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Ceramics et al.:

by Donald Kuspit

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Critical thinking about the arts, at least about the modern arts, consistently conveys a split consciousness of art, indicated by a dualistic approach to it, with some critics preferring one approach, others a seemingly opposite approach. Modern art is divided against itself, and modern art criticism reflects this division -- this self-contradiction. In 1912, in the Blaue Reiter Almanac, Kandinsky wrote that the two poles or paths of art, the abstract and the real, or the “purely artistic” and the “objective,” as he also called them, made common cause in traditional art, each complementing the other in what he called “an ever-varying balancing act,” but in modern art they “lead a separate existence as self-sufficient entities, independent of each other.” Kandinsky thought that the “splitting up” of art, as he called it, could be overcome when “the ‘artistic’ element” and “the ‘objective’ element were “reduced to a minimum,” which would make both “powerfully affective.”(1) But this did nothing to esthetically reconcile them -- synthesize them in a single work of art. The “welcome complementation” they enjoyed in traditional art seemed lost forever, which is perhaps why Kandinsky followed only the abstract path, giving up on the idea of the unity of art, that is, the re-unification of the poles, which had become extreme opposites. No longer integrated, art was on the verge of disintegration, or “anarchy,” to use Kandinsky’s word, even though, in following one path to the end -- in paring one’s art to a precious minimum, in effect purifying it -- one could make powerfully affective or expressive art. 

The splitting up of art into opposing realist and abstract camps was already 60 years old when Kandinsky got around to recognizing it. Baudelaire acknowledged the split by way of his distinction, in The Salon of 1846, between poetic and mathematical criticism. This led him, in The Salon of 1859, to distinguish between two kinds of modern artist, the positivist and imaginative or realist and romantic; both sets of terms are his. He preferred poetic criticism to mathematical criticism, just as he later preferred imaginative to positivist art. Mathematical criticism was “cold,” for it “voluntarily strips itself of every shred of temperament” -- “has neither love nor hate” -- “on the pretext of explaining everything.” Thus his famous assertion that “to justify its existence, criticism should be partial, passionate and political, that is to say, written from an exclusive point of view, but a point of view that opens up the widest horizons.”(2) There is no attempt to explain everything in a particular art, but rather to justify its existence from a certain point of view, which locates it in a meaningful horizon without exhausting its meaning.

As Clement Greenberg wrote in 1940, carrying Baudelaire’s idea to a perhaps absurd, presciently postmodern extreme, the poem -- and, one might add, poetic criticism --“offers possibilities of meaning -- but only possibilities. Should any of them be too precisely realized, the poem would lose the greatest part of its efficacy, which is to agitate the consciousness with infinite possibilities by approaching the brink of meaning and yet never falling over it.”(3) That is, never giving the poem, more broadly, the modern work of minimum art -- I am not referring to the minimalist movement, but to any and every modern art that achieves a powerful affective resonance by paring itself to its essentials, whether these be one-sidedly abstract or realistic, imaginative or positivist -- a final, decisive meaning, for that would preclude further consciousness of it, that is, viewing it from another point of view. Broadly speaking, for Greenberg the meaning of art is open-ended, however much the work of art may seem like a closed system. The point of view may be exclusive, but the meaning -- its value for consciousness -- it accords the work is not exclusive. To put this another way, it may be one-dimensional, but it has multi-dimensional implications, and thus compensates, as it were, for the esthetic one-dimensionality of modern art. Modern art tends to be either imaginatively abstract or positivistically realist -- to be more convincing one way or the other, however hard it may try to actualize the other through itself, dialectically discover and recover the possibility of art making it represses or negates, that is, “find” the uncannily objective in the blatantly abstract, the purely artistic in the conspicuously realistic. From Kandinsky’s point of view, every art that deserves to be called modern reaffirms and reinforces the splitting of art.

It should be noted that once critical consciousness has run out of points of view -- no longer opens up a fresh horizon of meaning -- the work becomes meaningless. The sooner it does the less it has to say to posterity, although posterity can restore it to meaning if it brings its own point of view to bear on it, even if that point of view has nothing to do with its creation. Such an extravagantly “poetic” consciousness -- reckless critical interpretation, as it were, a sort of re-invention or re-creation of the work in terms that seem radically antithetical to it, however much they come to seem to fit it like a glove, or rather like the fresh skin a snake grows after it has shed its old skin -- may seem irresponsible to the work as it was first conceived, and to the ideas and feelings the artist invests in it and the climate of opinion in which they arose, but unless the work is reborn in the critical consciousness of the future it has no future.  

