The second part of Hickey’s claim, that Op is less “dependent on education and conscious knowledge” than most other art, is more slippery and uncomfortable in its implications, because it undermines the authority of connoisseurship, which has been the governing principle of aesthetic judgment for the past 100 years. As developed by art historian Bernard Berenson, the idea of connoisseurship has nothing to do with the airs of elitism that have since gathered around the term; rather, it rests on the concept of the educated eye, which is equally dependent upon a wide knowledge of cultural history and a highly developed sensitivity to the subtleties and resonances of the art object. In other words, every work of art carries its histories within itself, even when it marks an extreme break with the past. The real test of a connoisseur, then, would be the ability to recognize the cultural value of the utterly new. There are no other academic or financial requirements: Two of the most perceptive connoisseurs of the postwar era were Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, a postal worker and a librarian, who amassed one of the most important collections of Minimal and Conceptual art in the world, which they donated in full to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. What is extraordinary—and not a little queasy-making—about Hickey’s refutation of education and knowledge in the context of Op is that he is knocking down the last gatekeeper between the artwork and the viewing public. We don’t need anyone to tell us what we are looking at, or why. All we need to do is look. But what of Hickey’s ominous parting shot, that education and knowledge are less necessary “than one might wish”? Is he here acknowledging the inherent snobbery of the art world, in which an invisible but very real divide stands between those who “get it” and those who don’t? If there are no prerequisites other than “our willingness to try and see” optical art, then what is art history for, why do critics struggle to tease out the wheat from the chaff, and how on earth will we ever be able to distinguish “us” from “them”? Or is he in fact conceding a suspicion that perceptual art, at bottom, means nothing at all? That it is all surface theatrics and retinal pyrotechnics, and that summoning up education or knowledge in its presence is a fool’s errand, an inquiry into evanescence? In the end, is Hickey, as a seasoned intellectual, edging away from the inherent anti-intellectualism—in essence, the decorativeness—of the most resolutely visual of art forms? As indicated by the title of his essay, “Trying to See What We Can Never Know,” Hickey doesn’t retreat from the challenge, but instead finds something metaphysical, for lack of a better term, in the opticality of Op. Citing the historical and critical record that has accumulated around Abstract Expressionism, he laments the way that style’s canonical narrative, which he describes as “a fictional mythology...centered on the ‘story’ told by the ‘artist’s hand’”4—i.e., the critic Harold Rosenberg’s concept of the canvas as a psychological “arena in which to act”5—gets in the way of seeing the art with fresh eyes: “The critical 4
Ibid., p. 12.
Published on Sep 22, 2014
Published on Sep 22, 2014
Twenty seven artists from the US and Europe use geometry and color to explore the illusion of difference between two- and three-dimensional...