever, relegated to the place whence past and future have fled. In this way are all things (both the primitive substances of things and their modifying attributes) made naught by the existence of this one. But, by their very separateness from this object of our attention, they make it teal; for, without their tyranny of nothingness beating upon the shores of our object, we would never have that object.

Day cannot be without night to break against its cliffs, nor can present be found but by looking to the hems of past and future. Thus, thingness pre-supposes and demands nothingness to make it real, and form must have unform before ever it can be. Can value be found only in some cranny of this world of unform, of nothing, or must it be (if it be here at all) present throughout, immanent like God may be in the world? The place where all those things dwell which are not now (the mansions of the past and of the future, the houses of night and of death) is the place of nothing, and by that very word out question is answered. If it is the place of nothing, then all those things which have been lost in its deeps (and value too if it dwelleth there) are one, indivisibly and eternally; for each one of them is nothing, and nothing knows no distinction of this or that. This and that when dwelling in nothing are each immanent in the other, and so they dwell there in one another simultaneously in an eternity frozen into matter.

This, then, is what matter is. It is the unknowable substance beneath the threshold of mind, it is the stuff of things whose forms only we can know, it is the unform, the nothing, behind every form in our experience. Might value lie there, in this hidden place? If it be not present in form then it must be caught in the deeps of matter‑it must be not only caught but also must be the very substance of matter, for all those who dwelleth there dwelleth as one, and each is the other for all eternity.

Was value found in form -- can we tell the good from the bad in art today? Form can be used as a criterion in the discussion of art. But can it tell us which picture has an intrinsic value, some value over and above mere membership in a school? We have searched, and found no certain proof that it can. Then, if value perhaps be not caught in form, there is only one other place to look and that is in the deeps of chaos, deeps where all are one, where, if value be at all, value is everywhere. Then value would be in the matter of pictures, it would be in the nothing of their thingness, in the unform of their form. Therefore that picture which is valued for its form might be valueless, and only that work -- or that man -- who is valuable for some un-nameable quality beneath form would be of worth.