Art for Oxford
Fine Art. By H. S. Goodhart-Rendel. (Clarendon Press. 3s. 6d.) Ma. GOODHART-RENDEL is the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. This book consists of four introductory lectures delivered by him during his first term of office. It is a difficult book to review, and at first one supposes that the difficulty is one common to most reprinted lectures. For a lecture good in delivery is often poor in print ; and equally often a lecture is too packed with facts and ideas to be assimi- lated by the ear alone. But the difficulty in this case is not obviously a rhetorical one ; the specific gravity of the lectures as lectures would seem to be about right. The lecture is, perhaps, a form of indulgence that ought to be checked. I believe that most perceptive pedagogues are agreed that as a form of instruction it is almost useless ; and it is certainly a most unsatisfactory literary form. It exists mainly for the benefit of male exhibitionists and female yearners, whilst the real business of learning is done by reading and discussion. Perhaps Mr. Goodhart-Rendel is of the same opinion, and decided that since he could not be usefully pedagogic, he would endeavour to be charming. In this he must have suc- ceeded, for his culture embraces all the arts with ease, and before we have time to get bored with painting or sculpture, the lecturer is discoursing of music or poetry. To be so nimble, one must be lightly burdened ; command words, rather than theories. The danger is, that in avoiding depths, one never gets below the surface. It will then need all the lecturer's charm to avoid variations on the obvious. Mr. Goodhart-Rendel, for example, attaches considerable im- portance to the following statement : he " stipulates " that " ideas, although the material of art, cannot be regarded as the immediate material, combination being necessary before art can handle them and combine them further ; in other words that art, being concerned with the interrelation of ideas, does not begin until that interrelation is complex enough to be perceptibly not fortuitous but designed." Art is effective expression would seem to say the same thing in four words instead of fifty-four, but my criticism is that the statement is in any case obvious ; it does not add to our knowledge of the nature of art, nor further the general discussion of the subject.
Our criticism, however, must not be directed against the Slade Professor in person so much as against the attitude underlying the treatment of the subject in England, par- ticularly at our two senior universities. Many subjects have in the past claimed to be the Cinderella of the universities, but none has retained the title so long as the history and science of art. The history of literature and of society, even eco- nomics, the science of society, have by now attained a fairly respectable status in our academic curricula ; but this subject, which is concerned with the highest and most imagi- native perceptions of mankind, which can exercise the acutest powers of intellectual analysis and provide the profoundest reflections on the course of human development, is treated as material for polite chatter at tea-parties, and, by virtue of an endowment, as the subject of twelve yearly lectures unrelated to the serious studies of the universities. This is not the place to air, a grievance or suggest a reform : the only point I wish to make is that this condition of neglect renders any English approach to the subject, by comparison with the status of the subject in other countries, incredibly naive and amateurish. We advance our tentative theories, pride ourselves on our prim perceptions, skate round Hegel and Croce, come to rest in Plato or Aristotle, apparently unaware that in Germany, for example, the subject has been treated with a more than amateurish interest. There the resulting structure is a little forbidding in its completeness and scientific logic ; but somewhere in a pigeon-hole, ticketed and valued, you are likely to find any theory, of art coyly advanced as a discovery in Oxford or Cambridge. Our study of the subject, in short, is forty or fifty years behind the times, and it is difficult to see how we are to catch up.
In the circumstances it is a little unfair to blame Mr. Goodhart-Rendel for not venturing to dispel the rosy Croccan mist which shrouds his subject in Oxford. Let me merely note, therefore, a few of his personal characteristics. He is post:Santayana, in both style and theory ; a dangerous master in the former, a safer one in theory. But Santayana's rationalism in art is related• to a wider system of philosophy, the sense of which we miss in Mr. Goodhart-Rendel's ease. But the latter's common sense is often refreshing, as when he observes of the pejorative use of hedonistic : " To call any sane human being no pleasure-seeker is, I maintain, to foist upon the word pleasure a significance both arbitrary and base." And though a rationalist, he realizes that in art the main use of reason is " to clear our minds as far as possible of all notions that can obscure or prejudice aesthetic sensa- tion." He is not afraid of recognizing an irrational element in art (" It may be that in what is still to us the mystery of artistic creation there is something permanently mysterious, some generative process that we never . shall fully under- stand "), yet rather inconsistently he holds that abstract forms " have no significance whatever to the mind or emotions other than that acquired through subconscious association
• with objects that give us enjoyment or pain " (thus differing from Plato, who held that abstract forms were not beautiful relatively, but always absolutely). He rightly criticizes modern art criticism for insisting too much on structural unity in a composition, but if he had been more familiar with the works of his fellow Slade Professor at Cambridge, he would have remembered that nearly thirty years ago Mr. Fry made a distinction between visual and poetic unity which provides for every aesthetic contingency.