27 April 2015

To accompany the British Museum’s exhibition Defining Beauty: The body in ancient Greek art (26 March –5 July 2015), BBC Arts broadcast an engaging programme on ‘The Body Beautiful’ by the classicist and comedian Natalie Haynes. To learn what the Greeks thought about beauty Haynes treated us to a standup presentation on the Greater Hippias, Plato’s dialogue in which Socrates challenges the sophist Hippias to define ‘the beautiful itself [to kalon auto]’. Hippias fails the challenge by only giving examples of beauty, while Socrates can’t answer his own question because he, uniquely, knows only that he does not know. The dialogue ends with Socrates and Hippias agreeing with the proverb ‘beautiful things are hard [chalepa ta kala]’.


Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, signed & dated 1514, engraving, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum


In 2004 I argued that Greater Hippias is illustrated by Albrecht Dürer’s celebrated engraving Melencolia I (1514), where the personification of Geometry is left wondering whether she is better off alive or dead – as Socrates put it – after failing to ‘define’ the Beautiful itself (represented here by a botched dodecahedron).

Haynes is a highly entertaining guide to Plato’s dialogue, and by no means in thrall to Socrates. She points out that people have meaningful conversations about love (“I love you, but I’m not in love with you”), though they would struggle to define the word or concept. No doubt the historical Hippias could have made the same point about beauty  to Socrates, though in Plato’s little drama he is too obtuse to challenge any of Socrates’ assumptions. All of us respond to beauty without effort or hesitation, but none of us can pin down the experience with words. In Helen of Troy, Homer created the most beautiful woman in the ancient world, yet he never described her. Instead he described how the old men of Troy reacted to her approach: ‘softly they spoke winged words to one another: “Small blame that Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans should for such a woman long suffer woes; she is terribly like immortal goddesses to look on”’ [Iliad, 3.155–8]. We are left in no doubt as to how young men would respond to Helen.

Haynes, however, like every other classicist, has not fully grasped the implications of Socrates’ error, nor how deeply his insistence of verbal definitions has restricted the Western philosophical tradition. By assuming that all experience survives transcription into language, Socrates rendered the beautiful intellectually unreal. Beauty lives in the moment of wonder and joy when we rejoice in some feature of the world around us. It is not an attribute of a young body – or that body’s marble simulacrum – that can exist in the absence of an observer. Beauty (or ugliness) is a relationship, which contains both observer and observed. It changes as the twin variables of subject and object change, or with the time and place of their interaction. Beauty is not the attribute of a thing: it is an event. It will no more survive being transcribed into words than an avocado can be savoured from a recipe book.

Socrates was brought up in a Homeric culture in which heroes sought aretê, excellence or Quality, and mortals were loved by the gods in so far as they achieved it. The poet Hesiod wrote ‘Badness can be got easily and in shoals: the road to her is smooth, and she lives very near to us. But between us and excellence [aretês] the gods have placed the sweat of our brows’ [Works and Days, 287–292]. That is probably what the proverb meant by ‘beautiful things are hard’ (not that they are hard to define).

Yet in the Platonic dialogues Socrates insists that we need knowledge of Quality [aretê] before we can act beautifully, and knowledge must be demonstrated by definition. ‘The greatest good for a man is to discuss aretê every day’, he told the jury that tried him. By discussing Quality, rather than simply practising it, Socrates sought to pin down with words a preverbal experience. Since the sophists who were the professional teachers of Quality failed to define it, Plato’s Socrates was able to discredit them. Subsequent Western philosophers, starting with Aristotle, restricted their investigations to what could be put into words. My own discipline of art history has thoroughly assimilated this tradition. Since neither beauty nor Quality is objective and unchanging, any reference to a painting by Titian or Matisse – or by any other artist – as beautiful or good is regarded by most of my colleagues as unprofessional.

The sculpted figures in marble and bronze exhibited in the current British Museum exhibition are displays of Homeric excellence, which they express by the beauty bestowed by the gods on those they love. The Greek word for a ‘sculpture’ (from the Latin ‘to carve’) was agalma, a ‘delight’. To seek explanations for this delight from the philosophers is both anachronistic and misconceived. The old Greeks had been immortalising godlike bodies in stone for over two centuries before Plato began writing his Socratic dialogues. And our experience of delight will not be captured by words.

