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A Critique of Art Criticism

ISSUE:  Winter 1942

Art is essentially an experience, for the spectator as well as for the creator, and it lends itself, like more elemental experience, to analysis. The scope of that analysis is limited, yet it serves to clarify values; the mind acts as a check on a wholly non-rational approach to art, which would lead to obscurantism, as it does on a headless experience of life, which would lead to chaos. The need for such criticism in art is plain, for although its literature is voluminous, only a very small part of it even attempts to throw light on the essential quality of the art it deals with. Researches in biography, in techniques, in the evolutions of schools and their influences all have their legitimate places. Sometimes they are as inconsequential as they are ingenious. While we should all like to know what kind of man Giotto was, what difference does it make whether he was born in 1267 or a year or two or ten years earlier or later? The fixing of such facts, accuracy for its own sake, is mere pedantry. The zealots who labor at it do not seem to realize that mankind, either because it lacks interest in individuals as such or because it has a fine instinct for essentials, has failed to register the birthday of many a worthy son and often knows him by no other name than Anon. But who shall say how many years of a pedant’s life it is worth to ascribe definitively a hitherto conjectural work to one or another of the third-rate followers of Leonardo? This is not meant as a disparagement of scholarship: it is inevitable that along with significant studies, there should also be many which demonstrate only the industry of the scholar. Especially in this country is the need for art criticism great, for what criticism we have has hardly kept pace with the healthy revival of public interest in American art which has sprung up in the last two decades. While it is natural that certain inferior men should figure more prominently in the news than their betters, since their work has a popular flavor and they understand the art of advertising, it is the function of criticism to put them in their place; and this it has failed to do. It is natural that a shrewd illustrator like Grant Wood should have a wide appeal, but the critics should not have allowed him to pass as an exemplar of indigenous art when he is in fact living in style on borrowed resources: in his art he is not twentieth century American but fifteenth century Flemish. And the effect of publicity is such that one responsible critic, although he was not at all implying that they were of equal stature, could bracket in the same article Thomas Benton, one of the most theatrical artists of our time, and Georges Rouault, one of the most profound.

We have had a very few astute critics, and none more assiduous than Albert C. Barnes and his associates, In the last twenty years they have not merely given expression to judgments reflecting their discriminating taste in art; they have been developing a critical method which aims “to extend the area of agreement among intelligent and sensitive observers of art.” A chemist by training, Barnes has applied to painting a system of analysis as objective (in intention) as that which separates silver from lead, in order to reduce to a minimum the confusing subjective factor in the evaluation of art. It was to perfect his method and make it widely known that he established the Barnes Foundation at Merion, just outside Philadelphia, in 1922. Having brought together an extraordinarily fine collection of old and modern paintings which not only represented the artists at their best but also revealed their interrelations, he and his co-workers began to demonstrate their system with these pictures to students, artists, and teachers who were to propagate it further in art schools, the art departments of universities, and among the general public. The Foundation published a journal for a time; it has sponsored studies in aesthetics and a series of volumes on its specific approach to painting, of which Barnes’s “The Art in Painting” (1925) provided the basic exposition. He has since, in collaboration with Violette de Mazia, applied his principles concretely in “The French Primitives and Their Forms” (1931), “The Art of Henri-Matisse” (1933), “The Art of Renoir” (1935), “The Art of Cezanne” (1939)—volumes as brilliant as they are ambitious.

Before discussing the Barnes method, let us review some examples of the kind of art criticism to which it is opposed. It is not the scholarly literature of art with which Barnes and his school are at war, but rather with the all but meaningless subjective effusions which pass for art criticism—those dithyrambs on art which are surpassed in ineptitude only by their counterparts in music, the average program notes.

