It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Gombrich: The Preference for the Primitive - Introduction

Gombrich: The Preference for the Primitive - Introduction

Quoted text is in YELLOW. Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN *************************************************************************** ****************************************************************************

Cicero, 1st C. AD (Capitoline Museum)

It is difficult to say for what reason the very things that move our senses most to pleasures and appeal to them most speedily at first are the ones from which we are most quickly estranged by a kind of disgust and surfeit. How much more brilliant, as a rule, in beauty and variety of colouring are new pictures compared to the old ones. But though they captivate us at first sight the pleasure does not last, while the very roughness and crudity of old paintings maintains their hold on us. (Cicero, Dc Oratore III. xxv. 98,)

What book that begins with the words of Cicero could end badly ?

He was the scourge of wicked old  Cataline - as well as every  slow-witted school boy  in Latin class. Which is why both Gombrich and I love him. We were good with books -- other kids were good with baseball.

And yet --  gifted orator and noble statesman  that he was -- we just have to wonder how deeply he got involved with the visual arts.

What kinds of visual choices did he make?

Unlike the traditional  Chinese scholar/statesman,  noble Romans were not expected to master the impractical arts of calligraphy and painting.  The above quote is lifted from a tract whose subject is oratory, not visual art.

Gombrich will discuss this passage more extensively in Chapter One.

This book is about a movement of taste that came to its climax during my lifetime and appears to have lost strength during the last few years. I am speaking of the kind of aversion Cicero expressed in the motto I have chosen. Every preference, one might argue, implies an aversion. Hence what I call the ‘preference for the primitive’ may be often tantamount to a rejection — a rejection of what? There is a word in my native German which has only been partly assimilated in English: it is the term ‘Kitsch’. During the days of my youth, critics and art-lovers resorted freely to this term of abuse. What ‘schmalz’ was to music — or perhaps a ‘tear-jerker’ to literature — was dismissed as nauseating ‘kitsch’ in the visual arts. Here it was most of all the works of official art chosen for display in the Salon which were condemned in these terms. But even some of the most renowned Old Masters were also pilloried as having manufactured insipid and sugary paintings that were offensive to good taste. I shall argue that many of the movements of twentieth—century primitivism are best understood as avoidance reactions. I hope to show that the opinions of the great orator continued to reverberate in the history of taste. What he observed is that the pleasure of the senses can lead to displeasure. If we indulge our inborn drives and appetites initial satisfaction will not only end in satiety but in downright disgust. We seem to have acquired an inbuilt warning signal that tells us ‘enough is enough’.

I find a "history of taste" far less interesting, and less knowable,  than the taste of the individuals who made, commissioned,  selected, or wrote about  things that can still be seen.

I categorically reject  the use of "we" or "us" in all statements of preference, including the above  by Cicero and Gombrich.  And I am wary of distinguishing "inborn drives and appetites" from those that have been acquired or developed - because they so inter-meshed.

And yet --- leafing through the pages of this book, it does appear that Gombrich will be using comparative examples, so I am game to read on..

 Apparently this acquisition is part of growing up — that painful process of education that imposes those disciplines of self—control civilization demands. Cicero mentions all the senses as being subject to this passage from gratification to disgust. He includes all the arts, but though he specifically mentions painting (where garish colours soon repel), and later singing (when trills and slides inevitably lose their charm), his real concern — as we shall discover — is the art of oratory, because the purpose of his digression is to warn his reader against trying to seduce the audience by means of verbal display. What is relevant to the argument of this book is the fact that the development of all, or at least most, of the arts ran parallel — in other words, that it took time till they achieved that easy appeal to the senses which Cicero warned against.

I am doubting this "fact"  that Gombrich so glibly asserts.

Though it may well be that Hellenistic sculpture "appeals to the senses" of Gombrich or of its original patrons more than the 'archaic' styles of earlier centuries appeal to them.

At this point Gombrich reminds us of that "most influential" history of European visual art, Vasari's "Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects" -- and how he introduced the notion of progress from the clumsy/ugly to the hard/angular to the polish/sophistication culminating in an artist like  Correggio.

Correggio, 1532

Is Gombrich proposing that  hard/soft is  the difference between primitive and sophisticated ?

Titian, 1523-24

Titian' s "Bacchanal" seems to be at least as sophisticated, or maybe even more so, than Correggio's "Leda and the Swan", but it does not feel quite as soft.

Gombrich adds that the 'hard' is associated with "nobility, strength, innocence and sincerity" while the soft is associated with "vulgarity, effeminacy, corruption, and meretriciousness"

But who makes those associations and to which specific pieces to they refer ?

He refers us to Lovejoy and Boas' "Primivitism and Related Ideas in Antiquity", but there we find a distinction between primitives who were considered 'hard' and those who were considered 'soft'.

Finally we have the notion of perfection:  "the psychological principle -- the revulsion from that very perfection  that art has been said to aim at"

To the right, we have an example of perfection (12th C. Ju Ware);   to the left, the intentional imperfection sought in a Japanese Wabi Sabi tradition (contemporary).  (though actually -- they might be considered examples of different kinds of perfection.  It's harder to make, and to find, examples that are obviously imperfect yet completely satisfying)

It would seem that here perfection/imperfection is unrelated to either hard/soft or primitive/sophisticated.


So what exactly does Gombrich mean by 'primitive' ?

If I am asked to define any further what I mean by 'the primitive, ' I must refer the reader to the pages of this book, which will show that the term was associated in its time with early Greek vases, with quattrocento painting and with tribal art.

Above,  Gombrich tells us that he will let writers from the past define 'primitive' for themselves.

But  he used his own definition when he  applied his phrase  "the preference for the primitive" to Cicero's discussion of the preference for the "roughness and crudity of old paintings"

And doesn't he suggest that these definitions have some principle in common, as he writes about "the movement in taste that came to its climax during my lifetime" by  beginning with Cicero and other ancient writers ?

In this brief introduction, he offers the criteria of perfect/imperfect, soft/hard, sophisticated/unsophisticated as if these were relevant to that principle. But as I've suggested, the application of such criteria might often result in different choices.

Here's one of my favorite poems that happens to address some of the same issues:

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness.
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthralls the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoestring, in whose tie
I see a wild civility;
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

... Robert Herrick

Except  Herrick's poem does not  lead into a critical discussion of civilization, which is lurking behind a preference for the Primitive, and engaged philosophers like  Lovejoy.

Gombrich tells us that such a preference "to a certain extent, I even shared"

Unfortunately, as a professional art historian, he cannot speak directly of his own preferences.

He can only hide them,  though, according to one reviewer, they are not far beneath the surface.

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