PRINT February 1973

After the Quality Problem

WHILE QUALITY ASCRIPTIONS ARE MEANINGFUL only as emotive expressions in response to an art work, they say very little about that response of the speaker to the art work. And this holds as well for expressions, such as “the painting is good,” “I like the painting,” or “the painting is interesting.” Such expressions are no more than signals of approval accomplished just as effectively by the Roman signals “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down”; but except as signals of approval these expressions say nothing, and as such, they hardly constitute discussion about art work or anyone’s response to it. To insist that an art work is interesting is not different from insisting on an art work’s quality; for being interesting can no more constitute a characteristic of an art work than can being quality, and the insistence on either is the confusion of response with the assertion of fact. However, implicit in the expression “the painting is interesting” is the subjective “interesting to me,” and the notion that there is something to explore, discuss, and think about. It is by saying what about the art work is interesting that we begin to say something about the art work and our response to it, and what thoughts are entailed by the art work and our response. Presumably, speaking about art work, the response to art work, and the thoughts entailed by the art work and response are what criticism and discussing art in general want to accomplish; it is with this in mind that the notion of interest seems a useful one in discussing art.

The reason it seems odd to speak of Bochner’s pebbles or masking tape in terms of quality is not different from the reason that speaking of Manet’s paintings in terms of quality is problematic. If quality ascriptions are emotive expressions, then they cannot assert facts about art work regardless of what art work quality is ascribed to. The quality problem is not peculiar to criticism of contemporary art. It may seem that in arguing against quality ascriptions through linguistic conceptions rather than art concepts, some sort of linguistic trickery has been used to show as false what we all know to be true. But to ascribe quality is to use language, and the expressions in a language have meaning only as they are consistent with the structure of that language. All the argument has attempted to show is that quality ascriptions say nothing about art work and nothing about the speaker’s response to art work beyond signaling approval. This bit of linguistic reality is not in conflict with what might be called “everyday reality,” or what we intuitively sense to be the case; for regardless of linguistic analysis, it is obvious that to say an art work is good isn’t to say much of anything. When we ask about Larry Poons’ new paintings and are told only that all or some of them have quality, we will generally sense that we haven’t been told much, and that what we have been told hasn’t helped us to understand or think about the paintings; further, we might even suspect that the quality ascription in such a case has been used as a dodge. This sensing that the quality ascription hasn’t said much is consistent with the linguistic analysis. In this light, we can question whether quality ascriptions have contributed anything to the criticism in which they occur. Here we might consider going through art journals and crossing out all quality ascriptions and see what is left of individual essays; if in a given essay nothing remained after this crossing out, we might assume with some justification that the writer had nothing to say beyond signaling approval or disapproval. But certainly this would be a rare case. I think the results of such crossing out would show a surprising amount of thought, analysis, and interesting discussion beneath all the camouflage of quality ascription. Certainly the crossing out procedure is a simplistic approach to the problem. However, it is relevant to consider what possibilities remain open to criticism once it is understood that the quality of an art work cannot be meaningfully established, and once we cross out, metaphorically, the concept of quality ascription as a useful concept of art criticism.


Within the assumption that evaluation is central to art criticism is the presupposition that meaningful evaluation is possible. When it is shown that the quality of an art work cannot be meaningfully established, then the assumption of the central role of evaluation in criticism crumbles. If evaluation is not considered as central to the function of criticism, we might describe criticism’s function as explicative, analytic, and speculative rather than judgmental. It should be fairly obvious, even without the linguistic case against evaluation, that the judgmental role which criticism has assumed over artists and art work is both presumptuous and ridiculous. However, in describing criticism’s role as explicative, analytic, and speculative, I do not intend a restriction of criticism to what could be said to conform to those rather vague adjectives; nor do I intend a notion of the artist presenting a work which the critic will then explain to a wider public or somehow to the artist. In this conception of it, the point of criticism is not educational, the point of criticism is to stimulate thought about art work and art in general. And in this sense, criticism functions in a way much closer to art’s function, the difference being quite simply: the artist acts, the critic reacts. But here, certain words raise confusion that must be cleared up. I am not interested in putting criticism on a level with art or critics on a level with artists in the same way that I have no interest in hierarchal levels of any kind; artists present art and critics write criticism and both can be said to have the same general function, that of stimulating thought. That criticism stands in the relation to art of reaction to action does not imply a political, regressive, or inferior connotation for the word “reaction”; the artist initiates and the critic responds.

