PRINT April 1969

An Exchange

TERRY FENTON’S OVERSIMPLIFICATIONS have only added to the confusions surrounding Constructivism.

Ten years ago it might have been barely permissible to interpret Constructivism through the writings of Gabo, which after the 1920 Realist Manifesto show a notably altered relationship to science and society. Gabo’s writings were Constructivism to the great majority of the Western art world. With the many pieces of scholarship now at hand, in English, and covering Tatlin’s return to Russia (1913) through the activities of the Russian Constructivists in the early 1930s, there is scant excuse for writing that Constructivism began in 1920 and was somehow transplanted to the Bauhaus a few years later. Constructivist theory and its entwinement with other European movements is hardly so cut and dried. The Dada alliance with the Constructivist International of 1922 was superficially political and never esthetically based. That Dadaism and Constructivism demonstrate “a fundamental provincialism” because “they oppose the academies rather than ignore them” is an interesting thesis, but it hardly accounts for the long-term international life of these movements nor the fact that Cubism, de Stijl, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism have had their position statements and polemics too. A point must be stressed concerning Duchamp’s Readymades: politically Duchamp never shared the objectives of his Zurich and Berlin based counterparts, namely a taste for Communism and Anarchism. The Readymades were esthetic gestures pure and simple.

Implicit in Mr. Fenton’s condemnation of Constructivism is the assumption that “good” art stems mainly from the School of Paris and its direct offspring, while “bad” art is the result of didacticism which fails to transcend its intentions. If only things were as simple as that and it were possible to award “beauty prizes”—to borrow Duchamp’s term—for the art with the purest intentions! The purpose of my “Systems Esthetics” article was not to award beauty prizes, but to note that there are presently a number of valid trends in art which completely escape or contradict the prevailing canon of esthetics. Because I happen to see some positive value in focusing on process, on large-scale environmental undertakings, on discardable art, on the assumption that context is as important to esthetics as fixed objects, and on the part that nonvisual information plays in art, does not mean that I reject the art of the past, or even the present art which is in direct conflict with these values. My assumption is that these concerns mirror attitudes endemic to modern technology. Essentially they run counter to the mechanical technology of the 1920s.

Perhaps the reason why Mr. Fenton has so much difficulty locating the great works which have been inspired by Constructivism is that the most unique values of that movement (architectonic scale, industrial fabrication, and the intention of nonidealistic art) are today increasingly accepted. Living in the present as we do, it is difficult to remember that Constructivism, almost alone, embraced these goals. At the heart of Mr. Fenton’s quarrel with Constructivism is his belief that the Constructivists and their heirs overemphasize the importance of technology to human existence. On the other hand, if we were “good” artists we would use it surreptitiously, never alluding to how technology can alter the function or direction of art. However, it is a historical fact that the social dependence upon technology has increased tremendously in the last fifty years. No serious social critic doubts that it will increase even more. I do not believe as Mr. Fenton says I do that “technology and art have similar relationships with science and our society.” Technology and science are symbiotically related; this I have repeatedly stressed in my book. Moreover the relationships of art and technology to society are enormously lopsided, with art the minor partner by many degrees of magnitude. I do agree with Professor Kepes that it is crucial to maintain a balance between the esthetic and technical impulse, and that one of the central failures of Western culture is precisely this imbalance. Again and again I have stressed the need, not for TechArt––that new hobgoblin of the critics––but for a technology based on esthetic considerations. Where the latter exists the art impulse will take care of itself.

Unfortunately, Mr. Fenton’s decision to ally my mention of systems analysis with the unpopular war in Vietnam smells of demagoguery. My allusion to the Pentagon was in this context: “This [systems analysis] is best known through its usage by the Pentagon and has more to do with the expense and complexity of modern warfare, than with any innate relation between the two.” Systems analysis, like the whole of technology, is a neutral but powerful tool. It asserts the values of those who employ it—their emotional and ideological shortcomings, and the strengths of their insights. My contention is that systems analysis is a key tool for examining and reorganizing advanced industrial society; it embodies principles which should be understood by the artist if he is seriously concerned with the large-scale implications of the esthetic impulse. I suspect that the reason there is so much talk about the fusion of art and reality (both operationally and environmentally) is that Western culture can not much longer afford the luxury of a schism between the two.

As for my “apology” for environmental and kinetic art, the examples which I picked for my systems article are ones for which. I feel no compulsion to make excuses. My feelings about the limitations of kinetic art are most explicit—both in my book and the article. Since writing the systems piece I have experienced and seen photographs of several environments by artists which hold their own with all other forms of contemporary art.

Perhaps the essence of my disagreement with Mr. Fenton lies in one of his closing sentences: “Didactic art is inevitably judged in terms of social relevance rather than in terms of intrinsic quality.” How helpful it would be if the terms of intrinsic quality were defined! I suspect that intrinsic quality, or any pretension to it, is invariably based on social relevance; such relevance cannot help but shift from critic to critic and from period to period.

Jack Burnham

MR. BURNHAM’S QUARREL with my article on the Constructivist tradition seems to center around my use of the words “intentions” and “quality.” In the case of intentions we seem to be more or less in agreement about what they are, but do not agree about how they affect art. In the case of quality, we do not appear to agree on the meaning of the term itself.

