In Defense of Art, Part One: For a Psychological Reductionist Account of Art

In Defense of Art, Part One: For a Psychological Reductionist Account of Art

Health is often taken for granted, but injury and convalescence force you to appreciate it. In the same way, the wreckage of mid-twentieth century art criticism and theory in grandiose socio-political “interventions” brings into focus a baseline psychological function of art. Peter Fuller saw the sickness in artists and critics cutting their teeth on Andy Warhol and Althusser at a time when the careers of those who make art and those who talk about it were converging, at least at the heights of the market. High theory, abstract expressionism, and pop have since been swapped out for a kaleidoscope of esoteric “art-practices” and scrupulously chaste grievance-rhetoric, but the situation has otherwise mostly held. What Damage appreciates about Fuller is the way he encourages us to approach contemporary art-talk “half-repulsed, and half bemused” and to stay trained on the specific kind of experience that art offers.

Fuller’s litmus test for art is whether it can catalyze growth in the capacity for experience. His guide to art-experience rests on a rejection of historicist criticism, a defense of biological fundamentals in human experience, and a positive philosophical evaluation of material skills exercised with creativity and imagination. Mainstream, late modernist, institutional art relinquished its specific material practices—the skills of painting, sculpture, and drawing—and thereby the capacity to create imaginative, ideologically-transcendent forms. Instead of resisting and exposing this progressive impoverishment, says Fuller, radical critics seek rationalizations for objectless experience.

After his own analysis, Fuller wrote that “psychoanalysis leads one to realize that there is more to life than what goes on in the head.” Man is a specific species with a relatively constant biological foundation to experience, dependent upon natural processes and a natural world which he cannot command. Like psychoanalysis, Fuller observes, art-experience reconnects us with “affects, the concreteness of one’s own body, the bodies of others, and the reality of the external world.” Aesthetic values or feelings based in the body are the zero-degree of value.

Hand-in-hand with critical art-ideology’s rejection of biology comes the rejection of creativity and imagination. The theory of integral experience argues that peaks and valleys are made of the same earth. Art-experience is an extreme variation of experience but made of the same basic stuff. Art is the exemplary form of work as skilled, intelligent, creative activity that unifies means and ends by way of the subjective force of imagination. Fuller agrees with Dewey that “the intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged.’ Art is the exemplary form of experience in teleological miniature that forms a “finite fragment of human effort achieving its own perfection within its own limits.” The urge to live is the drive for fulfilled experience. The process of associative absorption in art accomplished through skilled material practices is a way of getting better at experiencing, and “expression” is the signal that it’s happening. An art that junks expression and imagination is therefore an art that junks value.

What Fuller provides us is the justification for a psychological reductionist account of art. We have no escape route, and critical talk won’t help. Culture is not at its best when it furnishes a “radical” political meaning, but when it allows for a kind of experience that requires the subject to act in a spontaneous way, and potentially achieve greater integration.

Republished here is the the first portion of English art critic Peter Fuller’s 1972 essay “In Defense of Art.” For parts 2 and 3, see here and here.

In the museum at Baghdad there is a carved, white, marble head of a woman known as The Lady of Warka. The sculpture belongs to the predynastic period of Sumerian civilization: it was made some time between 3200 B.C. and 3000 B.C. when the great temple was constructed on the white-washed walls of the Anu Ziggurat at Uruk. The Lady of Warka belongs to an era before the Sumerians, indeed, as far as we know, before men and women anywhere had developed a written language.

Today, she is but a fragment. You can see that the nose has been broken. Perhaps this proud head once belonged to a body. The eyes were almost certainly encrusted with shells and lapis lazuli, and her brow adorned with jewels and ornaments in precious metals. But if—to use the sort of jargon I want to avoid—the “signifier,” or physical object through which the sculpture has been realized, has fragmented through time so, too, has the “signified.” We know something about Sumerian society, about the growth of large-scale, centralized agriculture among these peoples, and about their “enlightened,” authoritarian, theocratic political structures: but our knowledge is at best hazy, incomplete, and distorted. When we gaze into the hollow eyes of The Lady of Warka we are looking at an expression which has come down to us from the very moment of becoming of human civilization itself. What—to use another of those phrases—the “signifying practices” of the artist who realized it in stone were, we cannot say. Is this a sculpture of a priestess, a goddess, a princess, or a courtesan? We do not know, and, probably, we never will.

