New Bearings in Esthetics and Art Criticism

A Study in Semantics and Evaluation

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RELATIVISM                                              129
the merits of works of art." 74 Berenson, a very different critic, shares the laudable trait of making evident his principal standard for evaluating painting: a life-communicating quality which is expressed mainly by tactile values, movement, and space composition. How helpful in explaining divergent judgments such criteria may be is evident from Berenson's comment regarding the bandages about the heads of figures on the Sistine ceiling: 'To Ruskin, I am told, these were a source of great offence, but to me they are a source of delight, for they communicate an ideated sensation of pull and resistance which vitalize the forms they enclose, and make me feel more alive." 75 If we also know the basic suppositions of Ruskin's criticism, we can then readily comprehend his evaluation as well as the opposed one of Berenson. In short, artistic judgments of good and bad have intelligible meaning only when art objects are interpreted in the light of some critical system which should be made explicitly or implicitly clear. This axiom might be called "logical relativism."
To illustrate further the effect that disagreement in critical postulates has upon specific evaluations, consider the opinions of Walter Abell and of Lionello Venturi upon two paintings of the "Agony in the Garden," one by El Greco, the other by Perugino.76 In his brilliant analysis of these
74.  What Is Art?, p. 248.
75.  The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, I, 196.
76.  For these opinions, see Abell, Representation and Form, pp. 85-89 and 128-131; and Venturi, Art Criticism Now, pp. 43-46. "Associative form" is briefly defined in this book, p. 80.
From remarks made elsewhere in this book, it is evident (i) that I agree with Abell in this controversy, but (ii) that, as a relativist should, I grant the legitimacy of Venturis critical system as the expression of an acute critical sensitivity. On two scores, however, Venturi's attack upon Abell should not be exculpated; and these scores are worth noting because of Venturfs present considerable authority in matters regarding art criticism: (a) Because Abell expressly states his indebtedness to four modern writers,