The following is quoted from George Moore’s “Vale”:

Rembrandt’s portrait of his wife [in the Louvre] absorbed me as no other picture had ever done, and perhaps as no picture will ever do again, The spell that it laid upon me was conclusive; when I approached the eyes faded into brown shadow, but when I withdrew they began to tell the story of a soul—of one who seems conscious of her weakness, of her sex, and the burden of her own special lot—she is Rembrandt’s wife, a servant, a satellite, a watcher. The mouth is no more than a little shadow, but what wistful tenderness there is in it; and the color of the face is white, faintly tinted with bitumen, and in the cheeks some rose madder shows through the yellow. . . .

Moore was fond of “lifting a fringe” of a subject (the phrase occurs frequently in his work), and then meandering off rather than come to grips with it. This quotation is an example. It is reporting rather than criticism and merely tells us that he was very much impressed and that, therefore, if we have reason to respect his judgment (on grounds other than this paragraph affords), it would be worth our while to look up the portrait. Its technical notations of color are not critical; they are merely tags which could be picked up from gossiping with artists. The rest is only a literary and an entirely personal interpretation of the expression of the face. While many of us would agree to the characterization of “wistful tenderness” for the mouth, few of us would read the story of Rembrandt’s wife’s soul as Moore has done. Any such reading, moreover, is purely subjective. Evidently this is not the way “to extend the area of agreement among intelligent and sensitive observers of art.”

Another school of criticism reads the meaning of a picture in its story content. Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert” is thus described in Mather’s “A History of Italian Painting”:

A courtly lover has struck a chord on the lute, and gazes intently, perhaps sadly, at a shepherd sitting close to him. A rustic, nude nymph whose back only is seen takes the pipe from her lips to listen. A proud beauty turns toward a fountain, light draperies slip away from her superb form, and with a graceful gesture of idleness she pours back into the fountain a trickling jet from a crystal pitcher while she bends to note the ripple and catch the pleasant idle sound. This strange scene takes place on the edge of a vale that winds down to a glittering sea, affording a path to a shepherd and his flock. The meaning? Modern criticism is loath to look beyond contrasts of nude and clothed forms, swing of treetops and of sky, subtle interplay of light and shade. My own reading is merely based on the contrast between rustic and urban lovers, and an intuition that the courtier in peering so wistfully at the shepherd is merely seeing himself in a former guise. In lassitude, perhaps in satiety, beside a courtly mistress who is absent from him in spirit, there rises the vision of earlier, simpler love and of a devoted shepherdess who once piped for him in the shade. The vision rises as his listless hand sweeps the lute strings in a chord unmarked by the far lovelier mistress at the fountain. The golden age of love, like Arcady itself, is ever in the past.

To this genial and irrelevant yarn Mather might have added that the lute player is probably performing a transcription from an organ piece by Adrian Willaert, who was perhaps at that moment filling St. Mark’s Cathedral with heavenly harmonies, the while enchanted crowds on the piazza. . . .

It is too easy to ridicule such subjective interpretations, which are akin to the stories read into a piece of music which the composer was content to name “prelude,” “sonata,” or “symphony,” knowing well that his work had no specific meaning translatable into words. Beyond noting the “subtle interplay of light and shade”—and Mather does so only indirectly, virtually as a grudging quotation from “modern criticism”—he has nothing at all to say which distinguishes the painting as painting. This, in Barnes’s view, is not criticism at all, and because it presumes to be, it is, as we shall see, the particular butt of his wrath.

There is another kind of non-objective writing about art very different from that of Mather. As an example (and there are not too many examples), I quote Paul Rosenfeld on El Greco’s “Pentecost”:

Here, as in all the paintings of the maturer Greco, everything is excitement, expression, violent pressure and stubborn resistances of color and shape, rapid writhing light, vehement earthward strokes, noblest extensions, spiritual attenuations. The elongations of the flecks, opening, swelling sharply out and tapering again; the rapid modulations of color from deepest black through lustrous red and green, orange and yellow, to sharpest white, then back again from white through lustrous prismatic hue to black, creates ecstatic motion over this and its fellow canvases. There is continual nervous snapping of radiances on them; sudden flashings and equally sudden extinctions. In picture upon picture the integers seem to reel in disequilibrium, thrusting violently in contrary directions, threatening to fall entirely asunder. The rhythm of the glorious Pentecost shoots upward to a corner of the canvas, falling precipitously downward to the lower foreground, to mount again in a series of contractions and expansions toward the tongues of fire and the unearthly yellow apex. The great votive pieces are very conflagrations of raving, twitching, plunging, bursting ruby, topaz and chrysoprase. But their turmoil and disequilibrium is caught and held in marvellous balance. There is triumphant final equipoise in all of Greco. There is no weight of violently projected form that is not counterweighed. In all the intensity of their war, the many dancing, struggling, conflicting elements are single in their effect. One direction obtains: life moves upward in satisfying, never-ending motion.