The Lady of Warka

Despite this, The Lady of Warka is not opaque to us. Her great age may give her an authority she did not have in her own time, but she is neither merely a document, nor a relic. Even after the passage of millenia upon millenia, this sculpture has the capacity to move us directly. More than that, I find myself able to formulate the judgement that of all the Sumerian sculptures which have survived that I know, this one is among the best, if not the best. The Lady of Warka manifests an extreme restraint and economy in its handling of planes and yet, at the same time, the delicacy and softness of the modelling, especially around the cheeks, mouth and chin, is such that the work seems expressive of pride, power, and sorrowful pessimism.

Not all Sumerian sculpture was as good as this. The Lady of Warka belongs to a brief sculptural efflorescence which seems to have sprung up on the threshold of the founding of the great Sumerian dynasties. Of course, she did not emerge from nowhere. The style—including that planar restraint—is characteristic of that which can be seen in animal amulets of the period. But not only is The Lady of Warka superior to almost everything surviving from its own time: nothing comparable has survived from several centuries afterwards. The Lady of Warka is of such quality that we can still recognize it as good when set beside sculpture of any age.

But what am I doing when I look back through aeons of time into a marble face from a civilization than which none is more distant from our own and pronounce, “This is good.” How is it possible that this remote work can move me and communicate actively to me? For bourgeois art historians this is hardly a problem. For example, Andre Parrot happily chirps that “despite mutilation” “this mysterious, impene­trable face still remains the perfect synthesis of ‘eternal Woman.'” He continues:

She is truly Eve, a Mesopotamian Eve, with lips closed but seeming to express a melancholy disenchantment, a certain disdain towards life—life which is never really fulfilled, since pain and sadness far exceed the satisfaction and joy experienced by man. Such is the message conveyed by the Woman of Warka, which ranks among the greatest sculptures of all time and whose unknown author is worthy of place beside Michelangelo.

Now those of us who, according to the deathless prose of the conference prospectus, are working within “a definite field—that of a radical Left intervention,” know just how to treat such writing on art. Parrot speaks of “Eternal Woman.” He even says, “Across the millenia, woman has never changed.” Nonsense! There are only specific women in specific histori­cal circumstances, and what they are like is determined—in the last instance, of course—by the mode of production and the resultant social relations prevailing in the particular historical moment in which they live or lived. And as for “Man” in general, that’s even worse—a piece of pure bourgeois ideology, sexist of course, and—unspeakable horror—humanist. And what’s all this about “pain and sadness” inevitably exceeding “satisfaction and joy”? Sub­jective individualism! Doesn’t poor, bird-brained Parrot know that “pain and sadness” are historically specific phenomena? When the mode of production is transformed and Communism realized, men and women will abolish “pain and sadness” and live, presumably forever, in “satisfaction and joy.” Parrot is just projecting his petty bourgeois ideology on to an isolated fragment from an entirely different “signifying system.” After all, we know so little about the lost kingdoms of Sumer: men and women might never have experienced such things as “pain” or “sadness” there. They quite possibly lived for ever, too!

Fine. That’s the easy bit. Exit poor, bedraggled Parrot in a flap with his beak between his wings. But I look back into the face of The Lady of Warka and she moves me still. Do we, on the left, in our “definite field” have a better explanation of the pleasure which I and others derive from this work, of the experience of it as “good”? Marx himself was at least aware that here was a problem. He wondered how, if the Greek arts were bound up—as they manifestly were—”with certain forms of social development,” they could still afford us artistic pleasure and even, as he saw it, “count as a norm and as an unattainable model.” (Marx primarily had literary works in mind: later, I will say more about the problems created by the direct transposition of literary models into discussions of visual aesthetics. Here, I merely wish to signal the difficulty.) But Marx’s explanation of the historical transcendence of works of art is hopelessly unconvincing. He argues that the charm of Greek art lies in the fact that it belongs to “the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding,” and that we find pleasure in it much as a man finds joy in the naivete of a child. Marx must have known that this just would not do: the argument survives only in an unpublished draft. Apart from the fact that Greek art is anything but manifestly naive, what Marx says is absurdly general. It does not allow for discrimination between the art of one ancient civilization and another, nor between works of the same civilization. Not all the art of the past seems to me equally good: it does not give me the same amount of pleasure. Am I to suppose that such differentiations are entirely explicable in terms of quantitative variations in the “naivety” effect? The pleasure I derive from The Lady of Warka evidently cannot be wholly accounted for by some vague reference to the joy of what Mary Kelly might call the “Post-Partum” period of human civilization.

