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Walter Pater
against the 20th century

by Miles Mathis

by Simeon Solomon

In recent articles I have attacked the contemporary art critic as a shell and a sham, a rattling husk, an empty pod, a person who, in a time or culture of sense, would be allowed only provisional use of a pen—the provision being that he or she used it only for a shopping list or, preferably, a will.

In this article I go in search of the last art critic (who was not also an artist) who had any sense of what art is about, and I find that I must go back some 140 years to find him. This critic was Walter Pater. Now, I am far from idolizing Pater as a stylist, as many have. I much prefer the prose of Ruskin or Carlyle. Pater, though often charming and subtle, is too plodding and indirect and humorless for my taste. And for someone famed for his felicity, Pater too often rings a dull bell, like his modern counterparts. For instance, in "The School of Giorgione," the essay from which I will be quoting here, Pater closes by using—twice—what he calls a "serviceable expression" from the French: "vraie verite." That means, literally, "the true truth", and it is not really any more serviceable in serious English writing than it is in serious French. It is redundant, and was not less redundant in 1877. It reminds me of John Dean's Watergate testimony, where he related again and again what he called "the true facts." As opposed to the false facts, I suppose. It also reminds me of some of the clunkers of Arthur Danto, except that Pater limits himself to one major clunker in this essay, whereas Danto tries to limit himself to one major clunker per sentence, and often fails at that.

But unlike contemporary critics, Pater's bad notes are ultimately forgivable, since his heart is almost always in the right place. He is the sort of kind and gentle soul, highly educated and yet somehow still lucid, whom you could see actually inviting to your opening. He might bore everyone near to tears with nine out of ten of his wandering comments, but the nine would never be offensive, and the tenth would be brilliantly penetrating.

I choose "The School of Giorgione" to quote from since, although I disagree with the main thesis, it supplies a greater percentage of penetrating comments than one can find anywhere else, either in the essays of Pater or elsewhere in art criticism by non-artists. After dealing with Saltz and Schjeldahl, I wanted an essay I could use as a positive example. So I will quickly finish off my negative comments and use the rest of Pater’s essay as a shining testament to what art criticism can and should be (and sometimes was, long long ago).

The negative comment is regarding Pater's insistence that "all art aspires toward the condition of music." Pater italicizes that sentence himself, since this is the central thesis of the essay. This belief was popular in the second half of the 19th century (think of Whistler’s nocturnes and symphonies) and it contains a grain of truth. The perfect marriage of form and content in music does make music very pure, from a theoretical standpoint. In music, the form is the content, and it is impossible to separate the emotion from the notes. Critically, this has been seen as an artistic ideal, but it is not. It is only a musical ideal. Or, more precisely, a musical truism. That is the way music is, for better or for worse. But other arts, although they may aspire to a more perfect marriage of form and content, do not aspire toward the condition of music. Only music aspires toward the condition of music. Painting can only aspire toward the condition of painting and poetry can only aspire to the condition of poetry.

Pater has gone too far. His claims and definitions make music the highest art, which it is not. There is no highest art. That is like claiming that there is a highest fruit, or a highest type of woman. Just as we are grateful for mangoes as well as pears, blondes and well as redheads, grapes as well as olives, gamines as well as bombshells, red deliciouses as well as Granny Smiths, brainies as well as ingénues, we must be grateful for paintings as well as sonatas, sculptures as well as concertos. A ranking of the high arts, like a ranking of bust sizes, is an impertinence, or worse. It is not only a slight to the Muses, it is a mischief to young artists, since they immediately begin to chase phantoms. Every popular theory like this leads to years, sometimes decades, of wasted thought and effort, most of it to impress some careless critic who was just looking for something to say.

Painting cannot aspire to music or the condition of music. Painting can only aspire to its own perfection. This is made even clearer by realizing that, by Pater’s own argument, the relationship of form and content in music is an analogue to photography, not painting. In photography, the form and the content are the same thing, as in music. There can be no separation. In photography, form and content are laminated together. A photograph cannot be "wrong". Except for dodging and burning, and other small developing pushes, a photograph is a formal whole, incapable of being expressively deconstructed. If the form is boring, it is because the subject is boring, and vice versa. You cannot delaminate one from the other.

I am not saying the analogy is perfect, but the same is true with music. If the music is boring or bad, it is because the note progression is boring or bad. The note progression is both the form and the content. As with dodging and burning in photography, you can add rubato or speed and loudness changes, but this can only do so much. These things can perfect good photography and music, but they cannot make a bad photo good or bad music good.

