PRINT November 1977


Progress in Art

Suzi Gablik, Progress in Art, (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1977), 192 pages, 162 illustrations.

Progress in Art is subtitled “Is There Progress in Art?” Gablik wants to suggest that there might be, and her book’s dust-jacket goes on to describe the volume it enfolds as “a radical and challenging view of art based on the ideas of Jean Piaget, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Thomas Kuhn.” One feels as though this sentence might be there to allay the anxiety brought on by the capricious interaction of title and subtitle. Accordingly, it’s printed in red, a brightly marked reassurance whose color also serves as a warning that one may be in the presence of an original idea. However, one is not.

Gablik’s theme is that modernist—she uses the adjective to denote the art of this century, from Cubism to the present—painting and sculpture aren’t reductive at all, a proposition with which few are likely to disagree, and which is therefore not all that radical or challenging at first sight. Doubt and querulousness set in only when she goes on to say that, though they may not look like it, the works of Sol LeWitt or Kasimir Malevich are “more complex” (p. 44; Gablik’s italics) than those of Uccello or Leonardo, and, furthermore, that what is involved is “a complexity occasioned by the modern paradigm viewed as a whole, and . . . the infinite number of systems it is able to generate.” Poor old Uccello and Leonardo, it seems, just didn’t have the kind of range available, in the great supermarket of ideas which is modernity, to the likes of Malevich and LeWitt: “The Renaissance paradigm derives from a single, closed logical system—perspective—which is repeated over and over again in every picture in much the same way, so that every picture is rigidly bound and dictated by (sic) the rules of the system. The modern paradigm is characterized by its openness and by the infinite number of possibilities and positions which can be taken” (p. 45).

Reasoning such as this ought, I think, to safeguard Progress in Art against the charge (omnipresent in Anglo-American intellectual and artistic life) of being too clever by half—just as it should guarantee the volume a career as an art teacher’s aid. And it may indeed even, in some sceptics’ lairs, cause it to be summarily cast aside, if not ground underfoot, to the tune of groans of impatience and keening whimpers of despair.

Which, if not as misguided as accusing the book of sophistication or using it to alarm undergraduates, would still be a pity, because Gablik has tried to write on a subject which is important: modernist art’s relation to its tradition, and the morphological condition of the terms inherited from that tradition but subsequently transformed. What is more, she has tried to approach it through a chain of thought which doesn’t exclude a question from which both artists and their audience have lately tended to shy away. She has sought to ask why so much of the best modernist painting and sculpture—unlike the novel, music, or the film—tends to look so ridiculously simple.

This ought to mean (and perhaps does) that even though Gablik may have failed to explain this phenomenon—I think she has—her questions are fruitful. It’s therefore possible that Progress in Art has some value inasmuch as it illustrates the problems involved in answering them. Only barely possible though, if one has a hard time with the idea that modern art is more complicated than Leonardo’s. Here Lévi-Strauss is brought forward, to be unfavorably compared with Jean Piaget.

Gablik wants to use Piaget’s theory of growth, developed out of the study of cognitive development in (at first, his own) children, as a basis for an explanation of the internal development of art forms. The observable differences between behavior at different stages of infancy are to provide a theoretical structure which will account for the fact that the art of our own time, while manifestly linked by history to that of the Renaissance, is nonetheless discontinuous with it too. The groundwork for Gablik’s hypothesis is already there in Piaget himself, in that his theorizing encompasses the speculation that development in the intellect of the human individual is structurally analogous to the way in which ideas in the world at large develop toward greater complexity, and that this complexity is of a sort which may be identified through changes in the recognition and formulation of the subject/object relationship. In other words—and to oversimplify—the three-year-old child is more sophisticated than the one-year-old, but this difference isn’t merely one of accumulation; on the contrary, it represents a wholesale transformation of the process of perception and cognition. Both discourse and evolution have also been found, by Piaget, to have a structure such as that which he has observed in the growing human. It is because discourse itself obeys the same structural determinants as those which rule psycho-physiognomic maturation itself that we may explain, for example, how it is that Einstein’s theory of relativity is indebted to Newton’s while also being qualitatively different from the latter’s mechanistic view of the universe. Or so it goes, with Gablik making large claims for Piaget’s model—larger, perhaps, than those he claims himself, but nevertheless undeniably consistent with his ideas—and for the 20th century as well.