For Baudelaire, the imaginative theorizing implicit in the point of view fleshes the work out with poetic meaning and powerful affect, demonstrating that it is more existentially substantial than it may appear to be at first unreflective glance, however casually meaningful it seems to be. Critical consciousness distrusts first impressions, even though it may heuristically rely on them as points of departure, suggesting that they can catalyze critical consciousness. Crucially, for Baudelaire the point of view the imaginative or poetic critic takes is informed by his passion for life, indicating that it is not simply an intellectual matter -- a theoretical point of view chosen because it is currently fashionable -- but an existential matter. It involves choosing an art that speaks to his existence not just of itself: that has a certain point of view about existence -- concretizes a certain consciousness of existence (not simply a certain idea of art) -- rather than exhibits or calls attention to itself with faux innocence. For Baudelaire, the critic gives the gift of his consciousness to an art that arouses his love or hate -- existentially fundamental feelings -- because it itself is charged with love or hate rather than mathematically cold.

As I mentioned, the 1846 distinction between mathematical and poetic criticism becomes the 1859 distinction between the positivist and imaginative artist. There are two types of modern artist and a type of modern criticism appropriate to each. According to Baudelaire, the positivist says “'I want to represent things as they are, or rather as they would be, supposing that I did not exist.' In other words, the universe without man.” It is in effect the universe seen coldly, the mathematically clear matter of fact universe. In contrast, the imaginative says “I want to illuminate things with my mind, and to project their reflection upon other minds.”(4) Things are seen poetically, as it were, that is, with feeling. If, as Donald Winnicott says, “creativity. . . refers to a coloring of the whole attitude to external reality,” then the imaginative artist colors external reality -- things -- with feeling, suggesting that he is more creative than the positivist artist, who in fact, from Winnicott’s point of view, is not creative but compliant, that is, recognizes “the world and its details. . . but only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation.”(5) This accords with Baudelaire’s “third class” of artists, those who “conform to a purely conventional set of rules -- rules entirely arbitrary, not derived from the human soul, but simply imposed by the routine of a celebrated studio.” These “timid and servile” artists stand in sharp contrast to the positivists and imaginatives for Baudelaire because they follow “a code of false dignity.”

The positivists, who believe they are “copying nature,” often have a certain observational talent, which seems peculiarly passionate in its dispassionateness -- the denial of feeling is itself a kind of feeling. The absoluteness of the denial suggests the intensity of the feelings denied, that is, their aliveness and influence in the positivist’s unconscious. The more conscientious his objectivity and ruthless his detachment, the more one senses his feelings in the details of nature, suggesting that he is not exactly copying it, however much he thinks he is. The touch of feeling gives the copy a certain fatalistic cast: thus Poussin’s uncanny clarity, suggestive, after all, of what Winnicott calls “creative apperception,” as distinct from compliant perception. The imaginatives, who are “seeking to paint [their] own soul,” cannot do so convincingly without realizing that it is an aspect of nature, and must be as carefully observed and copied as a positivist observes and copies nature. For Baudelaire, positivism without a hint of romantic imagination is creatively inadequate; so is romantic imagination without the positivist’s knowing perception of nature.

Baudelaire’s dismissal of the rule-following conformists as creatively sterile and “boring” compared to the positivists and imaginatives, each with their non-conformist virtues and creative possibilities -- the conformists mechanically copy art that has exhausted its creative possibilities -- is the critical beginning of what became the avant-garde revolt against the conventions of Renaissance art, evident from Gauguin to Barnett Newman. One definition of an avant-garde artist is an artist who dismisses as boring, passé, trivial whatever art seems to conform to old rules of art making, or establishes new rules or conventions of art-making, including avant-garde rules for making avant-garde art, all supposedly constraints on creativity. In contrast, the avant-garde critic, whether imaginatively poetic or coldly positivist or a combination of both, realizes that there are always rules or conventions or principles to which every work of art conforms -- including the rule of rulelessness, that is, the convention of unconventionality, the principle of nonconformity -- and attempts to spell them out in detail, however exquisitely intricate they may be. This involves showing their historical as well as esthetic raison d’être, that is, the reason, at a certain moment in history, they seemed the right rules, and thus became esthetically dominant.

Revealing the rules which shape, not to say determine the work, the critic reveals its inner logic, more particularly, the conceptual and perceptual assumptions that allow it to exist, and inform its existence to the extent that the work is unthinkable or inconceivable, and peculiarly unseeable and unknowable, without them. Critical consciousness denies that the work is a timelessly unique thing in itself, demonstrating that it is bound to its times, more particularly, expresses, however obliquely, the Zeitgeist of the lifeworld. However difficult to fathom, the Zeitgeist is, to no small extent, responsible for the rules of art and the values of the lifeworld. It may be difficult to trace the influence of the Zeitgeist on the work, and the lifeworld is inherently more complex than the art world, but the rules that ground the work and make it possible -- that seem esthetically fundamental and as such inevitable -- are clues to the Zeitgeist. They are a symptom, as it were, of its invisible presence, perhaps not unlike Adam Smith’s invisible hand. The work exemplifies the rules, and the rules exemplify the Zeitgeist, testifying to its pervasive effect. The work is an epiphenomenon of the instrumental rules, which are a limited concretization of the numinous Zeitgeist. To say this another way, both the rules and the work that follows from them make conscious the unconscious power of the Zeitgeist, not only over art but over life.  

