PRINT April 1967

The Value of Didactic Art


ANDY WARHOL IS LIKE CÉZANNE in only one way: he is the primitive of a new art. Along with Jasper Johns, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, Ad Reinhardt and Marcel Duchamp, whose activity provides the closest parallel with his own, Warhol is one of the principal didactic artists of our time. All valid art, of course, teaches something; but until the fifties, Duchamp was the only major artist to consider each art object he produced primarily a lesson in esthetics.

I am defining didactic art as art whose primary intention is to instruct. Within the terms of this definition, Jasper Johns’s flag is a didactic work whereas a painting by Barnett Newman, which also teaches a lesson, is not. I have not defined didactic art as art whose sole intention is to teach something, because there are relatively few examples of pure didactic art, i.e., art with no intrinsic esthetic content. Pure didactic art includes that whole class of found objects which Duchamp termed “unassisted ready-mades”; it includes virtually nothing else. The two other examples of pure didactic art I can think of are Rauschenberg’s portrait of Iris Clert and Morris’s notarized certificate. The former is a telegram that reads “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so” and the latter is a document withdrawing content from a work previously executed by the artist. It goes without saying that once the artist makes any decision beyond the initial decision to change the status of an object from common object to art object by virtue of his benediction, he is effecting some kind of esthetic transformation. Once the element of esthetic transformation enters, even if this means, as it does in Carl Andre’s case, merely arranging found objects, the work is no longer a pure example of didactic art.1

The pure didactic work, then, has no esthetic content. One of the ways Duchamp has been most misunderstood is that his apologists have attempted to read esthetic content into the bottle rack. The consequence of appreciating the bottle rack because it is formally “beautiful” is to estheticize the total environment, both natural and man-made. This is John Cage’s position, but it was not Duchamp’s. The latter made it more than clear that the purpose of the ready-mades was not to extend the esthetic to encompass the ordinary environment, but to transcend taste.2

Since every deliberate decision involves taste, Duchamp insisted that the ready-mades were discovered entirely through random selection. Recently, Clement Greenberg has identified radical art as art that “challenges taste.” Of course, challenging taste and transcending taste are different goals, but they are related. Both ideas are oriented toward revising the role of criticism: the notion of transcending taste toward eliminating it and the notion of challenging taste toward glorifying it.

Criticism takes for granted that there is good taste and bad taste. The man of “good taste” is of course the successful critic. If it is possible to transcend taste—through the medium of chance according to Duchamp—then the man of good taste has no more to say about art than the man of no taste. Therefore criticism is pointless. If it is possible, on the other hand; to challenge taste, then the fate of the work of art is inextricably linked to criticism, since the taste being challenged is that of the critic. Confronted with radical work which “challenges taste,” criticism must revise its own canons, and only the true critic, the man of good taste, has the means to do this. Unless the critic is capable then of self-criticism, the radical content of art goes by unnoticed.3 But if its quality is contingent on its radicality, as I understand Michael Fried to be generally arguing, then ignoring the radicality of the art work amounts to ignoring its quality. In this case criticism is central and crucial. The logical conclusions of the positions that art can either transcend taste or challenge taste are respectively that criticism is pointless or that it is crucial. The contemporary critic is forced into adopting one of these views; no other views are tenable if a claim can be made that art either transcends taste or challenges taste.4

Because its real purpose is to teach, to elucidate, or to edify, the work of didactic art has less value as art than as lesson. For this reason, formalist criticism, which places value only within the specific object, dismisses didactic art because its content is extra-visual. The result has been that we tend to lump didactic art together with literary art, whose narrative content is also extra visual. Now clearly there is something quite different involved in the extra-visual content of Duchamp and that of Andrew Wyeth. We need therefore to be more precise about the nature of the extra-visual content of didactic art in order to make finer discriminations. Formalist criticism provides us with no way of accounting for non-formal content. We need therefore to understand what it is, why and how it got there, and why it may be valuable.5

To begin with, the lessons of didactic art are visual, not literary; their realm is esthetics, not story telling. This is a significant distinction. It means that Dada and Surrealism are not identical with didactic art. Works of didactic art are, in other words, illustrations of theoretical esthetic positions condensed into a single object, which stands for the entire argument. They represent abstract ideas made concrete in works of art. Their value is relative to the cogency, clarity and originality of the argument they illustrate.

