Norms for Art and Art Education? - H.R. Rookmaaker
Norms for Art and Art Education?
by H.R. Rookmaaker
Some time ago a number of people involved in the art education of young
people put the following question to me: How can we point our students
in the right direction and teach them a view of, say, modern art without
imposing our own opinions on them and talking them into accepting a
number of norms which they do not really believe? One of the difficulties
in bringing art to students lies in the fact that they expect a very definite
guidance from the teacher, a positive choice of position, which leads to
definite pronouncements: this is ugly and that is beautiful; this is bad and
that is good.
This problem is the more acute as today’s art is often very
problematic and does not seem to be beautiful, neither from traditional
nor from contemporary points of view. Sometimes the ugly is even a
conscious goal. The famous statement by Schierbeek that in our time
beauty has burnt her face is true not only from the point of view of the
observer but also from that of the artist. In former times, roughly before
1910, art that was not beautiful was considered as unimportant. Today the
problem is rather that art which tries to be beautiful hardly receives
serious attention, whereas the horrible things of the old and new Dadaists
are considered of great importance by most art critics. In short, we live in
a time when art is extremely manneristic and in many ways expresses a
sense of crisis, of the end of all norms, of decline, a shaking of the
pillars on which civilization in former times depended. Over the period of
a hundred years the situation has completely altered: a hundred years ago
the academicians were ‘in’ while the young revolutionaries received no
attention; today the revolutionaries are ‘in’ and those who are faithful to
tradition or in some way try to make ‘normal’ art are neglected . So much
so that when we visit large exhibitions we sometimes wonder whether we
are actually looking at the ‘salon’ of today, just as dismal, and unimportant
as the Salon of the academicians a hundred years ago.
The problem of our time
What we have said so far raises more questions than it answers. But that
is precisely the difficulty of our time. It is a problem for everyone who
has to talk to people who are not yet ‘in’, who have not yet ‘accepted’ the
extensive brainwashing of contemporary art propaganda, which aims at
undermining any notion of normativity and the certainty that in some way
there should be beauty in art. Modern art has an esoteric quality,
apparently only understood and appreciated by a relatively small group of
initiated. The majority of people, whether they are unartistic folk, students,
intellectuals, or simply ‘not modern’ artists, have questions and are tempted
to discard the whole of modern art as a misunderstanding or a
kind of spiritual charlatanry or even a conscious deceit. If the number of
those who appreciate modern art – the avant-garde art, that is – should
increase, we may ask ourselves whether we have not lost something and
whether a positive resistance has not been broken down by continual
propaganda. The trouble is that this again is a too simple and one-sided a
way of posing the problem because the leading modern artists are
undeniably serious and honest people with talent – in the sense that in
their art they seek to express the truth. The question therefore becomes:
Are talent, seriousness and honesty enough? An anarchist can have talent,
seriousness and honesty in his endeavours, yet we do not follow him.
Perhaps this is an indication, for who still dares to condemn a work by
De Sade or dares to interfere with gangs of young people who consciously
want to disturb order? Who dares to denounce these people as ‘wrong’ and
not to be taken seriously? Questions like this lead us into the heart of the
problems that this article wants to address. Why do we no longer dare to
judge? Is it perhaps because we no longer have any norms, or maybe no
longer dare to apply them? Or, as educators, no longer dare place them
before our children as certainties? Is it because we are afraid that in
teaching them thus they may become bourgeois? Are we afraid to give
them firm certainties? We realize that these problems are not easy. And if
we want to speak meaningfully, we should not avoid the real questions.
That is why we want to begin to look deeper into the situation. There must
be an answer to the question of why it is so difficult to establish fixed norms.
In first instance we will only try to describe.
To avoid misunderstanding we should point out that in some places
in this article we have treated modern art rather negatively. It should be
clear that we do not want to generalize and denounce all twentiethcentury
art. The works of Rouault, Feininger, the young Matisse, some
works of Picasso, Maillol, Mascherini, Moore and others we will mention
later, can be appreciated and sometimes even admired. But in writing
this article we concentrate on and have in mind the most extreme
modern art, because this is the kind of modern art that calls up the
questions and brings our students to sometimes very passionate
rejection. So we think of Schwitters, Magritte, Guston, Tobey,
Rauschenberg, Fontana, Saura, Bacon, Dubuffet and the like. It is by no
means our intention to denounce them as charlatans or dishonest
people. On the contrary, with all those who are deeply engaged in this
study of modern art, we recognize their talents and their individual
greatness. But we do not want to close our eyes to the problems their
works raise, especially for those who are teachers and who cannot escape
dealing with them.
Norms for art
Why is it so difficult to point out which norms are valid for art? Most
likely the eighteenth-century movement which rather conceitedly called
itself the Enlightenment is to be blamed. Now light would be brought to
the world by human beings, humans with their rational-moral souls.
All laws, norms and insights spring from humanity, and all humans are
equal. No persons have the right to impose their insights and norms on
others. All opinions are equal.137 This starting point robs every norm of
its power. After all, a norm is fixed and valid, even if some people do not
want it. But in this system a norm can be at most an agreement to which
all voluntarily subject themselves; or a norm could be a rule that
immediattely and undoubtedly follows from our humanity itself, thus
finding its root in human being, in the subject. Philosophers like Kant
have made attempts to formulate the general validity of certain rules in
this way, but basically their efforts have been in vain. After all, even if
there are only a couple of people who think differently, the validity of
the rule is affected and essentially ought to be discarded as worthless.
At the time the results of such thinking were not yet fully felt.
Much was still considered as self-evident, many traditions were not yet
questioned or were doubted only by the intellectual avant-garde, if at all.
But in the twentieth century the results of these ideas have become fully
visible, although even today such thinking is still opposed by many. It
turned out not to be so easy to overthrow the whole world order and
introduce a new subjective order based on human reason. By the way,
later on, reason itself was questioned too.
People search for solid ground. They want certainty, and truth.