Critical consciousness, then, makes explicit the ruling principles of an art, including the particular feelings and ideas that seem to rule it. They derive from the Zeitgeist, perhaps best understood as the general climate of opinion of the times. It is not as vague as it seems, although it seems vaguer than the conventions of the art. Critical consciousness struggles to make the Zeitgeist as explicit as possible, often viewing it as a matrix of dialectically interlocking feelings and ideas, of varying degrees of importance and influence. However historically specific, these seemingly exemplary feelings and ideas appear to have an archetypal validity and aura -- hence their Geistigkeit (poorly translated in English as “spirituality”) -- suggesting their deep roots in human nature. They are historical variations on universal themes, and suggest the universal import of an art, however incidental to its times it may seem, which is perhaps the underlying reason why art is regarded as a treasure of civilization, sometimes the only civilized thing produced by an uncivilized society. The Zeitgeist haunts us, and makes the work of art haunting -- convincing.

The third and final and most difficult task of critical consciousness is to make explicit the creative work implicit in the art, whether it be positivist, romantic, or conventional creative work, the latter creative work which exists to sustain the status quo of art. In a sense, it is an effort to separate the creative process from the cultural product. Is it a matter of Imagination, in Coleridge’s sense, or primary creativity, as Winnicott calls it, or what Coleridge called Fancy, that is, secondary creativity?(6) The most ambitious critic brings his own primary creativity to bear on the work to fathom its genesis. He does so by imaginatively metabolizing the work, which means to extract what is existentially nourishing from it -- what furthers and sustains life, and, more subtly, gives it a new creative coloring and freshness, to refer again to Winnicott’s idea of creativity. In other words, he finds in it food for life, not only for thought. This is what every healthy metabolic process does; there is no reason the metabolic process of a healthy consciousness should not do it. Consumed by critical consciousness, the work of art serves to regenerate life -- which is the way I want to interpret Nietzsche’s idea that art seduces us to life when we don’t feel alive and when we have lost our reason for living.

If the work does so -- if it restores our faith in life, so to speak -- then it has made its creative contribution to life. If it doesn’t do so, it is creatively inadequate, however culturally and historically meaningful. It has not done its creative work -- had its creative effect, implicit in the eureka moment of what Greenberg called its “exhilarating” effect -- which suggests that the artist didn’t put much creative work into it. He was not in touch with his primary creativity, which is why the work has a secondary look to it. Doing no creative good for the audience, it doesn’t seem creatively good in itself. It is another cultural construction, no doubt of anthropological interest, but beside the creative point. Critical apperception of the work of art is a test of its creativity, and of consciousness’s creativity -- the imaginative creativity required to determine the work’s “critical” meaning and value for life, whatever its usual meaning and value. 

The critic’s creative apperception is objectified and symbolized by the character and quality of his point of view. It gives him a creative perspective on the work, meaning he doesn’t take it for granted. Understanding its underlying rules gives him insight into its esthetic quality. Understanding the Zeitgeist, as it is mediated by the work, gives him insight into its existential quality. Gaining insight into the work’s quality, the critic gains insight into the artist: do the rules mobilize the artist’s primary creativity and catalyze his creative apperception or are they Procrustean beds that stifle creativity? Do they open the way to new artistic possibilities or do they foreclose on them? In short, do they enable or disable artistic creativity? The critic weighs the work in the scale of its own professed creativity.

The critic’s emphatic and insistent -- for that is the implication of Baudelaire’s “exclusive” -- point of view reveals the inner creative truth of the art, even the perverse creativity -- anti-creative truth -- of anti-art, seemingly ruled by chance, the most tyrannical and rigid of all rules. It is the creative or uncreative work art does with external and internal reality -- refining the raw material of fact and feeling -- that makes art esthetically meaningful or meaningless and existentially valuable or valueless. Creative criticism -- criticism passionately involved in the art, but without abandoning the reserve of reason -- struggles to determine which any particular art may be.

Here are two examples of creative modern criticism, one inclining to the imaginative, the other to the positivist, even as each involves both. The former addresses painting, the latter ceramics. In his famous essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch (1939), Clement Greenberg distinguishes between uncritical consciousness of a realistic painting by Repin and critical consciousness of an abstract painting by Picasso. In Repin’s picture “there is no discontinuity between art and life,” and thus “no need to accept a convention,”(7) that is, become conscious of the conventions that inform the picture, of the Zeitgeist that informs them, and of the creative work that went into making the picture. Each step involves a deepening of consciousness, which means the development of critical consciousness, that is, consciousness discontinuous with everyday consciousness, which takes familiar appearances at face value.

