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The Appreciation of Art

Author(s): Ananda Coomaraswamy and Stella Bloch


Source: The Art Bulletin, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Dec., 1923), pp. 61-64
Published by: College Art Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3046455 .
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The Appreciation of Art


ANDSTELLABLOCH
BY ANANDACOOMARASWAMY

In any discussionof art it mustbe clearlyunderstoodwhatwe meanby art. It is


assumedherethat art is the symbolicexpressionof subjectiveexperience. The symbols
may consistof sounds(musicand oralliterature),writtensigns,especiallylines (drawing
and design),colors(painting),or masses(sculpture). Science,on the other hand, is a
correlatedsystemof the statementof conceptsderivedfromobjectiveexperience. As no
completeseparationof subjectiveand objectiveexperienceis possibleSso there is no
absolutedistinctionof scienceandart. Thatthe languageof bothis necessarilysymbolic
nature(createlife). In so far
willbe self-evidentfromthe fact that we cannotreproduce
as any statementis purelydescriptivevvecannotdesignateit as eitherscienceor art:
mere description,
whetherverbal or visual,is nothingmore than a referenceof things
describedto things known,requiringonly the powerof observationon the part of the
recorder,andonlythe powerof recognitionon the partof the observer.
personsat the presentday are convincedof the deVery many well-intentioned
sirabilityof awakeningin the mass of the peoplea greaterlove of art, an appreciation
both of the workof modernartistsand of ancientart, and areoppressedby theirlack of
success,whichthey sometimesattributeto the materialismof the age. If, on the other
hand,we look back to othertimes and places,we find that the objectswhichwe now
desctibeas worksof art possesseda generalappeal,that no one had to be taughtto like
them,andthat thosewhoproducedthem(calledby us artists,but by theircontemporaries
werenormalmembersof society,whodid not starvein garrets,but
regardedas craftsmen)
withoutdifficultyearneda reasonablelivelihood. We furtherobservethat the modern
conceptof art, as implyingan activitydistinctfromthat of life, or living,is of veryrecent
origTn.Whatdo these contrastsmean?
Beforewe can go furtherwe mustpenetratea little nloredeeplyinto the natureof
as a qualityapparentin the handiworkof man. Thereare three
art, whichwe reg;ard
kinds of art: the first, pure art, whichis the symbolof spiritualvision; the second,
dynamicart, whichspringsout of man'spassionand emotionalexperienceon earth;the
or morbidart, whichin coldblooddeliberateson formsand
third,apathetic(uninspired)
shapesandgeneratesconventionsor would-besymbolsbehindwhichthereis no meaning,
or,havingnothingto say, makesuse of alreadyexistingsymbolsonlyfordivertissement.
It is very importantto observethat the subjectmatterof the symbolismis quite
indifferentin this classification.Hieraticart is not necessarilypure,eroticart not necessarilyimpure. Staticor formallymonumentalart maybe eitherpureor morbid. In
other words,the intrinsicqualitiesof art are not amenableto dimensionalor ethical
analysis: preciselyas we cannotdistinguisha saintfroma sinnerby his haloorparticular
acts. Not merelyall men,but all things,are equalin the sight of God,who makesthe
sun to shinealikeuponthe just and the unjust: and any pointwhateverin nature,any
of spititualvision.
theme,that is, maybecomethe determinant
The ultimatesubjectof all pureor revealingartis God; the natureof its symbolism
dependinguponthe way in whichGodmanifestsor is seenin modesof time andspace,in
otherwords,in termsof nationalcharacter. Eachraceandageemploysits ownidiomatic

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62

THE COLLEGE
ARTASSOCIATION
OFAMERICA.