The first and most important didactic work is the bottle rack. But I believe that Duchamp’s intention in this work has been profoundly misunderstood: that is, the bottle rack is a red herring. It was never intended to be art; it was a statement of extreme pessimism about the future of art in the machine age.6 But it was meant to demand an esthetic evaluation—that is why it found its way into the art gallery. Why must we assume that Duchamp intended that judgment to be positive? Isn’t it equally possible that the bottle rack was meant to draw the line between the esthetic and the non-esthetic, rather than to erase it? If this were the case, the bottle rack would not be art, it is true, but it would be a beautiful argument about art. And this is what I want to argue: that didactic work has value, not as art but as dialogue.

As an illustration of the possibility of evaluating didactic works, let us take two pure examples: Duchamp’s bottle rack and George Brecht’s chair and ball. The Duchamp is clearly the better work, not because it is in any way formally superior, but because it is the first to deal with the problem of the found object, and because it deals with it more precisely and with greater clarity. Another example might be the obviously superior way Warhol’s flowers deal with the problem of reproduction of the unique object as compared with Richard Pettibone’s feebler presentation.

It should be obvious that to subject Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Duchamp’s bottle rack, or Andre’s row of firebricks to formal analysis is to commit a meaningless act. But the question is, if they have little or negligible esthetic meaning, are they consequently meaningless? They are, it would appear from the formalist point of view, meaningless as art. But from another point of view, they are meaningful as dialogue. In fact, the element of irony in didactic work often results from the public insisting on buying dialogue. They are, as Duchamp pointed out, buying air.

We are left with these conclusions: pure didactic art has no formal value, yet we can discern better and worse examples of it. On what does this discernment depend? And is it a discernment of quality? We deem a work of didactic art superior on the grounds that the argument it presents is superior. Therefore the first task of the critic is the reconstruction of the argument of a didactic work. The value of the didactic work is the value of its argument: it can have quality only if an argument can have esthetic quality. The pleasure we get from didactic work is like the pleasure we get from a tour de force intellectual performance. (It is no accident that Duchamp is a chess master.) But there is pleasure involved in considering the solutions to abstract logical or mathematical problems. The degree to which this pleasure approximates esthetic pleasure is the degree to which didactic work approaches having quality.

Most works of didactic art are not so simply discussed, however, because they are mixed examples having both esthetic and didactic content, in varying proportions. I see this mixed class as a spectrum, with Andy Warhol’s soup cans at one end and Reinhardt’s “black” paintings at the other. Between these two extremes fall works like Dan Flavin’s and Carl Andre’s constructions. Jasper Johns’s work represents a particularly complex variety of this mixed class because both didactic and formal values of a very high order are present in them.

Because its principal value is as dialogue, not as object, we must conclude that didactic art in its purer forms is made only for artists and critics, and not for the public. It is made, in other words, for internal consumption within the art world. In this way didactic art does form part of the dialectic, as dialogue if not as art; for the dialectic is an abstraction composed, not of individual works of art, but of the critical ideas which those works embody or generate. In this sense, works of little or no intrinsic value may contribute significant concepts to the running dialogue that is art history. The example that most readily comes to mind is the Dada use of random or chance effects (e.g., Duchamp’s Standard Stoppages) which later finds expression as Surrealist automatism, the basis for much of the Abstract Expressionist esthetic.

Why and when does a category like didactic art arise? In one sense, didactic art can be seen as a waste product of modernism. Once the avant-garde quit the academies, it relinquished much of the internal dialogue within the art world. Works of art were forced to speak for themselves; the artist had to put up or shut up. A certain type of mind, traditionally drawn to theoretical issues, was disinherited. But that type of mind, of which Duchamp is again the prime example, soon found that it, too, could speak through works of art, more directly perhaps than through theoretical treatises. Didactic art arose out of the same kind of impulse that generated such crucial academic controversies as disegno vs. colore and the ancients vs. the moderns. But this time the impulse had to find expression outside the context of the by now defunct academies.

Didactic art is not only a product of the 20th century, but of certain moments of the 20th century, namely pre-World War I and post-World War II. It is conspicuously dormant during the formative years of the two great creative 20th-century art styles, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. This leads one to suspect that the upsurge of interest in theoretical issues of which didactic art is a result coincides with the declining phase of a movement which precedes the formulation of a new esthetic. Many parallels from the history of art could be drawn to support this view.