This is plainly not the rhapsodic equivalent of Mather’s calmer story-telling; nor is it a blunt statement, like Moore’s, that the painting has greatly impressed the writer. Aside from a bit of playing with verbal color for its own sake, this critique tries to communicate the essential spirit of the work as it would affect the reader if he saw it for himself and to give him meanwhile a vivid foretaste of it. The few technical references are not, as in Moore, isolated tags, but suggestions of the nature of the artist’s means of expression: “the rapid modulation of color,” the balanced rhythm of counter-thrusting motifs, and so on, They indicate that the writer has taken account of the objective elements which give a painting life. Though the critique is lyrical and subjective, it is not a personal interpretation with which others may differ, for it is not a literary reading of the meaning of the painting, not an attempt to make a translation of paint into words (which is impossible), but a verbal equivalent of the painting, self-contained, an experience in its own right.


To understand Barnes’s point of view more clearly, let us begin with what he condemns. In “The Art in Painting” he singles out Bernhard Berenson for special attack:

Mr. Berenson’s work deals not with the objective facts that enter into an appreciation of art values, but with a form of antiquarianism made up of historical, social and sentimental interests entirely adventitious to plastic art. It would be unworthy of serious attention except for the regrettable influence his writings have had in filling our universities with bad teaching in art and our public galleries with bad Italian paintings. The courses in art at practically all the universities and colleges in America are based upon an obsolete psychology [the concept of empathy], the unscientific method of approach that makes it impossible for students to obtain either a grasp of aesthetic essentials or a real and personal experience with works of art. The instruction offered at such institutions is a mixture of spurious sentiment and historical data, elaborated into a system that has no relevancy to either the plastic values in painting or the principles of scientific education. . . .

This is hardly just to Berenson, for he has also attempted to analyze objectively the formal elements of art. As the basic elements of figure painting (landscape, oddly enough, being for him apparently measured by other canons), he has postulated tactile values (the rendering of “volume, bulk, inner substance, texture”), movement (“the various communications of energy—as effective, of course, in presentations of repose as of action”), space composition, and color. For a long time Berenson, perhaps because he was immersed in the linear art of the Florentines, believed that color was the least important of the elements. He was even capable of writing of “the essential in the art of painting— as distinguished from the art of coloring. . . .” But eventually, under the influence of the Venetians, he came to realize that color had a far greater significance than he had imagined, even if he did not yet quite realize that he had been judging poetry without taking account of its sound. In any case, he has laid greatest stress on tactile values—a notion that would stamp much of classic Chinese art, for one example, as second rate, which assuredly it is not.

Berenson has also made an important distinction between decoration and illustration: “By decoration I mean all those elements in a work of art which appeal directly to the senses, such as Color and Tone; or directly stimulated sensations, such as, for instance, Form [which he uses synonymously with tactile values] and Movement.” Illustration, on the other hand, is “everything which in a work of art appeals to us, not for any intrinsic quality, as of color or form or composition, contained in the work of art itself, but for the value the thing represented has elsewhere, whether in the world outside, or in the mind within. If a work of art has no intrinsic value whatever, or we fail to perceive it, for us it is nothing but an illustration.” That is to say, if a figure is badly drawn, crudely colored, and awkwardly composed, but puts you in mind of your Aunt Sally, of whom you are very fond, then it isn’t decoration but it may be good illustration. Berenson didn’t say that it isn’t art. He was trying to distinguish between the plastic qualities of a work of art and its literary content. That is a vital distinction; if he drew it clumsily, his intention was sound. Also, though his general analysis is confused, he was groping for those objective values which Barnes has set down more rigorously.

