On Board

Paul Corio Out of the Afternoon 2017

“Art, then, is an expression and a stimulus of this imaginative life, which is separated from actual life by the absence of responsive action. Now this responsive action implies in actual life moral responsibility. In art we have no such moral responsibility—it presents a life freed from the binding necessities of our actual existence.” Roger Fry An Essay in Aesthetics, 1909.

The other day Paul [Corio] sent me Roger Fry’s An Essay in Aesthetics (linked). He had run across it after our night out at the Tavern where the three of us (our friend Michael Zahn was also there) were discussing the nature of painting at this particular moment. Paul is wonderfully old school and vociferous in his support of Formalism and Beauty. I won’t speak for Paul, but our engaging disagreement about meaning in painting and the artist’s intent and responsibility for that meaning are at odds (maybe Paul or Michael will comment on this issue for our scanning readers). Anyway Fry’s “vintage” essay touches on many issues that we all are trying to address concerning art, imagery and meaning in our all pervasive electronic culture. I thought that maybe you folks might also find this essay interesting in your own search for art & meaning amid this Mannerist Moment.

“The perception of purposeful order and variety in an object gives us the feeling which we express by saying that it is beautiful, but when by means of sensations our emotions are aroused we demand purposeful order and variety in them also, and if this can only be brought about by the sacrifice of sensual beauty we willingly overlook its absence… Thus, there is no excuse for a china pot being ugly, there is every reason why Rembrandt’s and Degas’ pictures should be, from the purely sensual point of view, supremely and magnificently ugly.” Roger Fry, 1909.

One thought on “On Board

  1. I’ve been summoned! Ha!

    And yes – I have been catching up with the Bloomsbury Brits since that boozy night in the West Village – it’s a brand of formalism that’s less fraught than the Greenberg version. I haven’t read Fry or Bell in a number of years, and it seems quite fresh to me.

    But here’s the main part of my thinking of late, over and above materials, colors, or formal relationships within a composition: Art’s main jurisdiction, throughout history and region, has always been the poetic, the imaginative, the aesthetic. May artists, curators, and commentators on art find this obvious truth to be quite embarrassing. There are two common responses to that discomfort.

    The first is to politicize art, to present the aesthetic as something frivolous at a time such as this. I have very little patience for this, even though I am very much engaged with the political. To present something politically charged to a small a small group of like-minded individuals in Chelsea and Bushwick is to change nothing and risk nothing. These artists might consider becoming labor organizers or immigration lawyers. A great many artists put down their brushes and fought for the republican side during the Spanish Civil War – that wasn’t performance art.

    The second response is to overly intellectualize art. Rob Krauss and the October set really paved the way for this, and it easily dovetails with the fact that essentially all contemporary artists have advanced degrees. I like the new Henri format of observations and block quotes, so I’ll let Clive Bell finish this point up for me:

    “Only those for whom art is a constant source of passionate emotion can possess the data from which profitable theories may be deduced; but to deduce profitable theories even from accurate data involves a certain amount of brain-work, and, unfortunately, robust intellects and delicate sensibilities are not inseparable. As often as not, the hardest thinkers have had no aesthetic experience whatever. I have a friend blessed with an intellect as keen as a drill, who, though he takes an interest in aesthetics, has never during a life of almost forty years been guilty of an aesthetic emotion. So, having no faculty for distinguishing a work of art from a handsaw, he is apt to rear up a pyramid of irrefragable argument on the hypothesis that a handsaw is a work of art.* This defect robs his perspicuous and subtle reasoning of much of its value; for it has ever been a maxim that faultless logic can win but little credit for conclusions that are based on premises notoriously false.”

    *Duchamp began making readymades three years after bell wrote this.

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