Lévi-Strauss, in contradistinction to some of the implications of this vision of qualitative transformation, has suggested in the course of his life’s work that no linguistic milieu—no culture—is more complex than any other, and that it is perhaps more useful to think of the difference between “primitive” and “advanced” civilizations as one of substitution than as one of sophistication. Instead of supposing that technological and other cultural elaborations and convulsions such as writing and capitalism represent fundamental alterations in language, and thus in thought as such, Lévi-Strauss would favor describing the attendant transformation in behavior and organization in terms of an exchange, a straightforward substitution, of one set of codes for another, which would provide the same kind of basis in both instances for the individual’s articulation of her or his circumstance (personal and social).

The argument is ongoing and voluminous, with Lévi-Strauss and Piaget accusing one another of not being dialectical—a side of the work of each to which the few words above do equal injustice. But more immediately pertinent to the book under review is the extent to which this argument uses Piaget to support an evolutionary description of events and the things they produce which is flatly contradicted by the evidence. Piaget’s model is dialectical in that it offers a structure at once finite—the plateau of maturity beyond which lies inexorable decline—and subject to unpredictable qualification and modification at the level of psychology (and therefore behavior). But in Gablik’s hands, as I intimated earlier, this model all too readily throws up an image in which a hopelessly limited Leonardo jealously compares himself with LeWitt’s mastery of the “modern paradigm’s infinite number of positions and possibilities,” in a manner uncomfortably reminiscent of a fuzzy-wuzzy awed by the great white hunter’s repeating rifle. Such a view gives rise to questions of methodological application as well as to simple incredulity.

If Piaget provides Gablik with her strategy, Kuhn supplies her tactics. Gablik uses Kuhn’s now well-known theory of the “paradigm shift” to explain the difference between the “look” of modern art and that of the 16th century. She draws an analogy between the description of the actual mechanics of change provided by this third member of the triumvirate announced on the dust-jacket and Piaget’s theory of development. Scientific models eventually reveal weaknesses in and of themselves—weaknesses the solution for which, unlike the original recognition of inadequacy, must come from outside. Hence the infusion of a new element, hence a new paradigm, a complete reordering of all the original elements. One stage of cognition, although positing an adequate (in the sense of operational) subject/object structure through which to make sense of oneself and the world, nonetheless generates (or is the germination of) a new order of perceptual demands which, again, call for a wholesale transformation that is marked by the introduction—Piaget would say production—of unanticipated information: hence a new stage of development. This is convincing enough—and in fact has Piaget’s O.K., or so one gathers. But it’s also where Gablik comes up against the apparent contradiction involved in her developmentally transformational view of art history.

It just isn’t the case that Bochner and Giotto are different in the way that Einstein and Newton are. Bochner and Giotto may—I certainly think they do—reinforce and criticize each other, but the more recent artist doesn’t disprove anything about the earlier painter’s work in the course of offering new explanations for it—which is, after all, what Einstein does to Newton. Gablik denies this difference, and instead insists that Kuhn has observed the same difficulty with describing drastic changes in the “look” of conceptual models in the hard sciences, where, she says, “What he fails to consider is the way in which scientific evolution creates successive levels of integration, each characterized by its own laws, . . . stages [which] represent a description of cognitive behaviors qualitatively different from one another” (p. 163).