As the basic elements of art—the “plastic means”—the Barnes school postulates color (and light), line, and space. When these elements are composed in an expressive design, they achieve unity, “plastic form.” It is not possible to condense here Barnes’s exposition of all the elements. It will be suggestive of his approach, however, if we indicate his commentary on color. Color, he points out, may be used structurally or superficially. When an object seems to be made of the color it is painted, when a grey rock looks grey all the way through, then color has been applied structurally. But if it remains on the surface, if the rock gives us the impression of wearing merely a coat of grey which could be scraped off, then the artist has used color superficially. To achieve variety, richness, and harmony of color, it is not necessary to use a varied palette. Rembrandt, a great colorist as well as a master of light and shade, obtained his rich effects from subtle gradations of a single hue. Barnes speaks of Raphael’s color being either dull or over-brilliant and of Leonardo’s being relatively barren. He also distinguishes the “juicy” color of a Renoir from the “dry” one of a Poussin. Finally, he considers color in its relation to light and design.

A typical analysis will illustrate both the principles of his method and the manner in which they are applied. It should be remembered, however, that these analyses are not intended for independent reading (as Rosenfeld’s lyrical pieces are), but as guides while looking at the pictures themselves. I have selected Barnes’s analysis of Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert” to provide a comparison with Mather’s literary method of interpretation:

This picture is surely one of the greatest achievements in the history of painting. The composition cannot be analyzed adequately from the standpoint of a central mass with balancing right and left masses as chief compositional intention, yet the arrangement of objects would lend itself to a composition of that kind. The painting is held together by the rhythmic use of line, light, color, mass, space, bathed in a charming all-pervasive glow. The use of color structurally is perfect. The light seems natural rather than over-accentuated, yet it forms patterns similar to those which are the main theme of Bellini’s “Allegory of Purgatory.”

On the right the background functions as a balancing mass to the green mound and trees at the left; it is a picture in itself; it is a group in relation to the central group, to the standing nude, to the group of trees, to the castle in the middle distance, and to the pattern formed by the long streak of light in the clouds. This little group of men and animals approaches a study in chiaroscuro and has much of the feeling of a Rembrandt. Nothing in this picture is overdone. There is no preoccupation with light design, such as might be charged against Bellini’s “Allegory of Purgatory,” nor is there anything academic in the color, composition or any use made of the plastic means. It has infinite variety in all these respects, yet the composite effect is simple. There seems to be no element that can be criticized plastically at the expense of any other element. Hence its charm, Arcadian quality, power, splendor, majesty, deep peace and mystic effect, deep but satisfying, are justifiable because the painting has sufficient objective reference to which the mystical emotion can be rationally attached. Every spot on which the eye rests gives satisfaction and carries the eye to other spots equally restful and satisfying.

The balanced use of all the plastic means, then, is what makes a good painting. “When the integration of the plastic means is successfully executed, the picture achieves reality; when it is one-sided or mechanical, conviction is lost and the painting becomes academic and unreal.” Thus Barnes rates Leonardo lower than most critics do because of his excessive dependence on light as his plastic means; and he shakes Botticelli’s pedestal because of his overemphasis on linear rhythm. If an artist expresses grief by painting a figure in a striking posture which breaks out of the design in order to call attention to itself, or by the use of a glaring color which does not harmonize with the others, or by a spotlight which nullifies the rest of the drama, he defeats his purpose. “Any deficiency in the ability to achieve plastic embodiment results in a loss of human values in subject matter: examples of this are found in Delacroix, Bocklin and Millet.” The same point is also made in the discussion of art and mysticism. “Painters of that type [Davies, Bocklin, et cetera] are but feeble purveyors of the mysterious and transcendental because they lack the properly plastic force which would make of their poetry a substantial reality.”