Greenberg doesn’t say so, because for him Repin’s representation is kitsch -- which, like all kitsch, doesn’t make demands on consciousness -- but even Repin uses certain conventions to convince everyday consciousness -- peasant consciousness, Greenberg calls it -- that it is looking at a slice of life. Repin’s representation does not discomfort consciousness, indeed, it is so comforting that one doesn’t realize that creative work -- of whatever quality -- is responsible for its success as an illusion of reality. Greenberg refuses to acknowledge it, but deceptive illusionism involves esthetic subtlety: Repin’s picture, for all its seemingly naive realism, involves what Greenberg calls “plastic” or formal values. Repin may be a conformist, in Baudelaire’s sense, but he is not an altogether naïve conformist: he synthesizes Courbet’s method of rendering material reality and Pissarro’s method of rendering atmosphere (“immaterial” reality) -- no doubt slickly reified into rules. Kitsch always involves the routinization of conventions into fixed rules mindlessly and unemotionally obeyed. This is undoubtedly why Repin’s painting appealed to a peasant consciousness, and was not convincingly artistic for Greenberg.

In sharp contrast, Picasso’s abstract painting -- a Cubist “play of lines, colors and space that represent [nominally] a woman” -- jolts consciousness. For Greenberg, Picasso’s painting demands “reflection upon the immediate impression left by the plastic values.“(8) It is avant-garde not only because it is abstract, but because it forces consciousness to advance, that is, to become critical, including critical of itself. It awakes consciousness from its unreflective slumber, compelling it to cultivate itself if it wants to comprehend the Picasso -- which everyday peasant consciousness may not want to do, because the Picasso is a threat to its complacency and self-satisfaction. It feels at one with the lifeworld it sees -- experiences no discontinuity between itself and external reality, between its life and the lifeworld. Why would it want to disturb its assumptions about reality with the Picasso? Why would it want to become conscious of its plastic values when what matters is to feel at home in it? Why should a woman’s body be reduced to its plastic values, making it harder to embrace, and, for that matter, not particularly attractive? Why should a woman be reduced to lines, colors and spaces when the problem is how to make love to her? What makes an artistic “anti-woman” and “anti-body” more interesting and engaging than an actual woman and live body, or the seductive illusion of their reality? Why should art be a problem when life is enough of a problem?

“The cultivated spectator” -- dare one say aristocratic spectator, critical reflective consciousness being inherently aristocratic for Greenberg, for it can perceive what he calls “superior values” -- accepts the challenge to consciousness posed by the Picasso not only to make sense of its plastic values and unintelligibility and incoherence -- its absurdity as a picture of reality -- but to exercise and extend its own power. “Sensitive enough to react sufficiently to plastic qualities,” the cultivated spectator takes them into himself by considering them in his consciousness, which is to engage them at what Greenberg calls “a second remove.” Their “’reflected’ effect,” as Greenberg calls it, “must be projected” back into the Picasso. It is then that “the recognizable, the miraculous and the sympathetic enter” -- then that the spectator has what John Dewey called “an experience,” then that the work becomes what Greenberg calls “an esthetic experience.” Only through the subject-object or spectator-work “interaction” -- the dialectical activity of reflective consciousness -- do the spectator and work “feel alive.” In a sense, the work’s plastic values are its inner life -- its mysterious core, secret truth, innate substance. Kitsch consciousness can’t see them, but avant-garde consciousness is sensitive to them and introjects them. Reflection “alchemically” extracts and purifies them, separates the formal body of the work from its superficial representational skin. In a final, critically crucial dialectical move, consciousness imaginatively projects them back into the work, giving it the numinous aura that only pure presence can have. No longer mundane -- bound by representational purpose -- the work becomes pure art.

In contrast to Greenberg’s emphasis on formal values, Valéry, celebrating ceramics in an essay “On the Pre-eminent Dignity of the Arts of Fire,” emphasizes the materiality of the medium -- not only clay, but fire. Ceramics is the most “hazardous. . . of all the arts,” he writes, because it uses fire, and thus is “less certain of the outcome and consequently [the most] noble.” By its nature, ceramics “exclude[s] or punish[es] any negligence; allow[s] no relaxation or respite, no fluctuations of thought, courage, or temper. [It] emphasize[s], in its most dramatic aspect, the close combat between man and form. Fire, [its] essential agent, is also [its] greatest enemy.”(9) Valéry refers to copper, glass or stoneware, but it is clearly clay that is most important to him -- clay and its interaction with another “material,” fire. It is the unpredictability of the outcome -- the “element of uncertainty” in it -- that intrigues him. “Risk remains the dominating and, as it were, sanctifying element” of ceramics. Despite all the ceramicist’s “admirable vigilance and all the foresight learned from experience, from his knowledge of heat, of its critical stages, of the temperatures of fusion and reactions,” he “can never abolish Chance”: the struggle with chance -- accepting the challenge of chance -- and its seeming mastery in an excruciatingly particular work, makes for greatness in art, which is why ceramics is theoretically the greatest art, and the model for all the other arts.  

