Artist Ben Shahn, this year's Charles Eliot Norton Lecturer, did his best to ring the death knell last night on Clive Bell's influential critical cannon that representation is unimportant in painting.
He stated that his images were chosen for their communicative value and he went into the background of one of his most controversial paintings, "Allegory," to show why he selected images of the wolf and children.
Tracing his associations to stories of his childhood and mythology, he was able to explain how the particular symbols chosen could create the emotional tone surrounding the disaster of a fire.
In a talk that was remarkably outspoken for the judgements it delivered on various schools of modern painting criticism, Shahn stated that the value of man resides in his conscious mastery of life, in intellect and humanity at its highest peak. He felt symbolism went too far in the direction of automaticism where the artist loses control to his subconscious and amorphous mind.
Shahn was more interested in the conscious ideas of the artist and in what he was trying to express; the love of people and things in Van Gogh's work for example, rather than the artist's insanity.
In tracing his own development as an artist Shahn revealed his struggle to make his art not only "professional looking" but also identified with his inner self. He indicated that he worked through socially conscious art, which was his first real identification with his inner self, to a deeper source of meaning in art that was less transient. This was personal realism, as he called it.
Shahn concluded painting could even contain the whole of scholarship and more because it encompassed the wholeness of feeling and thinking of the individual
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