For all its splendour, the BM’s Defining Beauty exhibition is not immune to these verbal and chronological traps, beginning with the title. In the first room, where the reclining Illissus from the Parthenon is on display beside a 20th century reconstruction of the Spearholder by Polycleitus, a projector shines this text on a wall:

‘…in portraying ideal types of beauty… you bring together from many models the most beautiful features of each…’ —Sokrates

The organisers tell me that this quotation comes from Xenophon (Memorabilia 3.10.1), Plato’s contemporary who left alternative and rather prosaic accounts of Socrates in dialogue with others. In Xenophon’s report, however, Socrates is not referring to ideal beauty, which is a later Neoplatonic construct, but to beautiful figures [kala eidê]. What Xenophon’s Socrates neglects to acknowledge is the sculptural tradition that shaped the work of Polycleitus and Pheidias (for the Illissus),  supplying the templates that make their figure substitutes look unmistakably Greek. Those models they would originally have assimilated from a master (identified in the exhibition as Hageladas). Artificers do not – cannot – imitate nature directly. Like everyone else they first imitate their predecessors, then adjust those indispensable models according to the prompts of Quality [aretê]. That at any rate is the thesis argued at some length in The Truth about Art, Reclaiming quality.

If classical sculptors ever explained the ‘ideal’ character of their godlike figures (and there is no evidence that they did), they are more likely to have said that it displayed the universal [to katholou]. Look at any strip cartoon today, and you will see universal characters, not particular individuals who might irritate us and about whom we have no reason to care.

For Natalie Haynes on ‘The Body Beautiful’, visit:

For the brilliant identification of aretê with Quality, see:
Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

For Dürer’s Melencolia I as an illustration of Greater Hippias, see:
Patrick Doorly, ‘Dürer’s Melencolia I: Plato’s Abandoned Search for the Beautiful, Art Bulletin, June 2004, vol. LXXXVI, no. 2, pp. 255–76

5 December 2014

A Duchamp deception disclosed

Late in life Marcel Duchamp would insist that his ‘readymades’ were not intended to be works of art (quoted in The Truth about Art, p.170). Against that latter-day inversion of his original purpose, he maintained that ‘The choice of readymades is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste’. ‘Taste [goût]’ (which he confused with Quality) became anathema to Duchamp after the rejection of his Nude descending a Staircase by fellow artists in 1912. Thereafter he would argue that no jury should vet submissions to an exhibition, a policy he insisted on for the Big Show in New York organised by the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. In TTAA I suggest that Duchamp submitted a urinal to that exhibition under the pseudonym R. Mutt not to transform a manufactured artefact into a work of art (the conventional modern interpretation), but to test the SIA’s willingness to abide by its own rules.

It now transpires that the prevailing narrative on the urinal constitutes an even more radical recasting of history than I had imagined. In a recently published letter written from New York to his sister Suzanne in France on 11 April 1917, Duchamp revealed that the urinal had been submitted to the SIA not by him, but by une de mes amies. ‘Tell the family this snippet’, he wrote—

the Independents opened here with enormous success. A female friend of mine, using a male pseudonym, Richard Mutt, submitted a porcelain urinal as a sculpture. It wasn’t at all indecent. No reason to refuse it. The committee decided to refuse to exhibit this thing. I handed in my resignation and it’ll be a juicy piece of gossip in New York. I felt like organizing a special exhibition for things refused at the Independents, but that would be a pleonasm! And the urinal would have been lonely.*

In a biography published in 2002, Irene Gammel identified Duchamp’s female friend as Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927), an extravagant, fearless, and ultimately tragic embodiment of the avant-garde fine artist. Baroness Elsa and Duchamp kept studios in the same New York city block, and they mixed with the same set of racy patrons. Gammel showed how sending a urinal to the SIA fits far better with Elsa’s scatalogical pieces [illustration below], than with Marcel’s anartistic readymades. Duchamp’s name was first linked to the urinal in 1935, and only in the 1950s, after the chief witnesses to the events of 1917 were dead, did he acknowledge authorship.

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, God, wood mitre box & cast iron plumbing trap, ca 1917, Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, God, wood mitre box & cast iron plumbing trap, ca 1917, Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Now an exasperated Julian Spalding has drawn attention to Duchamp’s deception because a new edition of Calvin Tomkins’s standard biography of Duchamp (published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York) has brushed aside the detailed recent research contradicting Duchamp’s claims to the urinal (including the letter quoted above). Baroness Elsa continues to be written out of the story, to preserve the myth that the conceptual art of the Sixties – and much contemporary fine art – had been pioneered by Duchamp in 1917. In its time and place, Spalding maintains, the Baroness’s gesture was meaningful and powerful, perhaps encouraged by the US declaration of war on her native Germany on 6 April 1917. But grafted onto Duchamp’s personal campaign against ‘taste’, ‘retinal art’, ‘the aesthetic’, and the ‘horrible idea’ of judgement, the urinal has lured ‘future generations into making increasingly tedious, repetitious piss-takes of art. Duchamp’s theft is a canker in the heart of visual creativity’.

