The Whys of Art

By Conquest, Robert | New Criterion, December 2004 | Go to article overview

The Whys of Art


Conquest, Robert, New Criterion


The troubles that beset the arts, though perhaps less amenable to diagnosis than those besetting the political and social order, may be thought relevant to the whole question of civilization. And their particular phenomena often seem to be melded with the attitudes one finds in those other fields.

Changes in art and cultural history have never been easy to assimilate to political or economic changes. But perhaps we have enough evidence to show that particular sub-ideologies, combined with or supported by a bureaucratic upsurge, have caused, or been associated with, what appear to be downhill trends. Different generations naturally engender different styles. No harm in that. Still, it can be argued that some fashions in the field are less troublesome than others.

In an analysis of this sort, one cannot exclude subjectivity. (And Wordsworth warned us against the "hope of reasoning [one] into approbation"). When a writer finds spokesmen of a new generation not susceptible to his or others' earlier work, several notions may occur to him. First, that tastes change. Francis T. Palgrave wrote, editing the second Golden Treasury, "nothing, it need scarcely to be said, is harder than to form an estimate, even remotely accurate, of one's own contemporary poets." So, to judge art and culture is indeed, in part, to make a more subjective assessment of the aesthetics, which is of taste. And if one asserts that a current trend or current trends are negative, one is, of course, open to the retort that, in various epochs, changes of taste have emerged deplored by the representatives of earlier trends but later seen as having their own value. True, but it is equally true that some striking and popular new art has soon proved no more than a regrettable and temporary fad-as with the once universally acclaimed Ossian or the German poet Friedrich Klopstock.

Moreover, our cultural people, in the sense of producers of the arts defined as creative, are now in a strong and unprecedented relationship with the bureaucratic or establishmentarian world discussed earlier. (This is, paradoxically, at a time when many of these cultural people have entered a period of what one might call ostentatious transgressiveness, something on which indeed both they and their state, official, and academic sponsors pride themselves.) Of course, there is no reason to think that sections of the intelligentsia are any sounder on the arts than they are on politics or history. And, here again, they, as a phenomenon, form a far larger social stratum than at any time in the past. It might be argued that, as with the personnel of the state apparatus proper, there is now such a superfluity of the artistically and literary "educated" class that their very number is part of the means of coping with, and employing part of, the product.

There comes to a point, hard to define specifically but more or less obvious, when a regrettable general impression is unarguably convincing--well, not "unarguably," yet beyond serious debate. Still, an organism, or a polity, may present faults seen as lethal that are in practice comfortably contained and do not require therapy. Nor would one want there to be any implied use of power from outside institutions or individuals.

Even apart from analytics, a great deal of nonsense has been talked or written about art, or rather Art. Some reflections seem to be in order. The question of what constitutes "art" and what distinguishes good from less good art, is an old one. We can be certain that humanity was creating what we call art long before the word or the concept existed. And--a further complication--how is it that we all accept that some Paleolithic paintings are among the best of their kind and excel by any standards? Well, not all; there are presumably those who are beyond such acceptance. And in considering the paintings of Lascaux, Altamira, and elsewhere, the question arises: What did their creators think they were doing? …

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