The ineluctable properties of clay and fire, and the precariousness of their relationship, offer what Valéry calls “positive resistance,” that is, they resist every effort to use them to make ceramic art, even as they must be used. They have an independent, factual, “positive” existence, in Baudelaire’s sense, which the ceramic artist struggles to articulate without intrusively projecting his existence into them. He struggles to make the innate properties of his basic materials conspicuous and emphatic -- self-evident to the extent that they seem indispensable and indisputable, that is, fated. But he must imaginatively project his existence into the material if he is to make art not just “expose” the givenness of his material -- affirm its reality by asserting its presence -- for it is the creative work of imaginative projection that makes the material esthetically and existentially evocative and expressive, that is, transforms raw material into refined art, humanizes what by nature is non-human, spiritualizes what is spiritless, that is, makes what lacks consciousness seemingly self-conscious. Unless the material medium is made to function as an expressive medium by means of the creative work invested in it, it is beside the artistic point. It requires technical work -- no doubt ingenious, knowledgeable technical work -- to make the properties of some material “outstanding” -- emphatically the case -- but technical work is not the same as creative work.

Material emphaticness is expressively evocative for certain ceramicists, suggesting that for them technical work is creative in itself, but the technical mastery of material does not inevitably have creative results. Technique is no guarantee of creativity, but can be its instrument. It is only half the story of art, and sometimes unfortunately the only half. The other half is imaginative, that is, the imaginative projection of the ceramicist’s existence -- in the form of his Weltanschaung, as Jan Mukarovsky suggests -- into the material. This involves what Winnicott felicitously calls “creating into” the material, which informs it with one’s unconscious feelings about one’s particular life, making them expressively and idiosyncratically conscious. “Creating into” the material also boldly transforms it into an object that seems esthetically beyond life -- the creative alternative to complying or conforming to its properties, that is, dictated to by its matter-of-factness, which is what technical mastery of it involves, however unwittingly. Without an idiosyncratic Weltanschauung the artist, whatever his medium and his technical mastery of it, is creatively inadequate. It is worth noting that Kandinsky insisted that idiosyncracy and creativity go together, and that idiosyncracy cannot be taken for granted: one’s idiosyncratic Weltanschaung is one’s first imaginative achievement.

In short, an artist can have great knowledge of the properties of his material medium -- he can be a consummate positivist -- but no imaginative point of view. To put this in Baudelaire’s terms, unless art is informed by love and hate, leading to what Winnicott called “imaginative elaborations” of lifeworld experience -- contradictory yet uncannily equilibrated elaborations, love involving the subject’s adaptive dependence on the lifeworld in dialectical recognition of the fact that it is the only source, however unreliable, of material satisfaction, and hate paradoxically asserting the subject’s independence from lifeworld, as though no part of the subject’s identity derived from it -- it has no existential and esthetic consequence. It is the unholy dialectic of capitulation and resistance to the historical Zeitgeist and its objective pressure to conform that makes art uncannily human. Art can be technically brilliant but expressively shallow, or technically primitive but expressively significant. It is part of the critic’s task to disentangle technique and creativity, and to see how they work together, if they do, in a particular art.

For Valéry there is a unique tension between the physical actuality of the ceramic medium and the poetic possibilities generated by the creative risks of ceramic work. Accepting the challenge of chance, which for Valéry is innate to existence -- the arena of possibility in which material existence and human existence meet, which they share however ostensibly different clay and fire are from human flesh and passion -- the ceramic arts become “a crowning of man’s capital achievement. They derive from his first industry. As soon as he had tamed fire, subdued its energy and, with it, clays and metals -- creating tools, weapons, and utensils -- he turned it to the purpose of creating contemplative and esthetic values for himself. Some man must have been the first to have run his fingers absent-mindedly over a rough vase, and feel inspired to model another, made to be caressed.”(10) Consciousness of the difference between a rough vase and a smooth vase is the beginning of esthetic and existential consciousness -- of civilized cultivation -- and touch is the primary sense -- the sense able to critically distinguish basic differences -- because it is the essential instrument of this double-edged consciousness.

Valéry seems to suggest that one doesn’t need eyes to make art; hands seem to be enough. The art of seeing is secondary to the art of touching: artful seeing is an extension of artful touch, or, to say this a different way, subtle touching is implicit in artful seeing. One sees with one’s hands, as it were, and also imaginatively creates with them, for to touch is to imaginatively project one’s feelings into what is being touched, which is what God is about to do when he is about to touch Adam’s hand with his own in Michelangelo’s rendering of his creation. God is clearly the first imaginative ceramicist, for he creatively turns inorganic clay into organic body. He has the power of transformation and determination -- creative power at its most fundamental.

Adam’s body is beautiful to the touch as well as the eye, just as Valéry’s mythical first ceramicist finds the vase he models beautiful to the touch as well as the eye. Indeed, it must be beautiful to the touch before it is beautiful to the eye. Michelangelo seems to have reversed the priorities: his God sees the beauty of Adam’s body, which he then wants to touch. But I venture to say that he was imaginatively touched by its beauty, which is what led him to want to touch it physically -- run his fingers over Adam’s body, modeling it with his loving touch. Touching, whether hateful and rough or loving and smooth, is imaginative projection -- and appropriation, one might add -- and as such creatively proactive, that is, consciously transforms mortal clay into a beautiful body, immortal by way of its beauty. In comparison, looking seems passive, and as such “technical.”

