L'École Marchutz

A Unity of its Own

UncategorizedMarchutz Fellow

I was recently talking with a student about how one might judge a work of art.  What is good art?  What are the different perspectives from which one might judge the value of a work of art?  Is an unknown masterpiece less valuable than a famous one?  Can art be judged according to things that do not exist within the constraints of the canvas?  The conversation inspired me to go back to an excerpt of a lecture by Etienne Gilson I read a couple of years ago. The lecture starts off by discussing Delacroix’s view of the mainstream in academic art.  “Cold accuracy,” he says, “is not art.”  Gilson quotes Delacroix as calling the hyper-realistic academic works as being “nothing but perfection in the art of boring.”  What, according to Delacroix, about this careful pursuit of detail is so boring?  Gilson finds Delacroix’s response. “It is that most painters conceive pictures as means of conveying knowledge; so they never tire of explaining, whereas, on the contrary, the privilege of pictures is to enable mind to speak to mind ‘and not knowledge to knowledge.’ In short a picture is a bridge precisely because it does not teach; it does not explain; it does not talk; it is just one more thing among other things…  In the presence of a picture, the onlooker has the thing itself before him, including that in it which is not expressible by words.”

This is where many people, in Delacroix’s view, go wrong.  They attempt to use a painting to explain or illustrate some concept.  In his time, detailed renderings of classical subject matters were meant to illustrate the majesty of classical ideals.  Later on, urinals hanging on walls were meant to illustrate something about the nature of art (or the artist, or whatever it was).  And the tradition of art as mere illustration continues today.  Delacroix and Gilson find fault in this approach.  “Since the painter creates a form,” writes Gilson, “by means of which he gives existence to a new being, all his obligations are to the very form that he creates and to the new being to which his art aims to impart existence, not to any external object, being, or landscape that he might try to imitate.”  It is also important to ponder whether a philosophical idea might fall into this category as well, given where conventions in academic art have come since the time of Delacroix.   Tucked away in a footnote is an important idea.  Instead or representing some object or idea, the fundamental practice “that all painters have to observe is the necessity arbitrarily to construct a self-contained whole endowed with a unity of its own.”

This idea of self-contained, united wholeness will become very important to both Delacroix and Gilson.  Delacroix, responding to the academic traditions of his time, frames the idea as a rejection of mere reproduction.  “If it is a question of duplicating reality, no sculpture done by an artist will ever equal a plaster cast done from nature.”  Art exists as something separate, “and all the elements of reality that do not agree with the creature imagined by the painter have to be ruthlessly eliminated… It is imperative that [the artist] should reject… all the elements that are not at least compatible with the plastic form of the work of art to be made.”  It is in this spirit that Delacroix says time and again “The first of all principles is the need to make sacrifices.”

At this point, Gilson establishes what he calls the “first corollary of what Delacroix said,” explaining that it “is that the final cause of all the operations performed by the painter is to cause the existence of a self subsisting and autonomous being.”  A painting (or drawing, sculpture etc.), in other words is a living being, separate from but parallel to nature.  This first corollary has, Gilson writes, some rather important consequences “concerning what can be called the ultimate foundation for aesthetic judgments.  This foundation must be sought in the very essence of the works of art under discussion and in nothing else.”  Not in the motif, not in the context, not in the belief system of the artist, and not in the work’s monetary value.  There are, of course, other ways to evaluate a work but “if it is a question of judging a painting precisely qua work of art,” this is the approach one must take.  If the painting is judged in any other way it is being judged according to something that is not actually a part of it.  Gilson sums up his opinion by saying, “There is no other criterion of success or failure in the art of painting than this golden rule: a painting is good when it actually exists as the fully constituted being that art can make it; inversely a painting is bad when it fails to achieve actual existence as a fully constituted being.”

-O'Neill Cushman, Alumni Fellow