The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Letter to the Editor (1973)

Artforum, Vol. XI, #6, (February, 1973) p. 9.


In my essay "Quality, Style and Olitski," Artforum, October, 1972, I wrote about a painting I understood to be titled Larro 17. The actual title is Beauty Mouth 5. The reproduction preceding the essay is titled Beauty Moth 5. Whatever the title, the painting reproduced is the one I wrote about.

Following my essay is "The Quality Problem" by Bruce Boice. Mr. Boice writes clearly and has enough nerve to move on the plane of the intellect. These are rare virtues in art writing. But the piece is riddled with faults of logic, and finally he is driven down below his level to discuss, as if it mattered, some aspects of the current epidemic of neo-Dada twaddle. His central thesis is interesting: "quality" as an evaluation of art has no meaning because "it is an evaluation based on subjective values without the context of a purpose." Mr. Boice points out that a thing cannot be good unless it is good for something, and gives as an example a stone which, because it has certain characteristics, is good for and can be shown to be good for throwing.

But when he says that value judgments of art are meaningless because we do not know what is the purpose of art he's in trouble, because he cannot demonstrate that judgments of quality are made "without the context of a purpose" but only that the purpose is unspecified. If art does have a purpose, or use, as I think it does, and as Mr. Boice allows that it does, and if that purpose or use remains unspecified, as I think it will, then judgments of quality are not meaningless but more-or-less unverifiable. That's an important difference. It shows not that judgments of value mean nothing but that they may or may not be right, and that they must be decided in other ways.

Art is very important to us. It has something, does something or stands for something which all civilizations revere. Just as Mr. Boice's stone can be a good stone or a bad stone according to its conformity to a particular use, so art can be good or bad according to the verbally obscure use humanity has for it. The standards may not be written down, but they are "there," in human experience, or wherever. Judgments of quality of new art are based on a larger perception of art's "purpose," and are attempts to say what will persistently "enrich our experience," in Mr. Boice's words. Sooner or later, we separate the good from the mediocre; Giotto, Rembrandt, and Matisse hold up and others fall away, and there is general agreement. Their art has "quality." You can pick your own way to say it, but you cannot avoid it.

The function of art writing is to point to art and put it across, or to make the process of getting what art has for us easier or better or more fun. It would be interesting to see Mr. Boice apply his intelligence in this way, and stay clear of the deadly word games now in vogue.

- Walter Darby Bannard

Boice replied:

Quality ascription is not meaningless in a strict sense, but its meaning is confused, and it does not have meaning on the level for which it is intended. If I write "Darby Bannard is a good person," that statement is not meaningless in that we can understand a meaning for it, i.e., "I like, respect, approve of Darby Bannard," but the statement is meaningless as an assertion of fact about the person Darby Bannard; it has meaning only as an assertion of something about the speaker, in this case, me. In the same way, to ascribe quality to a painting by Olitski, Giotto, or Matisse, is only to signal one's approval of their paintings. However many people also approve of their paintings does not constitute quality as a fact about the paintings by consensus; it only signifies that so many people approve of the same thing. Not being able to demonstrate that something does not exist is not a matter of faulty logic. The problem is not whether we have a purpose for art (we do and it can be specified); the problem is whether art's purpose can support quality ascription and whether such ascriptions are, in fact, made within the context of art's purpose. Bannard acknowledges as much by speaking of the vague conception of art's purpose which must remain unspecified, while in his essay, he only puts off for another time "the ticklish job of pinning down differences of quality," as if such subtle distinctions could be made on the basis of so vague a conception. To come down from the linguistic heights for a moment, I will say that the mythology of quality and a tradition of quality is a lot of bullshit; what interests Bannard therefore has quality, what does not interest Bannard becomes thereby "neo-Dada twaddle." It's as simple as that. Matisse's "holding up" is supported by "general agreement," but if general agreement shows something about Matisse, doesn't so much general agreement as to constitute a "current epidemic" then support what is called "neo-Dada twaddle"?

- Bruce Boice, Hartford, Connecticut