It seems to me that Barnes has successfully analyzed the basic elements of painting, that his exposition of their properties is admirable, and that the conclusions he draws from them, as in the discussion of mysticism, clarify the meaning of painting. He and Mather both consider the “Pastoral Concert” a great work, but from a reading of Mather’s description one would never know why, whereas Barnes’s analysis gives concrete “reasons”—the plastic reasons—why it has the effect it does. Yet Barnes’s system has both limitations and defects.


First of all, it suffers from the defects of its virtues. In its primary concern with analysis, it may discover too much logic in a painting. Though an artist may very well achieve more than he is conscious of, which it is the task of the analyst to discover, it often happens that the best part of his achievement is beyond analysis. A painting is not the result of an emotional seizure; the artist must have a basic conception in mind, and his execution is deliberate; yet he may see that conception in a flash and the spectator may also feel it even though it cannot be demonstrated with a pointer. Such an intangible unity, as one perceives it in Cezanne’s semi-abstractions, can be more poignant than one which is more calculated, like Raphael’s obviously disposed compositions. While the analyst can easily detect a mathematical groundwork, he cannot get at the subtler form, and it is here that the student needs guidance rather than with pictures whose plastic logic is fairly obvious. Further, there are passages in a painting, and they are often the most expressive, which the artist takes in his stride, brushing them in freely as the result of his certainty of vision and skill in his medium. Objective criticism can do little more than hint at their merit.

The practitioners of the Barnes system do not in fact adhere strictly to its impeccable logic. They do not always confine themselves to a consideration of the plastic means but also make use of a descriptive terminology which is really subjective. Thus, in the book on the French primitives, the authors point out that the flesh in one portrait “has the feeling of heavy chinaware instead of the alabaster quality” of the flesh in another. But what have alabaster or chinaware complexions to do with plastic means? Why, by objective criteria, is one superior to the other? The art of the French primitives is characterized time and again as “gentle” and “delicate.” These descriptive terms occur almost as frequently as color, light, and the rest of the plastic means, and seem to the authors to be at least equally important. The logic of the objective method is beautiful, but it conveys only a part of the truth: that is why its proponents do not always adhere to it.

This is not the only inconsistency with which they can be charged: they also impose judgments of one kind or another, See, for example, the opening sentence of Barnes’s analysis of the Giorgione painting quoted above, Reviewing “The Art in Painting” in The New Republic, Leo Stein declared that an objective method should be wholly objective, foregoing subjective judgments altogether. In refutation of this “sublime aloofness,” Barnes wrote: “If Mr. Stein attempts to point out the objective factors in a picture without passing any judgment of quality whatever, the success of his attempt can only result in a bald statement of facts, destitute of any aesthetic significance whatever. ‘Here is a patch of red, here is a patch of blue’: this is a coldly impersonal statement about color, and its critical status is that of the information in a time-table or list of stock-quotations.”

In the preface to the book in question, he had already said: “It is not assumed that the conclusions reached with regard to particular paintings are the only ones compatible with the use of the method: any one of them is of course subject to revision. What is claimed is that the method gives results as objective as possible within any field of aesthetic experience, and that it reduces to a minimum the role of merely personal and arbitrary preference, Preference will always remain, but its existence is compatible with a much higher degree of objective judgment than at present obtains.”

Reasonable as they seem, these statements conceal a subtle sophistry. In effect, by conceding the limitations of the method, they seek to deny them. If it does not lead to virtual unanimity of judgment on essentials, if the role of preference is still dominant, how much value has it after all? No one will deny that the method yields a much higher degree of objective analysis than at present obtains: the degree of objective judgment it effects is another matter. To pursue Barnes’s own analogy, without pretending that it is exact, we may say that what the method gives, in so far as it is objective, is the information of a time-table, which is not to be belittled, but it tells us nothing of the quality of the train service; the same time-table serves first, second, and third class alike, That is to say, a really objective analysis will sound very much the same whether the picture which is its subject is first, second, or third rate; it tells nothing of the service, the quality, the individuality of a work of art. Yet when the critic renders such a verdict, he relegates his objective analysis to a secondary place, even if he does not invalidate it.