This is quite undeserved. Even though Kuhn may be no Foucault (whom Piaget describes as surpassing him) or Henri Poincaré (whose notion of “scientific fictions” parallels Kuhn’s thinking and might, I should have thought, be of more interest to artists and those who analyze their work than the very short shrift given to it by Gablik would suggest) or even if one subscribes to the idea that there is in fact nothing in Kuhn’s theory which doesn’t already exist in Anglo-German art history of the most orthodox sort, it is still quite unreasonable to say that Kuhn neglects this question of integration between successive stages in a strand of scientific investigation. On the contrary, he shows very clearly the dialectical, and hence arbitrary, nature of the progression. This Gablik, more Piagetian than Piaget, will not have. She claims instead that Kuhn is wrong to emphasize the “abrupt character of the paradigm shift” because this “undervalues the developmental aspect of the process [whereby] new insights are coordinated with former intellectual gains through a system of integrated structures.” This is vague stuff, because we are never given all those successive levels of integration to see for ourselves: their existence remains asserted but in no way confirmed. Instead Gablik simply leaves the hole in her argument where it is and hurries on, saying over her shoulder that this failing is Thomas Kuhn’s fault and, furthermore, that Darwinian evolution itself—in whose “low water” Kuhn dwells—is pretty unreliable when you come down to cases.

I should have thought that, in the terms Gablik sets for herself, the Renaissance was a far more “scientific” period for the arts than our own. There one does indeed have a paradigm shift which may be discursively apprehended—the move to perspective—and which transforms painting morphologically—i.e. genuinely changes the craft’s repository of terms and, therefore, the scope and variety of its address. Perhaps because of this susceptibility to Kuhn on the part of the age of humanism, by far the best passages in Progress in Art are those which are expended in refuting the defense of mimesis put forward by the art historian E. H. Gombrich. Herself in pursuit of an evolutionism which will be free of the flaws she sees in his, she shows how Gombrich’s condemnation of abstract art—on the grounds that the absence of representation means the absence of standards of verisimilitude, which in turn means that you can’t tell whether it’s good or not—is in practice a self-referential defense of one particular paradigm at all costs, even in the face of internally generated demonstrations of its inadequacy.

Gablik links Gombrich’s thinking with Karl Popper’s. Popper is an historian and philosopher of science famous for remarking that science cannot be shown to prove anything (because of the possibility of another explanation, unknown to the observer, existing for any measurable phenomenon) but only to disprove. Gombrich’s insistence that only by having some measure of how unlike something a picture is can we have any sense of what measure of painting it is, is seen to be no more than a deeply felt preference for a particular relationship between subject and object. “It seems to me that if art can be said to progress it must be by some other process than the method of error-elimination which Gombrich suggests. ‘Schema and correction’ may be a way to describe the testing of hypotheses, but it does not account for their discovery” (p. 154).

One wants to agree, just as one identifies with the task of bringing our sense of the art object beyond the notion of cause and effect and toward an explication sensitive to Saussure’s “The signifier precedes the signified,” which in Piaget becomes “Learning follows development”—rather than vice versa. But simply to pass on an error brings no one any closer to a solution. In Popper’s terms, of course, Jean Piaget’s work is pseudo-science, lacking a truth test. But, that aside, Progress in Art tries to be to Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions what Gombrich’s Art and Illusion was to Popper’s “Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge,” and succeeds insofar as it makes the same mistakes.

Here, I think, is where one must accuse Gablik of overapplying the theories of Piaget and Kuhn, and of failing to be sensitive to the possibility that, in regard to them as to any body of ideas originally fashioned to another end, it may be that they contain logical flaws which are “necessary” to the application of dialectical thinking in a specific instance—“natural” occurrences for which it is nonetheless essential to account. Such a necessity, for example, as is the subject of Lucio Coletti’s “Marxism and the Dialectic,” which discusses the willful confusion of the categories of “real opposition” and “dialectical contradiction” in Marx’s (and Marxist) thought, showing this to be productive rather than debilitating, though still a flaw, and thereby perhaps suggesting something germane to the present discussion in the matter of the use of general ideas in specific situations. (I have suggested elsewhere that Coletti could be making a point which has still more significance for our analysis of art objects; here Coletti’s observations are invoked only as an example of how a general theory may be seen to work in a particular instance only when its nomenclature can be overcome in the interests of a description that fits reason and the facts).

