Looking at Art

Looking at Art

Minding his A’s and E’s: How Saul Steinberg defined aesthetics in a nutshell.

Steinberg’s E, dreaming of how it would like to look.


I once had the rare opportunity to observe Saul Steinberg solve a problem that was both artistic and philosophical. Because the Morgan Library is presenting an exhibition of his drawings beginning next month, I thought viewers might welcome an insight into the way his mind typically worked. I cannot imagine anyone else arriving at the kind of solution Saul found.

It was 1989, and I was serving as president of the American Society for Aesthetics. The organization was about to celebrate its 50th anniversary, and the issue arose as to how best mark this occasion. On an impulse, I proposed that I ask Steinberg to design a poster for us. What better way to celebrate our mission than by bringing into being an original work of art by an acknowledged genius? In addition, I thought that others might buy the poster, thereby simultaneously publicizing our existence and increasing our never-especially-robust treasury. Saul and I had become friends a few years earlier, and I knew it was a lot to ask. But I was sure that sooner or later, he would want me to write something for him, as indeed he did—I wrote the essay for his 1992 book The Discovery of America. Neither collaboration, as it turned out, was much of a success commercially. As far as I know, stacks of his brilliant posters still sit in the Society’s offices.

Saul agreed to do the job on condition that he not have to work very hard. I sent him two or three copies of the society’s official publication, the austere Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, though—friendship has its limits—I hardly expected him to read them. Characteristically, what captivated Saul was the typography on the journal’s cover. He was fascinated by the diphthong í†. Where did it come from, he wanted to know, and why was it used? The diphthong, as it turned out, was what inspired him. He phoned one day to say he had solved the problem, and I have to say, as an aesthetician, that he got closer to the heart of the matter than anyone who merely reads philosophy could possibly have done. And he did hardly any work at all!

The solution belongs to a series of works that Saul executed in the early 1960s, in which a personified being reveals its secret dissatisfaction with itself through an image displayed in a thought balloon. The image shows how the being would like to look, if only its secret wish for itself were granted. Which of us is really satisfied with the face or body we show the world? If only our nose were shorter or longer, our hair fuller, our muscles or breasts larger or smaller; if only we weighed less—or more—all would be right with our lives. Andy Warhol understood to perfection the personal shortcomings for which the grainy advertisements in the back of cheap magazines promise relief through ointments, herbs, or elixirs based on ancient recipes. In one of Saul’s drawings from the early ’60s, Cube’s Dream, an ill-shaped cube dreams of being the kind of ideal cube mathematicians discuss, with flat surfaces, sharp vertices, and straight edges a cube could be proud of. It is as if the cube had caught a glimpse of Euclidean perfection in some geometrical diagram.

In a drawing that Jim Dine acquired from Saul, the letter E sits in a sort of Surrealist landscape, towering over a dumpy suburban house with a television antenna. It is a big, blocky E, the kind you see on an optician’s eye chart. In Dine’s drawing, the E is dreaming about being a cosmetically enhanced and more elegant E than its current font allows. We see in the thought balloon above it exactly the kind of E it wishes it could be—one with pointy serifs, and sporting an accent grave. If only, yearns the clunky E, it were crowned with an accent like that! All the other E’s would eat their hearts out! All Saul did was paste the Journal of Aesthetics’s diphthong, í†, over the íˆ in Dine’s drawing (or rather, a reproduction of it). Now the blocky E dreams of being a diphthong, the way the 90-pound weakling in old magazine ads dreams of having the abs and biceps that make the girls swoon and the bullies keep their distance.

This was aesthetics in a nutshell. But of course, it could go the other way. The diphthong, in its soul of souls, might wish that it had the honest, modern look of the blocky E. It is worth pointing out that so far as the pronunciation of the letter is concerned, there is not a scrap of difference. Differences in font are mere “coloration,” as the logician Gottlob Frege would have said. Still, a written letter has to appear one way rather than another, and there are always grounds for preferring one look over another. As long as there are perceptible differences in how things look, aesthetics is inescapable.

From the beginnings of philosophy, appearances—“mere appearances”—were scorned. Reality, in Plato’s metaphysics, doesn’t look one way or another. It is how things are in pure thought, not the way they seem in the imperfect world of senses. But the world of senses is where we, as imperfect beings, exist, with all our imperfections. Small wonder that aesthetics has been a marginal activity in philosophy! Perhaps that is why the aestheticians did not buy Saul’s poster. It reminded them of the deep metaphysical shortcomings they deal with in their profession. As a young philosopher once said to me, “Whenever I hear the word ‘aesthetics,’ I think of a nail job.”

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Columbia University.

“Saul Steinberg: Illuminations” is on view at the Morgan Library in New York from December 1 through March 4, 2007.

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