This conception of the general common function of art and criticism entails the notion of interest; for in saying that art and criticism function when they stimulate thought, the raising of interesting questions is implied. And here, we encounter a psychological objection to the elimination of quality ascription. There are no rules or criteria for determining interest or for determining when thought has been stimulated; the subjective connotation of the ward “interest” prohibits the formation of any such rules in any meaningful sense. What I might find highly interesting, another person might find of no interest; this holds for criticism, art work, or anything else. The question immediately arises: How does one determine whether what is said is interesting if there can be no criteria for such a determination? But the question is not properly formulated, for one cannot make such a determination. When interest is aroused, we can only determine that something is interesting by noticing that we are interested in it; the questions of how we determine when we are in a state of being interested, such as “what does being interested feel like?”, or “how does one distinguish that feeling from other feelings?” may be interesting questions, but are not answerable. The question is not how interest can be determined, the question is rather “am I interested?” If the art work or criticism does interest us, determining that the work or criticism is somehow officially interesting is irrelevant to the fact of our interest. When by some obscure means, an art work or essay is determined to be interesting in itself, then “interesting” is used as an evaluation, and such a usage has all the problems of quality ascription. The fact that we cannot establish that a given work is interesting seems to be psychologically disturbing or at least, not satisfying; for in this conception, nothing is settled or thought to be final, everything is indefinite. When quality ascription is eliminated, a replacement is sought; but what is often sought is not a new way of discussing art, but a replacement for the apparent definiteness of quality ascription. For the gap left by the removal of quality ascription is just such a psychological gap. And in this light, evaluation can be seen as contributing nothing to the content of criticism and as being unnecessary to it and to the discussion of art in general. Whether quality ascription is psychologically necessary is another kind of question and one outside the scope of this argument; but this question, too, can probably only be answered on a personal basis.

Darby Bannard’s long discussion of ’quality in art and his justification of Olitski’s paintings in terms of quality are obviously relevant to the whole of what Bannard wants to say in “Quality, Style, and Olitski,” but the discussion of quality in art and in reference to Olitski’s art is unnecessary and irrelevant to the discussion of Olitski’s. paintings.1 Bannard has a strong response to Olitski’s work, and he has a lot to say about the paintings and their relation to painting issues in general and to the work of Louis and Pollock in particular. However, his insistence on how good Olitski’s paintings are contributes nothing to his discussion of the paintings or of painting in general. When quality ascription is eliminated from this essay, what is eliminated is Bannard’s need to say that what he responds strongly to is therefore good, but the discussion of Olitski’s paintings and the articulation of Bannard’s response to them are not thereby eliminated. These psychological questions of need are relevant here only to point out that this is what Bannard’s insistence on Olitski’s being “our best painter” amounts to. This kind of ranking of artists, this deciding that an artist is the best “at least now,” and someone else is perhaps second or third best, cannot be justified; the presenting of such a rating system, while perhaps personally satisfying, is irrelevant to the discussion of art work and art ideas.

In saying that evaluation is irrelevant to the discussion of art work or art ideas, I do not want to say that evaluation should be declared illegitimate or necessarily actually eliminated from criticism. My interest in speaking of a metaphorical elimination of quality ascription is only to show that evaluation is not only not central to criticism, but is totally unnecessary to it. It is interesting to notice that Leo Steinberg in a recent lengthy essay on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon2 never ascribes quality to the painting or bothers to suggest that it is a good painting. Steinberg analyzes the painting not as an early example of form over content which turned into formalism nor as the painting through which Cubism became a fact in art; he discusses it as a painting and speculates on its evolution from conception through drawings to the finished product. Steinberg does compare the Picasso to other brothel paintings and to Cézanne’s bather paintings, but the comparison is never evaluative. What can be inferred from the fact of Steinberg’s analysis is not that he becomes an authority on my side of the argument, but that quality ascriptions and evaluation in general are not necessary to critical or historical writing about art.