Hence all that is considered to be merely subjective, all that has no
general validity, loses its power. Therefore people started to look for
certainty in something higher than subjectivity, something that would be
inescapably true. This was found in nature, in what is simply given and
not open to discussion. Of course there is such a thing as optic delusion
and therefore things must be investigated to establish them as indisputable.
Thus this certainty came to be based on the natural sciences,
and in the course of the years also on those fields of the humanities that
operate on the basis of the scientific method established in the natural
sciences (economics, sociology, etc.) This positivism, with its one-sided
interest in natural laws – of vital interest for people who looked to these
for solid ground – was very succesful because it propagated itself with the
‘wonders of technology’. Its success was so great that today it makes
sense to talk of technocracy. With peculiar side-effects.
We have already mentioned that natural science did not restrict itself
to physical or biological nature. It also examined the phenomenon
humankind, and found many rules governing it. So many, in fact, that
more and more the basic assumption (that all things are equal) seemed
to be true. After all, everything is governed by natural law, and on this
level humans are essentially the same as stones or animals. One tried
to prove this by means of the evolution theory. Human being is only a
very complicated mechanism that has developed from matter by a long
process of evolution. It is nothing more than other things to be found in
nature and as such determined by laws of nature. Inevitably people
revolted against this statement as they did not want to lose their freedom
(for, curiously enough, the right to freedom was also a slogan of the
Enlightenment). Gauguin puts it rather poetically when he speaks of the
effect of this positivism on art, namely increased naturalism:
Primitive art proceeds from the spirit and uses nature. So-called refined art
proceeds from the senses and serves nature. Nature is the housemaid of the
former and the mistress of the latter, but the housemaid cannot forget her
origin and degrades the spirit by allowing him to adore her. This now is how
we have fallen into the abominable error of naturalism.
Where would humankind now be able to find their humanity? And their
freedom? For people know, and their experience tells them so, that they
are free, not determined by the laws of nature, and they are more than
what the natural sciences can record about them.
One thing is certain: what is essential and ‘higher’ to being human
should not be scientifically approachable. For science would inevitably
rationalize it, dehumanize and kill it by scientific statistics. That is why
people in the twentieth century have attempted to find the essence of
human being, our humanity, in an existential experience, in ‘something
higher’, something that cannot be explained rationalistically. It is a kind
of mysticism that remains strictly subjective, strictly individual, not to be
captured in words, for as soon as that were the case, psychology or some
other science would again incorporate it in the scientifically known
rational reality. Thus alongside technocracy an irrational mysticism
(which is dialectically related to it) arises, in which humankind find a
deeper experience of their humanity.
The expression of this, the revelation of what is higher, deeper and
more essential, becomes pre-eminently the task of art. It must be human,
which means opposed to technocracy, positivism, and rationalism. That
is why much modern art is technically bad on purpose, because thus it is
clear that it is not of the same order as products like cars and washing
machines. It also should not be understandable. For then it would fall
within the province of reason again, in which case the danger would be
immense. It must give a free ‘polyinterpretable’ (that is, for all to be
interpreted in their own way) meaning to the human or the natural.
In any case, norms should not be mentioned. For that would bring
us right back into rationalism. Art is purely subjective and it reveals the
truth of human being, which lies deeper and is therefore irrational.
It is not in any way related to normal reality. It goes beyond that. It is
that which is higher. Or, to put it differently, its relation to reality is
dialectical, that is, it interprets reality by denying it, or by refusing to
attribute any meaning to it, by unmasking it as being inhuman and
Therefore, why still talk about norms? Why talk about art?
Art and beauty . . . no! . . . don’t talk about that. Beautiful things? Why?
Art is religion, mysticism; and the artist is a prophet. Art reveals the
real reality, human reality. Reality is not the meaningless world the
natural sciences deal with. To be sure, science has discovered the
truth about a part of reality, yet in doing so it has robbed humankind of
their humanity and thus evoked meaninglessness. So modern art is at
one and the same time a denial of positivism – there is no essential truth
and certainty to be found in it – and an affirmation of it – that which is
human can only be found elsewhere, for what science teaches us is
correct and inescapable.
This dialectic is an essential feature of our culture. The effect of
it is, and therein lies our difficulty, not only that art cannot be judged
according to norms but also that art cannot be regarded as art anymore.
Art has become something different: it is religion, expression, art that
reveals and philosophizes. Therefore, do not talk about beautiful things.
An automobile can be beautiful. Art? Art must be authentic, honest, and
based on deep existential experience, which at the same time exposes
the meaninglessness of the technocratic reality.
Have we overstated our case? It is possible that not all avant-garde art
is like this, at least not completely. But read such journals as Quadrum
and Le Vingtième Siècle, written by those involved in modern art who know
it closely and translate the ideas into words.
Beyond words and proof
We would like to mention another difficulty that we face when speaking
about norms, particularly for those of us who have to teach. The difficulty
lies in the fact that aesthetic norms are valid and are known, but
essentially cannot be put into words. They cannot be proved either, if by
proved one means asserting them to be scientific and mathematical
certainties. For what is typical of norms is that they do apply but that
the subject, who stands under the norm and for whom it is valid, can
nevertheless neglect it. A norm for example states that one should not
steal, yet thousands steal in a brutal or somewhat more refined fashion and
this does not immediately threaten their existence. With natural laws, for
instance technologically applied, this is not the case. One can prove that
a car engine needs gasoline and not water. Try it with water and the
thing will not work. But if you make a painting that sets at naught all aesthetic
norms the result is nevertheless a painting, though not a beautiful
one. And if some want to think it beautiful, important, interesting or in
some other way have a positive reaction to it, no one can stop them or
forbid them to do so. Discussion about taste is certainly possible, but
individuals can deliberately go against the grain.
One can talk about aesthetic and artistic matters in words. For this
purpose a great number of words have been developed in the course of
years, terms like pictorial and linear, concepts such as tension, rhythm,
classical, expressive, and so on. These words express particular aesthetic
and artistic qualities and characteristics: a functioning under the norm
in a particular manner. However, while analysing one will hit certain
boundaries. Sometimes one can only point out that a certain passage is
beautiful or another part inferior. If the persons addressed are open to
look and understand, they will experience the same thing – or perhaps
contradict it if the speaker is wrong – but to put it into words is not possible,
let alone to prove it.