In his third paragraph, Mr. Burnham writes: “Implicit in Mr. Fenton’s condemnation of Constructivism is the assumption that ‘good’ art stems mainly from the School of Paris and its direct offspring, while ‘bad’ art is the result of didacticism which fails to transcend its intentions.” This observation is derived from two sentences in the first section of my article: “[Constructivism] has failed to produce works of art which transcend their didacticism . . .” and “Some insight into the failures and achievements of various art movements can hopefully be obtained by examining their intentions in light of their achievements.” In the case of the first sentence, Mr. Burnham infers, correctly I think, that “didacticism” can be equated with “intentions.” I now think that this sentence is misleading, not because of that equation, but because it implies that intentions—or certain intentions—must be transcended, but in no way shows what that transcendence consists of. My second sentence announces the thesis of my article and I have no real quarrel with it. It does not suggest that intentions are tests or standards of quality, but that the examination of artists’ intentions may illuminate manifestations of quality or lack of quality. Contrary to what Mr. Burnham has suggested, I did not maintain that only didactic art is bad, nor did I maintain that didactic art is necessarily bad; I simply looked for a possible explanation for the general lack of quality in what might be called the didactic art of this century.

I realize that the whole problem of intentions is a touchy one in criticism, but anyone who states a program or manifesto or applies an “esthetic” (i.e., regards esthetics as a set of propositions for the making of art rather than an evaluative and descriptive activity) is stating intentions. There are, of course, various kinds of intentions that relate to the making of art. For example, if someone wants to draw a cow, that is an intention, and the drawing will be successful only in terms of that intention if it looks like a cow and not like something else. It will be assessed within a context of what cows look like—real cows as well as pictures of cows. The fact that the picture is successful in that sense does not mean that it is a good work of art; it means that it looks like a cow. When someone—say, an academician—claims that a depiction of the human figure must follow certain rules of proportion, those rules constitute an intention and a work of art that follows those rules can be successful in those terms, but is not necessarily a good work of art. When Mr. Burnham invokes a “major paradigm,” he is suggesting that works of art can be judged within the context of that major paradigm. This may involve correctly diagnosing social attitudes and technologies, but it does not mean that a work that does so in a sophisticated or correct manner is a good work of art.

Intending something therefore (at least in the sense that I have used the term) involves selecting or accepting a context. In this sense it is possible for an artist to intend to make good or great art. If he succeeds, he could be said to have realized that intention, but simply having the intention does not guarantee success. It does mean, however, that he has recognized, and has been challenged by, great art in the past as well as the present and has accepted that achievement as a context to work within. What I am suggesting is that accepting great art may be necessary for the production of great art, but that it is not sufficient.

If an artist proclaims that the fine art tradition is bankrupt, he is saying in effect that he is not accepting it as a context. This may be because he wishes to communicate something specific that has nothing to do with good or bad art, or it may mean that he is unable to differentiate between good and bad works of art except in terms of their more or less successful manifestation of rules (this may be related to what Wittgenstein calls “aspect blindness”). In any case, by denying the art of the past he severely limits the context he works within and may, as a result, be incapable of producing great art; that is, if he is unable, or unwilling, to recognize quality in other art, he may be incapable of recognizing it in his own art. I am saying, in effect, that an artist who does not want to produce great art is unlikely to produce great art, but that the final test is the work itself.

When Mr. Burnham says that I “assume” that “good” art stems mainly from the School of Paris and its offspring, he fails to distinguish between an assumption and an observation. That the best art of this century has stemmed from the School of Paris and its offspring has nothing to do with my assumptions or with anyone else’s assumptions; it simply means that the art of this century which has impressed me most has been produced by artists who have been associated with Paris or, more recently, with New York. These artists don’t necessarily form a “school,” don’t necessarily live in New York or Paris and aren’t necessarily French or American.

It is Mr. Burnham’s notions about assumptions and intentions that lead him to make remarks like: “there are presently a number of valid trends in art which completely escape or contradict the prevailing canon of esthetics.” He implies, I think, that, validity can be assessed in some way other than the ability to produce good art, for example by provoking a “balance between the esthetic and technical impulse” or by creating “a technology based on esthetic considerations.” Saying that a canon of esthetics or a trend in art is “valid” amounts to awarding “‘beauty prizes’ . . . for the art with the purest intentions.” If trends in art can be said to be valid, it is only because they contain good works of art and not because they either want to do so or want to do something else. It would probably be better to speak of trends being “fruitful” rather than “valid.”

Mr. Burnham is absolutely right when he suggests that the basis of our disagreement concerns my use of the words “intrinsic quality” in a sense that excludes social relevance. However, when he suggests that the terms of quality be defined, he falls into the error of wanting rules and conditions. I probably should not have used the word “intrinsic” because it suggests that quality is something contained by the work of art, rather than the work of art itself. “Quality” is a generic term of a peculiar sort in that it refers to the variety of instances of artistic success. Good art does not contain a component that can be isolated and labeled “quality.” “Social relevance” does not explain why some works of art can be socially relevant—for example the majority of photographs—and not good. I am not suggesting that works of art cannot or must not relate to their society. They can and often do. Nor am I suggesting that all good works of art will necessarily be relevant forever or that our attitudes don’t change from period to period. But the fact remains that people still enjoy the Iliad and the Odyssey as well as Egyptian statuary after 3000 years, long after their respective societies have disappeared. If social relevance were the criterion of quality, the art of the past and the art of cultures other than our own would be incapable of moving us and we would have to admit that Duchamp was better than Rembrandt.

Finally, I would like to point out that I was not taking a stand, either pro or con, when I mentioned the Vietnam War, nor was I accusing Mr. Burnham of being in league with the Pentagon. I saw Vietnam as the only immediate example of the application of Systems Analysis by the military. When he accuses me of demagoguery, Mr. Burnham seems to be suggesting that, while it is quite all right to talk about trends and systems and canons of esthetics, it is not all right to examine their consequences. When he describes technology as being “a neutral and powerful tool” that reflects “emotional and ideological shortcomings” it sounds to me like he is saying purity of intention is what really matters.

Terry Fenton