Chapter 10 of The Truth about Art puts it this way:

If we set Duchamp’s comments in the context of an oeuvre from which he sought to exclude all traces of skill, taste, the beautiful and the aesthetic, in fact every visual glint of Quality, I think we can say that Duchamp misunderstood the nature of art. He meant to destroy the art that draws on a tradition to achieve excellence, in order to leave l’art brut, the raw ‘thing’ itself, good or bad, which will shock us for a day or a generation, then fade away. But what he achieved was celebrity, the social Quality that lacks any intellectual content [TTAA, p.173].


* Francis M. Naumann & Hector Obalk, eds, Afectt Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000), p. 47


Julian Spalding, ‘How Duchamp stole the Urinal’, Scottish Review of Books, 04 November 2014

Julian Spalding & Glyn Thompson, ‘Did Marcel Duchamp steal Elsa’s urinal?’, The Art Newspaper, November 2014

Irene Gammel, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and everyday Modernity, a cultural biography (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002)


27 October 2014

Tracey Warr’s review of my book The Truth about Art: Reclaiming Quality (Times Higher Education, 16 October 2014) coincided with a family bereavement, so only now can I respond to its criticisms. Warr’s summary of the book’s content was built around eight short extracts from different parts of the text, some presenting its thesis that “art is high quality endeavour”, others referring to examples it adopted, or to the philosophers who have written about art. This procedure led to a disjointed and unfocussed narrative, but was critically neutral and suggested a desire to be fair.

Reading Warr’s survey, however, you would not guess that the book offered a joyful solution to countless intractable problems that have clouded our understanding of art, clarifying verbal obscurities, untangling intellectual contradictions, and tracing misapprehensions to their sources. She writes, for example, ‘Doorly discusses the problem of value judgements on art fitting neither objective or subjective criteria’, without mentioning Robert Pirsig’s profound solution to that conundrum. The book’s initial ‘Note to the Reader’ explains: ‘…quality eludes definition, because it is not independent of the observer. Since academics aspire to objectivity, the benchmark of science and scholarship, they shy away from issues of quality, which is neither objective nor quantifiable. Yet nor is it subjective, for the merits of Michelangelo or Mozart, a luxury car or a delicious meal, are not fabrications of the observer, audience, driver, or diner. Pirsig found Quality in the union of subject and object: Quality is the response of an organism to its environment’.

Warr also ignored the intellectual drama in which TTAA sets Pirsig’s penetrating insight. The Latin ars shares an Indo-European root with the Greek aretê, the central value in Homer’s epics. ‘The greatest good for a man is to discuss aretê every day’, Socrates told the jury that condemned him. When Pirsig rendered aretê as Quality, the failure of Socrates and the sophists to define the word finds its explanation. Quality lost its central role in the Western intellectual tradition at that point. The book further equates the Greek aretê with the Latin virtus, which became the virtù to which everyone aspired in Renaissance Italy.

Disregarding all historical perspective, Warr holds the book against her own experience of contemporary fine art. On that narrow platform she finds little room for its disclosures. I take her criticisms in the sequence that she presents them.

—“This book’s consideration of the truth about art is confined to male western art, with the exception of a few female artists in an appendix”.
Since The Truth about Art tests the hypothesis that ‘art is high quality endeavour’, it is gender-neutral. Would Warr fault a book on The Art of Cookery for lacking a section on female cooks? Art as an activity that aims at quality is a universal human experience, but our shorthand ‘art’ for the 18th century fine arts and the transcendental Art of the Neoplatonic philosophers, is a construct of the European Enlightenment, as the book makes clear.

—“Doorly… is dismissive of medieval art…”.
This casual misrepresentation is shocking. Can Warr really be confusing my views with references I make to Vasari? I am filled with wonder and admiration for the magnificent architecture of the medieval Europe, for its stunning religious imagery, and for its gorgeous paintings. Equally I am unmoved by the boring bits, by some hall church into which a preaching order packed its flock; by sculpted detritus dug up by archaeologists; and by routine altarpieces in the local museums of Spain or Italy. Like everyone else, I admire quality wherever I recognise it, which is the thesis of my book. What sort of person could imagine that an experienced art historian could hold the foolish view Warr attributes to me?
From Tracey Warr’s website we learn that both her first degree and her M.Phil were in English language and literature. She began her professional involvement with fine art when she was appointed Publications Officer at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, continued it in various management roles at the Arts Council and other arts organisations, and was eventually appointed lecturer in contemporary fine art and fine art theory. The PhD she completed in 2007 was on writing and curating with artists. Warr is clearly very able and energetic, and the publications listed on her CV run to five pages. For many years I taught in a school of art and design, and I recognize her achievement. But neither her formal education, nor her research and teaching experience, have equipped her with a framework for understanding the history of art before the modern period. The rare combination of philosophy and art history that is a feature of TTAA made no impression on her, because she had nowhere to put it.