One has reached the boundary of the sense of beauty, which cannot
be further related to something else. Art does refer to the outside
world and these references can be put into words: boisterous or
frugal refer to aesthetic economy, fierce and intense or restrained
and quiet refer to emotional qualities. But beauty is in essence a
norm and a possibility which is given us, beyond which no questions
can be raised and no words used; one is dealing with the very
core of the aesthetic aspect itself. At most one can attempt to say
something by other aesthetic means, for instance by poetical comparisons.
But this does not contradict the existence of the norm, even if it
reaches beyond our proof and words. It is also not irrational or arbitrary
– a matter of taste – even though it is not rational. Beauty is a province
of human possibilities and experiences that is peculiar to itself. It is not
determined intellectually, nor emotionally or symbolically: it exists in its
own way. Not only that which we can grasp with our reason is real.
Also what we can experience consciously is real. It is a fallacy that all that
cannot be put into words is therefore by necessity unconscious.
We all use norms
If there were no norms, it would be meaningless to talk of art or beauty.
Consequently, it is only human that young people ask for certainty and
for positive statements, because the knowledge and use of norms is an
essential element of our humanity. Students want no vague talk about
art: look, it is very important, but you don’t have to think it beautiful.
Time and again we found that they are dissatisfied with the assertion that
modern art is really art but that one should not enquire after beauty or
ugliness. What they see, they find ugly and they want to know whether
they are right or not. They are open and want to learn. And if they are
wrong they want to know the reason why, or at least a way to transcend
the situation in which all they can say is strictly subjective. They ask for
certainties. And perhaps there are many young people who, as a result
of their ‘aesthetic education’, have turned their backs on all art: it is only
a lot of talk anyway and no one can say anything sensible about it. They
are right if art criticism is nothing more than a strictly individual reaction
to a work of art; then it is poor and not worthwhile to engage oneself
in it. And if all talk about art were a strictly individual expression of
a strictly individual emotion, why should we trouble someone else with
In whichever way we look at it, there will be only a few people, if they
exist at all, who really accept the consequences of such a normless point
of view. We must not forget that every exhibition is the result of choices
and judgments and that each museum presents a selection out of thousands
and thousands of high quality works. The choice was made by the
museum director and his or her staff. If they choose to show us clumsy
works, paintings of no talent or taste, then we critisize them violently.
Rightly so. And they cannot afford to keep on doing that, because if they
do they will be sent away on the grounds that they are not up to the task.
In short, when we talk about art we all use norms, otherwise we would
not even know what art was and the distinction between a work of art
and any other human or natural thing would fall away.
Why then is it so difficult to make clear what these norms are, apart
from the difficulty we already mentioned? We want to point out a number
of aspects of this problem.
In the course of the nineteenth century historicism came into existence.
Historicism is one of the most influential and generally accepted philosophical
trends of the twentieth century. It has influenced existentialism
and other philosophical schools. In the Anglo-Saxon world historicism
has been much less prominent than on the European continent.
However, that does not mean that its basic ideas were not active there as
well. Historicism teaches that all human ideas, insights, norms and values
are historically conditioned and are valid only in a particular period of
history. Each period has its own system of norms. In art we call that style.
In fact, one wonders whether anything meaningful can still be said
about the past. This is especially important for the art critic, who has to
pass judgment on the art of earlier times.
It is clear that historicism can easily lead to an extreme relativism, for
from a historical point of view our judgment is necessarily relative and
determined by the time in which we live. From this point of view we can
say nothing meaningful about art that was made during an earlier
period. Unless we take the point of view of Malraux who argues that we
must accept this position positively, so that the work of art, regardless
of what it meant in the time it was created, means what it means to us now.
Moreover, we all know that in any given period a variety of trends often exist
side by side, each reflecting its own values and system of norms. Who
will say who is right? Historicism leads inevitably to relativism because
it recognizes no fixed norms but regards each norm as historically
determined and belonging to a specific group. Stated like this, there is
indeed little sense in talking about norms. Every time and every group
has its own truth. And though one can speak about norms within one’s
own circle, one has forfeited the right to talk others into accepting them,
let alone to impose them on others.
Historicism does try to take into account the situation as it really exists,
but it draws the wrong conclusions. First of all, it is clear that we must be
careful in our evaluation of art from the past. People of that time often
understood these artworks in a different and more direct and refined way,
simply because they knew the situation out of which the works stemmed
far better than we do. Moreover, the artist of a former period uses a different
artistic ‘language’ that we must learn to understand. We all know how
difficult it can be to make students approach a painting of the seventeenth
century in a correct way and to teach them how to ‘read’ the visual
elements. Just as we, when we want to read Chaucer, have to acquire some
knowledge about Middle English, otherwise we will for instance take a
word to be vulgar which at that time was not vulgar at all. The same is true
when we look at a miniature from that period.
Here we run into the reality of the norm positivization. Each period
has realized the norm in its own way by giving it a positive form or
content. But that does not mean that the norm itself is determined by
time. For example, in all times it has been wrong to steal. But the
punishment will be different in each period and the seriousness of the
crime can only be understood within the context of the whole culture of
that time. But stealing remains stealing, even if contempories would find
no fault with it. In this way we can also form an opinion about the art of
an earlier time. We have to be careful that we ‘read’ a work correctly and
take into account the stylistic features peculiar to that time, but if we do,
we can come to a right pronouncement about it. If this were not true we
might as well stop all art history. We would not even know what were the
relevant works of art during a given period in the past. Or, to put it less
extremely, we would not be able to understand why a particular work of
art met with great admiration and why such a highly esteemed work
exerted such a great influence. But whoever stands in front of a
Michelangelo understands, even today, why he is so great. Michelangelo’s
work is artistically excellent and he is considered great, even today.