Let me cite one striking example of how personal preference deprives analysis of all significance. Barnes stresses the fact—the objective fact, presumably—that Matisse is primarily a great colorist. If he cannot win that much of general agreement for his judgment, the persuasiveness of his method is open to grave question. Yet this is what Mather has to say on Matisse in his “Modern Painting” (1927):

Fundamentally he seems to me a fine draughtsman gone wrong. . . . I remember a little crouching nude in the Armory show of 1913. An unbroken thick line told the whole story of torso settling into thighs and thorax bending into abdomen. The little study, an affair of two minutes, would have stood up before a Hokusai. This is possibly the limit of Matisse’s vision and power, for the paintings are garish and unsteady, splotched with conventionally sharp colors, like a tomato salad with mayonnaise, which are exciting without being really decorative [i.e., in Berenson’s sense]. . . . For twenty years and more he has been painting in this fashion, very variously and often amusingly, without achieving a notable work in color, betraying no sign of development or maturity.

To me as to Barnes, this seems a fantastic underestimate of Matisse, but that is beside the point. Unless one were presumptuous enough to assert that Mather is devoid of aesthetic sensibility, one must admit that his disagreement on Matisse’s basic merit implies a serious limitation of Barnes’s method. After you have completed your analysis of a painting, you cannot make another observer feel that it is good or bad. You cannot even persuade him of the degree of value of an artist’s plastic means. What is sensitive drawing to one man is eccentricity to another. The composition one man calls fanciful, in a complimentary sense, another calls mad, and he means looney. Barnes finds the color harmonies of Matisse subtle and original; Mather calls them conventionally sharp and garish. Barnes’s analysis cannot persuade Mather that he is wrong.

Another weakness of the objective method is its neglect of the personal equation. If it were not the personal impress that lends distinction to painting, we should not be able to recognize as many artist individualities as we do; we should have to group them by schools only. The basic principles of art are too few to account for them, and radical changes of technique or point of view, which provide a fresh point of departure from which apparently different individualities may emerge, are too infrequent. But personality is far too elusive of definition to be included in an objective method of appreciation. Barnes is too keen not to take cognizance of it, but he calls it by another name which is, indeed, not easily separable from it:

There is in every work of great art a pervasive and subtle quality which defies analysis and for the recognition of which no rules are adequate. The term that seems best to hint at this indescribable something is the word “quality,” used in the eulogistic sense. Attempts to describe quality, in the sense here employed, usually result in little that is convincing. But that quality does exist . . . is shown by the use of the terms “first-rate,” “second-rate,” “tenth-rate” applied to various degrees of goodness in nearly everything in life.

Having said so much, in all humility—and one can hardly go further in delimiting the value of the objective method, since precisely quality is the precious thing in a work of art-Barnes proceeds to retract: “We must keep in mind that it [quality] is not a separate type or department of value but a difference between degrees of merit in the values already described, that is, in drawing, color, composition, plastic unity. Quality in painting is merely another name for the successful use of the plastic means, and what these plastic means are can be demonstrated objectively . . . .” In other words, quality can be demonstrated on technical grounds. Undoubtedly a painter’s excellence is expressed in his use of the medium and its elements: how could it be otherwise? But is not quality also in part an expression of the personal equation? By failing to perceive it or by ignoring it, Barnes is led into contradiction. Under the influence of a great personality, he himself wanders far from a mere objective analysis, essaying in fact that very description of quality “which usually results in little that is convincing.” Thus, of the same portrait by Rembrandt by which George Moore was so moved, he writes:

Every area in this painting is a source of wonder and mystery: we feel the wonder and mystery—we only see the objective fact that calls them up in a way we cannot explain. . . . And yet no flesh ever showed more clearly its origin in the supernatural in which we all believe in our mystical moments. In all this, in the unreal-real hair, face, nose, eyes, mouth, is that pervasive, indefinable addition which ties our mystic, religious nature to this world by a definite, specific, visible objective fact which is in front of our eyes, in the painting. The expression of the mouth is not sentiment, it is the feeling of the person herself and the same feeling that we have in looking at it. It is mysterious, noble, sublime, all merged into a religious experience, without reference to or use of adventitious aids like story-telling or the use of religious episodes. Rembrandt paints in terms of the broadest universal human values.

