Unreal Nature

April 20, 2017

Every New Phase of Taste Has Only One Origin

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… every new phase of taste has only one origin and that is seeing.

This is from ‘Modern Evaluations’ found in The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn (1957; 1985):

… It had not occurred to me to question the finality of Academy authority until an occasion arose on which I was asked to help hang an exhibition of paintings by Academy Greats. Carrying the works to and from the jurors, I was impressed and troubled by my own dissociation from anything that I saw among the pictures.

[line break added] There were the still lifes: the Buddha against a piece of Chinese drapery, the highlight flicked in smartly on its green-blue glaze; there were the barns, the hay-mows, the girl with wind-blown hair; there were the boats, fishing-smacks at Gloucester and other rocky coastal paradises that I had never seen. There were the cows knee-deep in water that always reflected some bit of purple distance.

I hadn’t seen a cow since I had been a very small child in Russia. Could I ever paint such scenes? I thought not.

And was there no more to art?

My growing critical attitude was probably defensive. But it was also becoming fortified by constant visits to museums and by the reading of everything that I could find concerning art.

It is not necessary to trace here the numerous changes that my own taste or anyone else’s undergoes in order to make the point that every new phase of taste has only one origin and that is seeing. In Italy I found the Florentines and the Sienese and Found Taddeo Gaddi again; and this great discovery gave way to the ferment and the myriad finalities that were Paris.

[line break added] Each of these turns seemed real at the time, and vital. And, the truth is, I believe that they were so. For their values are not to be dismissed in the light of some super-value, some transcendent criterion according to which temporal values rise and fall. Their values rest on the profound attachments to their own criteria and their own goals.

If any single kind of value or evaluation has tended to survive the many tides and reversals of taste, belief and dogma, I imagine that value consists in some vague striving for truth. The beliefs in what constitutes truth change with every generation, with each new great preacher or teacher or cataclysmic discovery or deep revelation through art or music or drama or poetry.

[line break added] Whatever our momentary concept of it may be, it seems as though truth itself is that objective which awakens the purest passion in man, which stimulates his mind and calls forth his heroic endeavors. It is in pursuit of truth perhaps that we are able to sacrifice present values and move on to new ones. And I am sure that is it most often in the light of what we believe to be truth that we criticize negatively or reject the values of others.

My most recent previous post from Shahn’s book is here.




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