Three Portraits

Consider three famous portraits: Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1675), Henri Matisse’s Portrait of Madame Matisse (1905), and Pablo Picasso’s Woman with A Book (1932). Seeing them side-by-side may prove instructive, for each work forms a punctuation mark for an era. I doubt if the three great painters responsible for them saw them that way, though all three undoubtedly thought them masterpieces, as do critics and the public today.

Notice how easily I used evaluative terms in that last sentence to make truth claims that I cannot possibly warrant. On what grounds can I call these painters “great”; how could the painters justify thinking them “masterpieces”; are these the same grounds used by critics and the public today?

So let us try something simpler. Which painting do you think is the most beautiful?  What makes it beautiful?

Let us get even simpler then. Which of the three paintings do you like best? Really? Why do you think so?

I don’t mean to annoy you, but you see I am doing something in this hypothetical conversation that seems strangely rare. I am taking what you say seriously, and in doing so I find myself confused about your meaning, so I am taking the trouble to ask you to explain it. I am sorry if I am being rude, but since you thought it important enough to say to me, I think it important enough to understand your meaning, and that understanding requires more information than you are telling me. Is it possible that I am not the only person confused by your declaration?

So let us try to make sense of something we have already claimed does make sense.

The very simplest kind of declaration is one that involves your judgment about your own taste. To say, “I like the Matisse painting best,” is a safe declaration. It is equivalent to saying, “I like pistachio ice cream best.” Should you be asked to warrant this kind of claim, you only have to say something equally safe in response, such as, “I like green.” These kinds of declarations say nothing about the subject under discussion. They only say something about the speaker. Granted, to a coherentist, this truth claim is of a kind with all others, for she is entitled by her justification schema to call anything she chooses a “fact,” so long as she refrains from asking anyone else to agree with her.

But is she? Now even with such a simple declaration, we face issues. The first is whether taste can be improved. That certainly was the argument of the Aesthetic Movement of the late Victorian age, which thought it possible to inculcate taste just as one might inculcate knowledge of a foreign language. The implication of such an ambition is that something exists that can be isolated, nourished, and refined. John Ruskin summarized this view:  “All that is good in art is the expression of one soul talking to another and is precious according to the greatness of the soul that utters it.” I find this kind of talk, so plentiful in art education circles, to be nonsensical because it ties our taste in the beautiful to the true and good. This approach may have been embraced by Romantics, who felt truth, goodness, and beauty to be a single transmission of a pantheistic God to receptive hearts, and it may have been paid lip service by the Victorians, who—bless their hearts—tried mightily to uphold the Romantic tradition.  Epistemological modernists find it all a tad too convenient, simplistic, and comforting. Postmodernists find it ridiculous.

That may be, but the appeal to something in the work itself does establish the 1:1 relationship between our claims and reality that correspondentists demand. Can we find it not in the timeless quality of the work or the depth of the artist’s soul as Ruskin might have sought but in the cultural norms that set standards of aesthetic worth? Can we then say that we have found the correspondence we are seeking to warrant our claims of artistic quality by appealing to the standards of our day? Perhaps we should echo the words of the art critic Louis Leroy in one of the first critiques of the work of Claude Monet in 1874: “Impression I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.” And there you have it. If cultural values provide the standard of quality necessary to justify an aesthetic judgment, what accounts for the changing taste of the zeitgeist? Leroy and the entire artistic establishment were appalled by an early example of a painting style that now is revered as one of the greatest movements in art history. If we accept cultural taste as a real criterion, how do we explain the conflict in standards from culture to culture, either temporally as in this case or geographically?  We might think our aesthetic standards have improved, for any of us would happily buy any of Vincent van Gogh’s works for more than the four hundred francs paid for the only one he sold in his lifetime, but perhaps we are only thinking in terms of monetary value, which this case proves is hardly a case of intrinsic quality. Any appeal to cultural values reduces artistic critique to personal taste writ large. To say, “It is good because everybody says it is,” makes the same kind of truth claim as, “The earth is the center of the universe because everybody says it is.” As a correspondence claim, this might just barely be called an appeal to authority. It might more defensibly be termed a coherence appeal based on public taste built on the accidental intersection of place and time.

I argue that taste can neither be appealed to nor improved until its components become subject to analysis. In this instance, I find the postmodern disdain for “tastemakers” as arbiters of quality and aesthetics to be entirely warranted. We are then driven to ask if the postmodern response—meaning a coherence virtual circle justification—is the only option we might appeal to. If we cannot depend on taste as a standard of quality in art, what can we appeal to in any effort to justify our judgments? Or is the entire notion of artistic quality merely one more ridiculous grand narrative modernism has foisted off on us to keep us in the thrall of critics and taste mavens? If true, then we can appeal to the notion of “masterpiece” and “genius” with a kind of nod and a wink, knowing that the terms really connote popularity and monetary values rather than anything inherent in the work?

