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posted on 10.26.09

In the October 8 issue of The New York Review of Books, artist, art historian, and critic Julian Bell offers a sumptuous interpretation of two recent publications on art history and aesthetics, Art Without Borders: A Philosophical Exploration of Art and Humanity and The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution; the former is by the amiably redoubtable multidisciplinary academic Ben-Ami Scharfstein, the latter by Denis Dutton, the similarly multidisplinarian academic and founder of Arts & Letters Daily, a wonderfully inclusive aggregative website of scholarship and criticism that, for some reason, has been seen by certain critics as a slight against his integrity as a scholar.  Both Scharfstein and Dutton are terrific and fun prose stylists, something they share – along with their varied interests – with Arthur Danto, a writer whom they otherwise seek to distance themselves from.

It is this intent to distance oneself from a particular others' opinion, often seen as necessary on the part of the critic, and even align oneself with a caustically contrarian position – sometimes this seems the primary impetus for many a critic's work – that Bell draws attention to, among a many other valuable things; but it is this insight that drew me in to his article, if not solely what kept me reading.  This particular brand of critic seeks an identifiable foe, in other words, and then seeks to trounce this foe; the criticism itself serves as a means of defining the critic against someone or something else more than anything else: it is an exercise in ego distinction.  This runs throughout criticism, and not just of the contemporary sort.  Many of the most visible cultural and artistic critics – if not necessarily the best – seem to found their opinions and resultant articles as if antagonism were their driving force.  Sasha Frere-Jones does this with relish, as do Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the defiantly, often self-contradicting champions of a particularly myopic brand of atheism; but what is often most visible in the works of these exemplars of "foe-istic" criticism, beyond their sometimes enjoyable, sometimes grating sarcastic verbosity, is their evident flaws in critical cohesion.  They seek so much to define themselves against something that they lose their way in finding a distinct train of thought that they themselves may follow.

It is a relatively small part of Bell's article, but one that certainly deserves to be delved into further elsewhere as a study of trends in criticism.

Bell's article is a terrifically coherent and wide-ranging – and still trenchant, for those who like their criticism to offer yuks at the expense of others – critique of these two refreshingly approachable and often incisive books.  With great pith, Bell picks apart the value and shortcomings of both texts, with more interest and emphasis on the former characteristic but acute analysis of the latter.  It's not necessary to have read either work in order to get something out of this article, although, time permitting, both are worth at least a visit to the library; but I'm recommending it because it's just a fun and provocative read, an uncommonly unpretentious consideration of aesthetics and the study thereof.  Unfortunately, it is only available online for three dollars – unless you have an NYRB subscription – , a fairly hefty price for an article of as many pages; should you be willing to dole this out, and should you be willing to follow a link to get there, you may find the article here.  Otherwise, should you have access to this issue, I heartily recommend it.

I would love to hear your reactions to the article, or certainly anything else herein mentioned.