language,in whichareinvolvedall the associationsof its experienceand all the qualities


inherentin its fleshand blood. Here,the artistis the race,and geniusis an aberration.
At one time the wholeart of the raceis inspired,at anotherits wholeart is decadent:
thereareno badartiststo contradictthe formercondition,andonlymenof geniusseemto
contradictthe latter.
The subjectof the secondkindof art is man'sexperienceon earth. Thisexperience
is expressedin an individuallanguageaccordingto the particularassociationsof the
individualartist. All suchart, thoughit may delineatethe gods,refersonly to manand
to mortalexperience.
In the third kind of art the subjectariseswhollyout of personaland accidental
associations;being devoidof any urgentpredisposition
and inherentnecessity,this art
containsonly an interestin externals. It is spokenin a languageentirelyderiared
from
the individualartist'speculiartastes and temperamentand has thereforenothing in
commonwith humanity. Inasmuchas eachartisthas his style, andhopesto be original,
it is a wilful conventionalization
of the artist's experience-the designingof a new
symmetry,to whichall thingshe seeswill be forcedto adhere.
In the modernsearchfor pureart an attempthas beenmadeto createan abstract
art, withoutrecognizable
themesor forms,andhavinga symbolismdevoidof all associations. Inasmuchas nothingexistsdisembodied,
and therecanbe no spiritualexperience
which does not arise in some connection,all such attempts must be known as
vainambitions. Art,indeed,refersto the infinite: but it speaksof the infiniteonlywhen
nature,the vehicleof the infinite,hasbeenacceptedin all reverenceas the wordby which
Godrevealshimself.
It is a furtherdelusionto supposethat we haarealreadyescapedfromthe subjectin
art. To somethe subjectof a workof art is the storyit tells; to othersit is a moral; to
others,a dramaticschemeof light and shade,a colorcomposition.Fifty yearsago we
heardof suchsubjectsas ';TheFirstViolin" and " Deserted." Now we have " Studies
in Light,""BlueandGreen,"or simply"Study." It is all the same,and thoughwe look
uponourparentswith compassion
as sweetinnocents,and uponthe heathenas idolaters,
our tendency,underanotherdisguise,is identical. In otherwords,subiectis inevitable,
howeversophisticatedits form,howeverlimitedits appeal. And,accordingly,abstract
art is an absurdindirectionand a naiveterminology.
In timesandplacesin whichworksof art (aswe nowcallancientworksof life) were
universallyappreciated,
it is preciselythis reverencefor the subjectmatterthat we find
predominant.A deepernecessitythan that of handlingthe brushcreatedthe Italian
Madonnas,a deeperneed than that of divertissement,
the dramaticdancesof Indis and
Java.
How, in our age, can therebe a generalappreciation
of and a generaldemandfor
art,whenthereexists no commongroundof experienceand no commonlanguageof expressionin any epic or religiousthemeof universalappeal? Undersuch conditionsthe
existenceof a nationalart,a modernEuropeanartof spiritualvision,is impossible. (Bach
is perhapsthe onlymodernartistthat haspassedbeyondgenius.) It is truethat we have
availableto us the art of the two secondorders-the art of geniusandthe art of accident.
Oughtwe not to inculcate,may we not hope to awakenin the massesa betterunderstandingof the worksof genius? We oughtnot andwe maynot. Forin this cult of the
masterpiecelies an essentialand intriguingseductionand snare. We, who are not
geniuses,shallimaginethat we can followthem,and we followthemto our destruction.
r

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THE ARTBULLETIN.

