The Truth (and some lies) About Art

Hobby horse as Motorcycle

"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.

--David Buchanan


    • David Buchanan says

      I listened with half an ear just to get a feel for it. Seems that Wood is up to his neck in the mystifications that Doorly hopes to overcome.

      Thanks for reading.

  1. Connor Syrewicz says

    What is a high-quality endeavor? Does it refer to the technical skills of the artist/ laborer reflected in the artwork itself? Or to the notion of “quality” held by the viewer/ reader/ consumer. Or is it some dialectic between the two? Something entirely external to these?

    • David Buchanan says

      Good questions, Connor. Those are the kinds of questions that Pirsig faced and, like other philosophers, he rejected traditional aesthetic theories precisely because they were entrenched in a “subject-object metaphysics”. This is basic assumption that prompts us to ask if beauty is just in the eye of the beholder (subject) or are some things (objects) inherently beautiful?

      “Today art historians avoid references to beauty or Quality”, Patrick Doorly writes, “since neither is objective or definable, the boundaries beyond which scholars dare not roam. In reality subject and object are united and dissolved in the Quality event,..” The idea here, I think, is that the high-quality endeavor entails an engagement with the working process that is so absorbing and demanding that the subject-object distinction dissolves. You lose yourself in the work, become one with the process. I think this is why Pirsig and Heidegger both put such emphasis on “care”.

      Pirsig, Heidegger and John Dewey all reject subject-object metaphysics and the traditional aesthetic theories that go with that dualism. As Daniel A. Palmer explains it, “Heidegger explicitly rejects the aesthetic approach to art. The aesthetic view of art is firmly entrenched within the subject-object dichotomy that is characteristic of Western metaphysics and prejudices the enquiry into art…” (“Heidegger and the Ontological Significance of the Work of Art”, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 38, No 4, October 1998, page 402). David A. Granger’s paper compares Dewey to Pirsig and he says they, “both defy traditional transcendent, foundationalist and subject-object metaphysics” (“John Dewey and Robert Pirsig: An Invitation to ‘Fresh Seeing’”, presented to the American Educational Research Association, April 1995, page 1). Likewise, Nikolas Kompridis compares Dewey to Heidegger and he says they both take up new terms as an alternative to the subject-object dualism. “Heidegger’s analysis of ‘being-in-the-world’, Habermas’s of the ‘lifeworld’, and Dewey’s of the ‘situation’ are analogous attempts to show that we are always already situated in a pre-reflective, holistically structured, and grammatically regulated world” (“On World Disclosure: Heidegger, Habermas and Dewey”, Thesis Eleven, no 37, 1994, page 31). All three of these secondary sources highlight the rejection of subject-object metaphysics as essential for the re-conception of art being sketched out here. The notion that we are “always already situated” in the world is supposed to replace subject-object dualism.

      Thanks for asking.

    • David Buchanan says

      I’m pretty sure that you’ll enjoy it, Bruce. And it’s just a large paperback, not too expensive.

  2. Edward says

    First comment ever.

    I’m a painter so, naturally, I always perk up at when these topics are covered. I think this view of art as fundamentally “quality” is a good answer to the confusion of what art is in this post-modern climate. Typically, I find that artists are very confused about what they do, and what art is, if they are at all concerned with the more philisophical approaches to art. Their positions become conditional on if they’re defending their own art versus disparaging someone else’s. The most common pattern is their contemporary art is valid because we’ve broken down any restrictions on what qualifies as art, while someone else art is invalid because it’s too trapped within a conservative historical model. Sometimes the essence of art is universal, sometimes it’s culturally contextual, and sometimes it’s beyond judgement because if only one person likes it (themselves) it’s beyond reproach.

    My own explanation is that immediately following the pure sense joy of producing and appreciating art, it becomes ingrained with the accumulated baggage of (an appropriate term) “mystification”. It reminds me of philosophers who want to take a radically skeptical approach to foundations, but ultimately recover it in the end. Artists want to believe that their art is transcendent, but ultimately exemplifies all the “mystical” associations which propelled them to do art professionally, after that initial warm flash of sense joy.

    Though, perhaps, I am projecting.

    I often think that art is a quality of an object which varies in it’s proportion. After a certain threshold the object itself makes sense to be classified as art, that becomes it’s defining property. The proportion of art is determined by how much it expands the definition of the object of which it is a property. The part of the chair which is art is that which is expanding the definition of chairness. In this way, any object (I mean, performance, or whatever) has some nascent portion which should rightly be called art just by nature of the fact that it is in some fundamental way individual.

