TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 1969

1. Constructivism and its Confusions

I

THE HISTORY OF CONSTRUCTIVISM is curious. Since its inception around 1920 it has found a number of homes, one of them in the Bauhaus and yet another, surprisingly, with the Dadaists (although not with the Surrealists). It has, in addition, influenced the art education of our time and has consequently affected our taste. In spite of this it has failed to produce works of art that transcend their didacticism; more specifically it seems to have been unable to inspire individual artists, or to have permitted them to become inspired. Yet despite this failure to match the quality of the finest art of our century, the Constructivist tradition has continued unabated, primarily because, I think, of the nature and abundance of its polemic.

It can be argued, with some justification, that the Constructivist tradition hasn’t been particularly critical, that it criticizes in terms of doctrine rather than experience and as a result does not allow for outstanding works of art that are not comprehended by its theory. This raises an interesting critical problem and, I think, an important area of study: that of the relation of artistic theories to finished works of art. Some insight into the failures and achievements of various art movements can hopefully be obtained by examining their intentions in the light of their achievements.

Constructivist polemic has inherited much of its dogmatism from the very nature of the manifesto, which has tended to be doctrinaire and didactic, concerned with establishing a position, and has remained true to the nature of the manifesto with a peculiar tenacity since the time of its origins. The original manifesto-oriented movements—Futurism, Dadaism and Constructivism—emerged in provincial situations during a troublesome period in European history, deriving their attitudes from the revolutionary social and political movements of the day and deriving their styles from the School of Paris.

All three movements can, in fact, be regarded as attempts to fuse the achievements of Parisian art, particularly Cubism, with utopian social ideas. Futurism, Dadaism and Constructivism were intimately bound to their respective societies, but were bound by a fundamental provincialism that has characterized their achievements to the present day. One of the distinguishing features of provincial academic art is its tendency to illustrate official sensibility, and the tendency of provincial revolutionary art movements is to oppose the academies rather than to ignore them. The manifesto movements of the early 20th century were emphatically opposed to salon art, which they correctly identified as the prevailing official style, but mistakenly confused with tradition. Provincial salon painting of the late 19th century was predominantly uninspired. As such it did not constitute a viable tradition, that is if one views tradition as a history of outstanding achievement. A confusion of tradition with the salons did not really arise in France in the 19th century because real achievement did occur both within and adjacent to the salons; one need only consider the estimation of Delacroix, Ingres, Courbet and Corot by the various Impressionists. France had produced much of the great painting of the century and ensuing generations of French painters recognized that fact. Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Russia had not produced major art during the 19th century and it was perhaps inevitable that painters in those countries failed to properly distinguish the essential difference between salon painting and major art. When young painters reacted against the salons, they tended to propose a substitute for them rather than a significant alternative to their achievements. The manifesto, then, proposed a new didacticism in place of the old.

Apart from a rejection of salon art, perhaps the most important contribution of Futurism to Dadaism and Constructivism was the manifesto itself. Dadaism, from its outset, was certain of its intentions regarding the relationship of art to society. Its faith in the viability of the entire Western tradition had been shaken by the First World War, and it proposed to destroy that tradition by systematically debunking culture in the hope that an anarchic situation would result which would, in turn, give birth to a new and better society. In short, Dadaism hoped to provoke a utopia through art. The art, as a result, was essentially didactic, that is, its content tended to be its program and, insofar as the manifesto was eminently adapted to articulating a program, art and manifesto were something of a piece. The Duchamp bottle rack and snow shovel, for example, declare that anything can be art and, by extension, that quality is irrelevant. By declaring that art and quality are synonymous they imply that the entire Western tradition is devoid of value.

Dadaism originated in Zurich during the First World War, in an island amidst chaos; Constructivism (as well as Suprematism and Productivism) developed at the same time in revolutionary Russia. The difference appears to have been crucial: where Dadaism was nihilistic and destructive, Constructivism was idealistic and constructive; it believed the utopia was at hand. It used the manifesto to proclaim a revolutionary art based upon new values and to provide an ideological base upon which to appeal for a significant position in the new society. While official sanction was never accorded to the Suprematists, Productivists or Constructivists, the academic side of Constructivism has proven hardy enough to survive a series of transplants and, while it has never been blessed by government, it has been able to maintain its basic doctrines to the present day.

