Can Art Be Moral Again? by William Conger

A few years ago I was browsing in my favorite used book shop when I came upon an English edition of Charles Blanc’s Grammaire Des Arts Du Dessin by Kate Doggett. She published this translation in Chicago in 1879 as Grammar of Painting and Engraving. I immediately bought the book because I already knew a little of Charles Blanc, the French art critic and one-time Director of the Ecole Des Beaux-arts. His Grammar had influenced George Seurat, particularly in its treatment and diagrams of color theory and the optical effects of simultaneous contrast which led Seurat to his method of neoimpressionism. Not until I read the book, however, did I learn how thoroughly Blanc presented the idealized principles of the Beaux-arts Style and how great his influence was in those crucial years when the Beaux-arts tradition was being displaced by modernism.

While Blanc’s Grammar is a guide to basic principles, a kind of handbook of method for the artist, it is also a polemic of aesthetics based on Platonic ideal forms and types. The heart of this view is the idea of an eternal, perfect prototype for each class of things in nature; that is, typical, general forms to be imagined as the flawless molds of things that in nature are flawed, lesser, imperfect, individualized. The goal of the painter, for Blanc, is to imitate the ideal prototype, not nature itself. Blanc wants the painter to recognize that only through generalizing nature, seeking a type and not an individual, can one achieve what he termed Style, the imitation of the ideal prototype. Blanc refers to masters to illustrate his teaching: DaVinci, Raphael, Rembrandt. He turns to their preparatory sketches as examples of individualized life studies that are then redrawn to eliminate details and flaws of nature to instead reveal the general, the balanced, the universal: Style.

Underlying or fused with this quest for the ideal or Style is Blanc’s insistence on the moral. For him, and thus for the Beaux-arts painter, the means of imitation leads to the ends of expression of a spiritual ideal or template of that which supersedes nature and must be invented by the painter and is therefore an expression of the moral, or the true good.

It is interesting that Blanc does not limit the moral in art to subject or narrative but to formal method. He does not say that some depictions are necessarily more moral than others simply because of their subject matter or any didactic function a painting may serve. He embeds the moral in the formal properties of art, in line, balance, light-dark, color, and most of all in unity, because these are the means by which an expression of ideal form can be achieved. However, Blanc does allow for genre painting aimed at realistic imitation of nature instead of Style. For instance a genre painting of a domestic scene may emphasize — and carefully imitate the natural peculiarities of individuals and their environment for the sake of charm alone and thus eschew the higher aim of Style as a formal idealization. For such genre painting Blanc seems to imply that the moral is irrelevant because imitation of nature as it is does not involve Style.

The fusion of the moral with the formal principles of the Beaux-arts Style is all but forgotten today. Now we think of the Beaux-arts tradition as encompassing a set of conventions that fell into decay and redundancy during the rise of modernism. We don’t associate the moral with modernism. If the Beaux-arts sensibility of the moral was the expression of a universal ideal or type that lay beyond the reality of nature and is attained by formal idealization, the modernist sensibility replaced the idea of the moral with the idea of utopia which is best imagined as a social condition imitated in art and not as a spiritual aspiration. Yet the distinction is fuzzy. Even Blanc argued that the attainment of Style, or the ideal, could “…by its dignity, elevate the souls of men and nations…and reform the manners of men by its visible lessons.” Later, Mondrian had the same ambition for neo-plasticism. What of Rothko and Newman in this respect? And others?

Although Blanc presumed that the human figure is the essential subject in art, his Grammar really transforms the figure into a set of abstract formal principles. He might just as well have been writing about rectangles and circles and in fact he did place geometry as the fundamental means by which the general can be induced from the particular. The point is that he saw those principles as moral in their capacity to elevate the human soul.

Today, in the context of advanced abstract painting, it’s considered largely foolish to speak of utopian art. In the face of a disintegrating globalism, utopian ideas are pinched and quaint. Moreover, it is certainly taboo, I believe, to speak of a moral abstract painting Paradoxically, however, the modernist tradition of formalist abstract painting continues unabated into its postmodern phase, reshuffling earlier iterations, adding and subtracting whatever is deemed peculiar to painting and its processes, no longer aiming for something that used to be called the moral or the utopian or even the spiritual — and now dares not try — veering instead to the ironic, the sardonic, the literal, and the individualized. It employs the means of Blanc’s Beaux-arts Style but strays to other ends because the implication of expressing the moral is anathema in today’s secular art-world. After all, the revolutionary nature of modernism required amoral, secular boundlessness.

