By John Canaday, What is Art? (1980)

John Canaday (1907-1985) was the art critic of The New York Times (1959-1977). He worked as chief of the educational division at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1953-1959). During this period he wrote the text for Metropolitan Seminars in Art, a widely distributed series of 24 portfolios published between 1958 and 1960 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. While taking art history at Columbia University, I recall ads in the New York Times Book Review on Canaday's Metropolitan Seminars in Art. However the price was beyond my college budget would allow, so I never saw these books. Recently, I bought 10 of the first 12 portfolios at the Friends of Palo Alto Library Book Sale. I gave them to my nieces and nephew as Christmas presents along with some other books. When I read Canaday's essay in the first portfolio on "What Is a Painting?" (1959), I was somewhat shocked that Canaday pointed out one of my favorite paintings Cot's The Storm as an example of bad art— flossy and superficial. I recall viewing this giant painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and admired Cot's virtuosity as an artist depicting a beautiful couple running away from the storm. My sister, a graphic artist, liked this painting too, and bought a postcard which she gave to my Dad, who propped it on his bookcase. I even included it as one of three paintings on my web page Romance in Art. I'm familiar with Kokoschka's The Tempest which is cited often as an example of expressionism, but never considered it as one of my favorites. After reading Canaday's analysis, it occured to me why Cot's The Storm is kitsch art and superficial while Kokoschka's The Tempest has more emotional depth and is considered good art. I found Canaday's essay in What Is Art? in the Stanford Library stacks today. This volume (1980) was published 21 years after the Metropolitan portfolios (1959). Canaday's arguments are basically the same, but a bit more tempered on the art critics' judgments with the passage of time. I am typing Canaday's essay so more readers can appreciate his salient thesis on what is good and bad art, and how he won me over to his point of view. This is a must reading for art history students.

— Peter Y. Chou,, 1-9-2007

Pierre-Auguste Cot (1837-1883)
The Storm (1880)
Oil on canvas, 92-1/4" x 63-3/4"
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980)
The Tempest (1914)
Oil on canvas, 71-1/4" x 86-5/8"
Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland

John Canaday, What Is Art?, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980
  Conclusion from Chapter One: What Is A Painting?, pp. 27-31

    We will compare two paintings as representative combatants in the pitched battle between modernism and traditional academic painting that has been going on in a mild way indefinitely but has been carried on with greatest violence in our century. While the battle continues, we will select an area where the dust has settled.

    Pierre Cot's The Storm representing the losers, was a tremendously popular picture well into the 20th century, dropped to the nadir of critical esteem by mid-century, and recently has made a tentative comeback. It was painted in 1880. Oskar Kokoschka's The Tempest, painted in 1914, has an opposite history. At that time Kokoschka's art, praised by advanced critics, was still damned as degenerate by the public and by critics who could stretch a point backward to admire pictures like Cot's Storm. Today Kokoschka Tempest cannot look very radical to anybody, and even the uninitiated layman would hesitate to damn it although he might be unable to respond with full sympathy. We will examine it first.

    There is no actual "tempest" visible. We see a pair of lovers lying in what appears to be a frail barque, encompassed by forms like windy clouds or waves or a nightmarish landscape. The color, dominated by turgid blues and greens, suggests (but does not represent) a stormy sky shot through here and there with light. These swirling colors surround the figures of a watchful man and a sleeping woman, who are intertwined not only with one another but with the surrounding swirls of color as well. As a matter of historical fact, the lovers are identifiable portraits of Kokoschka and a prominent woman with whom at that time he was having an intense and scandalous affair. But the painting is only secondarily a personal document and loses much of its expressive force if regarded only in those terms. From a profound personal experience Kokoschka conceived a symbolical painting, in which specific reference is transmuted into universal statement by means of expressive distortions.

    The lovers' bodies are twisted, deformed, and discolored, yet this man and woman are serene in the midst of all the surrounding violence. Whether or not the painter thought of his subject in exactly these terms, the picture says that human love is the sustaining miracle of goodness in the confusion and malevolence of life. The figures are "ugly" because they must participate in life, they have found a refuge within it.

    The theme is an affecting one but could easily turn mawkish. Kokoschka expresses it with a vigor that would be weakened if his lovers were glamorous creatures immune to hardship or ill fortune and the normal difficulties of existence.

