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?

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:[ref] 1952 August 25, The Kingston Daily Freeman, Artists Discuss Basic Questions At Conference, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Kingston, New York. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

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”:[ref] 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) [/ref]

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.

Additional citations and details are available in the article on the Medium platform which is located here.

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.

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