Canons and Values in the Visual Arts: A Correspondence

Critical Inquiry 2 (3):395-410 (1976)

[E.H. Gombrich wrote on May 13, 1975:] . . . I recently was invited to talk about "Art" at the Institution for Education of our University. There was a well-intentioned teacher there who put forward the view that we had no right whatever to influence the likes and dislikes of our pupils because every generation had a different outlook and we could not possibly tell what theirs would be. It is the same extreme relativism, which has invaded our art schools and resulted in the doctrine that art could not possibly be taught because only what has been done already can be taught, and since art is creativity it is not possible to teach it. Q.E.D.—I recently asked my history finalists what "Quod erat demonstrandum" means and they did not know. . . . [Quentin Bell responded on May 15, 1975:] . . . Your teacher at the Institute, is he really a relativist? Isn't he a kind of religious zealot? I used to teach school children. With me there was a much better teacher . One day she came into the room where I had been teaching and found a series of the most surprising and beautiful water colours. "What are these?" said she. I explained that they were copies of Raphael made by eleven and twelve year old children. I would have gone on to explain how interested I was by their resemblance, not to Raphael but rather to Simone Martini, for they had all the shapes beautifully right but none of the internal drawing or the sentiment, but I was checked by her look of horror. "You've made them copy from Raphael?" she said. Her expression was exactly that of someone who had been casually informed that that I had committed a series of indecent assaults upon the brats. And in fact in subsequent conversation it appeared that this was very nearly what she did feel. For her, what she called "self expression" was as precious as virginity. E.H. Gombrich was director of the Warburg Institute and Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition at the University of London from 1959 to 1976. His books include The Story of Art, Art and Illusion, Meditations on a Hobby Horse, Norm and Form, Symbolic Images, The Heritage of Apelles, and In Search of Cultural History. He became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1960, a Commander of the British Empire in 1966, and was knighted in 1972. He is also a trustee of the British Museum and a foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society. His contributions to Critical Inquiry include "Notes and Exchanges" ,"Standards of Truth: The Arrested Image and the Moving Eye" , and, with Quentin Bell, "Canons and Values in the Visual Arts: A Correspondence" . Quentin Bell is professor of the history and theory of art, Sussex University. He has written Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Of Human Finery, Ruskin, Victorian Artists and Bloomsbury. Other contributions to Critical Inquiry are "The Art Critic and the Art Historian" , "Notes and Exchanges" , and "Bloomsbury and 'the Vulgar Passions'"
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DOI 10.1086/447849
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