for the sins of his disciples: judgedin this


In Indiathe masteris regardedas responsible
way,howshallthe Europeangeniusbe forgiven?
Andas fortheworkof the massof individualartists,eachrelatinghis ownexperience
to themselves,but how canit be of imin his ownway, theirworkmaybe of importance
portanceto many or all of us? Its characterdependsso entirelyupon the artist'sown
peculiarsensibilities,it formsso often,indeed,a recordof his pathology,that it can play
no partin commonlife. The Philistinepeople,whobuy or admireonly suchart as they
like,and not what they aretold is good,areperfectlyright: all the best art in the world
was producedfor peoplewholikedit. You may fool someof the peopleall the time, or
all the peoplesomeof the time,but you cannotinduceall the peopleall the time to buy
what doesnot interestthem; and whenthey do buy or pretendto admirea workof art
that leavesthemunmoved,it is onlybecausethe artisthas acquiredfame,andto the end
that they maybaskin a reflectedglory.
We cannotcreatea livingart by takingthought. Nor can we persuadethe people
at largeto appreciatesuch art as we offerthem: they have too muchgoodsense,anc3J
moreover,are perfectlycapableof producingart for themselveswhena necessityarises,
in popularmusicanddanting. In preciselythe sameway
as witnessrecentdevelopments
otherartswill comeinto being,as the inevitableconsequentsof subjectivenecessity. If
we suspectthat anythingof the sortis happening,we neednot thereforepullit up by the
roots to see if it is growing. Art, in a practicalsense,is nothingbut technique,and
techniqueshouldbe taught only to those who have occasion(not merelyambition)to
practicea craft. We coulddo very wellwithoutschoolsof art and withoutlectureson
of art.
the appreciation
It will, perhaps,be grantedfor the sake of argumentthat modernart cannotbe
of the pureart of former
calledpureart. Whythenshouldwe not teachthe appreciati()n
timesand otherraces,whichwe protectin ourmuseums?
For our part, we believethat nothingshouldbe taughtexceptto those who have
alreadythe capacityand -whatwouldotherwisebe a mereambition with the capacity,
the desire,to learn. This wouldcertainlyreduceour audiencesto microscopicdimensions,and constitutea radicaldeparturefromthe idealsof universalcompulsoryeducationists. Weshouldat anyratebe ableto takeouraudiencesmoreseriously. But should
we eventhenpresumeto speakto themof the beautyof the worksbeforethemandtry to
makethemrecognizeit, assumingin ourselvesa stateof graceandthe abilityto communicate this state of graceto others? We mightas well attemptto teachthe experienceof
love. It is idle to try to teachthe experienceof the infinite: "the Knowledgeof Ideal
Beautycannotbe acquired."
Oughtwe not ratherto seek to relatethe ancientworksof art to our life? To a
majoritythe worksof ancientart seem to be arbitraryand meaninglessinventions,or
merelyunsuccessfulattemptsat representation:not sufficientlylike things that are
lovely in our estimationfor us to admirethem, and not understoodas statementsof
cosmictheorybecausetheirnationalsymbolismis unfamiliar. NVehaveneverfoundthat
any audiencefailsto be interestedin a foreignor ancientart (e.9., the art of India)when
an audiencewe should
its meaningand closerelationto life areexplained. In addressing
avoidentirelyall referenceto beauty. It is not as worksof art, but as meansto given
in whatmannerthe ancientworksreflect
ends,that they wereproduced. If we canshomr
a humanexperienceand serveintelligiblepurposes,we have madeit possiblefor them to
the rangeof ourunderstanding.For our
play a partin ourownlives andhaveenlarg;ed

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64

OFAMERICA.
THE COLLEGE
ARTASSOCIATION

own part,we find it impossibleto take an interest in worksof artwhich have no intelligible
meaningand serve no purpose. The idea of an art for art's sake may imply the devotion
of the artist to his task: if it means a devotion to art regardedas somethingother than
life,l the phrase is empty. The essential function of the critic, then, is to explain the
necessity of the work he deals with. The archeologist, as critic, fails only in so far as
he confineshimself to a considerationof the physical qualities of art, to the neglect of its
psychic environment: the aestheticianand connoisseurfail in a much deeper way by
talking in the air.
What we commonlymean by beallty is really a question of what attracts us in the
subject matter or the physical material of the symbolic expression,and in these matters
of taste we should make up our minds once and for all that there are no absolute criteria.
Unless we are willing to take for granted the tastes and natural predispositionsof those
whose art we study, we may as well abandonthe study.
The artist working under the compulsionof a genuine necessity has never before
him the ambition to producean object which shall be called a beautiful work of art. He
works like an engineer, endeavoringto produce an object that shall successfully fulfill
its purpose,and if the art be pure, this purposeis never exclusively his own and private
purpose: the object is to be a means towardsa recognizedand generallydesiredstate of
mind.
The theory of beauty is a special branchof philosophy. The artist and the layman
should be wholly guided by their commonneeds and tastes.
lTh. Gautier: " a laborfreedfromany caresave that of beautyin itself."

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