When the meaning of quality ascription is questioned, the conventional concepts of art history and those artists singled out as “great” come into question as well. The question is not so much with what has been singled out as “great” from the huge inventory of art work, as with how it got singled out; that is, I don’t question the status of the famous names of art history, but I question whether the method by which they have been accorded that status has been properly described. If one questions the meaning of quality ascriptions, then one questions whether Manet, for instance, was singled out because his paintings inherently have quality or are better in themselves than Couture’s or Cabanel’s, or whether Manet’s paintings have been singled out on some other basis. The Kunstmuseum in Düsseldorf provides a curious illustration for these questions. For this museum exhibits not so much the history of German art, but the history of Western painting as painted by German painters, mostly local Düsseldorfers. Many of the famous names of art history are represented in the museum, but only by proxy. One sees Rembrandts, Cézannes, Van Goghs, Manets, of course Monets, Matisses, and even a Berthe Morisot, all by Düsseldorfers more or less contemporary with the artists they followed. But it seems odd to say that these paintings in themselves have less quality than the paintings from which they derived. It is not that a Manet painting is somehow better in itself than the Düsseldorfer Manet, but that the Düsseldorfer artist didn’t invent anything or contribute anything significantly different from what already existed as art, but adopted someone else’s ideas completely. Here we can think of a hypothetical problem: as Darby Bannard evaluates all the recent Olitski paintings to be of equally high quality, putting off “the ticklish job of pinning down differences in quality,” we can use Olitski’s Radical Love 2 as an example; suppose an artist X made a copy of Radical Love 2 so like the original that Olitski himself could not distinguish his own painting from the copy. Surely, then, if the Olitski is of high quality, its exact duplicate is of high quality also; since we weren’t sure which was which, it would be utter nonsense to say whichever painting is really the Olitski has more quality, for this is to ascribe quality to a name rather than a painting. We could not admit a difference in quality between the two paintings, but we would want to say there was a difference between what Olitski accomplished and what X accomplished in making the paintings; Olitski, after all, developed the ideas and came up with the painting regardless of its quality, while X only copied or repeated what Olitski had already accomplished. But we are now no longer talking about quality, we are talking about innovation.

The general historical interest in artists normally thought to be minor or obscure, which is undoubtedly the result of historians having exhausted what can be said of the famous names, raises these same questions of quality as a singling-out methodology, perhaps unintentionally. But questions raised unintentionally are questions raised nevertheless. And the question is essentially: on what basis can Courbet be said to have more quality than Bierstadt or Böcklin? In looking at the Bierstadt exhibition at the Whitney, one can question Bierstadt’s conception of painting as a Romantic depiction of an exotic paradise peopled with noble savages, but one can also question Courbet’s conception of Realism which depicts naked women strolling through the forests and the palette-knifed grandeur of nature which is not less Romantic than Bierstadt, only Romantic in a different way. But how is one to compare these painters in terms of quality without lapsing into fiction or arbitrariness? There are basically two ways of looking at a painting by Courbet or Bierstadt: one can look at the painting as it stands within a historical context, or one can try to look at the painting as a painting without reference to its historical context. To look at a painting in terms of its standing in a historical context is to consider what is not in the painting as well as what is in the painting; it is to consider the painting in terms of what preceded, occurred contemporaneously, and followed it. What I am suggesting is that the famous names of art history have been singled out on the basis of this historical contextual relation rather than on a basis of quality. The artists singled out as important made art which is seen to be different in some significant respect from what preceded and occurred contemporaneously with their own work; and often the respect in which the artist’s work was different affected what followed. The artists considered to be historically important either deflected the course of art history, in Geldzahler’s often discredited terms, or their innovation took the form of going further with an existent set of ideas than had anyone else. This is not necessarily to replace quality with innovation as the value that “counts,” and it is certainly not to say that what has quality has quality by being innovative; it is only to suggest a different description for the basis on which the famous names of art history have been singled out.