Similar statements can be made about art that is further removed from
us in time and geography. We can find beauty in Chinese landscapes of
the twelfth century, though we have to add that many details probably
escape our attention, as our knowledge of the world from which they
stem is very limited and we consequently cannot estimate all their
stylistic peculiarities to their full value. All this is not contradicted by the
fact that we can make mistakes. We always have to guard against
pronouncing an anachronistic judgment. Whoever judges Romanesque
art from the point of view of the Renaissance will find nothing but stiff
and clumsily formed puppets instead of masterworks which are still
famous. The fact that we often go wrong in our judgment of works of art
of the past should not discourage us. Besides, the fact that the use of
norms with regard to modern art calls up many difficulties, makes clear
that the problems lie much deeper. In short, we can say that the people
of former times were just like us in that they lived in the same world we
live in, even though they spoke a different language and had a different
style. In other words, they positivized the norms in another way or gave
another positive form to the same norms.
People often say, on the basis of a typical Expressionist art theory, that art
is purely subjective expression. Then it is very difficult to judge a work,
because in fact we then are not judging a work of art but a person – one
(according to this view) who has, as artist, in her or his own peculiar manner,
given expression to her or his feelings or thoughts, a person who
actually withdraws from our judgment as non-artists. By the way, if this
were true all discourse about art would indeed be senseless unless the
critic were as great an artist as the one being judged. Especially those who
hold the thesis that art is prophecy have in fact silenced themselves. We
cannot judge anymore because we may only listen respectfully. But we
know that different artists contradict each other: only if one maintains an
extreme relativism can one hold the thesis that artists reveal the truth.
It is obvious that in this way any mention of norms with regard to art
becomes difficult. We certainly do not want to deny the personal
element in each work of art – or at least in many great works of art.
But a work of art is more than a purely individual expression of a purely
individual emotion. Artists speak as human beings about human affairs,
in an artistic manner, within a normative realm that transcends their
individuality, regulates their work and makes it possible at all. Only
those who conform themselves to the laws of language can communicate
verbally with others. In the same way artists can only create art that
others can experience as art if they create art, that is, if they conform
themselves to the rules for artistic structures and to aesthetic norms.
How could we otherwise distinguish artistic expressions from other
personality expressions? People who get red in the face because they are
angry also give expression to their feelings, but that does not make them
artists, and the possible result, a slanging match, is not a work of art.
Art is sometimes referred to as autonomous, as being a law unto itself –
art for art’s sake. If that were true, and actually were realized, then art
would only make sense to professionals. The general public would walk
past it and perceive themselves as uninitiated and redundant. Indeed,
if a work of art might only be judged by its own norms, then it would
in fact be a phenomenon standing outside of reality. By the way, it is
remarkable that historically ‘l’art pour l’art’ was not proclaimed in order
to make art that would have artistic characteristics only – namely
non-figurative art – but to create art that did not conform to ethically
and morally accepted norms.
However, almost paradoxically, people have often felt the need to
appoint a high function and task to art, starting precisely from the premise
that art is autonomous. It should be prophetic, an eye-opener, an
expression of personality, the highest spiritual achievement of human
being, and so on. It appears as if the further art is removed from, or is in
fact separated from, daily life, the more its meaning is exalted. Because
of this it becomes even harder for the public to judge art. What is
remarkable is that in order to defend art, one appoints a place and task
for it which is in actual fact not artistic. Which criteria are then valid?
If a work of art is prophetic, how must it be judged? By the prophetic
calibre or by the artistic qualities? Can only works of aesthetically high
quality be prophetic? Do I not then actually judge a work by other norms
than the supposedly autonomous aesthetic criteria?
We could briefly formulate our solution for this problem as follows:
the aesthetic or artistic has its own place and meaning that cannot be
fulfilled in any other way than through art. Music, sculpture, literature,
do not require any other justification than that they are art; they are
meaningful as such, and as such have their own task and place in human
life. A painting or a novel serves no other end than to be a painting or
a novel. They are definitely not required to be prophetic, didactic,
moralistic, or whatever, in order to be meaningful. They have their own
meaning, and they may also hold or reveal morals or other values, but the
real task of art in general is not described by this. One does not solve the
problem by claiming the work of art to be autonomous, since one then
severs the diverse connections that link a work of art to reality. In the
same way, for instance, the state has, as a given structure, its own
meaning within the existing social order. But if one absolutizes the state
and attempts to declare it autonomous, one either makes the state a
meaningless entity without contact with and meaning for social life or
one is compelled to make everything state-centred and to let everything
within the state that has its own structure fall by the wayside – which is
indeed attempted in totalitarian states to the detriment of much human
activity – think, for example, of the position of art. Art has its own
meaning, but only when it is willing to take its own position within human
life and does not sever the thousands of connections that link it to
reality. Otherwise it becomes sterile and meaningless.
There is art that is exalted, that fits in the church; there is also art
that wants to portray obnoxious things. How do we react towards
pederastic art, or cursing art? If we say that its interplay of lines is so very
beautiful, it can be true, but then we have probably missed the true
meaning, because the artist wanted to say something by those means.
It could even be hurtful to the artist to ignore the contents of the work.
If you should object that we are now expressing moral or religious
judgments, we will not deny this, but one has to realize that the work of
art was approached in its aesthetic-artistic nature, and not separately
from it. These are difficult problems, we are certainly aware of that.
The fear of the future generations
We want to briefly mention a peculiar phenomenon. How often do we
not hear at an exhibition of modern art: ‘Watch out that you do not
condemn too quickly. Our forefathers didn’t honour van Gogh, and
look at how foolish they were!’ The moral of the story is that if you judge
negatively you are just as foolish as your forefathers were, and your
descendants will laugh at you. This inferiority complex with respect to
our descendants is a poor counsellor. It can only make snobs of those
who believe in it. In the first place it is debatable whether the example
of van Gogh is properly dealt with. But the moral is certainly destructive.
