Thursday, October 02, 2008

Lets destroy "Art" to save art

Nothing is as cliched, and as true, as the notion that "Art" (as distinct from both "art" and "the Arts") is in a sorry state. In its capitalized identity, Art represents the body of work that is produced by an artist class officially recognized as such by that loosely knit organization known as the Art Establishment. And in its singular context (Art vs the Arts) it refers specifically to painting and sculpture, as opposed to music, theater, dance and cinema, which are not widely recognized as being in a permanent state of decay and disrepute.

Roger Kimball draws an enlightening connection between Art and Religion, which perhaps provides a model for Art's inevitable decline:

The End of Art
by Roger Kimball

Copyright (c) 2008 First Things (June/July 2008).

Nearly everyone cares—or says he cares—about art. After all, art ennobles the spirit, ­elevates the mind, and educates the emotions. Or does it? In fact, tremendous irony attends our culture’s continuing investment—emotional, financial, and social—in art. We behave as if art were something special, something important, something spiritually refreshing; but, when we canvas the roster of distinguished artists today, what we generally find is far from spiritual, and certainly far from refreshing.

It is a curious situation. Traditionally, the goal of fine art was to make beautiful objects. The idea of beauty came with a lot of Platonic and Christian metaphysical baggage, some of it indifferent or even hostile to art. But art without beauty was, if not exactly a contradiction in terms, at least a description of failed art.

Nevertheless, if large precincts of the art world have jettisoned the traditional link between art and beauty, they have done nothing to disown the social prerogatives of art. Indeed, we suffer today from a peculiar form of moral anesthesia—as if being art automatically rendered all moral considerations ­gratuitous. The list of atrocities is long, familiar, and laughable. In the end, though, the effect has been ­anything but amusing; it has been a cultural disaster. By universalizing the spirit of opposition, the avant-garde’s ­project has transformed the practice of art into a purely negative enterprise, in which art is either oppositional or it is nothing. Celebrity replaces aesthetic achievement as the goal of art.
The Platonic tradition in Christianity invests beauty with ontological significance, trusting it to reveal the unity and proportion of what really is. Our apprehension of beauty thus betokens a recognition of and ­submission to a reality that transcends us. And yet, if beauty can use art to express truth, art can also use beauty to create charming fabrications. As Jacques Maritain put it, art is capable of establishing “a world apart, closed, limited, absolute,” an autonomous world that, at least for a moment, relieves us of the “ennui of living and willing.” Instead of directing our attention beyond sensible beauty toward its supersensible source, art can fascinate us with beauty’s apparently self-sufficient presence; it can counterfeit being in lieu of revealing it.

Considered as an end in itself, apart from God or being, beauty becomes a usurper, furnishing not a foretaste of beatitude but a humanly contrived substitute. “Art is dangerous,” as Iris Murdoch once put it, “chiefly because it apes the spiritual and subtly disguises and trivializes it.”

This helps explain why Western thinking about art has tended to oscillate between adulation and deep suspicion. “Beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man,” Dostoevsky had Mitya Karamazov declare, and the battle runs deep.

When deploring the terrible state of the art world today—Tolstoy’s word perverted is not too strong—we often look back to the Renaissance as a golden age when art and religion were in harmony and all was right with the world. But for many traditional thinkers, the Renaissance was the start of the trouble. Thus Maritain charges that “the Renaissance was to drive the artist mad, and to make of him the most miserable of men . . . by revealing to him his own peculiar grandeur, and by letting loose on him the wild beast Beauty which Faith had kept enchanted and led after it, docile.”

Thus, along with the shattering of the medieval ­cosmos and the flowering of Renaissance humanism, “prodigal Art aspired to become the ultimate end of man, his Bread and Wine, the consubstantial mirror of beatific Beauty.” How seriously should we take this rhetoric that fuses the ambitions of art and religion? No doubt it is in part hyperbole. But, like most hyperbole, talk of the artist as a “second god” is exorbitant language striving to express an exorbitant claim—a claim about man’s burgeoning consciousness of himself as a free and creative being.