Painting is not like music or photography. The form and content must be married, but they cannot and should not be laminated together. Music is not an ideal for painting for the same reason photography is not an ideal for painting. The space between the form/content lamination is precisely the place where expression enters painting, and this is not true of music or photography. In music and photography expression arrives through different doors. In photography it enters almost entirely through choice of subject, composition, and lighting (and much less through developing, toning, etc.). In music it enters through note choice and note progression, speed, and loudness. But in music there is no gap between the form and the content, in which to insert expression. If you want to change the expression, you have to change the notes themselves, and this is because the notes are both the form and the content.

In painting, the form and the content can be separated, as we have ample proof in the 20th century. You can have form with no content and content with almost no form. Even in a painting where the form and content are married in an old-fashioned way, different parts of the same painting can have varying levels of lamination. In what we would call bad paintings, large parts of the painting may be delaminated, with the form failing to support the intended content. One part of the painting may express one mood, where another part (accidentally or mistakenly, we assume) expresses another mood. The artist has lost control of the marriage, and his forms and contents are slapped together willy-nilly.

But the ideal for painting—the condition that painting aspires to—is not an absolute lamination of form and content, as in music or photography. An absolute lamination of this sort would squeeze all the expression out of the gap, and make the painting worse, not better. The condition that painting aspires to is a fully artistic treatment of this gap, a masterful insertion of expression into this gap, so that all forms support all contents, and all parts of the painting support all other parts of the painting. As in a real marriage, the perfect combination is not a lamination; it is not an air-tight seal at all points. No, it is a balancing along the gap, a placement of expression and passion in the right amounts at the right time, based on wisdom and restraint as well as desire and excitability, so that beauty is the result. “Perfect” in either case means perfectly balanced, not absolutely joined. A perfect marriage is a perfect separation at all points, with expression in the gap; not a perfect adhesion, so that not even a fingernail can be inserted between form and content, man and woman.

It would be fascist to claim that painting must deal with certain contents or certain forms: no, we must allow the artist to decide this. But it is not faschistic to claim that in a successful painting the forms must support the contents. There must be both forms and contents, and the forms cannot usurp the contents. This is a matter of logic, not politics or theory. Forms without contents are empty and inartistic. Therefore they cannot be part of art. Contents without forms are impossible; we need not speak of them. Forms that usurp the contents are interesting only to the psychotic, and should be limited to the asylum. All forms that support contents may be artistic, and such output must then be judged based on the actual talents and passions involved.

Now let us return to Pater. What is interesting about his essay, from a positive point of view, is that Pater uses many very penetrating and correct observations to support a false central thesis. He collects a large number of true and useful sub-theses, supplying us with many colorful quotes, and all we have to do is jettison the main thesis. We ride along with him on his subtle and lovely little train, hopping off just before the final destination.

What is even more interesting is that if we take all of Pater’s sub-theses and quotes in this essay, and add them together, we get the perfect argument against the main argument of the 20th century. In this one little essay, Pater destroys the entire 20th century before it arrives.

In the sentence right after the italicized sentence I quoted above, Pater says this,

For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.

Pater means this to confirm the primacy of music, and it fails to do that, but otherwise the sentence is true. Art always did try to minimize the line between form and content, since forms that stood out too prominently could only divert attention away from the "art". The invisibility of the forms was the art, in the sense of art as successful technique. As Whistler put it in The Gentle Art, a painting that looked difficult was a failure. A painting should look effortless. Even more than that, the question should never come up, except for other painters. If the audience is looking at forms, they are looking at the wrong thing, that is all. They might as well be looking at the frame, or the carpeting, or out the window. To say that a viewer should be looking at forms is to say that in a successful Hollywood blockbuster, the audience should be looking at their watches.

You can already see how this undercuts the main argument of the 20th century. Prominent critics like Fry and Bell and Greenberg (and almost everyone else) led with the argument that the conventions of art should move to the fore. Conventions highlighted were a sign of purity, conventions standing alone were signs of high intellect, forms stripped of all meaning and intent were political signposts or arrows pointing at a more "honest" future. Up to the current moment, we have Schjeldahl telling us that Ryman's white canvases—which are just bald forms—are a way of "saving art." We are not told what Ryman is saving us from or saving us for. We cannot be told without enlarging the lie to a size where it takes a recognizable form, since the entire thesis can only thrive in the shadows, as some lurking grey entity, like a starved mouse with spectacles and a typewriter. This applies not only to the "saving art" claim but to the entire thesis of forms as something that should be brought into the open. This thesis has maintained its hold over criticism for a century only by never once being looked at critically. The thesis exists today in the same partial, undigested, ridiculous state it was born in, and it has never matured into an idea that the mainstream reader could even pin down. No one, not even the critic himself, looks at the idea closely as it scurries by. It is just another modern idea, like plastic baggies or cell phones, that is accepted without thought.