II

Constructivist thinking was first formulated by the brothers Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner in the Realist Manifesto of 1920. The manifesto is divided into two parts, the first of which describes artistic fundamentals followed by proposals based upon the two aspects of those fundamentals. It begins:

The “fundamental bases of art” must rest on solid ground: real life.

In fact (actuality) space and time are the two elements which exclusively fill real life (reality).

Therefore, if art wishes to grasp real life, it must, likewise, be based on these two fundamental elements.

To realize our creative life in terms of space and time: such is the unique aim of our creative art.1

The obvious characteristic of this manifesto is its attempt to develop an artistic system out of the characteristics of the “real world.” But the system is complicated by the fact that the Constructivist fundamentals, space and time, are abstractions which cannot be perceived in their pure states. As a result, they cannot be said to “fill” reality, at least not in any perceivable sense. If anything, what we perceive as “real” fills space and time, that is they yield themselves up as concepts only through our perception of objects and events. Nevertheless, this assertion of the fundamentally abstract character of reality was significant; it provided a rationale for an abstract, mimetic art that sought to represent the fundamentals of nature as proclaimed by science rather than observable nature.

Perhaps a more serious limitation to the Constructivist fundamental reality lies in the question it begs, that of how art differs from reality. If reality is exclusively filled with space and time, how can artifacts (created forms) fail to contain space and time? It can, of course, be argued that art is essentially illusionistic, but even if this implication is accepted a second question is begged, of how and why it is so. But whatever the implication, it is clear that the Constructivists assume that art somehow differs from reality, and that its value is somehow determined by its relation to reality. Inherent in this point of view is a fallacy akin to the popular view that good art is that which most faithfully copies appearances and which holds that Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth are necessarily better than Picasso. Similarly, the Constructivists make no allowances for quality in works of art apart from their fidelity to the fundamentals of space and time.

This limitation is the result of a failure to account for the observer in their theory. Reality, for them, has to do with space and time in their abstract senses, but has little to do with human existence or, more specifically, with mental processes. The only way that art can be properly distinguished from external reality is to regard it as a product of the mind, born of observation and imagination. The fidelity to nature (or human nature) that is revealed in art is discovered by the imagination. It has nothing to do with doctrine or with science, or, in fact, with anything that can be verified objectively. The “fundamental bases of reality” are discovered anew in all great art.

This failure to account for the mind of the observer in Cabo’s and Pevsner’s initial observations is patched up, but only patched up, by the assertion that theirs is a “creative art.” Paragraph five takes up this point but fails, equally, to clarify it: “We hold our sextant in our hand, our eyes look straight before them, our minds are stretched like a bow, and we shape our work as the world its creation, the engineer his bridge, the mathematician his formulas of a planetary orbit . . .” This statement, like the ones before it, fails to make distinctions. What, precisely, is meant by “shape”? The mathematician’s formula would appear to be shaped by a mental process, but if that is the case, wouldn’t “conception” be a more apt description? On the other hand, it would be very difficult to argue that the creation of the world, and certainly creation within the world, is conceptual; not, at least, in the sense in which we understand conception. The whole concept of the similarity of the artistic creation to creation in nature seems to be an attempt to buttress a faulty argument with a rather grand metaphor.

The second part of the Realist Manifesto relates the fundamentals of space and time more specifically to the visual arts.

On space:

We deny volume as an expression of space. Space can be as little measured by a volume as a liquid by a linear measure. What can space be if not impenetrable depth? Depth is the unique form by which space can be expressed. We reject physical mass as an element of plasticity. Every engineer knows that the force of resistance and the inertia of an object do not depend on its mass. One example suffices: railroad tracks.

Nevertheless, plasticians preserve the prejudice according to which mass and volume are inseparable.

On time:

We have freed ourselves from the age-old error of the Egyptians, according to whom the basic element of art could only be a static rhythm. We announce that the elements of art have their basis in a dynamic rhythm.