It means that we must accept the most contemporary/avant-garde art, or
that which is presented as such, regardless of what the content, meaning
or quality of it is. If art is a facet of cultural life, then by its nature it is
embedded in today’s cultural struggle. Then we cannot accept it just as
it is. To state this with a wordplay: they who accept Karel Appel are
co-responsible for the future generations. If they are ‘appelized’
(spiritually speaking), and we evaluate this negatively, we have lost the
right to speak. If we hold to the values that Appel represents in an
artistic manner, we must be in favour of these ideas and consequently
accept our responsibilities as living and cooperating individuals; if the
opposite is true, we also need to say so. It could be that the accelerated
revolution we are experiencing in life is also caused by people
neglecting to think along critically, or to fight at the cultural level,
while they relativistically accept everything that is new as valuable
simply because it is new. Let us not forget that art belongs to cultural
life and is sometimes a powerful factor in the cultural struggle for
values and truths.
Art is difficult
A remarkable facet of present-day art life is that people want to apply
norms and that they demand that works of art be beautiful. They go to
the museum trusting that ‘of course beautiful things will be hanging
there.’ They enter the first room and do not discover anything beautiful.
Perhaps unjustly, because they have not learned to understand the new
norm-positivization. Perhaps justifiably, because they see works in which
‘beauty has burnt her face’. In any case, because they do not experience
any beauty they conclude: I do not understand it; modern art is too difficult
for me; come on, let’s leave. The occasional cynic could then reply
that we should let them go; life’s revolution will take place anyway, without
them, a crowd that doesn’t know the law. Others may reply, just as
cynically, that it is fine that they leave this art; at least it does not have any
influence. In this manner some people think they can make modern art
ineffective. But it is exactly this unrecognized danger that is pernicious.
If modern art remains uncomprehended it can, in subtle forms and
along devious paths, have an even deeper influence. In short, those who
take today’s culture seriously must attempt to speak normatively about
modern art, in order to take a responsible position in the face of the
many phenomena. The position that they choose depends on their own
spiritual attitude, and on their own cultural ideals. Nevertheless, they
have to adhere to norms, with wisdom and insight and knowledge.
It doesn’t seem necessary to us to denounce the opinion here that
modern art is actually just charlatanry, that is, not art at all and therefore
not worth talking about. However, that is the most dangerous opinion that
one can have about modern art. And also the most uncompassionate.
The structure of a work of art
We will limit ourselves here, just as we did in the above, mainly to
paintings. Not because other arts would in principle be any different, but
to exclude all sorts of secondary problems.
Art has structure, or rather, art is determined by a structural law.
Without this structure we would not know what art is. This structural law
is a norm and, to a certain extent, simultaneously a fact. A norm, in the
sense that its being a work of art is recognized and identified by us, even
though we think – rightfully or not – that the specific piece is horrible,
ugly, imperfect, clumsy, or whatever. It is therefore not only successful
works of art that may be called works of art. This would lead to total
subjectivism, and lead us into many irrelevant problems.
Imagine that an artist who usually creates good works also, for whatever
reason, displays a horrible piece under his or her name. Would he or she
then suddenly have stopped being an artist? And is it not true that the
statement ‘it is a horrible piece’ is possible only through testing by a norm
that is valid for the work of art? How could I otherwise state meaningfully
that it is horrible? If it could not be called a work of art anymore, at that
same moment I would no longer understand why it would be horrible. What
would it then be? A canvas with paint on it? Obviously, because a good
piece of art is also that. But we perceive painted canvases differently if
they are not works of art. For instance, we have, and rightly so, different
requirements for wallpaper, and therefore we have other norms for
judging it. Yes, also that it should be beautiful, but then still in a different
manner from a painting.
Analysing the structure of a painting falls outside our scope here.
It is sufficient that we observe that there must be a physical carrier – say,
oilpaint on canvas – that makes the colours and lines visible to us in a
specific configuration. These colours and lines have an iconic character
and reveal a harmoniously beautiful cohesion. The iconic is just as the
aesthetic not reducible to the psychical, just as we already mentioned
with regard to the latter. With the iconic we mean the remarkable
characteristic of lines and colours to present, represent and mean
something. Draw a line on a piece of paper and someone will say: hey,
that is the face of so and so. The relationship between that line and that
face is iconic – it is meaningless to speak of imitation or copy, for what is
the correlation between the face of the person and the line on this piece
of paper? In the same way, colour indicates something, makes something
clear. We can require a painting to be iconically clear, to express what it
wants to say, to speak to us. We will not have to explain any further that
the iconic, just as the aesthetic, is a possibility that needs to be
positivized, so that different visual languages are possible, all of which
can be clear in their own way. The state of affairs in this is similar to that
of the aesthetic norm, of which we spoke previously.
The mutual relationship of the things represented in colour and line
should be a beautiful, harmonious one. It is questionable whether it
makes sense to speak of colour harmony and the beautiful interplay
of lines apart from, or while ignoring the matter that is iconically
represented. We think that such is possible as a thought experiment,
but is hardly realizable in practice. If we see a piece in front of us, we
immediately notice a head, a character, a tree, and we recognize
their mutual relationship. It is very difficult to abstract from the
representation, and we also seldom do it; by which we do not want to
say that colour and line configuration as such should not be beautiful
Obviously, the work of art forms an entity. It is certainly true that in one
work the subject matter, or rather the representation, plays a larger role
than in the other, and is more serious in content and meaning. But also
in the light-hearted sketch of, say, a tree, the fact that the drawing is a
tree plays a role in our judgment. We know of course that there is an
a-iconic art, i.e. an art in which no recognizable representation is given.
In such a case the expression is brought about in an aesthetic manner
only, although we need to ask ourselves whether the interplay between
colour and line does not iconically express something, even in an abstract
manner, though it does not designate or show any object in reality?
Does a ‘wild’ line on an Appel or a Pollock not also speak and express
something, say something?
We spoke very candidly about beauty and harmony. We believe that
even in our time it still makes sense to talk about these things. We will go
even further: if it is said that in our time beauty has burnt her face, then
we can only understand this by acknowledging that we are in fact
dealing here with a remarkably negative relationship with beauty.