But if you look at the idea with a clear head for even a moment, it is obvious that it is just a piece of vulgarity, or a piece of pathology. It is the argument that we should prefer a thing that is broken to a thing that is not. It is equivalent to arguing that it is more intelligent or honest to nail a DVD to the wall and admire its roundness for two hours than to put it into the player and watch the movie thereon. It is equivalent to arguing that, to achieve full sexual realization, one should avoid both women and online porn, instead crawling into the box your computer came in, and admiring the texture of the cardboard.

Of course Pater would never be caught implying such wickedness. He had the good fortune to predate the psychotic century, and could answer all foolishness in quiet tones, sure of some audience at least. I am not so lucky.

Here is Pater's next quote for us to consider:

…lyrical poetry, precisely because in it we are least able to detach the matter from the form, without a deduction of something from that matter itself, is, at least artistically, the highest and most complete form of poetry.

As in his argument as a whole, so in some of his specific arguments is he correct in his supporting statements and incorrect in his thesis. Here we cannot agree that lyrical poetry is higher or more complete, since any great poem of any sort is complete in itself, with nothing higher except a better poem. But Pater's supporting point is as true as before, since it is basically the same: matter and form should not be detached, they should be attached as perfectly as may be. Any detachment implies a deduction from the "matter itself", which is to say the art itself. The forms and conventions must be attached to the subject, since they support it. You can no more detach the forms and place them in the fore than you can detach the foundation of a house and put it in the front yard, expecting the house to remain standing.

To say it again, without any misapplications:

The ideal examples of poetry and painting being those in which the constituent elements of the composition are so welded together, that the material or subject no longer strikes the intellect only; nor the form, the eye or the ear only; but form and matter, in their union or identity, present one single effect….

Perfectly stated. Now, just before this quote, Pater says this:

Art, then, is thus always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence, to become a matter of pure perception.

Pater then tells it that it does this by welding form and matter together perfectly. But look again at this last quote. This is precisely the idea that the next generation of art critics would turn on its head. In another place, that quote could lead an argument of Fry, or of Greenberg. Of course, Fry or Greenberg would mean something quite different by "intelligence" and "perception." Greenberg would tell us that art striving to be independent of intelligence should jettison all of what Pater is calling matter here, and what I am calling content. To become a matter of "pure perception," Greenberg would recommend taking only one form, shape say, letting that stand alone, very large, underlined and highlighted, and ditching all else. So "pure" would mean "simplified down to one thing." This would make perception very easy, since the viewer would only have one big thing to perceive, and he would be hit over the head with it as soon as he entered the room. And, of course, this would make the viewer "independent of intelligence" since he wouldn’t require any.

Much of the difference between the 19th and 20th century can be seen in one word in that last quote, the word "mere." Neither Fry nor Greenberg nor any other modern critic would have needed that "mere," since in standing the quote on its head they would be deleting all that Pater meant by using that "mere." Pater is implying that intelligence isn’t enough in the presence of art, whereas the modern critic is implying that intelligence is too much. Pater is arguing for complexity and fullness, where the modern critic is arguing for simplicity and emptiness. The modern critic is paring away, whereas Pater is content with the entirety.

You see that Pater is arguing that you must have both form and content, where Greenberg argued that all content "must be avoided like the plague" and that most historical forms were not central to painting. Greenberg is a minimalist but Pater is a maximalist. Pater is not only satisfied to keep form and content, he is also concerned to subordinate form to its proper place as a means. Any form in its proper place is an artistic form. And this is because a form may be either artistic or inartistic. It is the use of the form that makes it artistic, so that misuse must make it inartistic. In fact, any convention or form, once removed from its subordinate place as a means, becomes inartistic. Even color or shape, once separated out and placed in the fore, is inartistic, by definition. “Artistic” implies proper use, and improper use destroys the definition. By this way of looking at it, the modern critic has argued that art should become inartistic. Artistic forms that become ends are no longer artistic forms, just as the foundation of a house, removed into the front yard, is no longer a foundation. A foundation that does not support anything is not a foundation, by definition.