The denial of volume in the paragraphs on space implies that the entire sculptural tradition, insofar as it involves volume, is fallacious (this was modified later by Moholy-Nagy, who felt that volumetric forms and physical mass were “antiquated,” belonging to an earlier stage in the “evolution” of sculpture).2 The two paragraphs related to time go a step further than those concerning space; the entire Western artistic tradition is declared to be in error insofar as it has not utilized “dynamic rhythm.” Apart from the fact that the arguments are confused (how does it follow that volume is incapable of expressing space because it cannot measure it? Furthermore, if space fills all of reality why can’t it exist in volumes as well as in impenetrable depth?), it is simply uncritical to view works of art as erroneous. They can only be good or bad, successful or unsuccessful. To maintain that a tradition that has produced masterpieces is erroneous is simply absurd. It is this extreme self-limiting denial of the past that links the Constructivist and Dadaist traditions. It seems to have been crippling, possibly because it imposes an arbitrary constraint upon artists who have not been able to be influenced freely; that is, a good deal of art has been denied to them because it does not conform to their program. Furthermore, that program is not based upon what art is good or bad, but upon what art is “right” or “wrong” and therefore good or bad.

III

Following the dissolution of the Russian avant-garde in 1922, Constructivism was carried to the Bauhaus in Weimar where many of its ideas were continued by figures like the Hungarian, Laslo Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy brought them to America in 1938, when the New Bauhaus (The Chicago Institute of Design) was established. In 1947 Moholy-Nagy published Vision in Motion, a comprehensive account of his program at the Institute of Design which revealed a strong Constructivist orientation. In his foreword he announced:

This book . . . proposes that new tools and technologies cause social changes; that they shift ways of production, possessions, wealth and power; yet though the inevitable logic of new technologies offering easy advantages for labor saving and profit making is willingly accepted on pragmatic intellectual terms, it is stubbornly opposed in the emotional sphere, where man clings to obsolete standards and empty conventions of the past, unapproachable by logical argument and often against his best interests.3

The notion that technological change produces social change is certainly familiar today, as is the notion that technological change alters our emotional lives. Perhaps the basic difference between Moholy-Nagy and Marshall McLuhan is that where Moholy-Nagy seems to think our emotional lives lag behind social progress and that it is the responsibility of art and education to bridge that gap, McLuhan suggests the process is inevitable: that we always respond in terms of the immediate past and that our outlook is an inevitable outcome of contemporary technology. The weakness of both theories lies in their tendency to generalize: “new tools and technologies cause social changes” is certainly an oversimplification––any number of factors can influence social change, not the least being political ideology. But Moholy-Nagy’s drift is clear: he wants to assert a kind of social progress that accompanies technological change. He implies that technological change is good and that when our “emotional sphere” becomes attuned to the new society produced by technology we will be in a rather utopian condition. The distressing thing about Moholy-Nagy’s belief is that it amounts to a faith in technology per se. He never, to the best of my knowledge, examines the obsolete standards and empty conventions that he deplores, but simply implies that they are irrational and akin to prejudice. In addition to this he fails to examine technology and fails to distinguish between technology and science. I think the difference between science and technology is much more vague than most of the Constructivists would have us believe: they seem to see it as a social application of science and see art, by analogy, as technology’s humanizing handmaiden.

Perhaps the most illuminating aspect of Vision in Motion is the amount of space Moholy-Nagy devotes to Dadaist literature, to the poetry of Schwitters, Tzara, Arp and Hugo Ball. It is illuminating because it illustrates the fundamental unity of intentions of the Constructivists and Dadaists. Moholy-Nagy’s chapter on literature contains the seeds of much of the contemporary confusion which surrounds the sensibility art of the sixties, particularly the curious similarity of intentions between the Minimal artists and the Pop artists. The poems fail for much the same reasons that most art of this kind fails: because they proceed from assumptions about a state of culture. As a result they are mechanical and contrived rather than imaginative, are about culture rather than life.

IV

Gyorgy Kepes was born in Hungary in 1906. In 1937 he came to the United States to head the Light and Color Department of the Chicago Institute of Design. Since 1946 he has been professor of visual design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since 1960 he has edited a series of books devoted to an examination of problems common to the visual arts and sciences. The most famous of these is the Vision + Value series, but these were antedated by The Visual Arts Today, 1960 and in The New Landscape in Art and Science, Kepes introduces a number of these books with essays which are derived in many ways from Constructivism. As the arguments in most of these essays are basically similar, I have decided to concentrate on his introduction to The Visual Arts Today which is, in some respects, the most comprehensive statement of his views he has published.