The notion of deflecting the course of art through innovation does not necessarily entail the existence of followers or that an artist’s importance is signified by the number of followers he or she has; but significant innovation does often mean the opening of possibilities for new art, which entails followers only in a broad sense, i.e., Leger and Mondrian as followers of Cubism. But Leger and Mondrian do not stand in the same relation to the Cubism of Picasso as the Düsseldorfer Manet stands to Manet. The innovation of Cubism opened so many possibilities for new art that what followed was not simply the eventual modifications of Leger and Mondrian, but a swarm of movements exploring different aspects of the possibilities. What is meant by “freeing form from content” or freeing any aspect of art from traditional usage is that possibilities for new usages and new art are thrown open. To say that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was an early example of “freeing form from content” is not to come into conflict with Steinberg’s analysis; for saying the Picasso painting was an instance of“freeing form from content” says that people other than Picasso saw that as the painting’s significance whether Picasso saw it that way or not; Steinberg’s assertion is that “freeing form from content” was not the significance of the painting for Picasso. The importance of the painting in a historical context is its significance in terms of opening the possibilities for new art, and not in some inherent quality the painting mysteriously possesses.

Related to the quality problem is the common assumption that “time will tell”; implicit in this assumption is the notion that we, in 1973, are better able to “judge” Manet’s paintings than were the people of 100 years ago. As the assumption goes, we have a distance, a detachment from the problems and anxieties contemporary with Manet which renders our “judgment” more meaningful, valid, and somehow final. And the “time will tell” assumption is used on our own time and art, propagating the myth that people 50 years hence will have a clearer view of our art than we do ourselves and will therefore be in a better position to “judge” it. Certainly a retrospective position has an advantage in placing art work in a historical context; and certainly we cannot in these terms say what of our art will be the source of the art ten years from now without knowing what the art of ten years from now will be. But placing art work in a historical context is not judging it, and it makes no sense to say that what is thought of our art 50 years from now will “tell” anything about our art except that people will think about it in that way. Judgments made at a later time are not somehow more accurate than those made at an earlier time, they are only different. If in 50 years everyone agrees with this essay, it won’t mean that I am right, it will only mean that in 50 years people will be thinking a certain way. Similarly, what we think of Manet’s art today only indicates that we think a certain way, but it does not indicate that the way we think about Manet is somehow more valid than the way his contemporaries thought about his work.


The problem for art now is not that there has been a lapse in quality or that the art made now is somehow not as good as art used to be; the problem now is that the possibilities for new art seem limited; and “seem” is an important word here, for it is not that possibilities are necessarily limited, but that seeing what the significant possibilities are is difficult; it is always difficult, and it is always the basic problem. The possibilities opened by Cubism which generally evolved into formalism are by now more or less sealed off. The so-called avant-garde artists of the last few years didn’t cause this sealing off of the possibilities for painting and sculpture, they only saw that it had occurred before other people saw it. In this light, the move away from formalist objects toward a concentration on art concepts can be seen in much the same way as Cubism is seen, ’as an opening of possibilities from a closed situation; there was, and is, no room for significant innovation within formalist convention; and if this is understood, it is reasonable to infer that if significant innovation is to occur, it must occur outside of formalism, which at this time, means outside painting and sculpture.

The quality problem is not a problem at all in a strict sense; it is not the kind of problem that has an answer or solution. The quality problem is but a confusion which can be cleared up, and in this sense, it is not solved; it is clarified out of existence. But when this confusion is clarified, all the problems of making art and writing criticism remain.

––Bruce Boice



1. Walter D. Bannard, “Quality, Style and Olitski,” Artforum, October, 1972.

2. Leo Steinberg, “The Philosophical Brothel, Part 1,” Art News, September, 1972.