Quite a few lovers of the arts have broken their neck over this question: “What is art?” This usually happens during a discussion with someone whose taste deviates completely from your own. ‘Hey man – this is no art!’
That way you will never get out of this jam. Anyway, Nelson Goodman has solved the aesthetical riddle. The question in question turns around an historical issue. It is no good asking: ‘What is art?’ The key to a solution is the question: ‘When is art?’
There are hooks and eyes to this solution.
It still assumes that people with very different preferences share common criteria for their judgement of both their likings. Only thirty years ago lovers of operetta or of opera both knew that, in spite of their different tastes, opera of the two was the more complex form of musical theatre, the ‘higher’ form of art. In Postmodernity this seems no longer to be the case, as Schulze proved in his debate with Bourdieu. Here I’ll just pretend it still is.
By asking the question in the Goodmanian way, you realize that what is considered ‘art’ in one era was not so considered in a previous period.
In his own masterful manner Duchamp put the issue on the agenda by placing a chamber pot in a gallery exhibition. It suddenly became clear that from the beginning of the 20th century the defining factor of ‘the place of hanging’ decided whether a work was to be considered as ‘art’.
The process of ‘museïfication’ of the arts which started in the 19th century was then completed. From then on, something was only considered ‘art’ if, via collectors and the galleria, it ended up in a museum.
Then, one day, you walk through House Six in Amsterdam, now situated at the river Amstel – and all of a sudden you stand face to face with Jean Six I himself, alias the ‘Jan Six’ by Rembrandt.
The frightened Protestant Jean fled Roman-catholic Wallonia for Reformed Amsterdam, to become rich with his indigo blue dye. This colour was needed to give the precious suits and robes of our Amsterdam Ladies and Gents their expression of intense black. The cloth was first dipped various times in indigo and only then painted black. Thus its intense darkness stayed longer.
I saw Rembrandt’s canvas only once live, this in a major exhibition. Now Jan Six I is suddenly facing me, a mere two meters away – as a good friend. The glove only needs to be taken off and we shall shake hands.
Speaking of which, I am suddenly reminded of Schama’s splendid book on Rembrandt and Rubens. He is intrigued by the ambiguity of that gloved hand – unsure as to whether Six has just come home or will be actually leaving his house. For Schama this is uncertain, according to him Jan may be pulling off his glove or by contrast putting it on.
An expert lady in our little company of visitors to House Six said, after I had related Schama’s opinion, that it is actually rather obvious. “You will never take off a glove with hands on it like that. Jean Six is pulling at this one, he is putting it on!” And so right she is.
Now as to Schama’s exposé about those gloves, I found it merely amusing and, as always with that author, beautifully written. From the start of our acquaintance the beauty of the painting lurked in two other aspects.
First of all Six’ pensive, if not meditative and in any case resigned gaze. As if he is going to a funeral. Seldom did I see such a magnificent face in a portrait.
The second surprise is of an art-historical nature, let’s say with a Goodmanian signature. This painting just can’t be! Would you encounter it without fore-knowledge, yet as someone well versed in art history, 99 against 1 that you would situate the canvas in the history of painting of the 19th century.
‘Impressionism’ you might think, adding perhaps: ‘à la Delacroix’. That sweeping paint, sometimes done with the thumb, then again with a brush – it certainly could no be done in the 17th century…
One may ask what happened to this painting which Rembrandt gifted his patron and possibly his friend Jan Six? Was it immediately hung in his salon of the first House Six, situated at the ‘Golden Curve’ of the Herengracht in Amsterdam? Or did it contrast so heavily with the rest of his 17th-century painterly possessions that it disappeared into his study, or perhaps even into the attic?
This much is certain: If you would have asked of a 17th-century art lover with regard to this painting the question: ‘When is art?’, his response would have been: ‘Not now!’
Intriguing is that gaze in yet another way. Thanks to his pensive expression Jan does not really look you straight in the eye – or not yet. Today’s hanging of the canvas, however – in this second House Six on the Amstel – added a new touch. It makes Jean, as it were, wink at us.
When you look at him by way of the mirror across from the canvas – as pointed out by our tour guide – you suddenly find Jan looking straight at you. Yet not quite so. Suddenly you realize that he does not look at you, but that you are in fact obstructing his gaze. In the mirror perspective of that gaze we find a portrait of his wife, hanging on the same wall as Jan.
Jan is looking at her, perhaps reflecting on his marriage – we will never know. Especially so, because this place of hanging is a postmodern addition to the painting that has nothing to do with Rembrandt’s portrait.