Our bodies are made of mortal clay, but the clay becomes immortal art when it is touched by “the transcendent operations of some demiurge,” which is what Valéry calls fire. Nonetheless, the body of the vase resists our appropriative projections of our love and hate -- our inherent ambivalence to the object. It remains insistently objective, independent, separate from us, resisting us with its factuality and physicality. We can caress it and be satisfied by it, or aggressively break it in dissatisfaction -- admire it or violate it, experience it as beautiful or ugly, attribute eternal value or valuelessness to it, elevating or damning it. But we can never unequivocally possess it, although we may experience it, unconsciously, as a magical projection of our body, another limb or organ, adding to our ability to navigate and metabolize the lifeworld, and with that make us feel, no doubt unexpectedly, complete in ourselves -- even superhuman or transhumant -- and thus satisfied with existence. Identifying with the work, we give it a sublime identity, even as we make it a sublime part of ourselves, at least in unconscious imagination. It becomes a quasi-literal aspect of ourselves, a so-called good internal object, enhancing our sense of ourselves, giving us confidence in ourselves by imbuing us with its goodness, so that life seems good. Caressing the work internalizes and empowers it, fixing it in the firmament of our subjectivity, so that part of us can live without suffering, and feel empowered by it. Becoming part of our lives, the work feels alive, and makes us feel alive. It becomes a touchstone of inner life, a beacon of light in the inner darkness, a guide through the terra incognita of the unconscious, the way Virgil was Dante’s guide in hell.

Another aspect of the critical task -- perhaps the most important one -- is to determine how enlivening or deadening a work is, and with that how alive or dead it is in itself. However subliminally, art has a vitalizing or devitalizing -- healthy or pathological -- effect on society as well as on the subject. It insinuates itself into the subject and society, influencing perception and understanding. Its effect can be subtly critical -- a matter of psychic, even psychosomatic life and death: art can whet one’s appetite for life or make it seem unappetizing, catalyze or paralyze primary creativity, increase or diminish the capacity to live creatively, influence one to hate or love life. A creatively fresh art can encourage one to have creative apperceptions of one’s own. A creatively exhausted art -- an art that has run out of creative apperceptions (the basic definition of decadence) -- suggests that there are no creative alternatives to socially reified consciousness (which is what popular culture deals in). It tells one that one must submit to the social status quo of consciousness -- accept the socially reified perception and understanding of internal as well as external reality as the only legitimate consciousness -- not to say the only allowed consciousness.

The critic must be sensitive -- even hypersensitive -- to the effect of an art on his body and mind, accepting the fact that they are socially formed as well as “natural” to him. He must become a seismograph registering, tracking, measuring the critical effect, becoming as conscious of it as possible. Understanding its pattern, he factors it into his consciousness of the art. In a sense, critical consciousness is an experiment in psychological and social sensitivity as well as in art historical and intellectual historical understanding. Unless the critic takes risks with his consciousness -- his pre-cognitive sensitivity and theoretical understanding -- he becomes a shallow custodian of art, administering its social success. Only by way of the risky dialectic of sensitivity and theory, each uncertain of the other and uncertain in itself, can he resolve what Donald Meltzer calls the “esthetic conflict” evident in the work -- the discrepancy between its outer appearance and inner meaning. The contradiction raises critical doubts about it -- perhaps it shouldn’t exist, perhaps it’s not worth the critical trouble -- and contradictory feelings: the critic doesn’t know whether to love or hate the work. The work and consciousness of it become problematic.

But then critical consciousness is inherently dialectical -- to be critical is to have the capacity for dialectical thinking. Consciously suspending his doubts -- willingly suspending his disbelief in the work in a reflective dialectical act -- the critic creatively apprehends the dialectic of external and internal reality that gives the work its existence and substance. Doubt becomes uncanny: the moment the critic realizes that the creative dialectical work that went into making the work -- that uncannily unites its observed external and imagined internal reality -- is the same as the creative dialectical work of critical consciousness itself, he realizes that the work has as much right to exist as critical consciousness. Experiencing their underlying affinity and sameness in a dialectical epiphany, the critic is magnetically drawn to the work despite his doubts about it. It concretizes his own dialectical consciousness, showing its own critical character. Standing on common dialectical ground, criticism and art seem made for each other, at least when they are creative, however mismatched they often seem.

The ceramicist projectively identifies with his vase in the act of making it, that is, assumes it is completely under his control -- that he is master of its material, which will obey every touch -- but unless its identity is idiosyncratically finalized and informed, or at least touched by chance (including chance feelings), indicating that it is beyond his imaginative, physical, technical and conscious control -- it is incomplete, however hermetically complete it may seem to the contemplative eye. The contemplative eye -- the so-called disinterested eye of intellectual detachment -- is incapable of imaginatively touching the art object, and thus of projecting the self into it. It sees purely -- hygienically, as it were -- which means that it denies the sensuousness and sensuality of seeing, which make it uncanny. The contemplative eye of pure consciousness is unable to see the seductiveness in the art object, leading the self to surrender itself to the object, as though finally finding itself in art. The contemplative eye is incapable of passionate and poetic vision, and thus partially blind, which is why its insights tend to the prosaic. It compensates for its incapacity by over-intellectualizing art, which is to banalize it by stripping it of unconscious resonance, perceivable by what Jacques Maritain calls creative intuition -- Winnicott’s creative apperception -- as distinct from intellectual dissection, which theorizes it into emotional oblivion. Intuition creatively attunes to it as an experienced whole -- through creative intuition it comes into its own as what Abraham Maslow calls a peak experience -- while analysis lays it out as though it was a corpse on an anatomy table, intellectually operating on its body to destroy its soul.  .

