A Correspondence Theory of Aesthetic Value?

As a follow-up to the previous post on the source of aesthetic value, I’m including an excerpt taken from an essay by T. J. Clark entitled “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art”. [In Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, Francis Frascina, ed., New York: Harper & Row, 1985.]

In the section included below, he calls into question an assumption, attributed to Greenberg, that art can have its own values and be understood and assessed exclusively in terms of those values. (Clark is responding, in particular, to the arguments contained in Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939 and “Towards a Newer Laocoon” of 1940.) In arguing against this claim concerning art’s autonomy, Clark invokes what I’m inclined to call a “correspondence theory of value”. (In fact, it’s not so much a theory as it is an assumption or, at best, an hypothesis.)

This characterization, which may amount to little more than a truism to the social historian, is borne out by Clark’s claim that qualities valued in certain forms and periods of art—flatness in the case of modern art in Europe—necessarily acquire their significance and meaning from non-art sources in the larger society.

Clark’s account is historical but based on substantial assumptions about psychological and sociological mechanisms needed to explain how values associated with individual pursuits and experiences, economic conditions, and political interests external to art correspond to, and somehow affect, the interest one takes in works of art, the qualities one values in those works, the judgments one forms about them, and what they represent to the viewer.

In the end, the connotation and significance ascribed to a particular characteristic of a work of art—what it comes to be seen as—is a representation which stands for a non-aesthetic quality of an object or event external to the work of art that is held in high esteem, explicitly or implicitly, by the viewer.

What would it be like, exactly, for art to possess its own values? Not just to have, in other words, a set of distinctive effects and procedures but to have them somehow be, or provide, the standards by which the effects and procedures are held to be of worth? I may as well say at once that there seem, on the face of it, some insuperable logical difficulties here, and they may well stand in the way of ever providing a coherent reply to the Wittgensteinian question. But I much prefer to give—or to sketch—a kind of historical answer to the question, in which the point of asking it in the first place might be made more clear.

Let us concede that Greenberg may be roughly right when he says in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” that “a fairly constant distinction” has been made by “the cultivated of mankind over the ages” “between those values only to be found in art and the values which can be found elsewhere” (“AK,” p. 42) [27]. But let us ask how that distinction was actually made—made and maintained, as an active opposition—in practice, in the first heyday of the art called avant-garde. For the sake of vividness, we might choose the case of the young speculator Dupuy, whom Camille Pissarro described in 1890 as “mon meilleur amateur” and who killed himself the same year, to Pissarro’s chagrin, because he believed he was faced with bankruptcy. One’s picture of such a patron is necessarily speculative in its turn, but what I want to suggest is nothing very debatable. It seems clear from the evidence that Dupuy was someone capable of savouring the separateness of art, its irreducible difficulties and appeal. That was what presumably won him Pissarro’s respect and led him to buy the most problematic art of his day. (This at a time, remember, when Pissarro’s regular patrons, and dealers, had quietly sloped off in search of something less odd.) But I would suggest that he also saw—and in some sense insisted on—a kind of consonance between the experience and value that art had to offer and those that belonged to his everyday life. The consonance did not need to be direct and, indeed, could not be. Dupuy was not in the market for animated pictures of the Stock Exchange—the kind he could have got from Jean Béraud—or even for scenes á la Degas in which he might have been offered back, dramatically, the shifts and upsets of life in the big city. He purchased landscapes instead and seems to have had a taste for those painted in the neo-impressionist manner—painted, that is, in a way which tried to be tight, discreet, and uniform, done with a disabused orderliness, seemingly scientific, certainly analytic. And all of these qualities, we might guess, he savoured and required as the signs of art’s detachment.

Yet surely we must also say that his openness to such qualities, his ability to understand them, was founded in a sense he had of some play between those qualities occurring in art and the same occurring in life—occurring in his life, not on the face of it a happy one, but one at the cutting edge of capitalism still. And when we remember what capitalism was in 1890, we are surely better able to understand why Dupuy invested in Georges Seurat. For this was a capital still confident in its powers, if shaken; and not merely confident, but scrupulous: still in active dialogue with science; still producing distinctive rhetorics and modes of appraising experience; still conscious of its own values—the tests of rationality, the power born of observation and control; still, if you wish, believing in the commodity as a (perplexing) form of freedom.

You see my point, I hope. I believe it was the interplay of these values and the values of art which made the distinction between them an active and possible one—made it a distinction at all, as opposed to a rigid and absolute disjunction. In the case of Dupuy, there was difference-yet-consonance between the values which made for the bourgeois’ sense of himself in practical life and those he required from avant-garde painting. The facts of art and the facts of capital were in active tension. They were still negotiating with each other, they could still, at moments, in particular cases like Dupuy’s, contrive to put each other’s categories in doubt.

