Academic journal article Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies

Four: The Crack in the Golden Bowl

Academic journal article Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies

Four: The Crack in the Golden Bowl

Article excerpt

When one has excluded from art the purpose of moral preaching and human improvement it by no means follows that art is completely purposeless, goalless, meaningless, l'art pour l'art ... A psychologist asks . . . what does all art do? does it not praise? does it not glorify? does it not select? does it not highlight? By doing all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations ... Is this no more than incidental? Something in which the instinct of the artist has no part whatever? Or is it not the prerequisite for the artist being an artist at all? (Nietzsche, 1968, p. 81)

THE PROBLEM OF IDEALIZING SELECTION

The world of art, not least in the offertorium, depends upon a process of selection that is usually grounded explicidy in reasons, principles, rules, stories, concepts, and so on, but that is in fact essentially arbitrary. The "being" of art depends on this element of capriccio, not merely whimsical but gratuitous and unbidden, even shrewish. It requires at least an implicit understanding that its existence is in some way involuntary and unjustified. Without this social contrariety, art would not be how we have come to accept it since the belle époque - deeply problematic, but necessary and thrilling all at once. As the painter Ad Reinhardt quipped, "Art is art. Everything else is everything else." (1991). The issue here is not to dismiss the problems of evaluating art as "mere" matters of "taste" - de gustibus non disputandum. In the art world, taste and cultivated preference are not at all trivial, but the arbitrariness of the selection that constitutes art as "art" in Ad Reinhardt's sense is more fundamental; it is as basic and irrational as the edge of the picture, or its placement on the wall. It is what grants art its quasi-transcendental quality.

Aesthetic transcendence can take any form, including the denial of transcendental qualities. It does not really matter whether the ontological privilege of art is thought to emanate from the genius of the artist or the qualities of the object or the capacities of the observer. The idea of transcendence might be located very literally, as in Gauguin's "conviction that the artist [is] the sole creator of a meaningful universe," his apparent identification with Christ (Bowness 1972, p. 59). But it might just as easily worm its way into the anti-metaphysical discourses of skeptics and behaviourists, like the American minimalists who believed that "we are not a set of private meanings," we "staked everything on . . . declaring the externality of meaning" (cited in Krauss 1977, p. 270). It could be Michael Fried's modernist admiration for Ted William's ability to see the stitches on a fastball, the idea that "Presentness is grace" (cited in Krauss, 1993, p. 6). Or it might be the notion of the visual gestalt, the instantaneous whole, created by sensory ambush, promulgated by Clement Greenberg and Barnett Newman.

The term quasi-transcendental is not intended to compare art unfavourably with some other form of the transcendental that would be more authentic, if such a thing exists. It refers to the fact that the full experience of art depends upon social acceptance of a realm in which the matters at hand are treated as if they had a transcendental quality. Moreover, this quality relies on the convention that the processes of selection related to any work of art are not determined by an agency that confers transcendental authority or done in the name of one. Artworks, if they are lucky, may evoke a feeling of transcendence, but they owe nothing to belief in a higher power and require no reference to one: their privileged status is contingent on a process of selection that is idiosyncratic, subjective, singular, and not guaranteed by officially recognized transcendental authorities. This applies even to so-called Christian art, which is not considered sacred in and of itself, but merely expressive of Christian themes and beliefs, as conceived by the artist, including Serrano's Piss Christ (1987) and Offili's The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), both of which were composed partly from animal body excretions (Loverance, 2007, p. …

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