We might at least consider an alternative since so much rides on our convictions. For a surrender to subjectivism in judgments of quality may not stop at art critics. Granted, they are easy targets. But if their judgments are questionable, can we then apply the same objections to movie critics? Book critics? Fashion design? Course grades? College admissions? Job performance ratings? Jury decisions? The list goes on and on because the problem is the same: where are the standards that justify a correspondence judgment of quality?

In art as in all other instances, we have only two imperfect options. The first is to appeal to standards of quality that have been articulated and justified and which can be repeatedly and consistently applied to various examples of the kind of thing being judged. That might work very well in judging the quality of dachshunds. The American Kennel Club has done a wonderful job of defining nearly every physical element of the breed standard. Now you are perfectly justified in wondering where the breed standard came from and how it relates in any meaningful sense to all the cute wiener dogs out there. That is a good question, but let it simmer while we ask if pictorial art, books, fashion, or college courses have anything comparable to the nineteen hundred words the AKC lays out for the dachshund. The answer is, of course, no, though perhaps the rubrics designed for assessing student performance come close. It is certainly good to ask whether the specificity of the standards actually applies to the quality of the thing being judged. In the case of dachshunds, those standards may be assumed to relate to the dog succeeding in its designed purpose to hunt badgers in their dens. The second means to determine quality depends on the expertise of the appraiser. I have previously celebrated expertise as a very good correspondence warrant for claims to truth and goodness, so I do not need to repeat this argument in its entirety. In regard to art, we do face a problem, though. Since expertise is the careful application of reason to experience, its reliability is dependent on the experiences being evaluated having enough similarity to be compared and enough differences to be contrasted. Presumably, the expert uses each exposure to concrete examples to further her understanding of the archetype the examples illustrate. So the correspondence judgment pits the specific example against the archetype the expert has come to understand. I stand by the argument that expertise, properly developed, may prove a potent alternative to articulated standards. Just as the evaluator might find his 1:1 correspondence in the comparison of the example to the standard, so too might he find it in the comparison of the example to the archetype. But this only works of the examples he reviews are alike in some essentials and different in others. If his examples are too similar, say those he confronts day after day on the assembly line, his experience will never produce the required distinctions to develop the archetype. In art criticism, the problem is likely to be the reverse, as the essence of art is to produce products that are unique and beyond our ability to categorize, as Kant maintains in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment. The art critic, seeking the common thread of quality in the manifold original works she inspects, must find the effort futile and frustrating. I leave it to the reader to investigate whether articulated criteria or expertise can be possible in some of the other fields mentioned above.

There is a kind of intermediate choice, however. The critic may abstain from any judgment establishing the concrete worth or beauty of an artistic creation and instead form a judgment on the quality of the work as it represents the era it represents. Now this is in no way a correspondence judgment of the absolute quality of the work or, heaven forbid, on its beauty. It is a less ambitious judgment, and so long as the critic or viewer makes that clear, she may speak her judgment and its warrant in perfect comfort.

Much of this sort of analysis focuses on form, genre, or movement of the work as it compares to or differs from other works in the same category. From a purely historical perspective, for instance, these three portraits visually illustrate the movement from modernism to postmodernism. Vermeer worked in the rosy dawn of modernism as artists secularized and dimensionalized their works to suit a new commercial class. The representational quality of the work and its brilliant homage to individualism and daily bourgeois life all reflect what modernism would come to be. Matisse’s portrait vivifies the expressionist experimentation of the new century, so full of disdain for the kinds of values Vermeer might have begun to represent. Picasso’s takes that infatuation with novelty to new heights with his focus on pure planes of color and skewed dimensionality. Now this critique may or may not be accurate. The crucial issue is that its accuracy, like all correspondence truth claims, may be judged. I do not see how one can be an art critic, but I certainly can understand how one can be an art historian. Notice that none of this attests either to the quality of the work or to its beauty. It is a kind of sleight of hand that authors use to make us think their correspondence judgments on art do more than comment on a work’s place in a larger canon.

I certainly think it possible to warrant claims to beauty just as we warrant claims to goodness and truth. But the problem of specification grows in difficulty as we move from the less to the more abstract judgments. It may be that aesthetic claims can be rooted in popularity or financial value, but the warrants that validate them are not germane to the aesthetic quality of the work. While placing the work in its place in a larger category may be a correspondence judgment left to experts, this claim also says nothing about its absolute merits or value. Just as it is very hard to justify claims to moral goodness, so too are we challenged to find some correspondence basis for judgments of aesthetic quality. Perhaps our valuation of harmony, proportion, and unity will one day be rooted in neurology, or our aesthetic sense one day traced to buried roots in human sexuality. Or we may find that sense profoundly connected to natural forms that our species has so far failed to isolate and identify. For now, we should be careful about the kinds of language we use and the kinds of warrants we appeal to when we venture into the alluring realms of what we choose to call beautiful.

Have a beautiful week!

S. Del


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