The past as prologue:
The Barnes method and the new Age of Beauty
To enjoy a thriving arts culture, a society needs more than public and private funding, a robust market, and vigorous sophisticated critics. It must also commit seriously to arts education. Schools ought to care about the arts; museums ought to care more deeply about the integrity of their docent and public education programs. And Philadelphians, especially, ought to care about preserving the Barnes educational legacy.
The educational program that Albert Barnes developed was an astonishing vote of confidence that individuals, regardless of background, could learn and apply principles of aesthetic appreciation, not only to visual arts, but also to what they perceived in daily life.
Barnes first described his educational “objective method” in The Art in Painting, first published in 1925 and later updated multiple times. His classes where this method was developed and exercised were intended for “teachers of art, painters, writers and non-professional people.” In the preface of the first edition of The Art in Painting he stated that the method was “comprised of the observation of facts, reflection upon them, and the testing of conclusions by their success in application” which he said would “give results as objective as possible within any field of aesthetic experience” and therefore minimize “merely personal or arbitrary preference.”
Done in by Derrida
Barnes’s use of words like “objective,” “facts” and “conclusions” to describe the contemplation of art would leave a young art student today perhaps perplexed and certainly amused. Jacques Derrida and other philosophers of deconstruction have subsequently informed us that there are no truths, no such thing as objectivity. Art historians influenced by this philosophy have indulged in speculation about artists’ subconscious feelings about sex, racial oppression or feminism, in formulating theories about painting— theories that certainly can’t be seen in the paint. (For the gory details, consult Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters).
Today’s “academicism”— to borrow a term Barnes often used— looks strangely like the random “sentimentalism” that he railed against years ago. Subjectivity in all of its gushiness and sensationalism has been institutionalized.
Barnes aimed to bring the rigor of the scientific method to the perception and the enjoyment of art. His philosophies spring right out of the era of Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management. One can imagine Albert Barnes and his faithful scribe Violette de Mazia patiently working their way through the museums of Europe, painting by painting, with Barnes observing the “facts” and de Mazia dutifully recording them.
Out of the Dark Ages
But if Barnes went too far in applying objective analysis to paintings, perhaps we today have leaned too far in the other direction. In science it is understood that one learns much through failure of one’s theories. Without the scientific method we might never have emerged from the Dark Ages. Isn’t it possible that the scientific method could be usefully applied to art as well?
So how does one collect or observe verifiable information about a painting? And why would one want to? After a time, the serious student of art might tire of “reacting” emotionally to paintings and might want to understand much more about them. The Barnes method provides a structure for observing certain qualities, and then also provides a language to describe them.
You can approach a painting first noting the whole of its impact, and then its parts: the handling of light (for instance, dissolving form, cast shadows, etc.), line (lost and found, hard and defined, blended, color chorded, ”Florentine” or “Venetian”, etc.), color (saturated, “juicy”, thin, dry, etc.), space (flat, modeled with color, traditional perspective, overlapping forms, bluish background, etc.), and texture (smooth, lacquered, impasto, etc.).
From there you can note compositional devices (unity, variety, rhythm, contrast), style (expressive, illustrative, decorative qualities), and subject content (broad human qualities, abstraction, etc.). After viewing enough paintings with this observational “check list,” one begins to understand or see evidence of works that are to a greater or lesser degree “plastically integrated.” When a work is so exquisitely balanced in its particular manipulation of medium that one scarcely notices its separate elements— light, line, color and space— it yields a harmonious result, a resonant “Ah!” (Barnes felt that Rembrandt often achieved this integration in his work.)
To see as an artist sees
These principles are hard to describe in such a way that a novice can understand them. Thus in Barnes’s approach the student must do the work of looking at paintings and then looking some more. Slowly, the student starts to observe beyond his or her own personal reaction to the subject content or the historical basis for the work, and begins to see as an artist sees. One can even identify when a work was painted or where by what one observes, without referencing any textbook.
The goal is to identify the “problems” the painter has set up for himself or herself and whether or not he or she has succeeded in “solving” them. It certainly helps to have had some experience in working with paint when approaching the Barnes material. (To me, it’s unfortunate that Barnes and later de Mazia forbade students from painting in the galleries and on the Barnes Foundation grounds.)
Obviously, the objective method is less useful with art that has shifted from a concern with aesthetics, visual pleasure and harmony to a central and abiding concern with ideas, politics and social concerns. Yet as Frederick Turner wrote in his recent essay, “Beauty: The Great Debate,” "Everywhere people are demanding a return to beauty as a basic value of culture." Artists who "intend to shock and convert and indoctrinate," Turner argues, might instead reconsider their notion that beauty is merely some "neo Freudian sublimation of the drive to enjoy, consume, possess and dominate." They might consider that beauty is something our souls truly need, and that artists are the especially capable persons who can create it.
Don’t discard— update
In that case, the Barnes method might become relevant and contemporary all over again— not only for painting, but for film, say, or literature— as aesthetics becomes the engaging motif of this century.
To be sure, some of the language and certainly the format in The Art in Painting sorely needs updating. And one may not be able to ascribe the appropriate equivalent of “plastic integration” to a novel, for instance. But perhaps some other term in novel writing and reading could be agreed upon as a way to assess the work.
And even if no adequate term can be settled upon, at least the student will have observed and perceived and enjoyed more about the work than he or she might have otherwise. There are far worse preoccupations for an individual, and indeed for a society as a whole.
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