At the outset I would like to point out some of the peculiar difficulties facing Kepes’s readers, a difficulty that doesn’t appear to exist in the Constructivist manifesto and in the writings of Moholy-Nagy and Jack Burnham. Gabo, Moholy-Nagy and Burnham are systematic thinkers; they draw conclusions from observations and assumptions that are stated with a degree of clarity and are developed systematically if not logically. Thus, even if one does not agree with their assumptions and conclusions, one can at least follow their arguments with a degree of certainty. This is not, however, the case with Kepes and a quotation from his introduction to The Visual Arts Today might clarify the nature of the problem. Following his observation that visual artists in this century have been unwilling to clarify their assumptions verbally, he concludes:

Artists are deeply committed to their eyes, they can bring their passionate vision to the most intense focus; but as a rule they lack impeccable logic and manipulative skill in verbal communication. 4

The implication of this sentence is, I think, that Kepes himself is an exception to this general rule. Kepes takes great pains to describe the assumptions which ground (by implication) his impeccable logic and manipulative skill. I shall attempt to examine Kepes’s logic later, so I won’t deal with it now, except to point out that logic and manipulative skill with language are not necessarily ideal bed fellows. Kepes is, in fact, a manipulator of language and his manipulation makes him very difficult to understand: he has an ability to change concepts to buttress failing arguments, with the result that it is very difficult to follow the development of his thought. I suspect that this kind of manipulative reasoning, with its strong emotional appeal, has won him a number of adherents, but that does not alter the fact that he indulges in what he so vociferously deplores—propaganda.

Kepes begins his introduction with a semi-scientific observation from which he develops a series of conclusions. The argument proceeds (or seems to proceed) in this fashion:

A.

1. Vision can be divided into two categories, one of which involves perceiving the external world, the second being an “inner vision” which focuses memory and experience.

2. These two visions can only be linked by the created visual image, in short by visual communication.

3. The highest form of created visual image is the artistic image, a “significant message delivered simultaneously to our senses, our feelings and our minds.”

4. The common denominator of artistic form is that “the structure of the form is specific.” Form is analogous to feeling and feeling, in turn, is analogous to thoughts and ideas.

5. The sensory, emotional and rational are interdependent and must all be present in a successful work of art. None of the three is primary in any essential sense. Art will be fragmentary in the absence of any one.

B.

1. All art must proceed from assumptions.

2. It follows that if the assumptions are invalid, the art will be invalid.

3. Insight can be gained by “testing the postulates of artists against the conclusions of science.”

4. A new environment has been created by modern science.

5. This new world is not accessible to our senses and feelings and we are consequently bewildered. We have no standard (scale) by which to measure our place in this world.

6. Our bewilderment is complicated by two factors:

a. Our industrial civilization has propagated social conditions that lead to fragmentation and alienation.

b. Artists have become discouraged by this chaos and by the complexity of modern science and have failed, thus far, to bridge the gap between a rational and emotional understanding of it. Artists like Gris, Mondrian and Leger attempted this synthesis but failed because they failed to enlist science.

More recent artists such as de Kooning and Pollock, simply retreated from the problem.

7. Artist and scientist must collaborate to provide a solution to the problem.

While this argument appears to proceed from a basic observation about vision, I don’t feel this is the case. My feelings are based upon two related curiosities in Kepes’s introduction. The first is a brief record of his personal development inserted between the first and second stages of his argument, that is between his argument for the necessary unity of sense, feeling and intellect and his contention. that art must proceed from assumptions. Ostensibly, Kepes’s purpose is to reveal the development of his own art in terms of a series of changing assumptions. However he concludes this record with the conclusion he reached following World War II: “Basically, I felt, the world made newly visible by science contained the essential symbols for our reconstruction of our physical surroundings and for the restructuring of the world of sense, feeling and thought within us.”

His subsequent argument regarding the validity of artists’ assumptions is conditioned by this feeling which has not been proven and does not follow from his initial observations. When he maintains that the assumptions of artists can be tested against the conclusions of science he is arguing from this second assumption which has not been verified. He fails, for example, to demonstrate why scientific conclusions relate to the validity of artistic assumptions. Why does science qualify as a standard of evaluation? Why, for example, does not philosophy qualify to evaluate artistic assumptions? The relationship of artistic assumptions to scientific conclusions suggests, as well, that art is secondary to scientific discovery and is valid only insofar as it relates to verifiable scientific conclusions. In addition to this, the whole question of scientific assumptions is not raised, although that, too, is a legitimate province of philosophy which has traditionally been the area of human activity uniquely qualified to examine assumptions. Finally, Kepes never describes artistic “conclusions” in his argument, but merely implies that works of art cannot succeed if the assumptions upon which they are based do not meet with scientific approval.