—“Doorly… is… slight on the art of the 19th century”.
The history of art taught on fine art courses used to start with Courbet’s rejection of the academic tradition in the 1850s, and this may be where Warr’s interest in visual art begins. But there is no compelling reason to test the thesis of TTAA against 19th century painting or sculpture.

—“…apart from a simplistic discussion of Marcel Duchamp… [Doorly] passes over altogether the art and theory of the 20th century, from Surrealism and abstract art to the writing of critic Clement Greenberg”.
I do however show how dependent 20th century fine art and art theory is on the writings of the German Romantic philosophers. Greenberg’s criticism, in particular, derives from Kant’s claim that a judgement of taste must be entirely disinterested, which ultimately led to abstract planes of colour. Kant’s adoption of originality as the hallmark of genius in fine art further removed quality from the agenda of philosophical aesthetics.

My chapter on Duchamp is not simplistic: it is historical. It disregards the theoretical superstructure built on Duchamp’s works during the last half century, in order to examine what Duchamp actually said. The tipping point between these two approaches could be placed in 1966, when Pierre Cabanne asked Duchamp how he chose a mass-produced object, a ‘readymade’, to make a work of art. The latter immediately replied that he didn’t seek to make his readymades into works of art. In 1917 he had submitted a urinal to the exhibition organised by the Society of Independent Artists because it had no aesthetic qualities whatsoever. His purpose, as his friend Beatrice Wood later testified, was to test the SIA’s policy of not vetting submissions. The theoretical edifice built on that urinal is a later construct.
Duchamp told Cabanne how his attitude to ‘art’ changed in 1912, when his fellow fine artists rejected his Nude descending a Staircase. From that point onwards Duchamp believed that judgements of quality simply reflect personal taste. His further claim that ‘Quality is not important, it is always taste’, challenged the thesis tested in TTAA, requiring my detailed investigation of his motives. Dismissing this chapter as superficial shows how unwilling Warr was to engage with the book’s thesis.

There is a Zen koan about a full cup of tea that Warr could read with advantage.

—“Doorly’s use of pseudo-scientific tables and his attempt to build on Pirsig’s thesis do not convincingly bolster his argument…”.
Now Warr’s casual disparagement becomes offensive. The phrase ‘pseudo-scientific’ suggests the pretentious and the intellectually disreputable. The book’s fifteen tables make no claim to science. They are simply convenient summaries of matters discussed on adjacent pages: eight include lists of arts compiled by students, book titles, the liberal and mechanical arts, and 18th century fine arts; two are charts of critics, philosophers and painters mentioned in the text; four are divisions of art made by Winckelmann, Kant, and Hegel; and the last lists the annual Unilever Series of Art installations at Tate Modern 2000–2010.

If Warr has understood Pirsig’s thesis and my argument, neither apprehension emerges from her review.

—“The book is printed on low-quality paper with dense text in double columns, which do not make for pleasant reading. It features small black and white illustrations that are sometimes sufficient for the author’s purpose, but often not.”
TTAA closely follows an established book design used by American university presses, right down to the choice of font and size of leading. It makes for perfectly comfortable reading. And while a coated paper would have printed the images with a greater tonal range, they reproduce perfectly adequately for a book driven by argument, rather than by pictures. The illustrations do not bleed off the page, but of the 79 half-tones, 30 extend across the full width or height of the page. I acknowledge that figure 5.8 barely shows the grid used by Masaccio to align the features of the Madonna’s turned face.

In her review of a book that argues for the central role of quality in art, as announced by its subtitle, Warr uses the word quality on her own account just once. Only in her reference to the paper on which the book is printed does she acknowledge the reality of quality, and its importance.


One Comment

  1. Phil Abel
    Phil Abel 17 May, 2016 at 8:39 am .

    I don’t know Tracey Warr, but her comments about the layout suggests she knows little about book design. Comfortable reading requires a maximum of 10-12 words per line. If the type was in a single column then it would have to be much larger to meet that criterion and the book would have substantially more pages. If the page was the right size to accommodate 10-12 lines in the current type size it would be substantially smaller than at present and the illustrations would have to be smaller.

    I agree with her that the type looks a little cramped but overall it does its job well.

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