In sharp contrast, the genuinely critical eye is impure -- passionate, partisan and political, as Baudelaire said. But part of the wider horizon of understanding it opens on the work involves understanding the unconscious feelings as well as conscious concerns that influence its seeing, that is, understanding its own horizon of expectations -- what it expects from the work, from the lifeworld, and from itself. Even as the critic questions the work and brings it into question, as though to disillusion us about it by viewing it dispassionately—with rational forebearance rather than irrational enthusiasm, defending himself against his feelings with pure ideas, however incidentally he may acknowledge them -- so he must question his affective projections into the work. His self-critical self-analysis and self-evaluation -- his consciousness of his unconscious and its effect on his consciousness of art--are inseparable from his critical analysis and evaluation of the art.

The clay is transformed into a vase by fire -- its material is exalted into sensuously and sensually urgent art (Valéry never stops reminding us that convincing clay art always has a sensual as well as sensuous charge, seemingly conveyed by chance, a sort of surplus experiential eloquence and excitement, and with that unique esthetic value, generated by the not always predictable interaction of clay and fire) -- but its material resistance can be felt in the vase’s body, making it all the more poignantly beautiful and desirable. Valéry suggests that its beauty and desirability -- its esthetic and existential importance -- have something to do with the physical properties of clay and fire, but he doesn’t spell out their connection. It is undoubtedly rooted in the symbolic meaning of clay and fire, but they are psychosomatically expressive, and as such more than symbols.

Positivistic criticism separates art from the human condition, imaginative criticism embeds it in the human condition. The former reduces art to autonomy, the latter denies its autonomy. The former emphasizes the artist’s ingenious manipulation of the physical medium and its material objectivity, the latter emphasizes art’s subjective character and usefulness in creating a sense of adequate self when all other socio-cultural means fail to do so, at least for the artist. A famous example of positivistic criticism in action is Greenberg’s assertion that “Every fresh and productive impulse in painting since Manet, and maybe every impulse before Manet. . . has manhandled into art what seemed until then too intractable, too raw and accidental, to be brought within the scope of esthetic purpose.”(11) One wonders if this occurs by chance. A famous example of imaginative criticism is Harold Rosenberg’s assertion: “In that it dared to be subjective, to affirm the artist as an active self, Action Painting was the last ‘moment’ in art on the plane of dramatic and intellectual seriousness. The painters in this current have kept to the tradition of the human being as the ultimate subject of painting.”(12) The third critical mode -- the mode that examines the art of those who have kept the faith with a certain celebrated tradition, be it an old or new orthodoxy, and thus lack original handling and serious selfhood -- has no name, but it might be called cultural criticism or institutional criticism. For it works of art exist only to the extent they exemplify an established or institutional culture, not as particular objects of esthetic or existential significance.   

Baudelairean positivist and imaginative criticism -- and their conflict -- survive in the 20th century, if in different form. Thus Roland Barthes distinguishes between what he calls “immanent analysis. . . which establishes itself within the work,” and interpretive analysis, “based on a relation of exteriority,” thus finding its “functional meaning. . . elsewhere.” Immanent analysis analyzes the work’s structure, while interpretive analysis tends to find the truth of the work in the author’s life, however cleverly -- “artistically” -- it may be disguised by creative work. Immanent analysis is in effect self-referential -- “the work. . . is its own model,” as Barthes says(13) -- while interpretive analysis is in principle extra-artistic, that is, it assumes the work refers to some subject matter in the lifeworld beyond it and indifferent to the artistry that builds its structure. More pointedly, “criticism is only a metalanguage, [which] means that its task is not to discover ‘truths,’ but only ‘validities.’ In itself, a language is not true or false, it is or is not valid: valid, i.e. constitutes a coherent system of signs. The rules of literary [artistic] language do not concern the conformity of this language to reality. . . but only its submission to the system of signs the author has established.”(14)

Umberto Eco makes a similar distinction, using slightly different terms: “semantic interpretation. . . fills up. . . a textual manifestation. . . with a given meaning,” in effect “using” -- Eco’s word -- the text for extra-artistic purposes, while “critical interpretation” is a “metalinguistic activity -- a semiotic approach -- which aims at describing and explaining the formal reasons” for the text, that is, the “structural devices” that inform it. Semantic interpretation is “first and naïve”; it is concerned to understand what the work says and means. Critical interpretation is somewhat more sophisticated; it is concerned to understand “the way in which the text says” what it means.(15) As Eco notes, it is the difference between the explicit intention of the reader, intentio lectoris, and the intention implicit in the text, the intentio operis. The latter is more difficult to fathom and more “critical” to the existence of the text, and thus necessitates a more critical semiotic consciousness. For both Barthes and Eco psychoanalytic interpretation of the work is the exemplary case of exclusively semantic interpretation or interpretive use of the text, and as such shortsighted and a crime against critical consciousness, not to say its bête noir. For them the text is not the manifest content of the author’s dream whose latent content the critic uncovers by interpretation, but an autonomous reality immune to extra-textual interpretation.