To reiterate, too much that seems obvious gets left out in the course of Progress in Art’s search for an “explanation [that] would account for the fact that diverse aspects of a culture, which are totally disparate in nature, seem nevertheless to advance with a sort of pre-ordained harmony” (p. 82). I’m by no means sure about the “pre-ordained harmony,” but what I find more troublesome is this book’s disregard not only for the lapses in the argument it puts forward but also for other explanations of this trend toward an art which articulates itself alongside, if not in response to, “the emergence of a fully developed system of formal-operational thought.” Complexity, for example, is often accompanied by contraction—leading to dialectical description—without the concomitant change of identity being qualitatively transformational. We may be losing our ability to use the subjunctive, but where Shakespeare’s vocabulary numbered 20,000 words today’s Harvard graduate has 35,000. Some call this decadence. In any case, it shows that it’s possible to explain such changes without recourse to a notion of transformation which ultimately threatens to cut one off from comparing contemporary art with the art of the past while simultaneously oversimplifying the relationship between them. In my opinion Gablik’s book is at its worst in its absolute refusal simply to note that modern art is an art of immanence, and that this last is a corollary of our inhabiting a period of historical consciousness (as opposed to the scientific spirit of the Renaissance) in which the work of art is made complex at its inception by virtue of its very emergence into its milieu in the customary way and at a particular time.

Therefore I should agree, for once, with Barbara Rose, who, reviewing the book for the New York Times, bemoaned its ahistoricality and that of Piaget’s model. But I find the crass historicism which paradoxically accompanies it even worse. The charge of ahistoricality was leveled at Piaget by the Soviet experimental psychologist Vygotsky as long ago as 1928. However—and as the behaviorist Jerome S. Bruner says in his introduction to the English translation of Vygotsky’s Thought and Language—while it may have been so then that is less obviously the case now.1 In fact Bruner claims that the problem has been wholly taken care of in the succeeding decades, while Gablik is prepared to go so far as to say that "Piaget’s view is that cognitive structures are built up progressively from the historical as well as the psychological point of view (p. 33). The reader must decide for her- or himself how far this is so, my estimate being that Rose is correct in accusing Gablik (and perhaps also Piaget) of ahistoricality in that both impose a biological model on culture. But, again, it is the mechanistic view of the part that the nonpsychological does get to play in the version of changes in art that Gablik offers which does the real harm.

Piaget expresses his differences with Lévi-Strauss in the following way: “Granted that ‘thought untamed’ (la pensée sauvage) is always present among us, does it not nevertheless constitute a level of thought inferior to the scientific?”2 I find this to be a statement of some relevance here, because it seems to me that if one can say anything about what a work of art is one can say that it’s an object which presents us with a legible expression in which both these “levels” of thought can be seen to be present, and in which the “scientific” can never be said to be wholly dominant. The extent to which this is a truism may be readily appreciated in the identity of much of the contemporary work about which Gablik writes, where the primacy of affectivity is confirmed by the very persistence of attempts to defamiliarize it by the introduction of a greater and greater degree of verifiability, cognitiveness, the logical, the scientific. (Only relatively, of course: there are plenty of other historical moments in which art has been as discursively laden as at present.) Quite apart from the fundamental question of Piaget’s utilization in discussion of this sort at all, the major problem with this admittedly ambitious volume is its reluctance to consider any work about which it speaks as contradictory (or at least capable of contradiction) in its identity as a social act inextricably entangled with a history which, both within and without, is itself not evolutionary in its development. As, in short, art.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe is an artist who has written on various aspects of the arts over the last several years.



1. L.S. Vygotsky, Thought and Language (trans. E. Hanfmann and G. Vakar), Cambridge, Mass., 1962, p.vii.

2. Jean Piaget, Structuralism (trans. and ed. C. Maschler), New York, 1970, p. 115