We have to wait for Romanticism and the flowering of the cult of genius for the completion of this discovery. But the apotheosis of artistic creativity began long before the nineteenth century. With the rise of fixed-point perspective, which Alberti’s fifteenth-century On Painting first systematized and made generally available, the artist had entered into a new consciousness of his freedom and creativity. As Erwin Panofsky pointed out, the achievement of fixed-point perspective marked not only the elevation of art to a science (a prospect that so enthused Renaissance artists) but also “an objectification of the subjective,” a subjection of the visible world to the rule of ­mathematics:

There was a curious inward correspondence between perspective and what may be called the general mental attitude of the Renaissance: the process of projecting an object on a plane in such a way that the resulting image is determined by the distance and location of a “point of view” symbolized, as it were, the Weltanschauung of a period which had inserted an historical distance—quite comparable to the perspective one—between itself and the classical past, and had assigned to the mind of man a place “in the center of the universe” just as perspective assigned to the eye a place in the center of its graphic representation.

In this sense, the perfection of one-point perspective betokened not only the mastery of a particular artistic technique but implied also a new attitude toward the world. Increasingly, nature was transformed from God’s book of human destiny to material for the play of the godlike artist.

The closer one moved toward the present time, the more blatant and unabashed became the association of the artist with God. Thus Alexander Baumgarten, writing in the mid-eighteenth century, compared the poet to a god and likened his creation to “a world”: “Hence by analogy whatever is evident to the philosophers regarding the real world, the same ought to be thought of a poem.” And Lord Shaftsbury, who exerted enormous influence on eighteenth-century aesthetics, asserted that, in the employment of his imagination, the artist becomes “a second god, a just Prometheus under Jove.” Of course, as Ernst Cassirer noted in his gloss on Shaftsbury, “the difference between man and God disappears when we consider man not simply with respect to his original immanent forming powers, not as something created, but as a creator. . . . Here man’s real Promethean nature comes to light.”
We do not need Nietzsche to tell us that the disintegration of the Platonic-Christian worldview, already begun in the late Middle Ages, is today a cultural given. Nor is it news that the shape of modernity—born, in large part, from man’s faith in the power of human ­reason and technology to remake the world in his own image—has made it increasingly difficult to hold the traditional view that ties beauty to being and truth, investing it with ontological significance. Modernity, the beneficiary of Descartes’ relocation of truth to the subject ( Cogito, ergo sum), implies the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere and hence the isolation of beauty from being or truth. When human reason is made the measure of reality, beauty forfeits its ontological claim and becomes merely aesthetic—merely a matter of feeling.

At the end of his book Human Accomplishment (2004), Charles Murray argues that “religion is indispensable in igniting great accomplishment in the arts.” I have a good deal of sympathy with the intention behind Murray’s argument, but my first response to his claims for the indispensability of religion for art might be summed up by that Saul Steinberg ­cartoon in which a smallish yes is jetting along toward a large BUT. Murray has done a lot to insulate his ­argument: By religion, he doesn’t mean churchgoing or even theology, and thus he is right to say that classical Greece, though secular (one might even say pagan) in a certain sense, was nonetheless a religious powerhouse for the “mature contemplation” of “truth, beauty, and the good.”

I think that Kimball, in equating the rise of the artist as the ultimate arbiter of artistic value with the demise of the Platonic-Christian worldview, gets it exactly wrong. The artist as ultimate arbiter suggests an objectification of beauty, not its subjectification, and puts the artist, and the Arts Establishment, in the role of the Medieval priesthood. The Medieval church was killed by subjective spirituality, the priesthood of all believers. Religion is, and always has been, a usurpation of subjective spiritual impulses by a dream of philosophic objectification.

Likewise with Beauty and it's handmaiden, Art. Beauty can not be anything but subjective. Subjectivity is the enemy of all priesthoods, and the Art Establishment is nothing but a pathetic priesthood attempting to hold onto influence and relevance in a world where the distinction between what is objective and what is subjective is more clearly established than at any time in history. The Objective is the realm of science, everything else is philosophy and opinion.