There is a long legacy of attempts by Marxists to do better than Marx on this question without lapsing into Parrot-like “bourgeois universalism.” One argument insists that what makes a work historically transcendent is the vividness or “realism” of its portrayal of the specific historical moment of its production. I hereby offer a hundred pound reward to anyone who can produce what I judge to be a credible account of The Lady of Warka in these terms! Reference to planar reductionism and the flat, fertile expanses of Sumerian agriculture are not likely to be accepted! What about this sculpture speaks of Sumerian society in 3000 B.C., or there­abouts, rather than any other historical moment, at any other time, in any other place?

There is, however, another line of reasoning which says that although Marx acknowledged that the production of art was historically “bound up with certain forms of social development,” he failed to see that so, too, was the consumption of art. Thus Marx did not see that modern admiration for Greek art owed less to some trans-historical essence in the works themselves than to aesthetic ideologies or philosophies prevailing in modern societies and their corresponding institutions.

I am prepared to go a long way with this argument: the high status enjoyed by, say, the Mona Lisa seems to me largely, though not quite entirely, institutionally or ideologi­cally determined. But that residue which I reserve in the phrase “not quite” seems to me much bigger, and of far greater importance, in many other works of art, including The Lady of Warka, which is hardly over-celebrated by art ideologists. I object to the contemporary ideology explanation when it is put forward as a total account, in part because it assumes that the rest of us—i.e. those who do not subscribe to the theory—are all such dumb-bunnies. We may think we are moved by such and such a work, that it has a powerful effect upon us, but oh no! that’s just an illusion: that is simply the prevailing ideology, excreted by contemporary cultural institutions, creeping into us.

I believe that by learning to look, and to see, one can—admittedly within certain limits—penetrate the veil of ideology in which the art of the past is immersed. The Mona Lisa may be a good painting or not; but because one emperor, once, had no clothes does not mean that all emperors, or empresses, everywhere and at all times are necessarily parading themselves naked. Indeed, the point of this excellent little story has always seemed to me to be that courageous, empirical fidelity to experience can, under certain circumstances at least, cut through ideology. Experience is not wholly determined by ideology: it is very often at odds with it, causing constant ruptures and fissures within the ideological ice-floes. And it seems to me that our experience of works of art, of any era, need be no exception to this if we learn to attend to the evidences of our eyes.

Let me give you another example. I often work in the British Museum Reading Room and, when I do so, I enjoy going to have a look at the Parthenon marbles at lunch-time. Now, evidently, these marbles have been torn out of their original physical, social, religious, political and ideological contexts. They have been shattered and eroded, wrenched from a position high on a Greek temple and stuck inside a (relatively) modern museum, where, since the beginning of the last century, they have been subjected to all sorts of imperial, nationalistic and other kinds of institutional and ideological hyping and cultural chauvinism. It would be simply foolish to pretend that all this did not mediate the experience of the works. Such mechanisms should be brought to light, analysed, discussed, and exposed: nonetheless, it is equally important to stress that they are not everything. We have no right to assume that the work itself only exists as a dissolved substance within its variable mediations, that it is inextricable from them.

Indeed, if you get to know the Parthenon frieze, you will begin to discover that some of the sculptors who worked on it were much better than others; you will be able to see this for yourself by using your eyes. Some were just not very good at expressing their experience of, say, doth in stone. They depicted folds in robes or drapery through rigid slots, dug into the marble like someone furrowing the surface of a cheese with a tea-spoon. Others worked their materials in such a way that their representations seem to have lightness, movement, and translucence: the stone breathes and floats for them. All the Parthenon craftsmen originally worked under identical ideological, social, and cultural conditions; the conditions under which their work is displayed in the British Museum may be very different, but they are nonetheless equally uniform. These differentials, however, remain, unaltered by the passage of time, and still discernible to attentive study of the work today.

