Friday, March 16, 2012

Prophecy and Authenticity in Modern Art

Art is thought of commonly as a class of privileged objects intended for pure aesthetic beholding. The Artist is spoken of as a kind of demi-god, charged with the business of Creating. Art has been sacralized by the culture to the point of receiving its own temples, where the common people go to pay homage to the mystical greatness of the Artists. Because it is treated as an object of disinterested beholding, art is thought to be irrelevant and even immune to judgments related to truth or intrinsic goodness. Rather it is an expression of the artist's inner-truth. The freedom of the artist to voice his own truth — a truth notably private to the artist — is defended under terms of prophetic expression or authenticity.

If we are asked to see the artist as a prophet, then any objective criticism is silenced as arrogance in the face of prophetic censure. It would, after all be absurd to approach Sophocles' Tiresias with comments on his choice of meter, or to shout down Jeremiah for presenting his material in an overly melodramatic fashion. Doing so would merely implicate us further in our guilt before the prophetic voice. And, since the artist-prophet possesses a uniquely privileged insight into our collective guilt, it is impossible to critique him even on his own terms. This is, however, irrelevant, since the artist is ordinarily inaccessible: he is either on a distant stage or altogether absent. His presence and genius are mediated solely through his Art.

If, on the other hand, the appeal is to authenticity, then all comment is cut off by a thoroughly alienating dose of "interiority" "alterity" "reifying intentionality" and the ever-looming "Other". To say anything evaluative or objective about Art would be to intrude upon the mystical bond forged between the artist's utterly inscrutable interior state and his inspired expression of it. It is not for us non-artists to approach the Art as an object of intention meant to accomplish something; rather, we are asked to see it as an object of indeterminate significance which has been placed before us for the sake of a personal "encounter" or "experience". The absence of purpose or significance opens up an infinite horizon of interpretation, so that the non-artist is capable (depending on his openness) of receiving an indeterminate amount of insight from his beholding of the Art. Art becomes a bearer of potential meaning rather than determate function or truth. We say of the artwork, "it means a lot to me".

What is most curious about this contemporary approach to art is that it is so vulnerable to the simplest criticisms. The very raison d'etreof many art museums seems to flicker out of existence when an uneducated, uncouth person looks at something by Pollock or Cy Twombly and points out not only that it's ridiculous looking, but that with a ladder and some paint he could easily create a canvas with the same formal qualities. In fact, it is one of the miracles of high-brow inculturation that most of the art consuming world manages to repress these thoughts. The museumgoer goes to see things he may not understand, assuming that any failure on his part is due to an inadequacy of subtlety or knowledge, rather than being a fault in the artwork itself.


  1. Thanks for the post, croncor. Kevin and I had a good debate about this yesterday. I'm sympathetic to (some elements) of the aesthetic approach. I'll give you a more interesting comment when I get home from work. --jb

  2. I was going to post this on your Facebook wall, Plini mi, but I see you've already got to it.

  3. I agree with you (and Mr. Gallagher) that the Romantic idea of the artist is wrong. Artists are craftsmen in sense that they are best thought of as working in a long-standing tradition and using and developing a series of tools and techniques. Artists aren't prophets, though prophets may be artists. Art is, of course, open to criticism (though it's not clear to me that the Romantics thought otherwise.) And, in most cases, art possesses purpose, though the purpose will always be somewhat mysterious to us.

    What I like about the "aesthetic approach" is the following: That art consoles us and reconciles us to reality; that good art is implicated in human affairs but doesn't seek to persuade us, that, in other words, art is not rhetoric, which is not to say that it doesn't include judgment; that the art we love forms us and is formed by us, which is untrue of most other crafts.

  4. About museums: Contra Sir Gallagher, they ought not be destroyed but reformed. I think this will only be a slight change. The Medievals had the right idea. The duc de Berry had a collection of "the horn of a unicorn, St. Joseph's engagement ring, coconuts, whales' teeth, and shells from the Seven Seas." We must destroy the distinction between the beautiful and the curious or strange. For this reason, Ripley's Believe It or Not is our modern kunstkammer and our best museum.

  5. I think working in a tradition and developing tools and techniques is a poor way of capturing what makes someone a craftsman. After all, theorists do this too. Artists are artists because they impose mental forms upon material objects in an attempt to make the thing equal to the idea. God is an artist in creating the world. The dignity of art depends on the dignity of the form and the extent of its realization in the object. Thus bawdy satire, though perfectly exectued, is not equal in dignity to tragedy or iconography. The best art does belong in museums, to be observed by detached spectators who receive from it a seemingly limitless and thus (in a sense) indeterminate message. These museums are simply churches. Outside of that the best art belongs in collections of curiosities like you say, or anthologies for the use and appreciation of students and craftsmen.

  6. I think I'm basically in agreement with this, but a word of defense about my comments on "craft." I wasn't clear. I didn't mean that anyone who operates within a tradition and uses and develops techniques and tools is a craftsman. You rightly point out that definition would encompass too much.

    What I meant was that each particular kind of art -- painting, novel-writing, sculpture, etc. -- is intelligible in the context of a tradition of making painting, novels, and sculptures respectively.

    1. That's true. Also makes modern sculpture more interesting to think about. Part of it's project seems to be violating the bounds of intelligibility so that we experience alienated stuff and have to come to terms with it. Like a surrealism without images.

      Someone should do a study on Heidegger's appropriation of entelechy.