Otherwise it would be incomprehensible. If the message of the work of
art is that beauty is depraved, destroyed, or ought to be destroyed, that
can – almost paradoxically – only happen in the manner of the work of
art itself, through a strong expression in the iconic sense and through a
direct relationship to the norms of beauty. Furthermore, it is remarkable
that even in the work of those who claim not to care for beauty, one can
often discover much beauty in the colour, lines, composition, or
whatever, nearly against the will of the maker. However it may be, the
dilemma that is mentioned here forms a complication, but does not
contradict the above.
Art and worldview
That people have a world view is inescapable. People have a certain way
of understanding and seeing reality. Seeing spiritually obviously has
everything to do with seeing visually, for depending on what they
consider essential, people will notice certain facets and disregard other
elements as unimportant. This will also leave its mark on their art. And
if ‘their’ movement, the group of which they are members, which
perhaps even determines the Zeitgeist, has the opportunity to be
creative in the formation of a style, then their way of seeing will also
influence the visual language and style.
As much as we are inclined to attribute great importance to world
view, nevertheless we have to state clearly that its influence will always
be relative. After all, it remains a view of reality, the same reality that is
viewed by all artists. This is most clear in landscapes. That is precisely
why landscape art reveals so well what a specific movement found
important and how it viewed reality, sometimes to such an extent that
the landscape is practically absent, when the natural environment was
judged as not having much consequence. We should never forget that
art will always aim to represent what is considered relevant, significant
and worth portraying. Especially in the case of landscapes it is clear that
the manner of portrayal is very important and can speak volumes.
It can make the time-bound human understanding of reality visible.
manners of expression can change, accents can be shifted, and yet it will
be reality itself in which people live, about which they think, which they
experience, and which they portray visually in their art. After all, no one
is able to withdraw from existence itself within our human reality. And
with ‘reality’ we are referring not only to trees and people and love and
hate but also to God, angels and devils, as well as dogmas, ideas and
values – therefore to much more than what can be seen by the eye. And
to our fantasy as well. Only in exceptional cases, as in the art of the third
quarter of the nineteenth century, do artists as human beings know only
the reality that they can see and experience physically – with which we
note that this was also a worldview.
Reality plays as it were a role in a plurality of ways. As living space,
a natural given; as human-spiritual world in which ideals, faith and
experiences play a role; and as norm, in particular in art as norm for art,
the norm that as tradition (positive norm) is known and understood –
and that one sometimes, gradually, under the influence of new concepts,
will start to change or renew. In short, reality will be present in the work
of art as a given, a point of departure, and as norm on the one hand, and
as vision, ideal, faith and insight on the other. Or to put it in yet another
way, reality comes to us in a work of art as norm and fact, and as vision
and insight. In short, as seeing, understood in two ways.
Reality is not static
In the previous section we spoke about the relationship between the
work of art and reality, a very important relationship for our
understanding of the work and for the possibility to judge it.
Therefore we would like to think further about reality. We just
considered the landscape as an example. That is only relatively static,
in terms of being the same at all times. Our landscape, or our
‘countryside’, is different from that of our distant forefathers. Homes,
bridges, afforestation and deforestation, roads and paths belong to the
phenotypic landscape, which is altered in history – it is only the jungle
and the inaccessible, high mountains that are in a certain sense free
from this. And our city environment changes even more distinctly and
markedly. The social and ‘spiritual’ reality changes more deeply still.
Also here we have to do with human design and norm positivization in
history, with vision and insights, which are realized, at least to a certain
extent, in human cultural labour.
How then can we ever understand old art, if its language and style
change and the reality with which it was concerned changes and can be
even radically different? What if reality itself is no invariable?
Here it applies again that people can do nothing but work and act
within the given cosmos. We cannot do as we like. We can only act within
the given possibilities, structures and norms, so that we do not have to
be afraid of the historical unintelligibility of the past. Style, form, vision,
accent, power, insight, positive law, all can change but reality as such
remains the same; it changes its appearance only, no matter how
far-reaching this may seem to us.
By way of illustration, people are people at all times. Naturally
medieval persons expressed their anger in a different manner from
sixteenth-century people or moderns, just as Japanese will do it differently
from Dutch, and they again differently from Italians. It can also be that
anger is aroused by totally different matters. But anger remains anger,
and if we are people we can understand anger as anger. Even if we may
need to learn to understand its language and manner of expression and
the cause of the anger, in all its nuances: anger can mean regretting a
lost chance, dissatisfaction with the work of another, irritability out of an
exaggerated sense of self-worth, distress because of an assault on those
things which were esteemed holy and high, and so on. Love, fear, greed,
joy, sorrow, and all else that is typically human with regard to feelings,
are timeless, no matter how different the manner of expression may
be. The same applies if we start talking about law, state, trade, traffic,
celebration and mourning, and so forth. Reality is not static; its
appearance changes but reality itself remains the human living space for
all times and all people, as given, as possibility, as inescapable reality.
Our judgment of art is in direct correlation with our understanding of
that art. If we do not understand it, then it is better not to judge it.
We are in a position to distinguish clearly what is pornography in our
own Western world, since we know the positivized norms with regard to
morality and sexuality, but whether a specific work from a distant culture
was or is such we can only determine if we ‘know more about it’ and
therefore have learned to understand what was the positivized norm
there. Not that it is always easy. Even in our time norm positivization,
values and morals shift so quickly that it often proves difficult. The
situation is seldom without ambiguities.
Obviously somewhat schematically, and certainly not exhaustively,
we would now like to indicate the factors that determine our judgment
of a work of art.
To take the most complex situation, if we read a review by
someone else of a specific work of art, then, in order to judge both the
work of art as well as the review, we will have to take at least six factors
into consideration: the reality, the world view and the personality of the
artist, the situation in which the work came into being, the work of art
itself, and finally the viewer. Six unknowns! How will we ever be able to
make a sensible judgment?
Now there is a rule in mathematics that one must have just as many
equations as unknowns if one wants to solve the unknowns. A problem
such as ‘a cyclist drives from A to B, a motorist from B to A – how long
will it take for them to meet each other?’ is unsolvable. If I specify how
fast the cyclist is riding, how fast the car is driving and how far the distance
is between A and B, then I can solve the problem. Three givens
along with three unknowns make it possible to solve the problem.
