Herbert Read’s book Art and lndustry, which I’ve been reading, was a major influence in the interwar debate that constructed the notion of “good design”. Read had worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1920s and was professor of fine art at Edinburgh university and editor of The Burlington Magazine in the early 1930s. It was during that decade that he published his best-known books, Art Now (1933), Art and Society (1937) and Art and Industry (1934).
His ideas about design are underpinned by an aesthetic theory similar to Roger Fry’s and Clive Bell’s formalism. In Art and Industry he divides art into humanist art, by which he means European pictorial art and ornamentation from the Renaissance onward, and formal art, which is pure shape and colour without content or reference. He fiercely deprecates ornament in similar terms to Adolf Loos, says little about humanist art and is strongly biased in favour of abstract art.
According to Read, formal beauty in art, nature or everyday objects, is either rational or intuitive. Rational beauty consists in conformity to rules of harmony and proportion, which were understood in the Renaissance but which have deeper and more ancient roots and which are to be found in nature. Read does not explain why proportions found in nature should be beautiful and others not. Intuitive beauty is that which deviates in some way from strict rules of harmony but which is recognised in an unconscious process that is not fully understood and cannot easily be explained. Apart from a few comments, Read does not explain it.
Objects that possess intuitive formal beauty can be illustrated, and Read has many such illustrations in his book, but this quality cannot be “rationalised” (to use his term). It can, however, be identified by noting what persons of taste recognise as beautiful. For example, he shows an ancient Greek drinking bowl and a Sung dynasty vase, and says that, although the former conforms to rules of proportion and the latter deviates from it, those who know about this kind of thing have no doubt that the Sung vase is better. Read implies that there is an aesthetic elite who possess the ability to intuitively recognise formal beauty, and although he says that the average man is capable of it, one suspects that Read thinks the average man must submit to the guidance of the elite. Read does not explain in what way the discerning person differs from the undiscerning, except in the objects he chooses. Read thus follows the same circular route as Fry and Bell: formal beauty is that which produces a response in people whose discernment can be identified by the objects they they choose. This kind of elitism may have been formed in his career as a curator at the V&A. Today it is clear that his argument is a way of defining cultural capital.
Like other writers of the period, Read appeared to believe that beauty is a quality of objects, like colour, that can be perceived, and that is not just a matter of personal preference. That implies that aesthetic appreciation is a cognitive ability and that those that lack it have a defect like colour-blindness. Read thinks that, by and large, the British manufacturing class lack it, and he expresses disdain for their supposed philistinism.
British manufacturers produce inferior goods, says Read, not only because they cannot tell the good from the bad, but also because they are motivated by purely commercial considerations. Because their goods are inferior, they have to demand tariffs to protect them from better-designed Continental goods, but Read does not really explain why the Continental capitalist produces better goods than his British counterpart, or why, if well-designed goods sell better than badly-designed goods, the profit motive does not generate better design. Because of this perceived incapacity in the British manufacturing elite, Read is compelled to advocate a cultural elite who have the ability to intuit formal beauty and, if who if they were given half a chance, could reform industry.
Like so many writers on art with a programme or manifesto, Read is immensely irritating. Although he was interested in mass production and took a left-wing position in politics, his ideas are snobbish and elitist. He talks about the “average man”, but is uninterested in what he likes (in contrast to pioneering curators of popular art, Barbara Jones and Enid Marx). He has a psychological theory of aesthetics and leans on a sketchy Freudianism, but cites no psychological research. Had any been done at that date? The new discipline of neuro-aesthetics is now making it possible to understand what is happening in the brain when people respond to art works and it may even be able to help designers and manufacturers.