Twenty Quotations about Art

Thinkers' works suggest what art is, and what makes it good

By David Vestal Back to

No one knows what art is. Its most serious practitioners spell it with a small a, not a big A. They leave the capitalizing to Auctioneers and other Authorities who sell Art. Small-a artists make art, the real stuff, which is not always the same as Art.

“Anything can be art, but very little is.” I wish I knew who said that. Is photog- raphy art? Some of it is. Most isn’t. And this goes for all media.

How can we tell if it’s art in any given case? Mostly through experience. Art isn’t a dilemma, it’s a “multilemma.” What’s art for me may not be art for you, and vice versa. Fortunately, we don’t have to agree in order to learn.

Aphorisms, anyone? I mined Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (125th anniversary edition, revised and enlarged; edited by Emily Morison Beck and the editorial staff of Little, Brown & Company, 1980), from which I am forbidden to quote, except in brief passages in a review. This, therefore, is a review of Bartlett’s on art. To be a reviewer I must give my opinions (which appear in square brackets). Here are 20 relevant quotations I found in Bartlett’s. Their code numbers are page- and-item references.

1. 255:8 “Art hath an enemy called Ignorance.” Ben Johnson, 1599 [Hear, hear.]

2. 686:2 “…Art is the accomplice of ove. Take love away and there is no longer art.” Remy de Gourmont, no date [It ain't necessarily so]

3. 697:14 “…a civilized society is exhibiting the five qualities of truth, beauty, adventure, art, peace.” Alfred North Whitehead, 1933 [Forgive him that silly list. He was a distinguished philosopher, and therefore prone to such nonsense.]

4. 673:23 “all art is quite useless.” Oscar Wilde, nd  [No, just most.]
5. 640:1 “All passes. Art alone/Enduring, stays to us…” Henry Austin Dobson, 1876 [Much good art goes unnoticed or is forgotten instantly.]
6. 407:6 “He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars;/General good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer;/For art and science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars.” William Blake, c. 1809 [Beware of scoundrels, hypocrites, flatterers, and fools (don't forget fools) who want to do you good. Yes the specific is the best way to get to the general. The way around doesn't work.]
7. 329:18 “Criticism is easy, art is difficult.” Destouches, 1732 [Sounds good, but it’s wrong. Valid criticism is difficult, and good art is sometimes easy. Although it’s not always difficult, art is elusive.]
8. 740:14 “Art of any profundity can be appreciated only slowly, gradually, in leisurely contemplation.” Daniel Gregory Mason, 1827 [Often, but not always. It’s not so logical. Sometimes it sneaks up and bites you. Pay close attention, whether you like the art or not. To break your head on a problem, then drop it and let it percolate is an effective learning method.]
9. 653:13 “Life being all inclusion and confusion, and art being all discrimination and selection, the latter, in search of the hard latent value with which it alone is concerned, sniffs around the mass as instinctively and unerringly as a dog suspicious of some buried bone.” Henry James, nd [This makes sense. He knew.]
10. 619:13 “Art should be independent of all claptrap– should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye and ear, without confunding this with notions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no concern with it.” James McNeill Whistler, 1890 [He was overanxious, but was right to reject sentimentality. Pictures need to work visually.]
11. 891:16 “…art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgement.” John F. Kennedy, 1963 [Pure claptrap.]
12. 652:15 “…Art derves a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumption.” Henry James, 1888 [In short, from presumption itself. My presumption can lick your presumption. And why not?]
13. 543:29 “We’re made so that we love/ First when we see them painted, things we have passed/ Perhaps a hundred times, nor cared to see;/ And so they are better, painted_ better to us,/ Which is the same thing. Art was given for that.” Robert Browning, 1855 [He was onto something, but this is incomplete.]
14. 395:13 “In art, the best is good enough.” J.W. von Goethe, 1787 [Yes.]
15. 654:3 “In art, economy is always beauty.” Henry James, 1909 [Sorry, not always.]
16. 397:2 “Create, artist! Do not talk!” J.W. von Goethe, nd [Supremely right.]
17. 583:8 “One becomes a critic when one cannot be an artist, just as a man becomes a stool-pigeon when he cannot be a soldier.” Gustave Flaubert, 1880 [There have been exceptions: Debussy and Virgil Thomson come to mind.]
18. 583:6 “One must not always think that feeling is everything. Art is nothing without form.” Gustave Flaubert, 1846 [Form, feeling, and light are our raw materials.]
19. 651:17 “You don’t make a poem with ideas, but with words.” Stephane Mallarmé, nd [He said it to Degas, who raised the question, and he was right.]
20. 653:5 “we work in the dark- we do what we can- we give what we have. Our doubt is out passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Henry James, 1893 [Not the ultimate in logical objectivity, but true and well said.]

So what is art? The harangue

Art is a normal human activity. We were making art before we began to write. In the beginning was not the word, but the appreciated vision, a primary source of myth. Words came later, and now they, too, are used as art.

Art hasn’t changed much in 40,000 years. Drawings of people scratched with bone and found in Cro-Magnon caves look surprisingly like good modern drawings of people from Europe and America. They’re informal and elegant and show the individuality of the people portrayed. Prehistoric paintings at Lascaux and Altamira are close kin to today’s best painting and photogra- phy, but not, I suspect, to TV. I doubt that there were many couch potatoes in cave-dwelling times. Before progress we had to be smart to survive. This is no longer true.

Today it’s a social disadvantage in the western world to be seen as intelligent. Many good people—often no less intelligent than those with doctorates, but smart enough to hide it—resent displayed intelligence and call it elitism. Sorry about that. Art in any serious form is now appreciated largely by the relatively rich, though it’s generally produced by a different elite, the educated poor. A few of the really rich become artists. Their money buys them time to learn and time to do the work. This gave us, for instance, Cézanne and Cartier-Bresson and Russell Lee and Eliot Porter and Charles Pratt. These men could afford to do art, did it well, and could ignore or endure the stigma of it. Their money was not on display but was used intelligently. Good for them. The rest of us somehow make do in a world full of loopholes.

What art is for was made clearer for me after I went to Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1970s. I’d been invited to show some of my photos there and talk to an audience—a slide show. A hotel room and tickets on an airline that served beer and peanuts were provided. I showed my slides, which I’d copied from black- and-white prints, and told a little about how the pictures came to be taken. There was no big response, but it was pleasant. My art lesson came in a letter from a photo student who’d been there. My pictures hadn’t impressed him. He’d hoped for more excitement. Yet on his way to school next day, he saw things and enjoyed them. Nothing out of the ordinary, but now seen. His letter was to thank me. My photos, he said, had led him to see for himself. Stimulating people to see reality for themselves, and not just through pictures, is one of art’s major functions. That’s what Robert Browning failed to get around to in his poem quoted above.

Oh yes, my review. Well, Bartlett’s brought all this on, so I think it’s a good book.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.