Here is no inventory of plastic means. Though Barnes clings with pathetic obstinacy to his “objective fact,” he has scrapped his analytical method in his effort to interpret the personal equation he has smuggled into his concept of quality, and he writes lamely in the same vein as Moore, as a reporter. Presumably the method is to be scrapped before every great painting. What then? Is analysis of the plastic means useful only for the study of inferior works? And is the rationalist, when he is deeply stirred, reduced to the cliches of admiration? Or does he give his blessing then to the lyrical type of criticism practiced by Paul Rosenfeld?

What Barnes seems to overlook is that one’s reaction to a painting usually precedes analysis, and that if one does not like it at first sight, one seldom will like it after analysis. Further study may better acquaint one with its merits, particularly where a radical change of idiom is in question, but study will scarcely change one’s emotional attitude—one’s deepest judgment. It often happens that one cannot “see” an artist for a long time. So discerning a critic as Henry McBride once confessed that it took him years to understand and to enjoy the work of Louis Eilshemius and of Henri Rousseau. It was not a rational analysis which finally made them clear to him—he could have parsed their styles at first sight—but their spirit (something not listed among the plastic means) which gradually became familiar to him and took hold of him: he had, without aesthetic algebra, solved their personal equations. If a painting does make a strong appeal at first sight, the subsequent formal analysis of its merits does not add anything like the first feeling of satisfaction.

The truth of the matter is that most great pictures are either simple formally or, if they are complex, they are organized with such sweeping certainty by the artist that they are instantly comprehensible if the idiom is not too strange. The “Pastoral Concert” of Giorgione is certainly complex, and yet, as Barnes himself says, its “composite effect is simple.” That is why even the untutored observer is impressed by it—I am sure Mather felt it with more understanding than his description of it would indicate, Barnes’s admirable analysis brings out points worth noting; his implicit condemnation of Mather’s version is justified; but is not his own apparatus over-formidable? Long ago Pater wrote a discreet but damning commentary on the story-telling type of criticism, apropos of this very Giorgione school of painting: It is the school of genre and employs itself mainly with “painted idylls,” but, in the production of this pictorial poetry, exercises a wonderful tact in the selecting of such matter as lends itself most readily and entirely to pictorial form, to complete expression by drawing and color. For although its products are painted poems, they belong to a sort of poetry which tells itself without an articulated story.

Barnes has enlarged the specifications of that “pictorial form”—that is all. The dissection of great paintings, no matter how skillful or tender the anatomist, will never give the clue as to what in them is moving, any more than the demonstration that the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is built up on variations of a four-note motif reveals why it is so poignant. A man staring open-mouthed at a beautiful woman has not been brought to that state by an enumeration of her vital statistics.

As a corrective to the sentimentality which underlies the story-telling critic’s attitude to art, as a check on emotional response alone, the Barnes method has its uses. Certainly its clarification of the values of the plastic means should be helpful to a wide public even though it is not likely to achieve more than a fraction of its larger aim. For although art is not the raw material which life is, it is also creation, and as such it is the stuff of experience. Art cannot be understood by pure logic alone any more than life can. There are laws and techniques governing personal relationships, but the mind alone, without experience, cannot grasp them. It cannot even learn the laws of the physical world adequately without experiment, even though this learning is primarily an intellectual task. Criticism is to the actual experience of art what reading about love is to love itself. It is an elementary guide to the perplexed, and there are no advanced handbooks. The lyrical critic may provide a cue to the spirit of a painting; the rationalist critic, a cue to its grammar. But in the end, as in the beginning, one must experience art. That is the only understanding of art which has any meaning.


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