Friday, 22 September 2006

More on value judgements in art

If art is a shortcut to philosophy, then just how exactly is this expressed in art?

How does art for example portray value judgments about the most fundamental questions of the universe? What values, for example, do you think that painting at the right by Albert Bierstadt expresses? (Click on the painting and scroll down to find out.)

We got a glimpse of how to begin answering that question in our architectural debate recently (summarised here, and then continued with the Winefield Critique of Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin), so let's have a closer look at how it functions in paintings.

Ayn Rand argues that art is uniquely placed to express what she calls "metaphysical value judgements," ie., evaluations of the most fundamental questions abuot existence and our place in it. These value judgements, she says, take the form of answers to questions such as
: "Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does he have the power…to choose his goals and achieve them…or is he a helpless plaything of forces beyond his control? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?"

The connection between these questions and painting is anything but self-evident, so
tonight here at Not PC I'm posting an excerpt from artist Michael Newberry's wonderfully descriptive piece on 'Detecting Value Judgments in Painting' (that is unfortunately and inexplicably rendered almost illegible at his site by being in yellow text on a white page!) that just might help to make that connection a little clearer.

"Let's see," he says, "if I can show you some paintings that answer those very questions."

He begins with some guidelines for detecting metaphysical value-judgements (MVJs) in painting:
1. Describe what you see.
2. The canvas is the Universe.
Approach each and every artwork as if it is a universe in itself. Simply substitute "universe" for "canvas" and a whole new outlook will become apparent.
a. Look for the size of humanity in relationship to the canvas. This is symbolic of humanity's importance in the universe: is humanity larger than life or tiny and insignificant?
b. How is humanity placed within this universe? At the top, bottom or center?
c. What is the most prominent feature within the canvas/universe and what is the main focus? d. For non-figurative work, what are the outstanding things and how are they placed in the canvas?
3. What is the relationship of subject or person to their environment?
This will tell us how important humanity is in relationship to society or nature.
a. Is there a significant difference of sizes between the setting and the subject?
b. Look for the possible symbolism of the objects and/or their relationships. For example, a barrier to freedom symbolized by a chain-link fence. Or, the state buildings are all-powerful above and humanity is crushed below.
c. Is there more emphasis placed on one thing more than another? For example, is there a disregard for the setting and is all the focus on the main figure?
4. Body language.
a. What are people doing? Are they bent, awkward or upright and elegant?
b. Think about the symbolic implications of their posture: are they approaching life as a servant, a thug, or a hero?
c. What are the most notable facial features?
5. Use adjectives to describe the style, color, and light.
This is not a substitute for the facts that are represented in the painting, but using adjectives first to describe a general impression helps you find the facts. We are not analyzing whether the means of the painting are good or not, merely trying to get at the mood of the piece, just as how you might describe the weather outside as cheerful or crystal-clear.
a. Is the painting distorted, smeared, vague or is it orderly, in focus, complex?
b. Are the colors murky, dull or vibrant, bold? Are they in harmony or do they clash?
c. Is the light in the painting subdued or brilliant?
d. The symbolism of light and shadow cannot be missed: are the objects or persons dim and the unenlightened? Or are they enlightened by a radiant universe?

Our own personal evaluation of a painting (or any work of art or architecture) will depend to a very large extent on what values the painting expresses, and on how important those values are to us. It will also depend on just how well the painting expresses those values -- in other words, whether the painting has sufficient scope, depth, technique and integration to express the artist's intended value judgements.

And remember this: Expressing value judgements in art is not a bad thing, as some of you have been known to suggest here recently. Expressing value judgements is what all good art does. If it doesn't do it, it's not good art.

So with those guidelines as pointers, see what Newberry makes of how two paintings answer a fundamental evaluation of the importance of free will: "Does [man] have the power…to choose his goals and achieve them…or is he a helpless plaything of forces beyond his control?"

DelacroixLiberty.jpg (38362 bytes)
7. Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830.

In Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix notice the woman charging forward with her out-thrust arm raising the French flag aloft. Notice her location at the top of the canvas. She is inspiring a rabble of soldiers, dandies, and regular people to carry on even over the obstacles of death, which lie literally at her feet. Though we don't know whether she and they will achieve their goals, it is startlingly clear that they are not the playthings of destiny, they are acting to fulfill their aims.

GoyaShootings.jpg (31892 bytes)
8. Goya, The Shootings of May 3rd 1808, 1814.

On the other side of this volitional issue we have Goya's painting of an execution, in which the these poor men have been lead like sheep to their slaughter. Notice that in the background that the State buildings are above the scene, the implication is that the state dictates to the humans below. There is a line of faceless universal soldiers, heads bowed, carrying out their orders. The main victim thrusts his arms out in the gesture of "why". Notice how the light box is turned towards the victims, they are bathed in its sympathetic glow while the soldiers are in the shadow. Also notice that the color of the light box and the main character is identical gold and white, the implication being that he is the light. Goya paints an empathic portrait of these victims plight but victims they are; hopeless playthings of the mysterious State lurking in the background.
Read Newberry's whole piece here for much more on this important subject (and I'll try and persuade him to fix his yellow-on-white text).

I can't recommend it highly enough.

LINKS: Detecting value judgements in painting - Michael Newberry
ARCHITECTURE DEBATE: Summing up - PC and DenMT's combined Top Ten architectural favourites, 'Not PC'
ARCHITECTURE DEBATE: Response to Berlin's Jewish Museum - guest post by Robert Winefield at 'Not PC'



  1. I thought that the Goya painting displayed here showed French soldiers executing Spanish prisoners after the rsing in Madrid after the city was occupied by the Grande Armee. I think that the buildings in the background don't represent the state, but give a visual clue as to the location of the executions.

  2. Hi Brian,

    The point is that in good art everything does more than one thing.

    The particular detail you cite is f course correct, but the way that detail is used points to the more abstract meaning that Michael Newberry cites.

    BTW, how did your visit to Lincolns Inn go?

  3. Lincoln's Inn? last time I was London we walked past the Temple but can't remember going to that partcilar Inn of Court. Maybe you have me confused with another brian_smaller.

  4. Sorry, Brian S.Different Brian S.

  5. I posted a comment here on your original thread PC, but it doesn't seem to be showing up on your sidebar.

    Mr Smaller - I do recommend a visit to Lincoln's Inn next time you are in London.


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