The function of didactic art, therefore, is twofold: it is both destructive and/or constructive. It serves to question the validity of old canons and to offer fresh possibilities for exploration. Every good work of art does this, but didactic art is distinguished by the deliberate manner in which it focuses attention on esthetic issues. Naturally negative or destructive activity of any kind is less valuable than positive or constructive work. In its negative or destructive aspect, didactic art may serve to close off a series or to define the limits of art. I would cite as examples of negative didactic art most of Duchamp’s work (with the exception of the Large Glass) and Andre’s expendable styrofoam and magnetic constructions, which may be assembled and dismantled for the occasion. Negative didactic art is frequently a form of social criticism. In this role it exposes the commercialism of the art world by exhibiting for sale patently worthless objects. This is its least interesting aspect.

In its positive, or constructive aspect, it presents a “prime” object, in the sense that Kubler speaks of “prime” objects as the original objects in the beginning of a new series. In this way, a didactic work of art may open new avenues or suggest a new set of problems to be attacked. An example of such constructive didactic art was Robert Morris’s plywood show at the Green Gallery in 1964, which presented a number of fresh ways of relating sculpture to its environment, as well as suggesting the possibility of a new sculpture based on volume rather than plane. Another example of positive didactic work is Dan Flavin’s use of standard fluorescent light units. Both Morris’s and Flavin’s work are mixed types of didactic work, because they have some formal value.

Often, didactic works involve taking extreme positions because they are, by definition, exemplary, either ethically or esthetically. Those works that mean to present ethical choices, for example Reinhardt’s “black” paintings, usually attempt to redirect the course of art away from what is considered morally threatening toward more solid ground. It might be said of didactic work in general that it has as part of its intention the deflection of the dialectic of art history, usually by offering an alternate reading of its direction.

Because it is exemplary, didactic art provides an example of a type. Unfortunately, if the example is a good one, the category of the type is exhausted by its original presentation. One of the problems of assessing Duchamp as an artist is that his oeuvre is too large; after the bottle rack, there was no need to produce another found object. The remainder of the found objects are redundant, since their intrinsic merit is relative to their lesson, which was formulated with complete clarity in the bottle rack. Perhaps one reason critics are tempted to condemn Duchamp’s activity on moral grounds is because the multiplication of found objects appears the result of laziness or greed. It could be argued from Duchamp’s side that since no one understood the lesson of the bottle rack properly, it was necessary to reiterate it.

Recently, Friedel Dzubas has leveled this same argument against the “minimal” artists: Once they have said “No,” he claims, they should halt their activity. If indeed these artists were involved in nothing more than negation, Dzubas would be correct. But it is my opinion that certain among them have managed to translate the positive elements in their originally didactic work into the basis for a new esthetic, an esthetic that has fresh formal meaning.7


ANDY WARHOL IS ONE SUCH ARTIST. Given the types of didactic art outlined above, Andy Warhol has been the negative didactic artist par excellence. He has negated the uniqueness of the art object, and even its claim to originality. And his painting and sculpture, if we want to call them that, have remained negative didactic art. His movies, on the other hand, have always had elements of the fresh and the archaic, again in the sense of the “prime” object which opens new avenues of exploration, about them.

The new cinema therefore is the art of which Warhol is the primitive. In his identification of filmed time with lived time, in his investigation of the possibilities of a different kind of tempo for films, in his use of improvisation and his focusing on detail and nuance, Warhol has beaten Godard and Antonioni at their own game. (Surely it has been remarked elsewhere that the Pop sequences in The Married Woman are Warhol-inspired.)

Warhol’s specialty in film as in art is the reductio ad absurdum. But in reducing the clichés of cinema verité to their essential limits, Warhol has laid the basis for a new kind of cinema, one that is not at bottom anti cinematic, like the naive efforts of his underground colleagues. On the contrary, Warhol’s amateurishness is that of the professional naif. “Why,” asks the Douanier Rousseau of the cinema, “do they call me an idiot souvent?” It is in his role as “idiot savant” that Warhol has developed a technique which until recently amounted to a kind of cinematic automatism, ignoring editing, composing, etc.—all the processes in other words that qualify cinema as “art.” And in so doing he has sought for the movies what the best Abstract Expressionists sought for painting: he has minimized the artiness, pretense, mannered self consciousness, phony posturing, pseudo-philosophizing and Old World refinement that mars even a film like Blow-Up.