Such distinctions are neither “merely technical,” nor trivial. They touch upon the difference between a good work, and a bad one, between a run-of-the-mill product of a particular tradition—which can be explained in terms of ideology and sociology—and a masterpiece, which cannot. John Berger, easily the best post-war art critic writing in English, recently made a self-criticism of his useful little book, Ways of Seeing. He wrote that “the immense theoretical weakness” of that work was that he did not make clear what relation exists between what he calls “the exception,” or genius, and “the normative tradition.” This is a question which increasingly preoccupies me. The differences in quality of various sections of the Parthenon frieze can be intuited through empirical experience, through using our eyes: they are impervious to other kinds of analysis. I believe that the discernment of such differences is very much part of what is valuable in the pursuit and experience of art: they touch upon the point at which, in Ernst Fischer’s phrase, art makes manifest its capacity to protest against ideology.

But if neither of the principal groupings of Marxist explanations about pleasure in the art of the past stand up, must we return to Parrot and his bourgeois universalism? There is another way: one which involves the recognition of quality and aesthetic experience from within a materialist Marxist tradition. The great philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, was among those who struggled for this view: although I cannot accept all his aesthetic, let alone his political, formula­tions I have much more respect for him than for those neighing philistines inside the “post-structuralist” corral who are intent upon submerging art into ideology and consigning aesthetics to oblivion. Marcuse’s last essay, The Aesthetic Dimension, has recently been published in English. In it, he wrote: “Marxist aesthetics has yet to ask: What are the qualities of art which transcend the specific social content and form and give art universality?” That is a question which, through the face of The Lady of Warka, I wish to keep in the forefront of a socialist concern with art. Marcuse has no inhibitions about saying that aesthetics must explain why Greek tragedy and the medieval epic—again his examples are primarily literary—can still be experienced as great or authentic (and for me that is the key word) today, even though they pertain to ancient slave society and feudalism respectively. “However correctly one has analysed a poem, play or novel in terms of its social content,” he writes, “the questions as to whether the particular work is good, beautiful and true are still unanswered.”

Perhaps I should make one thing clear: I am not advocating that the social and ideological analysis of art should be abandoned as a futile pursuit. Far from it, I believe that an adequate map of the terrain, and also its economic and social determinants in terms of specific markets and publics for particular kinds of art-practice, is essential. If we do not have such a map how are we to know where “the good, true and beautiful” may be lurking? Thus I readily acknowledge my indebtedness to my friends and colleagues, Andrew Brighton and Nicholas Pearson, whose excellent empirical research is showing us all just how inadequate was the map of contemporary art-practice with which we had been working. Just as a critic can rupture ideology by attending to his experience of the work, so, in the sphere of sociology (or history) of art the researcher can do so, in another way, by finding things out. Thus Brighton and Pearson are bringing our attention to vast tracts of art activity, and also of underlying art-market activity, which no one had bothered to investigate before. This sort of art research is very valuable indeed. There is another brand of so-called “Left” art history which, in the words of one of its practitioners, is so worried about not “sliding down the slippery unfenced slope of ‘the empiricism or the irrationality of that’s how it is and of chance'” that it never rises from its Polytechnic desk, or lifts its eyes beyond incestuously idealist ruminations about the nature of its own methodology, and its none-too-specific “interventions.” I would support Brighton and Pearson’s work over this sort of thing every time: nonetheless, I must insist, and I am sure they would agree, that the drawing up of the map may be a necessary prerequisite to the criticism of art, but it is not, in or of itself, identifiable with such criticism.

Peter Fuller (1947–1990) was a British writer and art critic. He founded the art magazine Modern Painters, and was the appointed art critic of The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of many books, including Art and Psychoanalysis (Writers and Readers, 1981), Aesthetics After Modernism (Writers and Readers, 1983), and Robert Natkin (Harry N. Abrams, 1981).