Unknown User says:
“As the author of Art without Borders, I'd like to comment on Gottlieb's comments on my book, which are based on the review by Julain Bell in the New York Review of Books. I read Bell's review with a mixture of pleasure and consternation. Bell, I knew, was the author of What Is Painting? and The Mirror of Art, a well-conceived brief history of world art, He was therefore one of the realtively ferw persons qualified to review my very wide-ranging book. But although he wrote with generaosity and perception, he made a number of specific, clearly mistaken comments that showed that he had read my book too quickly. I therefore wrote to him to point out out that his dramatic fault-finding (I was afraid to write about gross bodily matters, that I was unable to write a clear description of a painting's structure, and that I sometimes rambled ainlessly) were based on misunderstandings. The first charg wass based on a misunderstanding of the text,; the second charge was based on the attribution to me of a quotation from someone else; and the third charge was based f on a reading too hasty to grasp the direction of the text. Somewht to my surprise, Bell conceded that I was right. I was the viction, he told me, of the assignment he had received from the editor. to dwell on the marked contrast between the two books sent to him for review... My comment is meant to praise Bell for his honesty. It also has a moral: a reviewer--in this case, Gottlieb--should hever rely soley pn a previous reviewer's review. A reviewer's perceptions should he his or her own. Books often take many years of hard work to write--mine took more than ten years--and deserve to be judged with as much care as their reviewers can muster. Ben-Ami Scharfstein”
Posted over 5 years ago
Max says:
“If I may add this one note. The postmodernist critic - my discriptive - is at a disadvantage because of the pluralistic nature (Dutton) which prevails and is innoculated against any critical appraisal. But, it is also problematic that art, constructed under 'conceptual' or postmodernist cloak, cannot be evaluated from outside the self-proclaimned parameters. I think this is a direct heading towards Russel's paradox. Sharfstein does make some very provocative points and we only have to go back to Edmund Burke and the notion of beauty in its incompleteness and imperfection that the mystery, and value, of art will ultimately prevail.”
Posted over 5 years ago
Max says:
“Dear Mr. Gottlieb; BRAVO. I was very familiar with Dutton's position - he makes it painfully clear conceptual art requires a conceptual audience much like Dick Cheney's WMD audience (a fair dig) - which is why I imbibed Sharfstein's opus as the more potentially challenging. Dutton's position is far more 'critical' to the arts than is Sharfstein's. Sharfstein's view is one seeking understanding while Dutton goes for judgement. As an artist removed from such positions I think both are boxing with Kant but fail to recognize it. Art is outside reason but can be reasonably evaluated. I think that is the current struggle with criticism; does one patronize an audience or does one hold artists accountable as the audience watches? The 'second nature' of deconstructivism' is almost identical to what Jacques Derrida told me over a carafe of wine on the West Coast before another of his lectures. He 'lamented' about that. The big point point I think many undergrads - even their teachers - don't get is Derrida was not undermining 'MEANING.' This goes back you what you wrote about 'second nature' positions and art; art without meaning is noise. I think you are right on the money about artist and methods. Just as the old story about a hick from the Midwest looking at a Pollock painting and saying, "Hell, I could do that," may hold true with the availability of digital graphics programs today....but, still, Pollock did it first after indulging TH Benton for a few years.....BTW, I read your othere post aboput the economics of Dublin......I nearly peed myself. I've spent a great deal of time in Paris and after a few years troubling the moralists at the Sorbonne a British lad came to me and said, "Max, you just visit heere and pay less than those of us who are actually committed to this center of culture. Why is that?" I didn't think I needed to give the obvious answer to a philosophy PHD candidate, but, it was, "Sir, language gets you into the mind, art gets you into the soul." Anyway, I look forward to your furture obserevations. Well done, lad.”
Posted over 5 years ago
Max says:
“I was hoping to eventually come across something resembling 'art criticism' on this website; finally, this is a good one! I have read Sharfstein's, but not Dutton's, work and I generally find it a curious exercise when philosophy, congealed in its own language based epistemology, entwines itself with art. I am left with the same questions; is philosophy finally bored with deconstructionism or is art so bad it requires philosophical tools to justify it? 'Interesting read; thanks.”
Posted over 5 years ago
“It is unfortunate that much contemporary art is only validated by theoretical interpretations of it. I don't think that this is a result of art being bad, or worse than usual; this is just a particularly new period of art, and therefore an uncomfortable one. As the wider public expresses dismay or disinterest in much newer, more obscure art, the "intellectual art establishment," for lack of more specific and accurate titles, seeks to give potentially overlooked art value; in turn, the public sees this art as only being admired by an academic élite – and in turn a moneyed art collectorship that follows its cues – and attributes the art's value to the articles written about them and the distanced academy that fosters them. But I think we're just at the beginning of what should be a long process of trying to understand all these new media and the ways they're variously used for expression; Dutton is very much of the opinion that conceptual art is, essentially, bad, but he bases this precisely on the difficulty audiences have with it, not necessarily with anything inherent in the work itself. He recently wrote a fairly persuasive article on this for the op-ed section of The New York Times, which can be found here:; but it was the responses – which can be found here – – that were ultimately more on target and edifying. The unfortunate general understanding of contemporary art relies on a presumption that it is only actually understood by a very small minority; this hangs over contemporary art's approachability horribly, because people feel that, if they don't "understand" it in the ways most proffered by the academy, then they don't understand it at all. I think time will make the current distance between the audience and what is now contemporary art seem quite quaint, as it has done countless times in the past; and during this span of time, the artists who use more contemporary methods and approaches in a genuine and interested manner will be rewarded with a place in the history of art, and those, like Damien Hirst, who brandish its obscurities as what makes it valuable – and whose work may only be currently valuable for its obscurities – will increasingly fade away from public interest. But there is good art now, and there will always be good art, I think. As for deconstructionism, I think its wound it has way so deeply and so quickly into contemporary thinking that – without even realizing it or understanding that they are thinking in a "deconstructionist" manner – people have embraced its basic tenets as almost second nature, and the only times people really discuss it anymore is to only further challenge either its basic or its more oblique points. I don't think philosophy has ever been particularly interested in deconstructionism. But it's a wormy and fun and often revelatory prism through which much of life is now viewed, often without any acknowledgment of its presence.”
Posted over 5 years ago
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Art Criticism And Theory




Julian Bell
Ben Ami Scharfstein
Denis Dutton