Jed Perl On The Supposed Necessity Of Doubt For Art

In the course of a ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’ style review of a retrospective of Jeff Koons‘ work–staged at the Whitney Museum last year–Jed Perl writes:

Dada—whatever its deficiencies, and the fact is that it produced relatively little enduring art—was part of a tradition of doubt about the possibilities of art that is woven deep into the history of art. You can trace this tradition back to the accounts in Pliny and other historians of the struggles of ancient painters to disentangle the relationship between the natural world and the pictorial world. The tradition runs through Michelangelo’s Neoplatonic worries about the conflict between the material and spiritual powers of art. And it reaches a first tragic climax in Chardin’s statements about the uselessness of artistic training as a preparation for the real challenges of art and his haunting confession that painting was an island whose shores he doubted he even knew.

There is not a shred of doubt in Jeff Koons. And where there is no doubt there is no art. [links added]

I’m willing to grant Perls that there is ‘a tradition of doubt about the possibilities of art that is woven deep into the history of art’–he is the art critic and historian, not me. And it certainly is the case that much magnificent art has issued from artistic doubt–understood here as that species of psychic unease which spurs creators on to exploration of the world and their place in it through their art. But I do not think it follows that ‘where there is no doubt there is no art.’

Art can issue from certitude. The firm conviction that an artistic statement–of a particular kind, couched in a particular form–needs to be made can be sufficient motivation to bring an artwork into being. Most prominently, the rich history and tradition of religious art is often underwritten by a kind of deep and abiding faith, one not infected by doubt about the existence and attributes of the objects of its desire and longing. It is this faith, this fixity of belief, that often gives this species of art its distinctive emotional and intellectual appeal. (Other examples, drawn from other genres, can, I think, be readily supplied.)

Perhaps Perls’ confusion lies in thinking that only doubt may spur us on to meaningful, directed, and purposive action–there must be an irritant that impels us to move away from it, to find relief in  investigation and action.  (In the case of art, through expression in visual, verbal, and musical media.) But knowledge may provide a clarity that is similarly compelling, for after all, the counterpart of inquiry sparked by doubt–and art is a kind of inquiry–is paralysis, a zone of stagnation and fear. Firmly fixed belief may provide a speedier passage through this domain.

All of which is to say that it is unlikely that something quite as contentiously defined and demarcated as art–and thus interesting!–will find its groundings expressed by means of a formula as reductive as the one that Perl attempts to provide.

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