Kepes’s subsequent argument proceeds along this path and is forced to devalue practically the whole of 20th-century art. His argument that a new landscape, inaccessible to the unaided senses, has been created by modern science is an outcome of the conclusion that art must follow science. However, it places artists in the virtually untenable position of being incapable of evaluating any of the information available to their senses. In addition to this it renders response to works of art based upon scientific discovery very difficult, if not impossible. The spectator, having no sensory acquaintance with the discoveries of science, cannot test his experience of art against them. If a work of art did, by chance, arouse his emotions, it would still be open to science for verification and would have to be discarded if it failed the test.

When viewed in this light, Kepes’s apology for Gris, Mondrian and Léger and his antipathy for Abstract Expressionism are understandable. Art, for Kepes, must be a handmaiden of science as technology is a handmaiden of science; it must apply science to meet a social end. As I mentioned earlier, I feel that Kepes’s theory rests on an assumption about the primacy of modern science which is contained in the middle of his essay; from this point he proceeds to his conclusion and, I feel, proceeds crabwise to his initial observations. As a result, the initial observations contain a bias towards science which is expressed by an overemphasis upon reason and intellect in works of art.

Vision, for Kepes, is a “cognitive act”; it is “one of our basic forms of comprehending.” Our inner vision, on the other hand, is equally cognitive. While it operates in terms of “our sensory traffic with the environment” and in terms of memories and feelings which it organizes into images, its function is “to explore ourselves and to find significance and meaning.” Kepes fails, however, to distinguish any essential difference between “cognition” and “significance and meaning” and, as a result, the difference between the two visions remains unclear. The problem is complicated, however, when he describes artistic form as a) a bridge between the two visions (i.e. basic visual communication) and b) a combination of sense, emotion and intellect. It is complicated precisely because he has failed to distinguish either sense or emotion apart from intellect. If intellect is an inescapable attribute of both sense and emotion, if it has no sphere of its own, its presence is inevitable.

One of the problems of this argument is its failure· to properly distinguish between art and science. While Kepes neatly skirts the issue later on by implying the primacy of science, he does not observe any essential difference between the two. I think his failure is related to his attempt to argue a theory of art in terms of vision; as a result he is forced to see sensory vision and inner vision as two aspects of the same thing. In doing so he uses language in a conflicting manner: sensory vision is a rather explicit phenomenon that can be separated, for example, from the other senses, whereas “inner vision” is not so explicit a phenomenon. I presume Kepes refers to what we normally call imagination which “is peopled with sense images––visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactual––formed from the traces in our systems left by our sensory traffic with the environment.” However, if imagination contains images from all the senses, it is misleading to lump them together in terms of vision. “Inner Vision,” in Kepes’s sense, is a metaphor and Kepes uses metaphor, in this case, to imply that imagination is analogous to sensory vision. His avoidance of the term “imagination,” when seen in this context, is revealing, for if he had chosen to recognize imagination, he would have been faced with two attributes of the mind that would have created real difficulties for his subsequent analysis of science and art. The recognition of intellect and imagination as separate attributes of the mind raises fundamental questions of primacy when they are applied to the methods of art and science. Had Kepes recognized imagination he would have been forced into more complicated manipulations or would have been forced to recognize its primacy over intellect in the creation of works of art. As a result he would have been forced to abandon his threefold division of sense, emotion and intellect and would have subsequently been forced to abandon his appeal to reason in testing the validity of works of art.

That imagination does exist as a viable concept I have no doubt. It is confirmed by experience whereas Kepes’s theories are not; he is forced to speak in terms of potential rather than achievement, whereas imagination has the great art of the past and the present to call upon. In terms of firsthand experience, I suppose the ultimate authority is Shakespeare:

HIPPOLYTA. ’Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.

THESEUS. More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That, if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

—A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
Act V, Scene 1.

V

That the Constructivist tradition is still alive is revealed in the recent writing of Jack Burnham. In an article entitled “Systems Esthetics” in a recent Artforum5 and in his book Beyond Modern Sculpture, Burnham proposes a synthesis of art and science in terms of relevance to the scientific achievements of this century.