    Now I’m scared that this doesn’t make any sense or is totally irrelevant, so I’m going to stop. Ultimately though, I think Doorly’s formulation is a really useful one.

  3. John Stackhouse says

    There’s a small set of essays bound in a book by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy named The Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art that may bear on this discussion. For example, in his essay “Why Exhibit Works of Art?” he states: “The artist’s theoretical or imaginative act is said to be free because it is not assumed or admitted that he is blindly complying any model extrinsic to himself, but expressing himself, even in adhering to a prescription or responding to requirements that may remain essentially the same for millennia.”

    • David Buchanan says

      The quote captures the main idea pretty well, I think. And Edward hit upon the idea too, where he says the most common options are to think “contemporary art is valid because we’ve broken down any restrictions on what qualifies as art, while someone else art is invalid because it’s too trapped within a conservative historical model.”

      As Doorly and Pirsig put it, the free and the prescribed or the dynamic and static are “TWO FACETS OF ANY HIGH-QUALITY ENDEAVOR”. You need both to make art, they say.

      “…In practice, this distinction [static and dynamic] refers to two facets of any high-quality endeavour. Motorcycle maintenance and easel painting both depend on the interaction of Static Patterns and Dynamic Quality. Pirsig made an art out of motorcycle maintenance by first reading the manuals (with some prior understanding of the principles on which they depend), then riding his bike while alert to the unexpected sounds, or changes in engine performance, that DQ might notice and diagnose. Similarly, nobody becomes an accomplished painter, sculptor, writer, musician or architect without having recognized excellence in previous examples of those arts, and taken that excellence as the starting point for new work.” — (Patrick Doorly, The Truth About Art, p.129)

      Thanks, gents.

  4. Guy says

    Some interesting comments here. My comment is more in response to the comments here than the interview – I’m not familiar enough with Pirsig et al to comment much on Doorly’s work.

    I have no problem with a philosophical definition of art rather than a practice or disciplinary definition. I think it is the best way to actually make use of the word ‘art’ as a word without its too many conflicting definitions making the the word meaningless. But I have a problem with the definition of art of being based on quality. David you make mention that this is a definition of quality beyond subject-object dualism, but thats too slippery for me.

    The ontological definition of art with which I am most familiar comes from Deleuze and Guattari: art is one of three metaphysical modes of existence, along with science and philosophy. Art works by modulating ‘affect’ and anything which can be sensed, everything which is affective, is art. Which means that painting is art, but so is the sight of a mountain, the way we perceive mathematics and the sensation of wind on our skin. This defines a huge plane (a plane of composition) for art to work on, which probably frightens artists, because it doesn’t privilege anthropocentric creativity, but horizontalises aesthetics across the entire human and non-human world. So the extraction, transport and formation of metal, or the tectonic force of the earth, are just as productive of art and aesthetics as any human. (I know of some artists that embrace this kind of thinking in their practice, even if they aren’t aware of it in these terms. The best example I can think of right now is Thomas Thwaites’ Toaster Project which embodies an exhilarating conflict of human and non-human forces).

    This makes aesthetics, unto itself, a modality or medium rather than a form. The problem then is quality. How does one judge the quality of an artwork (which is anything that can be sensed)? Spinoza argues it is about affective power – that which opens up the possibilities for action is good, and that which limits them is bad. There are various ways this can be illustrated, and its important but perhaps too general to be compelling in regards to assessing what we conventionally perceive as art. So another way is to envision aesthetics as a mode in which sensation is assembled in relationship to many many other things, such as social, cultural, and political concerns. Art embodies such concerns, and so must be assessed not by what it is or how it looks, but by what it does. What does it do politically? What does it do socially? These kinds of questions can lead to very direct metrics for context-dependents assessments of quality. There is no value in comparing the aesthetics of the Japanese tea ceremony to the aesthetics of the Parthenon for example, except to ask, again for example; in what way was the tea ceremony modulated by and in turn did it modulate samurai culture, or, what was the likewise relationship of geometry to ancient greek politics? Then, within their contexts, in what ways did these artforms create better relative societies? Therefore all art is political, cultural, social etc. Personally, I have little patience for artists who claim their work exists in a bubble outside these concerns of the world.



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