Quote Origin: Aesthetics Is for the Artists Like Ornithology Is for the Birds

Barnett Newman? Frederic James? Ad Reinhardt? Dorothy Gees Seckler? Jonathan Williams? Apocryphal?

Public domain illustration of the abstract painting style

Question for Quote Investigator: Art critics and historians have invented and propounded recondite theories of aesthetics. Yet, the motivations and inspirations of influential artists are detached from these abstruse theories. Apparently, a painter once presented the following sardonic analogy:

Aesthetics is for the artists like ornithology is for the birds.

In other words, birds do not read textbooks about ornithology, and vital artists do not read disquisitions on aesthetics. U.S. artist Barnett Newman, U.S. painter Frederic James, and U.S. painter Ad Reinhardt have all received credit for this analogy, but I have never seen a precise citation. Would you please help me?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In August 1952 Barnett Newman attended the Woodstock Art Conference in Woodstock, New York with several prominent artists and critics. An article in “The Kingston Daily Freeman” of Kingston, New York reported on the conference and published a germane quotation from Newman. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

In a direct challenge to the aesthetician, Barnett Newman, painter, stated that “what the artist creates is the reality and the people imitate that reality which the painter has created.” He demolished the value of aesthetic study for the artist with the observation that he had known a lot of ornithologists, and “they don’t think ornithology is for the birds!”

Thus, Newman expressed the central idea of the analogy, but he did not employ the compact self-contained statement at the 1952 conference. A few years later, in December 1955 an article in the influential magazine “Art in America” ascribed the analogy to Newman. It is possible that Newman was responsible for this formulation. Alternatively, the magazine writer Dorothy Gees Seckler constructed the analogy based on Newman’s 1952 remarks. The name “Barnett” was misspelled as “Barnet”:2

Apparently the artists of the Terrain Gallery, one of the liveliest of this type, do not believe with Barnet Newman that “aesthetics is for the artist like Ornithology is for the birds,” since they have initiated a series of aesthetic discussions around the Elie Siegel theory of opposites with exhibitions through the season to illustrate specific art principles.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1957 “College Art Journal” published “Artists and College Art Teaching” by David Durst who was Chairman of the Department of Art at the University of Arkansas. Durst attributed the saying to an unnamed “Boston painter”. Langer and Boaz both attended the 1952 Woodstock Art Conference:3

This brings to my mind the remarks of a Boston painter on a panel discussion with such aestheticians as Susanne Langer, and George Boaz. The discussion was on aesthetics and the artist. The painter finally became a bit upset over the philosophers’ barrage of polysyllabic words and said in a loud voice, “Aesthetics is no more for the artist than ornithology is for the birds.”

In 1961 “The Kansas City Times” of Missouri published a profile of U.S painter Frederic James which contained an acerbic quotation from the artist about critics. However, James credited the remark to an unnamed friend:4

As to the importance of art critics, James quotes an artist friend:

“Art critics and art historians and people who write about art mean about as much to artists as ornithology does to birds.”

Also in 1961, the journal “The Noble Savage” published a short story titled “Whisper” by B. H. Friedman which included an instance of the saying attributed to “Barney” instead of “Barnett”:5

But the fifties were my season in heaven. Here the best paintings were made, and music played. Here you could get a copy of Adolphe at Walgreen’s and find no place to hide among the columns under Lever House. Everything was happening. If only the critics had been driven out of town, tarred and feathered with copies of Art News. Nobody listened to Barney Newman: “Aesthetics is for the artists like ornithology is for the birds.”

In 1962 “The New York Times” printed the saying while crediting Barney Newman:6

“ESTHETICS is for the artists,” the painter Barney Newman has said, “like ornithology is for the birds.” Possibly so. But ornithology is certainly for the bird-watcher — and, by the same token, esthetics (or art criticism) is for the art-watcher. Or for the architecture-watcher.

In 1963 “Vogue” magazine published a profile titled “Barnett Newman: A Man of Controversy, and Spiritual Grandeur” which included the saying:7

The following is his complete statement for a symposium on “Why I Paint”: “An artist paints so that he will have something to look at; at times he must write so that he will also have something to read.”

At a forum in Woodstock in which Susanne Langer was a participant he propounded the formula that “aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.”

In 1964 “The Atlanta Constitution” of Georgia attributed the saying to Jonathan Williams:8

Poet, publisher and humorist Jonathan Williams, speaking today at Emory, is regarded by some as a “kook.” The evidence is available: He has noted that “Aesthetics is for the artist like ornithology is for the birds.”

In accepting the invitation to come to Emory, he commented, “I can’t read at this sacred institution for no bread.” (That’s money, people.)

In 1968 the quotation reappeared in “The New York Times” within a book review. The name “Barnett” was misspelled as “Barnet”:9

Aesthetics is for the Artists like Ornithology is for the Birds. — Barnet Newman.

In 1970 “The International Thesaurus of Quotations” included this entry:10

Aesthetics is for the artist like ornithology is for the birds, Barnett Newman, quoted in “Speaking of Books,” The New York Times Book Review, Feb. 18, 1968.