The title to this post is a call to action, but in fact no action is really necessary. Despite its inability to produce art that has any aesthetic value, the Art Establishment is not preventing the flourishing of art in society, no more than the Catholic Church's insistence on being the one true church has prevented a flourishing of non-Catholic spirituality anywhere on the globe. The Art Establishment is an irrelevance. Capital A Art is an irrelevance. Little a art abounds everywhere.

I'm just wondering when Time Magazine will get the bright idea to publish an issue titled "Art is Dead".


Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Subjectivity is the enemy of all priesthoods ...

Except academe.

Apologies for starting the thread with an off topic excursion.

October 03, 2008 12:45 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I don't think it is off-topic. Academe is part and parcel of the Art Establishment, and is part of the priesthood that invests artistic frauds with their presumed authority to represent the ontological value of artistic truth that is beyond the assent or dissent of the subjective art consumer.

October 03, 2008 1:30 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I suppose this is essentially the same as the lit post below.

If you're interested in Art (as opposed to art), it is valid to value things for how they push the boundaries forward or challenge ideas and all the other stuff you hate.

But as you say at the end of your post, it's not like they're a threat to anything. If you want to make a mint, far better to be J K Rowling or Dan Brown than an experimental auteur. Plenty of room for all of it.

One other point - don't forget that a key feature of postmodernism is that it actually erodes the boundary between high art and populist art, so Spielberg is treated as seriously as Shakespeare.

October 03, 2008 2:58 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

If pushing boundaries led to the discovery of valuable new expressions of beauty, then it would be worthwhile, but more often it is just a pose, and pushing boundaries is reflexively treated as a good in and of itself, without regard for the aesthetic value for what was actually found on the other side of the boundary. The appeal to boundary pushing is mostly just a way of excusing intellectual laziness. By all means cross boundaries, but only in an honest effort to find something of value. Otherwise one is just landing in airports and calling oneself a world traveler.

But as Kimball stated, even the boundary pushing has become repetitive. Is a severed shark's head all that much different, qualitatively, than a urinal? It's still just the same raised middle finger towards bourgeois sensibilities.

I'm not interested in erecting a boundary between high and low art, but between art and non-art. Spielberg may be lesser than Shakespeare, but both meet some minimal qualification for art; that they tell stories that are recognizably human in ways that deepen one's appreciation of humanness. Piss Christs and urinals as artistic statements do not. Not in any non-banal, non-trivial way.

October 03, 2008 5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beauty can not be anything but subjective.

they tell stories that are recognizably human in ways that deepen one's appreciation of humanness. Piss Christs and urinals as artistic statements do not.

Sorry, old swot, but I don't know how you can square those two assertions. Be careful or you'll end up like some prissy surburbanite insisting he is all for individuality in artistic expression and against "priesthoods" (Bad priesthood, bad, bad priesthood), but goddam it, there are kids around and the wife's upset, so can we please keep it clean!

You radical secularists should stick to science. I never know what to make of anti-platonic materialists who suddenly detour off the straight, smooth highway of clear-headed objective inquiry and meander into the woods to sacrifice a goat to our "humanness" or "common humanity". What is more human than a urinal?

Here is your problem. You are appalled by Pis-Christ, but you don't believe in common notions of obscenity or blasphemy and so you are searching to explain why. Fair enough, but your cant about humanness completely fudges the distinction between iconoclastic and disgusting, a hard distinction even for idealists. Also, having rejected the very notion of ideals, you know you can't measure art against any common standards of beauty or profundity, so you try and dismiss the mind-numbingly silly and boring on utilitarian grounds--such art does nothing to advance the cause of our humanness.

Eventually you will end up with an American version of socialist realism in art.

October 04, 2008 4:00 AM  
Blogger David said...

De gustibus non est disputandum.

It's in Latin, so it must be true.

October 04, 2008 6:44 AM  

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