    Such an unreal and idyllic immunity is suggested by the pretty lovers who flee the storm in Cot's painting. Like Kokoschka's, they are beset by the elements. Both painters express the oneness of the lovers by typing them together with interlacing lines and a billowing, surrounding form (in the Cot, the wind-filled drapery). Both suggest the relationship of protective male to more fragile female. But beneath these similarities, the differences are extreme.

    An important one is that the Cot is specific and detailed in such a way that it becomes an illustration of the plight of one particular pair of lovers, while the Kokoschka is generalized and abstracted. In a more emotionslized way, the Kokoschka is a universal image just as the portrait of Madame Renoir became one when we stopped regarding it as a portrait of a particular woman. Compared with the strength of the Kokoschka, Cot's picture seems today a flossy bit of picturemaking concerned with second-rate values. It is a wondrously slick piece of work, but nothing much goes beneath this surface of technical display. For all the signposts such as billowing drapery and bodily attitudes pointing out that the figures are supposed to be running, there is no expression of flight. The lovers remain frozen forever on tiptoe, continuing to suggest models posed in the studio. Kokoschka's figures are integrated with the rest of the picture; Cot's stand in front of a photographer's backdrop. Our attention is constantly urged toward their prettiness, not toward their quality as human beings, and we are asked to admire the rendition of such props as the horn at the boy's belt, the girl's flimsy gown, and all the incidental complexities of folds and curls, instead of being given a reason for their being there. Thes details say nothing except that the painter is skillful in representing them. We are offered a collection of accessories instead of a message.

    There is fascination in watching any demonstration of acquired skill, which is why tightrope walkers are able to make a living, but unless the skill is directed toward an expressive or productive end it is only diverting. We are diverted by Cot's The Storm; our perception is deepened by Kokoschka's The Tempest. The Cot appeals by telling a little story; it is an anecdote. But the Kokoschka is the emotionalized expression of an idea.

    Since we have said nothing favorable about The Storm, why is it included here? Only as a whipping boy? In that case, why is it given exhibition space in one of the greatest museums in the world?

    For one thing, it is an absorbing picture to anybody interested in the histroy of painting because it is a perfect example of the attitude that dominated public taste, and most critical taste too, for half a century. We have said that one function of painting is to reveal to us what people have thought and felt and believed. If this is important, is it safe to ignore a picture that appealed so strongly to so many people for so long? Museums may set themselves up as arbiters of taste, but they also have a function as visual histories of thought and feeling, which is why the Metropolitan Museum pulled The Storm out of storage and gave it a respectable position once more. We do not exclude important villains and incompentents from books of political history just because we don't approve of what they did. The French Academy of Fine Arts, sponsoring a style perfectly represented by Cot is nowadays regarded as the villain of 19th century art history for rejecting painters like Cézanne, Manet, Monet, and Renoir in favor of painters like Cot and others now forgotten.

    Aside from giving wall space to paintings like The Storm as historical examples, we should ask ourselves why a picture so easy to ridicule is so difficult to dismiss. Many painters successful in their lifetimes, including the great names of El Greco and Botticelli, have been dismissed by one century and rediscovered by the next. Recently there has been an enthusiastic renewal of admiration for a group of 16th century painters, the Italian mannerists, who had been regarded with condescension.

    If the meaning of a great painting is enriched with time while that of a poor one withers saway, then The Storm is still afflicted with all the symptoms of inferiority. But time is a matter of the very long run, allowing ups and downs in reevaluations that weem impossible to us at the moment. In the meanwhile, even "bad" paintings are interesting as a counterpoint to the ones we call "good".

    The most important— and the most disturbing— thing to remember about The Storm is that it was conceived as a serious work of art in accord with the dictates of the majority of contemporary critics, teachers, and historians. We have called the picture flossy and superficial, and implied that it is silly, but it was not a tongue-in-cheek product. Cot was making no effort to reduce his art to the level of the 19th century public that rewarded him so generously; he was simply in tune with that public. So far as he was concerned, he represented the most highly developed esthetic standards of the day, backed up by the Academy's notion of the progress of art through the centuries. It seems unlikely— impossible— that paintings like The Storm can ever again be regarded with the seriousness with which they were conceived, or that Kokoschka's The Tempest will ever again look "degenerate", as it was called when it appeared. But both paintings make the disturbing point that it is never safe to leave unquestioned the dictates of official taste in any age, including our own, when we are so smug in our dismissal of any art that does not fall into line with our certainty of our own excellence. Art critics, on the whole, have a good record as evangelists but a very poor one as oracles.

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