I propose that the critic, whether preaching and practicing immanent-semiotic or extra-artistic semantic interpretation -- the metalinguistic former tending to positivistic description and explanation, the latter to the imaginative use of the text to generate psychosocial meaning -- authorizes and completes a text that has been left incomplete by its official author, however complete it may look to uncritical consciousness. Both modes of interpretation are equally authoritative to the extent they complete the work by making us conscious of the meanings and structure that give it esthetic and existential value, and with that critical consequence. The two modes dialectically integrate to produce what I want to call a critical consciousness of trialectic authorship that minimizes their difference, even reconciling them. The realization that the work has three authors -- a technical or practical author, a theoretical or interpretive author, and a sociocultural or lifeworld author, more particularly the Zeitgeist insofar as it is a facilitating environment -- implies that it has no one identity, and cannot be given an exclusive one by semantic or semiotic interpretation or their dialectical combination. The work is not self-same nor self-contradictory, but a compound of points of view or horizons of understanding, working together to make the work creatively work and thus fulfill itself.

The facilitative Zeitgeist is the primary author, the practitioner is the secondary author, and the theorizing interpreter is the tertiary author. The practitioner gets the credit for the creative work that produced the art work, but the Zeitgeist creatively worked on him: it is the muse that inspires the work, gives birth to it as a symbolic expression of itself. It is the fertile ground of the work that makes its form seem fertile with lifeworld meaning. The theoretical interpreter -- the first seriously attentive audience -- then goes to creative work on the artistic product with his critical consciousness, finishing it by using an exclusive point of view to exhaustively mine all its meanings and uncover the ruling conventions of the structure that supports them. This hard interpretive creative work makes consciousness easier for the art work’s larger audience. Vicariously identifying with the critic, and leavening its everyday consciousness with the leavings of his critical consciousness, the larger audience experiences the work as intriguing entertainment, a sort of fun house distorting mirror of life. Carefully cultivated by critical consciousness, the ruthlessly objectified work becomes emotionally convincing, paradoxically completing its mission: it has a cathartic effect on the audience. For an uncanny esthetic moment the work arouses hate and love, abruptly enlightening the audience about its feelings and making existence more bearable, feelings it rarely experienced so intensely and anxiously, deep feelings it forgot it was capable of having let alone enduring. The work quickly fades back into existential inconsequence, but it has left its haunting mark on the larger audience, scarring its consciousness if not decisively changing it. No longer functioning as a sort of screen memory, the art work becomes a cultural relic.

Whether he knows it or not, the critic authorizes the feelings of the audience by authorizing the work with his point of view -- indeed, authorizes the unconscious of the audience by giving the work the imprimatur of his authoritative consciousness. He works for the cognitive and emotional good of the audience, however small a good it may be, by working for the larger good of the art work. For to find meanings in the rough and decipher the system of regulations governing its appearance is to give it a value that will outlast its materiality and the Zeitgeist that informs it -- to give it carrying and staying power, and with that a second life in the Zeitgeist of some posterity.

This paper was originally given at the "Developing Criticism in Ceramics," Oct. 27-30, 2010, a symposium organized by the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts in Santa Fe, N.M.

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University. He is senior critic at the New York Academy of Art


(1) Wassily Kandinsky, “On the Question of Form,” Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 242-45 passim

(2) Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1846,” The Mirror of Art, ed. Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), 41

(3) Clement Greenberg, Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944, The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986), I, 33

(4) Baudelaire, 242

(5) D. W. Winnicott, “Creativity and Its Origins,” Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock, 1971), 65

(6) Coleridge distinguishes between primary and secondary imagination. “The primary IMAGINATION. . . is the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and… a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead. FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space….” I. A. Richards, ed., The Portable Coleridge (New York: Viking, 1950), 516

(7) Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), 14

(8) Ibid., 15

(9) Paul Valéry, “On the Pre-eminent Dignity of the Arts of Fire,” Degas Manet Morisot (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960), 170

(10) Ibid., 172

(11) Greenberg, Art and Culture, 125

(12) Harold Rosenberg, “Action Painting: Crisis and Distortion,” The Anxious Object (New York: Horizon Press, 1964), 46-47    

(13) Roland Barthes, “The Two Criticisms,” Critical Essays (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972),254-55

(14) Barthes, “What Is Criticism?”, Ibid., 258

(15) Umberto Eco, “Intentio Lectoris: The State of the Art,” Differentia 2 (Spring 1988):158