It is ludicrous to entertain the idea that there is indeed something that is off-limits in contemporary abstract painting. After a century and more of breaking down rules, presumptions and traditions of art, any informed painter is alert to the notion that nothing falls beyond the pale, nothing is taboo in painting — except, as I now believe, the moral, the very essence of Blanc’s formalist Style. The moral is excluded essence of contemporary abstract painting.

By about 1910, the notion of the moral had already disappeared from modernist art theory yet the formal principles remained and were given a new role as not only the structure of painting but also its subject. In 1911 Wassily Kandinsky’s essay, Concerning the Spiritual in Art proclaimed inner necessity as the fundamental source for artistic creation. Although inner necessity is separate from any formal principles it is an a-priori spiritual condition enabling the artist to employ formal elements somehow infused with that spirituality. We can’t know what Kandinsky’s spiritual inner necessity is except by feeling it in beholding the formal elements in art, expressed intuitively and independently of referenced subject matter. Inner necessity is a surrogate term for Blanc’s notion of the moral except that for Kandinsky it is purely subjective, and for Blanc the moral is objective; that is, something inscribed by the rules and principles of formal Style. Much closer to Blanc’s notion of the moral is Clive Bell’s essay on Significant Form, published in 1914. Bell claims that what makes something art is not subject matter or even content (its theme) but simply the right arrangement of form. In this he agrees with Blanc but unlike Blanc he gives no rules or formal principles and no method for achieving significant form. For Bell, significant form exists objectively as a unity of formal elements but must, like Kandinsky’s inner necessity, be apprehended subjectively and unlike Blanc, it follows no rule.

Both Kandinsky’s inner necessity and Bell?s significant form, in various mixes, are the basic conceptual contexts for modernist and postmodernist abstract painting. Both allude to Blanc’s insistence that the formal principles of art, however they are described, embody a moral dimension, but in a wavering way, indecisively, and ultimately inverting it to amoral indifference. Inner necessity and significant form don’t deliver what they inherently promise, the moral. Without the moral content formalism becomes arbitrary. Any impulse can be claimed for any expression of any so-called inner necessity. What expression does not begin as inner? Further, any configuration of form can be claimed as significant. After all, without Blanc’s rather specific prescriptions for achieving the general and ideal, there is no way to discover insignificant form, let alone significant form. Here, then is the ultimate paradox, contradiction, and crisis in contemporary abstract painting. How can it persist in using the formal principles of art as the necessary and sufficient means by which aesthetic expression is possible while at the same time denying the intrinsic moral nature of those principles?

Is it time to reexamine what is moral in abstract painting and in all serious art? To do so would mean to abandon the redundancy of irony and to overcome the one substantial taboo in contemporary art: The taboo against the moral. It would not require a return to Blanc’s Beaux-arts Style but it might lead to a radical new use of Blanc’s ideas.

Bibliographic References:

Bell, C. 1969. The Aesthetic Hypothesis. In Tillman, F., Mc Cahn, S., (Eds.), philosophy of Art from Plato to Wittgenstein, Harper & Row, New York, NY. pp 415-428, 1910.

Doggett, Kate N., The Grammar of Painting and Engraving: Translated From The French of Blanc?s Grammaire DesArts DU Dessin, S.C. Griggs and Company, Chicago, 1879.

Kandinsky, W., 1957, Concerning The Spiritual in Art, G. Wittenborn, Inc., New York, NY, 1912.

About William Conger
William Conger lives and works in Chicago. His 2009 retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center chronicled a fifty-year career, with more recent paintings such as “Bandit” and “The Parkway Series” leading the way toward future visions. His work can be found in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Oregon’s Portland Museum, and the Wichita Art Museum – to name a few.

Exclusively for Neoteric Art. ©William Conger, 2011