Algebraically, if there are two unknowns, x and y, one must make two
equations, e.g. x + y = 4; x - y = 2. Then one can solve x and y.
And in a similar way one can judge a work of art, since we have six
factors, which are each unknown, but along with it also six ‘equations’,
There is the reality to which the work of art is related; there is also the
relationship between the world view and the work of art (and reality). If
we know nothing about the artist in question – if he is, for example, a
medieval anonymous – then he still expresses himself in the work of art
and thereby is in a relationship with the Zeitgeist or the world view of a
group. Sometimes we have even more than six ‘equations’, through which
we have possibilities to verify. The most difficult will sometimes be the setting.
Was this work an altarpiece, or a cabinet piece, was it made for
political propaganda or as a satire? Such questions can sometimes only be
answered through a thorough historical knowledge. Fortunately the number
of possible settings are in general limited, so that in many cases a subtler
judgment with knowledge of the setting will bring very little change.
We will now briefly investigate each of our ‘unknowns’ individually.
We know reality from our human experience, enlarged by our being
culture bearers in a specific world. If it concerns a work from the past,
then our knowledge and historical experience will also play a role.
As example we will take van Eyck’s Eve from the Altar of the
Lamb of God in Ghent. The question that is often asked is: Is this Eve
pregnant? Where does the remarkable bodily shape come from? Is it a
pure life study, or an idealized image, for example van Eyck’s
representation of the ideal woman, and/or that of his contemporaries?
We understand that the figure is painted very precisely – perhaps it is
exactly this that raises these questions. Here our knowledge about reality,
our insight into the fashion ideals of the time around 1430 (think of the
woman in the double portrait of Portinari and his wife by van Eyck, in
which the woman also has a stout abdomen and yet we sense that she
presents a very fashionable appearance) and our understanding of
the style of van Eyck plays a role (i.e. in the relationship between the
work of art and reality). It is true that it remains a difficult problem to
give a clear judgment here, but our own being human, added to our
experience and historical knowledge, makes a solution possible, at least
not necessarily impossible.
The second point concerns the world view. In the first place we must
again start from our own humanity and our experience (possibly
increased by historical knowledge). It is only a very shallow and ignorant
viewer who would say that the Venus of Giorgione, the Danae of
Rembrandt and the Olympiaof Manet are the same. That the artists’
views of reality are totally different becomes clear to us through observation.
The reality as seen by the first, who in fact is painting an allegory
of love and beauty, is different from that of Manet, who no longer knows
such general human ideals. Our judgment of the content of works of art
is coloured by our experience – we understand, as human beings and as
art viewers, that these works of art have something different to say. And
so one could lay a Jan van Goyen next to a Both, from the same period,
but so totally different in perception and content. One could then place
a Monet next to them. Three worlds, which we do not distinguish only
by tracing sources and reading further about what moved these people
– in this case, not that easy – but which we experience from the works of
Thirdly we consider the artist’s personality and talent. Also here our
own humanity plays a role, our experience, our knowledge of human
nature, and also our reflections about these things. How do we know
something about Jan van Eyck? We know that he possessed amazing
talent, had a tremendous intellect, could make sharp observations, was
obsessed by reality as natural reality, and so forth. We know this only
from the works themselves. The sources are silent at these points; his
contemporaries tell us little or nothing. Does one really need to know
Karel Appel and Corneille personally to be able to say something about
the difference in their characters and talents? What if we are dealing
with artists from an earlier period? Take Picasso and Braque during their
collaboration between 1907 and 1911 – their works speak a language
that can be experienced by everyone who wants to look. Because we too
are human beings who know people and can understand their actions.
Next there is the work of art itself as it is built up with lines and
colours on a surface through a specific composition; it speaks iconically
and has aesthetic qualities. We can analyse and understand this in
relation to the aspects mentioned, but also in relation to the structural
norm of the work of art, which makes judgment possible. That Kirchner
did not paint a blue woman but a woman, blue, we ‘see’ and understand
by observation. Kirchner does not need to have written about that
himself. Ultimately this understanding rests in our humanity, our
existence in this world, undoubtedly coloured by and more fully formed
by our being a culture bearer in this Western world. If we abstract from
these givens, yes, then it becomes difficult. But also unreal.
Finally we consider the viewer. We get to know the viewer from her
or his observations in relation to the work of art, which has a specific
relation to the mentioned givens. Winckelmann, Berenson, Wölfflin,
Gombrich, and the art critic whose review we read in the newspaper last
night, we understand their judgment, we judge along with it, learn from
it or feel we have to contradict it because we know what they are talking
about and because we recognize and understand their basic assumptions
and relationship to the work of art. This is possible because we ourselves
know what it is to judge, what it means to think about a work of art,
because we ourselves are human and have experience.
It can be that persons judge incorrectly because they did not know
or did not judge the setting in which the work originated, the commission,
correctly. If one happens to know better, one can understand where and
why they made mistakes. The setting is sometimes the hardest
to understand and always takes the most study. Why do the
Expressionists paint with such bright colours and such ‘crude’ forms?
Without doubt in hefty reaction to nineteenth-century naturalism! They
are against a hollow tradition, against shallow, expressionless art that
expresses a knowledge only of the ‘surface’.
In conclusion we can say that a work of art can be judged, because
we as people and as art viewers are truly human and are involved in life
as culture bearers. A review of a painting by Raphael, Giotto, van Goyen
or an unknown artist is not a wild guess, even though there are no
written sources to refer to. We can see the things. Here too we can see
in two ways. If there are sources, then that would only mean that we were
dealing with the judgments of an art viewer that was contemporary with
the artist whose judgment we also have to weigh. Not an impossible task.
Indeed, such a viewer can initiate us further into the setting. And that
is of great importance. To know whether something is a sketch or a
complete work of art can alter our judgment. Think in this respect of
deep and lengthy discussion about the 'unfinished' work of
Michelangelo. Whether it was one or the other changes our insight into
his accomplishment and our view of the works. And they who say that
that makes no difference because they find it beautiful either way, are
shallow and satisfied with too general a judgment. They make it too easy
for themselves, and therefore they will fail to notice many subtle facets
of the works of art.
