“A bad work of art is an oxymoron,” Patrick Doorly says, “like bad skill.” He thinks there’s no such thing as bad art because the term does not refer to a class of objects or a category of activity. Art simply refers to excellence or to any “high-quality endeavor,” a phrase he borrows from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Doorly’s new book, The Truth About Art: Reclaiming Quality, devotes an entire chapter to Pirsig’s metaphysics, which Doorly deploys to untie various intellectual knots.
You’ll find big-hitters like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel in the book’s index. There is even a footnote mentioning the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, whose work was the topic for P.E.L’s 16th episode. The Truth About Art looks like an art history book, with plenty of illustrations, but the text feels more like an accessible book of philosophy.
The following interview with Patrick Doorly was conducted via email but let’s pretend that I sat down with him over a hot cup of coffee or a cool glass of beer, depending on your climate or time of day.
Before we get to your book, I’d like to ask about your background. Amazon says you were educated at St John’s College, Oxford; Stockholm University; and the Courtauld Institute of Art. Is that correct and would you say something about how you first became interested in art? Was there a moment when it hit you, so to speak, or maybe some particular artist grabbed your attention?
Those details are correct. As you know, any activity done well becomes an art. My interest in visual art was sparked off by my father, who was a keen amateur photographer. When I was a boy he and I would black out the bathroom, and process photos with chemicals. Later when I was reading a book on English painting as a teenager, I turned a page and saw a colour reproduction of Turner’s Norham Castle. It was far more beautiful than any photo I would ever take. That’s how it started.
They say that you taught art and design for the bulk of your career. In all that time, what was the most important lesson your students taught you?
The best way to understand something is to try and explain it to twenty 16-year-olds. After doing that for twenty-five years, you realise how much they have taught you.
You and your wife have lived in Oxford since the year 2000 and you’ve been teaching art history at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education. Please explain the nature of this Department in general and then tell me how teaching with that Department differs from the more traditional classrooms and studios in which you’ve worked.
Continuing Education makes the resources of the university available to the wider community. The adult students I see are usually well qualified and very experienced in their own fields, but now want to study the history of art in a structured way. They are a joy and a privilege to teach.
One of the reviewers, Nicholas Mann, Director of the Warburg Institute (1990–2001), said that E H Gombrich and Robert Pirsig stand side by side in your book as the main providers of insight. He also said that they seem to be very unlikely bedfellows. Why is that? What is it about these two figures that they would make for an odd couple and how did you handle this apparent clash?
Plato claimed that painters and poets (and by extension sculptors) imitate appearances (Republic, Book X). That belief was repeated for 2,300 years, until E.H. Gombrich published an essay entitled Meditations on a Hobby Horse (1951). There he showed that painters and sculptors do no such thing. No child would mistake a stick with a schematic horse’s head at one end for a horse. A hobby horse does not imitate a horse, but substitutes for a horse in being rideable. “All image-making is rooted in the creation of substitute”, wrote Gombrich. Professor Mann’s little joke was that a scholar riding a hobby horse with another on a motorcycle made for unlikely travelling companions.
Pirsig’s first book (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) was the topic for podcast episode #50 of The Partially Examined Life and so I have to ask about Nicholas Mann’s comment. “Doorly concludes that Quality is of the essence” he said, “and that Pirsig’s model of the interaction between the Dynamic Quality of the creative individual and the Static Patterns of a culture is the most promising conceptual model of artistic endeavour that he has encountered.” Is that an accurate description of your conclusion? Could you describe this conceptual model for those who might not be familiar with Pirsig? And when did you first discover Pirsig’s work and/or first realize its appeal to you?
I would not have used Mann’s phrasing, but have no quarrel with it. Pirsig explains that the experience of Quality is filtered and interpreted by the individual’s memories of previous Quality experiences, which in Lila he called Static Patterns (and Gombrich called schemata). A culture is made up of the totality of its Static Patterns of Quality. Modern fine artists unwittingly follow Kant (1790) in believing that they should be original, which drives them to kick away the Static Patterns of their culture. As a result their work has often left critics and the public baffled. A completely original work of art – if we could imagine such a thing – would make sense only to its maker, occupying in a culture of one, which is where madmen live.
I first read ZMM in the late 1970s, when I was already teaching the history of art. Its references to art made perfect sense.
Another reviewer, Richard Woodfield, editor of The Essential Gombrich, says that your book guides the reader through debates about quality that have a long and complex history. Likewise, Nicholas Mann says your book is “a journey of exploration ranging from Plato to Marcel Duchamp” and he describes it as a “systematic demystification”. (My newest favorite phrase.) Are there one or two mystifications that you find most worthy of attack? You say, for example, that “Art with a capital A turns out to be an invention of German Romantic philosophers” and this was thought to be Art “directed by the spirit of the age“. Is this conception one of the mystifications you have in mind and are we talking about “spirit” in the Hegelian sense?
Pirsig: “Art is high-quality endeavor. That is all that really needs to be said” (ZMM, ch. 21). Everything else that is said about art, including notions of genius, originality, expressing oneself and the spirit of the age, is mystification. But those bogeys are so firmly entrenched in our culture that “they will continue to haunt us until we confront them directly and call them by their proper names. Only then, as in the best fairy stories, can the power they wield over us be measured against their merit” (The Truth about Art, p. 19). I apologise for quoting myself, but if I could say it better now, I hope I would have said it better then.
After Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790), Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1820s) did more to formulate modern attitudes to art than any other text.
I happen to know that you’re a fan of the Motown sound, as am I. But is it art?
Will you be doing a book tour or anything like that?
The book has been launched twice in Oxford (since the seating capacity of the Ashmolean museum’s lecture theatre could not accomodate everyone in one sitting). Before a book tour is viable, however, The Truth about Art needs to have been noticed, in book reviews and blogs such as this one, and elsewhere. When it has achieved a sufficiently high public profile I would love to go on tour.
Finally, there’s a question that I really should have asked at the beginning. Who is your target audience? Who is the book written for?
The sort of people who visit blockbuster exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Denver Art Museum.
Congratulations, Mr. Doorly, and thanks for your time.
Thank you for your interest in the book.