This, it seems to me, is what is meant by “a fairly constant distinction [being] made between those values only to be found in art and the values which can be found elsewhere.” It is a negotiated distinction, with the critic of Diderot’s or Baudelaire’s or Felix Feneon’s type the active agent of the settlement. For critics like these, and in the art they typically address, it is true that the values a painting offers are discovered, time and again and with vehemence, as different and irreducible. And we understand the point of Feneon’s insistence; but we are the more impressed by it precisely because the values are found to be different as part of a real cultural dialectic, by which I mean that they are visibly under pressure, in the text, from the demands and valuations made by the ruling class in the business of ruling—the meanings it makes and disseminates, the kinds of order it proposes as its own. It is this pressure—and the way it is enacted in the patronage relation or in the artist’s imagining of his or her public—which keeps the values of art from becoming a merely academic canon.

I hope it is clear how this account of artistic standards—and particularly of the ways in which art’s separateness as a social practice is secured—would call into question Greenberg’s hope that art could become a provider of value in its own right. Yet I think I can call that belief in question more effectively simply by looking at one or another of the facts of art which Greenberg takes to have become a value, in some sense: let me look, for simplicity’s sake, at the notorious fact of “flatness.” Now it is certainly true that the literal flatness of the picture surface was recovered at regular intervals as a striking fact by painters after Courbet. But I think that the question we should ask in this case is why that simple, empirical presence went on being interesting for art. How could a fact of effect or procedure stand in for value in this way? What was it that made it vivid?

The answer is not far to seek. I think we can say that the fact of flatness was vivid and tractable—as it was in the art of Cézanne, for example, or that of Matisse—because it was made to stand for something: some particular and resistant set of qualities, taking its place in an articulated account of experience. The richness of the avant-garde, as a set of contexts for art in the years between 1860 and 1918, say, might thus be redescribed in terms of its ability to give flatness such complex and compatible values—values which necessarily derived from elsewhere than art. It could stand, that flatness, as an analogue of the “popular”—something therefore conceived as plain, workmanlike, and emphatic. Or it could signify “modernity,” with flatness meant to conjure up the mere two dimensions of posters, labels, fashion prints, and photographs. Equally, unbrokenness of surface could be seen—by Cézanne, for example—as standing for the truth of seeing, the actual form of our knowledge of things. And that very claim was repeatedly felt, by artist and audience, to be some kind of aggression on the latter: flatness appeared as a barrier to the ordinary bourgeois’ wish to enter a picture and dream, to have it be a space apart from life in which the mind would be free to make its own connections.

My point is simply that flatness in its heyday was these various meanings and valuations: they were its substance, so to speak: they were what it was seen as. Their particularity was what made it vivid—made it a matter to be painted over again. Flatness was therefore in play—as an irreducible, technical” fact” of painting—with all of these totalizations, all of these attempts to make it a metaphor. Of course in a sense it resisted the metaphors, and the painters we most admire insisted also on it as an awkward, empirical quiddity; but the “also” is the key word here: there was no fact without the metaphor, no medium without its being the vehicle of a complex act of meaning.

3 thoughts on “A Correspondence Theory of Aesthetic Value?

  1. it is possible to find correspondences between any two phenomena that have sufficient particulars. It is one ofthe banes of the scientific method and it is usually – as in this case – a pointless exercise.

  2. Art (the creation of it by the artist and the experiencing of it by the viewer) is an explicit reaction to the complex cultural situations of its particular time. Because of this, I can’t really dignify the assumption that the inherent qualities within art are so far removed from life that they maintain their own “autonomy”. Greenberg was right to suggest that the values of art are somewhat self contained, but not to an absolute extent.
    I do not beleive, like Clark, that people like Dupuy were, “capable of savouring the separateness of art.” On the contrary they are not attuned to an absolute division between art and life, but rather possessed an acute sensitivity to the inseperable relationship that exists between art and life.
    With respect to the signifigance of “flatness” in modernist painting, Clark states that it’s role was a reaction to and extension of things external to art. I agree, but the quality of flatness had more to do, I think, with the individual’s search for a return to a kind of existential simplicity than with a gesture of empathy or an effort to “conjure up” two-dimensionality for its own sake.
    This search for a reduction of self, manifested in art as “flatness”, was the effect of man’s diminishing, devalued stake in the larger context of industralized society. It was an assertion of individuality. In that sense the medium, paint, and it’s quality of flatness, were themselves the metaphor for “being”.

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