In 1980 “The Roanoke Times” of Virginia published a collection of quotations pertaining to art. The saying appeared together with an attribution to a different prominent painter:11

“Aesthetics are for the artist like ornithology is for the birds” — Ad Reinhardt

In 1985 David Novarr published “The Lines of Life: Theories of Biography 1880–1970”. He presented a variant of the saying applied to biographies:12

I am even in some degree sympathetic to the formulation that theory and criticism are about as important to writers of biography as the study of ornithology is to birds.

In 1987 science journal “Nature” printed an article by physicist Steven Weinberg within which he employed a variant of the saying applied to science:13

I’ve heard the remark (although I forget the source) that the philosophy of science is just about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.

In 2002 a catalog for an exhibition of works by Barnett Newman included a chronology that discussed the Woodstock Art Conference in 1952. The chronology was written by Melissa Ho based on material held in the archives of The Barnett Newman Foundation. Also, the chronology was reprinted on the Foundation website. The chronology contains an intriguing quotation that reportedly was spoken by Newman during the 1952 conference. QI does not know the identity or date of the supporting document for this quotation:14

1952: In August, Newman participates as a speaker in the annual Woodstock Art Conference in Woodstock, New York. In a session with the philosopher Susanne Langer, Newman attacks professional aestheticians, saying: “I feel that even if aesthetics is established as a science, it doesn’t affect me as an artist. I’ve done quite a bit of work in ornithology; I have never met an ornithologist who ever thought that ornithology was for the birds.” He would later hone this remark into the famous quip, “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.”

In conclusion, QI believes that Barnett Newman deserves credit for this notion which he expressed in a wordy manner in 1952. The modern compact version of the analogy emerged by 1955 within an article by Dorothy Gees Seckler in the magazine “Art in America” in which she credited Barnett Newman.

Images Notes: Public domain illustration which shows a painting representing the abstract style.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Peppe Liberti whose email message led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Liberti published an article about this family of sayings in “Il Tascabile”, the “Italian Encyclopedia of Science, Letters, and Arts”. Liberti noted that the quotation employed by Steven Weinberg had been implausibly attributed to physicist Richard Feynman. Also, Liberti traced the family of sayings back to Barnett Newman and the Woodstock Art Conference.

Update History: On April 16, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated. Also, the full article was placed on this website.

  1. 1952 August 25, The Kingston Daily Freeman, Artists Discuss Basic Questions At Conference, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Kingston, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  2. 1955 December, Art in America, Volume 43, Number 4, Gallery Notes by Dorothy Gees Seckler, Start Page 50, Quote Page 59, Column 1, Cannondale, Connecticut. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  3. 1957 Spring, College Art Journal, Volume 16, Number 3, Artists and College Art Teaching by David Durst (Chairman of the Department of Art at the University of Arkansas), Start Page 222, Quote Page 227, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  4. 1961 April 25, The Kansas City Times, Frederic James, Portraitist to Nature by Robert K. Sanford (A Member of The Star’s Staff), Quote Page 28, Column 7, Kansas City, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  5. 1990, Between the Flags: Uncollected Stories 1948–1990 by B. H. Friedman, Whisper (Appeared in The Noble Savage, Number 4, 1961), Start Page 19, Quote Page 27, Fiction Collective Two, Boulder, Colorado. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  6. 1962 January 21, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, Passion From Stone by Peter Blake (Review of book series: The Great Ages of World Architecture), Quote Page 7, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  7. 1963 February 1, Vogue, Barnett Newman: “A Man of Controversy, and Spiritual Grandeur” by Harold Rosenberg, Start Page 135, Quote Page 166, Condé Nast, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  8. 1964 May 13, The Atlanta Constitution, Lady Bird Hears A Strange Award by Norman Shavin, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Atlanta, Georgia. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  9. 1968 February 18, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, Speaking of Books: To Write Across the Heavens by Jonathan Williams, Quote Page 2, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  10. 1970, The International Thesaurus of Quotations, Compiled by Rhoda Thomas Tripp, Topic: Aesthetics, Quote Page 14, Thomas Y. Crowell, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  11. 1980 August 03, The Roanoke Times, Studies in contradiction by Ann Weinstein, Quote Page E8, Column 2, Roanoke, Virginia. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  12. 1986, The Lines of Life: Theories of Biography 1880–1970 by David Novarr, Section: Preface, Quote Page xv, Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, Indiana. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  13. 1987 December 3, Nature, Newtonianism, reductionism and the art of congressional testimony by Steven Weinberg, Start Page 433, Macmillan, London. (Accessed Nature archive on March 27, 2023 via nature.com) ↩︎
  14. Website: The Barnett Newman Foundation, Article title: Chronology, Article author: Melissa Ho, Article note: Chronology was originally published in exhibition catalogue for Barnett Newman in 2002; chronology was based on information in Barnett Newman Foundation archives in New York, Date in chronology: 1952, Posting date of article: No date specified on website, Date in Wayback Machine: August 20, 2016, Website description: “The Barnett Newman Foundation was established in 1979 by Annalee Newman, the artist’s widow. Its principal mission is to encourage the study and understanding of Barnett Newman’s life and work”. (Accessed barnettnewman.org on April 7, 2023) link ↩︎