Posted by: Bruce Proctor | June 7, 2016

Art, Words, and Quality

No matter how many words we use, we could never describe a work of art so that another could experience it for himself. This is a fundamental weakness of language, and, it seems, a lesson that many of those writing about art themselves have apparently not recognized. In fact, I suspect that many of those who write so confidently about art have never had the fundamental aesthetic experience themselves. I have just been reading a piece by Derrida which is appalling to me in its ignorance and ego.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if writing about art were able to be understood by a ten-year-old? (I don’t know if I can, either. I can try.)

As an example of the aesthetic experience I always think of my friend Russell who had always been indifferent to art until he visited the Van Gogh Museum on a European tour. He came out electrified and changed.  (“After that,” he told me, “I visited every art venue in Europe–and was always disappointed: it wasn’t Van Gogh!”) But that experience was pivotal in his life, and he became a photographer.

The intellectual faculty is great for making distinctions, but it is unable to assess quality or value.

Kenneth Clark, the art historian, made two points which I’ve always kept in mind about this and have always found useful. One, toward the very end of his life, in the 60’s, he cautioned future art historians from being seduced by the ease of grouping art into “artistic movements.” He felt that this freed the historian from having to address the far more daunting issues concerning the fundamental quality of the work. (As cases in point, his studies of Rembrandt, Leonardo, the nude, are filled with original, sensitive, passionate insight.) His second point was the question addressed in a little book: “Is There Great Art?”

It is my observation that almost nobody these days is willing to make value judgments (publicly at least) about the quality or “greatness” of work. Yet surely if there weren’t great work to inspire us–or the sensed possibility of making great work ourselves, to our fullest reaches–then why bother? What else could focus us with all our being to devote ourselves so entirely to such an arduous and unfortunate task?

I read an “inspirational” text recently by an administrator-artist who, in the whole book, only once addressed the quality of the work students will make. The one comment was, “If you’ve made it into a good graduate program, you can be sure you’re good enough.” Good enough.

What’s the criterion of “great art”?:

  • Whose work inspires you?
  • What work moves you?
  • Wonder?
  • Rightness?

I should be interested in what you look for. How close can you get with words?

For myself, there have been no photographers who’ve held up over the 40 years I’ve been photographing, though Edward Weston hung in there a long, long time. Cezanne’s best work still enthralls me. Milton Avery’s work from about 1940 to 1955 or so. And lately I ran across Edward Lucie-Smith’s “Late Modern: The Visual Arts Since 1945, Revised Edition,” which opened my eyes to marvelous work I wasn’t familiar with. Well, there’s a lot of great work out there.

Is it just opinion?: One sees the work and is instantly convinced.

Does it hold up over time?: My opinion of Cezanne has only deepened over time.

Is it great if you are changed by it? If it ruins you? If it strikes to the center of your soul?

(And what is struck if there is no “soul”? Something is struck. If it isn’t struck, I maintain there is no art. And this central, unnamable thing is where words about art can’t go, and such things so easily ignored, dismissed, often not even recognized.)




  1. You do a great job here weighing and measuring what makes great art. In a book I look for something that lets me go away and touches my heart. I look for a satisfying read. And wisdom. Or something that helps me see the world differently or more acutely. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s great art. It’s just what I look for and enjoy.

    • I’ve just been listening to Brian Wilson’s (The Beach Boys) Smile album, so far just the first three numbers. I never paid much attention to them when I was young, but I should have. This is, so far, not exactly pretty music, but after a couple listenings, I’d say it was “Great” music. This has musical intelligence and passion exuding from every pore. It has more musical ideas in one song than most full albums. Brilliant. It makes one’s spine shiver. This becomes a resource for all other musical creatives, and sets a benchmark for what can be done with the medium. This is why “Great” art is so crucial to us.

      • I so agree with you about how we need great art. I remember years ago you wrote me a letter that told me to study everything–soap operas, novels, poetry. I still have that letter. I so appreciated your taking me seriously back then.

        Happy Birthday too. I hope your day has been full of all good things…

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