In the past, if something was good in a Warhol film, it was good by accident. These random moments were appreciated by the fans for their “visual beauty.” This “visual beauty” it turned out, if one had the patience to decipher the macabre signs of approbation that issued regularly from The Village Voice and Film Culture, was largely in evidence when the image could most readily be appreciated as an abstraction, that is like the images in an abstract painting. In this vein have appeared some of the silliest passages of recent film criticism, in which critics attempt to apply the criteria of formal analysis to filmed images! The resultant discussions about the flat plane of the movie screen are as hilarious and as misplaced as the more outrageous existentialism-cum-zen jargon that was applied to painting in the fifties.

The argument that Warhol’s films are to be appreciated for their “visual beauty” stems from the fallacious interpretation of Duchamp’s intention in proclaiming the bottle rack a work of art, to which I allude above. Duchamp’s intention, if I understand it correctly, was not to make everyman an artist. It was, if anything, the reverse. To see any formal or esthetic value in the bottle rack, one must adopt the attitude that every object is potentially esthetic, depending on the attitude of the viewer. Democratizing the esthetic might appear laudable until we realize that the extension of the esthetic is identical with its destruction. The moment everything has equal esthetic potential, there is no need for art, because everything out there—the neon, the shiny cars, the hotdog stands, the billboards—is beautiful, that is, it is already art.

It is to Warhol’s credit that he appreciated that “visual beauty” was not enough; and that, as opposed to painting and sculpture, film is essentially not only an art of content, but an art of dramatic content. There has been a certain amount of content in most of Warhol’s films, most of it distasteful, but in The Chelsea Girls the content is both primary and radical. I do not mean that it is radical in subject—other films deal more sensationally (and certainly more con with homosexuality, sado-masochism, and drugs. Like the subject matter of most of Warhol’s art, the subject matter of The Chelsea Girls is an inverted social criticism. The Chelsea Girls is radical in the way characterization and direction are managed, and in the degree to which dramatic action, not images, is conceived of abstractly or formally.

The Chelsea Girls is not a documentary, but the qualities it has in common with certain contemporary documentary forms such as Capote’s “non-fiction” novel and De Antonio’s “non-fiction” film relate it to the present taste for the actual and the concrete as opposed to the fanciful or the imagined as material to be esthetically transformed. The ultimate statement of this taste is that nothing is realer than reality. The somewhat voyeuristic quality, not only of The Chelsea Girls, but of many other current films is one consequence of this taste.

Yet it would be a mistake to see The Chelsea Girls as an unimaginative, literal transcription of reality. These are not random scenes, but scenes set by a director. Strictly speaking, in fact, The Chelsea Girls marks Warhol’s first appearance as a director. He has always “cast” his films brilliantly, but in this case he outdoes himself, fabricating characters by locating people whose personalities and physical qualities coincide with the characters he wishes to create. The result is that the “script” is created through the selection of the personalities or characters who will play the roles Warhol has in mind. Their speeches are often, like Pope Ondine’s Pirandello-esque monologue, brilliant improvisations, far more vivid than ordinary movie dialogue. But recording Pope Ondine and relating his stream-of-consciousness, drug-induced outpourings to other similarly brilliant episodes is Warhol’s own stroke of genius.

In 1924, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy prophetically asked:

Is it possible to include his (Man’s) human, logical functions in a present-day concentration of action on the stage, without running the risk of producing a copy from nature and without falling prey to Dadaist or Merz characterization, composed of an eclectic patchwork whose seeming order is purely arbitrary?

The Chelsea Girls is one answer to that question. Happenings are another. In the dramatic fusion of such extra artistic sources as role-playing, psychodrama, and fortuitous accident and improvisation may come the vital new theater and new cinema that correspond to Moholy-Nagy’s description. Currently the amount of activity of the “underground” cinema is out of proportion to its accomplishments. Its dedication to what has been called an “esthetique du schlock” prevents it from arriving at that level of professionalism which fine art demands. It is in addition consistently compromised by a cheap camp sensibility. Yet, it has already produced three classics: Pull My Daisy, Scorpio Rising, and, now, that exemplary positive didactic work, The Chelsea Girls.