After this, Pater finally arrives at a consideration of the school of Giorgione, as in his title, telling us,

By no school of painters have the necessary limitations of the art of painting been so unerringly though instinctively apprehended, and the essence of what is pictorial in a picture so justly conceived, as by the school of Venice.

Now, I am not so concerned with agreeing or disagreeing with that assertion as I am in pointing out to you the fact that Pater believed that painting had necessary limitations, and that painting had an essence. Whether the Venetians perceived that first or best is not the point; the point is that they perceived it, and that everyone before and after them, up until 1900, perceived it as well, including Pater and the critics of the late 19th century. It was not until the next generation that art critics would begin to believe the opposite.

Current wisdom, of course, is that art has no limitations and no essence. Art is anything that anyone labels art. According to the tenets of pluralism, art has no lower boundary and no outer boundaries (upper boundaries don’t really come up in modern conversation). It is not modern to consider what the various arts are best suited to express; rather, it is modern to try to discover what the arts are most ill-suited to express, and to force them to express it regardless. This is clearly pathological, even to those who are doing it, but it is also modern to embrace pathology as pathology, as another species of “honesty.” As a form of medical experimentation, this may make some small amount of sense, who knows, but as artistic experimentation, it makes no sense. Pretending to be sick or crazy may make you more compassionate toward the truly sick and crazy, but neither the compassion nor the fake pathology will make you a better artist. As a nurse in a psychiatric ward, you may have some new qualifications; as an artist, you can be nothing but a poser, either before or after your fake bout of insanity.

To avoid this insanity, let us return to our very sane guide Pater, who schools us next in this way:

In the art of painting, the attainment of this ideal condition, this perfect interpenetration of the subject with the elements of colour and design, depends, of course, in great measure on dexterous choice of that subject….

Aha, a new claim from Pater, this one as true as the others. I have tried to get this point across myself many times, with little help from critics or other artists. Finally, I have Pater to back me up. Well, he backs me up even more:

For although its productions are painted poems, they belong to a sort of poetry which tells itself without an articulated story.

Pater is talking about genre painting, and Giorgione’s genre especially, but he might as well be talking about my own painting, since I belong to the same genre. In this genre, we believe strongly in the limitations of painting, in the suitability of painting for certain things—namely for a pictorial poetry of form without an articulated story—and in the primacy of subject. Unlike many contemporary realists—who believe that painting is mainly about light falling on just about any subject—we believe that the subject is more important than the light. For us, light, composition, color, and all other forms and conventions, are only artistic means, empty in themselves. They only acquire meaning in the service of a subject. Without a subject to serve, all these forms and technical matters are worthless and inartistic. Just as no amount of dodging or burning can make a boring photograph interesting, and just as no amount of rubato can make a boring progression of notes interesting, no amount of beautiful light, beautiful composition, or beautiful color can make a boring subject interesting. A boring person in great light is still boring. A pig in a luxurious and well-lit sty is still a pig.

Contemporary photography is cut by the same schism. The majority of contemporary photography is done by those who think that enough expensive equipment can buy an artistic image, who think that an 8x10 photograph of anything is artistic as long as the print is pristine, who think that enough computer manipulation can make any image interesting. A tiny minority is more concerned with subject, and they understand that given the proper subject and the proper attitude toward that subject, you can create a masterpiece with a pin hole in a box. They don’t care if your negative is scratched or if your toner ran or if your printing was done at WalMart; they only care who was standing in front of your camera, and who behind it.

Pater pushes us even further:

Now it is part of the ideality of the highest sort of dramatic poetry, that it presents us with a kind of profoundly significant and animated instant, a mere gesture, a look, a smile, perhaps—some brief and wholly concrete moment—into which, however, all the motives, all the interests and effects of a long history, have condensed themselves, and which seem to absorb past and future in an intense consciousness of the present. Such ideal instants the school of Giorgione selects, with its admirable tact, from that feverish, tumultuously coloured world of the old citizens of Venice—exquisite pauses in time, in which, arrested thus, we seem to be spectators of all the fullness of existence, and which are like some consummate extract or quintessence of life.

That is the truest and most beautiful pair of sentences in this essay. It doesn’t get any better than that in the history of art criticism. Notice the "admirable tact" of the artist, the "ideal instants" which are the art. I will close here and allow you to withdraw with that lovely image in your head, an image of the art critic who knows how to write as well as how to love art.

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