The classic one-liner on the irrelevance of aesthetics for artists was Barnett Newman's quip: "Aesthetics for me is like ornithology must be for the birds." Speaking in 1952 at a conference co-sponsored by an artists' group and the American Society for Aesthetics, Newman declared the very idea of such a conference absurd, saying that he considered "the artist and the aesthetician to be mutually exclusive terms." He went on to attack aesthetics for what he called its irresponsibility in presuming to speak on art with the authority of philosophy or even science, while refusing to involve itself in the conflict of values fundamental to the activity of artists. Moreover, said Newman, by assuming a detached, theoretical attitude the philosophical aesthetician "leaves the field wide open for the practicing aestheticians, the museum directors and newspaper critics, who daily are making decisions and establishing and disestablishing values … on the authority of theoretical aesthetics." 1 The terms in which Newman described the central conflict of artistic values in his time, as "the moral struggle between notions of beauty and the desire for sublimity," were themselves-as an earlier chapter of this book makes evident-taken from aesthetic discourse. 2 But the philosophy of art, as he saw it, had failed to involve itself in, or even grasp, the struggle of American modern artists to break free from the tradition of European art, thus allowing criticism, based on traditional aesthetics, to play a destructive role in the face of the emergence of new tendencies.
If few American artists of the last fifty years have expressed themselves as strongly as Newman in opposition to the claims of aesthetics to provide a basis for the understanding of art, this is largely due to a lack of contact between the two activities as deep as Newman's remarks suggest. There have been individual artists of whom this is not strictly true, such as Robert Motherwell, who studied aesthetics at Harvard and later at Columbia with the art historian Meyer Schapiro. And the many artists who engaged with Schapiro over the decades of
1 Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. J. P. O'Neill (New York: Knopf, 1990), pp. 304, 242-3.
2 Ibid., p. 171.