Sunday, October 29, 2017

Principle of Exclusion

Alberto Burri
(from the series Sacchi begun in 1949 from burlap bags)
burlap, thread, synthetic polymer paint, gold leaf
Guggenheim Museum, New York

Salvador Dalí
Publisher's proof for cover of La Limite by Maurice Sandoz
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

"It was the classical tradition of normative aesthetics that first formulated some rules of art, and such rules are most easily formulated negatively as a catalogue of sins to be avoided.  Just as most of the Ten Commandments are really prohibitions, so most rules of art and of style are warnings against certain sins.  . . .  Do not overcrowd your pictures, do not use too much gold, do not seek out difficult postures for their own sake; avoid harsh contours, avoid the ugly, the indecorous and the ignoble.  Indeed it might be argued that what ultimately killed the classical ideal was that the sins to be avoided multiplied till the artist's freedom was confined to an ever narrowing space; all he dared to do in the end was insipid repetition of safe solutions.  After this, there was only one sin to be avoided in art, that of being academic.  In our exhibitions today [1963] we see the most bewildering variety of forms and experiments.  Anyone who wanted to find some morphological features that united Alberto Burri with Salvador Dalí and Francis Bacon with Capogrossi would be hard put to it, but it would be easy to see that they all wanted to avoid being academic; they would all have displeased Bellori and would have welcomed his condemnation."

Francis Bacon
Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne
oil on canvas
Tate Britain

Giuseppe Capogrossi
Surface 210 (Superficie 210)
oil on canvas
Guggenheim Museum, New York

"It is no accident, therefore, that the terminology of art history was so largely built on words denoting some principle of exclusion.  Most movements in art erect some new taboo, some new negative principle, such as the banishing from painting by the impressionists of all 'anecdotal' elements.  The positive slogans and shibboleths which we read in artists' or critics' manifestos past or present are usually much less well defined.  Take the term 'functionalism' in twentieth-century architecture.  We know by now that there are many ways of planning or building which may be called functional and that this demand alone will never solve all the architect's problems.  But the immediate effect of the slogan was to ban all ornament in architecture as non-functional and therefore taboo.  What unites the most disparate schools of architecture in this century is this common aversion to a particular tradition."

"Maybe we would make more progress in the study of styles if we looked out for such principles of exclusion, the sins any particular style wants to avoid, than if we continue to look for the common structure or essence of all the works produced in a certain period."

 E.H. Gombrich, from the essay Norm and Form, first delivered as a lecture at Turin University in 1963, reprinted in the author's essay collection Norm and Form (London: Phaidon Press, 1966)