In short, our conclusion from the preceding discussions is that we must
judge as human beings, not as an abstract homo aestheticus, or as art
historians, or as artists, but with our full human being. Just as art can
only be meaningful when it is integrated fully into life and, no matter
how ‘beautiful’, loses its significance when it attempts to lead its own life
in higher spheres. We also said ‘or as artists’, because art really should
not be made just for artists. If only artists were capable of judging, art
would have little meaning, certainly no fraction beyond the borders of
the art world. But everyone may and can judge art. The difference comes
between a practiced judgment, based on experience, and the judgment
of someone who is just beginning to look. The latter must still learn a lot
– in the first place, to see. And that is exactly the situation of our students.
We also need to teach them to look as human beings. All of education is
concerned with the humanity of young people. The point of departure is
their humanity, their young and inexperienced humanity. They need to
develop competence in judging, they need to gain experience and
insight. They will have to do that themselves. It is all too subtle and too
richly multi-coloured for us to be able to teach it to them as one teaches
a maths sum. But we will have to show them the way. Help them. Pass on
something of our experience and our knowledge by which they at least
can be guarded from the most obvious misconceptions and dead ends.
That means, taking a stance. The person who does not know how to say
more about a painting than ‘it is of good quality’, or ‘the composition is
quite beautiful’, has in fact revealed his or her lack of real interest.
And she or he who finds art so interesting and so cultural, says in fact
that art is not important and is removed from life.
If art is important and holds real value in society and in human life,
then, in the first place, it may demand our personal commitment.
After all, the artist did not create the work to be coldly judged by us
as to its fashionable requirements, competence and ‘cultural’ interest.
Some works were born staking someone’s whole life on it, painted
from the depth of the heart, with all fortitude and from deep inner
conviction. If artworks are not that, they are routine works, competent
and interesting maybe, but in actual fact not worthy of our continuous
attention and energy.
The student expects that you will judge as a human being. He or she
does not expect you to be a nobody but to be a person with conviction,
a point of view, a person with a warm heart who can get angry and can
also say why you were so moved or became so enthusiastic, can explain
why something had such an impact on you. We may talk about works of
art, preferably close to the works of art themselves. As long as it is not an
argument for argument’s sake – so interesting and so cultural – as long
as the real commitment is to find the truth, to say the right thing, in
order to do justice to the artist, the work in question, and to the students
and ourselves as well.
Besides, we can be sure that our work is never perfect. But it
certainly can be meaningful. It is possible to work and deal with art and
with students in this way. If it were impossible, it would be better never
to speak about art again, no, even stronger, to never look at it again.
After all, the work proves to be humanly impossible to approach and
does not really require our reaction, the input of our personality.
Basically these things are about love for our neighbour and for the truth,
because only these can make us free and make our work meaningful.
Our mathematical example above, of the multiple equations, as many as
there were unknowns, would that also apply to modern art? Or is the
problem different there? To begin with, if modern art is art, we may treat
it as art. If it is not art, then it is interesting but we can leave it to the
sociologist, the philosopher of religion or the politician.
But is the element of ‘reality’ not very small in modern art?
Sometimes, indeed, it is very small because the world view relates itself
in such a negative manner to reality that it becomes almost totally
distorted. But the reference to reality is still always there, in spite of this;
it has to be there, because it was made by living human beings. It may
be that modern art wants to show up the problems too much, wants to
be too intellectual, too ‘prophetical’ as a result of which its art-ness is
affected. People say that beauty’s face has been burnt. This is not true.
Our concept of beauty, our experience of beauty, our perception of
beauty, is mutilated. Ours? Or only that of a specific group, those people
whom we as to their philosophy ought to call gnostics; namely those who
claim that reality as such is bad and wrong and therefore meaningless,
in the same way as some contemporary philosophers claim that death,
in essence meaningless, is yet the only meaning-giver in life.
But even then we cannot remain indifferent. We must know ‘what lies
behind it’, why it was done like this, to what extent the work of art is
indeed worth looking at and worth discussing, to what extent it betrays
talent, intelligence and insight, artistry and content. We can on occasion,
maybe more than once, be forced to arrive at a paradoxical judgment:
this work has tremendous weight and is made with great talent and
insight – and for this reason is so appalling. In such cases it is still so that
the better we understand it, and the deeper we can empathize with it, the
stronger our experience, the deeper will be our disgust, simultaneously
with our admiration that someone knows how to express all of this.
This peculiar situation is in the deepest sense the result of the
brokenness of this world. And where in our time everything is turned
upside down, all values are questioned, everything is thoroughly thought
through and the utmost consequences are drawn, everything is
expressed more intensely. If our fellow human beings, intensely
passionate and with much intelligence, attempt to speak the truth or to
find it, even though this would mean that the senselessness itself must be
admitted and the beauty must be burnt, then we may not stand next to
it and say ‘how interesting’. They are deeply involved. And that requires
our response, our reaction.
Therefore our answer to the problem that was the departure point of
this article – what are the norms and what will we tell our students –
can, basically be very simply this: you, as lecturer, must involve your
full personality. If you find that essential values are being attacked, a
world view is being unjustly demolished, a false and unworthy ‘gospel’
is being preached, art is being created that is essentially not art, then
say so. Prove it. Let it be seen. Let them think along with you, look with
you, understand with you, experience what you see and experience. If
along with the ultramodern artist you find that present and former values
no longer count, and need to be abandoned, that reality is really
meaningless, that it is a good thing that the last leftovers of Christianity
are being blown up, then go for it, fight for it, preach it, honour your
predecessors. Be accountable for it. Maybe you will discover in the
process that there is meaning in your work again, no matter how
paradoxical this may seem. In short, be yourself, be human, and fight
for the truth.
Originally published in Dutch in Correspondentiebladen van de Vereniging voor Calvinistische Wijsbegeerte 31, 1, 1967.
Published in English in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker: The Complete Works 2, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003. Also obtainable as a CD-Rom.