The Nature of Art
To the Editor:
Roger Kimball’s “Clement Green-berg: An Appreciation” [September] came as a disappointment. Green-berg’s vaunted high seriousness and admirable powers of analysis notwithstanding, his work merits a greater disavowal than Mr. Kimball seemed able or willing to offer.
Identifying the fundamental cause of the disintegration that permeates and threatens to undermine our culture may be difficult, . . . but the idea that art need not contain recognizable subject matter is one sensible place from which to begin a diagnosis. Green-berg did not invent that notion, but his acceptance of it appears to have been unequivocal, and he is probably more closely identified with it than any other recent figure of such intellectual authority and acclaim.
The idea itself is corrupt and destructive, implying either that pure form is as significant as human experience or that art need not signify. Both implications are false. Form exists as a critical component of art, but form alone does not constitute art. The representation of human experience does, and the assertion of that simple and basic truth might be the single strongest point from which to undertake the reintegration and revitalization of our enervated culture. . . .
Roger Kimball writes:
Harvey Gordon is hardly the first person to object that abstract art is an engine of social and moral disintegration. Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin thought so; as in fact did Adolf Hitler, who delivered an impassioned speech linking “so-called modern art” and “Germany’s collapse and general decline” when he opened the Great Exhibition of German Art in 1937. Today, a fashionable school of Marxist criticism in the academy blames the New York School of abstract painters for helping the United States government prosecute the cold war. I mention this by way of background.
The real issue—and it is a deep issue—concerns the place of form in aesthetic experience. Mr. Gordon’s fundamental error, I believe, is in thinking that the experience of form and “human experience” are necessarily at odds. He prefers his paintings to display naturalistic illusion, which is certainly his prerogative. But if painting is to be more than an exercise in nostalgia, reminding us of objects that happen to be absent, then questions of form immediately begin to intrude. When we ask about the quality of a specific work of art, and begin to compare it with other works, then questions of form become paramount.
I suspect that Mr. Gordon’s association of social disintegration and abstract art is based partly on the notion that an interest in “pure form” is a recent development. He may, therefore, find some solace in contemplating the following passage from Plato’s Philebus:
When I say “beauty of form,” I am trying to express, not what most people would understand by the words, such as beauty of animals or of painting, but I mean . . . the straight line and the circle and the plane and the solid figures formed from these. . . . For I assert that the beauty of these is not relative, like that of other things, but they are always absolutely beautiful by nature and afford peculiar pleasures in no way comparable with the pleasures of scratching. . . .