On Criteria (1984)
Arts, September 1984, p. 128.
What is good art? What makes it good? Why is some art "good" and some art "bad?" How can we tell the difference?
These are the questions, the inevitable, unanswerable questions which come up after any lecture, panel, or seminar which touches on goodness in art. Although they are simple, straightforward and ingenuous, often asked by college kids bemused by the very idea of aesthetic perception, they are the same questions which have stumped the likes of Kant, Croce, and Greenberg. I certainly cannot answer them. In fact, I believe they are intrinsically unanswerable, and that bearing down on them doggedly and fruitlessly merely compounds the misunderstanding which leads to their asking.
To see art for what it is, we must steer clear of theory, semantics. and philosophy and look hard at the actual relationship we have with art, how we treat it, what we do with it. Why do we hold art so high? Why do we shelter it in enormous public vaults just so we can look at it from time to time? What makes a simple object made up of plain materials worth millions? It is clear to me, after twenty-five years of making art, looking at it and writing about it, that our species has invented and evolved art for one fundamental purpose: to be good, to objectify and materialize goodness, to present the best of ourselves to ourselves. It is also clear that the primary activity of the art business - artists, dealers, curators, academics, critics, and so on down the line - is the creation and evaluation of this goodness. The search for the best, the winnowing and sorting and weeding out, drives the art business, occupies its center. No matter how perverse and bungled our evaluations are, no matter how variously art is exploited, no matter how much we are diverted by hip art talk to the contrary, "how good is it?" remains the all-important, underlying question. Whether this goodness is actually "there" is another matter. I'm just pointing to what goes on.
Goodness, goodness in general, is not identifiable. It is not substantive; it has no characteristics. It cannot be an entity in itself. Goodness is a consequence of particular judgment and exists only within the setting of that judgment. It will arise from and apply to things and circumstances but only within that setting. The fact that goodness seems proved out in certain things and circumstances over time indicates not inherent goodness but the stability of the setting and our reaction to it. This means that the goodness of any work of art only exists within the setting of a judgment of the goodness of that work of art.
Demonstration of particular goodness, goodness within the setting of particular judgment, derives, as it does for any proposition, from the qualities of its components. Two plus two equals four because it is a property of two that when added to itself it equals four. A sharp knife may be a "good" knife because of assumptions we make about the proper attributes of knives. Some settings for judgment include clear, specific assumptions, or criteria, requiring more measurement than judgment. Others, far more common, the kind we muddle through a hundred times daily, rest within the mostly nonverbal, often unconscious norms we all carry around with us, and require more judgment than measurement. We are all evaluators; we evaluate all the time. Evaluation is a large, if scarcely heeded, part of life. Most value judgments are personal; many are implicit reconciliations with our culture. They come in all shapes and sizes, all degrees of importance and clarity. Few come out in the open as grounds for disagreement. When they do, when we must work them out verbally, we realize that although we may argue persuasively and compel agreement we can never conclusively demonstrate the rightness of a value judgment because, with one exception, all value judgments rest, in turn, on assumptions of value, and these assumptions, whether they are openly declared, like criteria, or lie hidden in the unconscious, revert, finally, not to proof but to self-evidence.
That one exception is art, or, more precisely, that which is made to be and is apprehended aesthetically. This is what art is. Art, as art, because it is good in itself, depends, by definition and by function, on no prior assumptions of value. A thing which is made to embody goodness cannot, within the setting of its designated use, look elsewhere for support. It cannot be "good for" or "good because." All a priori measures are excluded from art because that is the way we have designed it. Aesthetic judgment, because it is pure judgment, entirely free from recourse to measure, can be exercised only through intuition and feeling because the alternative has been excluded. There are no standards of reference, only experience, the development of taste, and other preparations for judging art. That judgment, the perception of goodness and the pleasure derived therein are the same. Outside of that judgment all art, "good" or "bad," old or new, is not art, not good in itself, but, strictly speaking, objects identified as art waiting to be art. It strikes me that everything may rest in this anticipation, but we'll save that for another time.
How, then, do we account for historical consensus? If there are no criteria, how can there be such agreement? Doesn't the consensus clearly show that all great art is shot through with a constant, if inexplicable super-standard, a grand concealed criterion which we cannot comprehend because we are such ignorant, limited creatures? I say no, no such thing. These speculations beg the question just as they romanticize it. They mean to impose a priori assumptions by compromise, by reducing the wished-for criteria to terminal obscurity, by generalizing the unfindable. The consensus is real, all right. It is the trail left by that process of evaluation and it is the surest evidence of its intensity and pervasiveness. I go along with it, more or less. If you are serious about art, it is inescapable. It does a fine job of culling. But at best it is a convenience, at worst, a cop-out. Great art always presents itself for reevaluation. It is always brand-new. It comes to each of us with no assumptions, no criteria, no history, no pedigree, no "consensus." It demands to be taken back to square one. If you are introduced to great art courtesy of history, that's fine. But if you accept the judgment of history without making one of your own, that "great art" will remain, as far as you are concerned, just a dumb monument of culture.
The roots of the consensus are the roots of great art, and may remain forever buried. I'm not sure of this. I do think, however, that it is a matter of psychology rather than aesthetics. If we must have at it we should stop fishing blindly behind art for criteria and turn outward to taste, to the phenomenon of valuation, and to the commonality of human experience. I suspect that aesthetic judgment is a refined or specialized version of everyday value judgment, and that it refers back directly to the condition of life, looking in art for reminders of life, the "feeling" of life. Taste knows life: perhaps life itself is our "hidden consistency." This is vague. I know, but it is as close as I'm willing to get, for now, anyway.
It seems futile to talk about what good art is if the experience of art, which incorporates its goodness, is necessarily wordless. Though we can, and should and do report on this experience, we cannot transfer it in words, any more than we can satisfy hunger with a menu. This is frustrating. Words, and the patterns they form, are at the forefront of our consciousness, our bastion against the nameless, merciless forces swirling up around us and within us. We are forever busy cramming the illimitable, untamable mess of life into fragile arrangements of verbal cognition, confusing specifiability with knowledge, as scientists so often do, and hiding in words as a refuge from feeling and understanding, which seems to be a specialty of art critics. Art is part of us. We mistreat art, and ourselves, when we make it distant, intimidating, and sacrosanct, when we entangle it in verbal brambles and hammer it down with mind-numbing theory. Art is our most valuable thing, as close to us as any thing can get, the most personal, the most intimate, the most to do with the feelings which are unique to us and are the best part of us. If we are going to get what it has for us, we must treat it as a friend.