Barbara Rose


1. The measure of didactic content in Pop art is small, and it is usually an illustration of the argument regarding esthetic transformation, which has preoccupied mainly art historians still applying 19th-century concepts to 20th-century art. But the central meaning of Pop is as art, not as dialogue; Pop has to make it formally or not at all. I am not alone in finding formal quality in Lichtenstein and formal innovation in Oldenburg. The rest of Pop, on the other hand, is virtually devoid of any formal interest. Its extra-visual content is story-telling, not art theory. The refusal of formalist critics to make any distinctions among Pop works has added to the general confusion.

2. According to H. P. Roche, Duchamp explained, “I force myself into a self-contradiction to avoid following my taste.” (“Souvenirs of Duchamp,” in Marcel Duchamp by Jean-Jacques Lebel.)

3. “Art has grown faster than the critic’s ability to comprehend,” Willard Huntington Wright wrote in Modern Painting in 1915. The present attempt of formalist criticism to revise itself in keeping with new concepts as they are generated has resulted in a state of affairs Michael Fried has not exaggerated in describing as “harrowing.”

4. Outlining the critic’s task in Three American Painters (p. 10), Michael Fried asks for a more active role for criticism: “Not only will (the formal critic) expound the significance of new painting that strikes him as being genuinely exploratory, and distinguish between this and work that does not attempt to challenge or to go beyond the achievements of prior modernists; but in discussing the work of painters he admires he will have occasion to point out what seem to him flaws in putative solutions to particular formal problems; and, more rarely, he may even presume to call the attention of modernist painters to formal issues, that in his opinion, demand to he grappled with.” According to Fried, this role is “in its development closely akin to, and potentially only somewhat less important than that of the new paintings themselves.”

In Marcel Duchamp’s assessment of “The Creative Act” (in Marcel Duchamp by Jean-Jacques Lebel), there is a striking similarity to Fried’s suggestion that the artist relies on the critic in order to realize the work: “All in all,” writes Duchamp, “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contributions to the creative act.”

There are crucial differences in these two views, of course. For Fried the critic is he who can distinguish value (and recognizing the critic a task comparable to recognizing value); for Duchamp the critic is anyone willing to consider the work. Nonetheless, the idea that the work of art is incomplete without criticism seems peculiar to the contemporary situation. It may explain why the crisis climate, which characterized art in the forties and fifties, has displaced itself to criticism in the sixties. The critic is forced to think like the artist, if he is going to think at all. This places a greater burden on criticism than it has ever been willing to bear in the past.

5. My quarrel with formalist criticism is not that it is inadequate to distinguish quality, but that it blurs every other kind of distinction.

6. Formalist criticism sees Duchamp and Cage occupying the same esthetic position. (See: Michael Fried, Three American Painters, Fogg Art Museum, 1965, p. 47.) Yet the two could not be more opposed. Duchamp remains entrenched in his French bourgeois frame of reference, uncomfortable with technology, fending off the 20th-century with his best weapon, irony. The thinker he is closest to is Ortega y Gasset, not McLuhan, who is Cage’s opposite number. Duchamp represents not the destruction of traditional elitist esthetics, but its best defender. Cage, on the other hand, is the devil’s esthetician, permitting art to infiltrate all spheres of activity. Duchamp’s efforts continue to force evaluation—even if they accept in advance a negative appraisal, whereas Cage expects the esthetic to color every activity as art. Duchamp, in asking the question, is the bottle rack art? did not necessarily assume that it was; Cage doesn’t bother to ask and takes it for granted that it is. When Cage asks if the truck passing by in the street is any less musical than the truck in the music school, he is already assuming that the truck’s sound is music and is posing the question of whether context can change value, not whether it con determine the esthetic or non-esthetic status of a work. Cage alone poses the question of value: Duchamp restricts himself to questioning the limits of art. In so doing, he forced the hand of formalist criticism, contributing enormously to its self-definition. In other words, Duchamp made the problem of art vs. non-art irrelevant and required criticism to deal directly with value alone, which is what Cage, in a completely relevant contemporary formulation, is challenging. No one can convince me that this challenge isn’t valuable, both to art and to criticism.

7. The meaning of the Large Glass, for example, in terms of its fresh esthetic use of materials and illusionism, has yet to he commented on critically, although it has contributed a number of concepts to current dialogue, too complex to discuss in this context.