In “Systems Esthetics” Burnham proposes that the important intellectual activities of our time are derived from a “major paradigm” which he defines as “a scientific conception of the natural order so pervasive and intellectually powerful that it dominates all ensuing scientific discovery.” This major paradigm sounds suspiciously like a realization of the “new scale” that Kepes proposes to link the sciences, via art, with daily life. Burnham maintains: “We are now in transition from an object oriented to a systems oriented culture” in which the major technological tool is systems analysis or, in the sphere of art, systems esthetics. While he may be correct in describing systems analysis as the primary technological tool of our time, he repeats Kepes’s mistake when he assumes that technology and art have similar relationships with science and with our society.

Systems analysis is concerned with “long range planning,” is concerned not with things, but with the way things are done. Its best known application is by the Pentagon where it has to do “with the expense and complexity of modern warfare . . .” Burnham’s mention of the Pentagon is a curious one in light of the Vietnam war; it would seem to leave his major paradigm as a whole, not just its relevance to art, open to question. I think the military application of systems analysis as a technological tool in relation to the Vietnam war reveals something of the limitations of technology. The American military involvement in Vietnam has been continuing for a number of years now without success, despite a steadily growing arsenal of sophisticated weapons and despite systems analysis. In a recent interview, Viscount Montgomery observed that the war in Vietnam was a violation of MacArthur’s rule that America shouldn’t have become involved in a land war in Asia. That this “rule” still applies, despite advances in technology, indicates that technology and even systems analysis can’t effectively counter the basic problems which face armies in the field, particularly occupation and supply. Technology, in other words, is useless in warfare if one can’t locate and engage the enemy; it is secondary to strategy and to politics, both of which have failed to operate effectively in Vietnam. I am not suggesting that technology or even systems analysis is of no value, but I am suggesting that they by no means constitute our only effective method of dealing with the world. I am also opposed to the notion that the major paradigm of every age must of necessity be adopted by the arts.

To support his contention that systems esthetics is “in the air,” Burnham observes: “Intuitively many artists have already grasped these relatively recent distinctions, and if their ‘environments’ are on the unsophisticated side, this will change with time and experience.” This statement has two characteristics in common with the literature of Constructivism: apology and prediction. The apology, in this case for lack of sophistication, is similar in tone to the continuous apology of the Constructivist tradition regarding its own achievements, particularly in kinetic art. The grounds are always the same: that it has not as yet created great works of art primarily because of technological limitations. This argument, and indeed Constructivist literature as a whole, is accompanied by the assertion that the tradition will bear fruit in the future.

Burnham’s apology for lack of sophistication is also historically suspect; the movements which have produced great works of art during the past hundred years have done so by first producing great works of art. In this century, Cubist painting certainly kept pace with or operated slightly ahead of its rationale. Burnham, however, seems to have anticipated this argument: “Cubism followed the tradition of circumscribing art value wholly within art objects.” As a result Picasso is a lesser figure than Duchamp who is, to Burnham, the prototype of the modern didactic artist.

Burnham’s elevation of Marcel Duchamp as the important seminal figure in modern art does not really conflict with the theories of Constructivism. When he states that “the specific function of modern didactic art has been to show that art does not reside in material entities” he acknowledges the specifically didactic character of both Dadaism and Constructivism. Didactic art is inevitably judged in terms of social relevance rather than in terms of intrinsic quality. To my mind this involves a displacement of value from the work of art itself to its social relevance. As such it denies the fine art tradition which maintains that the great works of art of all ages must transcend their immediate societies and their time. To deny that this kind of transcendence can take place, or to deny that it is important, is to deny the artistic monuments of the past and to impoverish the present.

––Terry Fenton

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NOTES

1. This and the succeeding quotations from “The Realist Manifesto” from Artists on Art, compiled and edited by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves, Pantheon Books, New York, 1958, pp. 454–5.

2. Laslo Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion, Paul Theobald & Co., 1965, p. 219.

3. Ibid, p. 5.

4. This and the ensuing quotations from The Visual Arts Today, edited by Gyorgy Kepes, Wesleyan University Press, 1960, pp. 3–12.

5. Artforum, Vol. VII, No. 1, Sept. 1968, pp. 30–35.