Thursday, June 26, 2008

Will We Ever Trust Art Again?

Above is a painting from Hogarth's series, The Rake's Progress.  It shows the dissolute newly rich Rake being robbed at a brothel in the booming London of the mid 18th century.  It is a painting intended to teach a moral lesson (as are almost all of Hogarth's paintings); these are the wages of sin.  All the ills of our world are the consequences of failure of character.  Like any good conservative (or liberal for that matter), Hogarth believes that good and evil are clear and simple matters of will.  Making the right choices is what it is all about.
Small wonder then, that generations of critics used words like "journalistic" and "facile" when writing about his work.

The 18th century Enlightenment was about being conscious, wide awake, using those reasoning faculties (whether God given or Nature given).  The imagination, our capacity for seeing with our mind's eye, was very suspect at the time.  The imagination was seen as a weakness, as a source of fantasy and bamboozlement.  Art depends on the imagination, both for the making of it and the comprehending of it.  And this created a big problem for artists and for art audiences that is still with us to this day.

For the first time, art was required to show its credentials, to make the case for its "usefulness," for its "socially redeeming value."  For centuries, this question never came up.  The role of art was clear.  It was there to show the beliefs of religion and to demonstrate the legitimacy of the state (whether king, queen, prince, princess, bishop, or city oligarchy) through myth and history.  Since the Renaissance, it took on the added task of edifying and entertaining (all those Renaissance and Baroque paintings of myth were largely excuses for showing expanses of enticing young flesh beneath a veneer of moralizing edification; though occasionally they would rise to the levels of tragic poetry).

Hogarth was one of many artists reacting against that style for Prince and Peasant known as Rococo.    They felt that this style was the decadent tail end of art used to dazzle the emotions and appeal to the fantasies of the ignorant, superstitious, and reactionary.  The Rococo was an art that shamelessly aimed to please.  It was considered shallow and inadequate to the possibilities of the age (we still feel this way about the Rococo, while allied bombers went to heroic efforts to spare German medieval monuments in WWII, look at what they did to a great Rococo church like the Frauenkirche in Dresden).

The Enlightenment did not trust art.  We still don't.  Somehow giving form and substance to imaginative life just isn't enough.  Anyone who has had to fill out a grant application or deal with "arts consultants" or Academia knows this to be the case.   All of our high fallutin' oratory about "the partnership between business and the arts" and art as social melioration or therapy ultimately is just so much lipstick on a pig.  The real function of art in our age is as status trophy and very high end consumer good.  It also plays the role of PR.  Those Calder stabiles in the corporate plazas are there to make the case that the resident corporation are civilized and community minded, not just lucky rapacious bastards.   Art plays the role for the multinational that it once did for the prince; it takes the edge off raw power.

For all our rhetoric and calls for art to be "useful," we can still smell out the authentic from the inauthentic.  We will always prefer the authentic artist who insults us to the flatterer who shows us what we want to see.  In the end, George Santayana said it best when a student asked him what is the use of music.  "Music is absolutely useless," he replied, "but, so is life."


Padre Mickey said...

I once had a t-shirt with "Life Intimidates Art" written across the front, and I believe it is a true statement.

Great posts; great blog.

I shall be linking and endorsing this place.

Counterlight said...

Where can I get one of those t-shirts?

Love the Chairman Mao gravatar.

Give my love to Ms. Egyptian Hippo of Love.

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to remember the author of an essay I read on why people collect antiques.... and it was very similar to what you said about collecting art --as a means to (saying it a different way, but in likeness to what you said, I hope) --a means to advertise who we want to be... and collecting antiques gives one a "patina" like the antiques one collects --a desireable past. And if one collects antiques associated with famous people or events, then one acquires the patina of those events and peoples....

great blog Counterlight!
looking forward to more.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

I think "Ever Trust Art Again" i spot on. A sign of the increasing social Isolation and Marginalisation of the Church in the 20 Century.

A precursory to Gaffecon. Not mixing with the supposedly unclean.

What discussion of the great questions of Theology there has been in the 20th century has been in an Art context. To the difference of previous Times the rest has been silence. Especially the Church. But it seem the Church has not noticed...

Only social Isolation and Marginalisation of the inbread wary of mixing with the unclean others. Ever suspected of "secularisation" and un-belief.

Boaz said...

I've enjoyed your last 3 posts. I feel like I have the privelege of taking one of your courses and a very enjoyable one at that.

Grandmère Mimi said...

What if I said that the purpose of music and art for me is to delight or affront or challenge my senses, my imagination, and my emotions? That sort of talk is not likely to get you a grant, is it? How about music and art are food for the soul. No. I'm afraid that won't work either.

Art was very much about story-telling back in the times when most of the populace was illiterate. Perhaps today we have now lost much of the delight in the story that art presents.

Very nice post, Counterlight. Maybe this virtual class will be more appreciative and responsive tha your real-life class.

Padre Mickey said...

I got the t-shirts at an Elvis Costello concert many, many years ago. I think it was the Brutal Youth tour.

Anonymous said...

A related comment about media criticism and consumer culture, rather than "fine arts":

We are both hypervisual and uncritical about visual media. People just don't bring to their consciousness any acknowledgement of the technique and intention of the artist / photographer / videographer / art director for stage and film. We (modern American video watching public) don't ask questions of images presented to us, even simple questions like "nice close-up of a few people attaching ropes to a Saddam statue in order to pull it down - who else is there?" (as you may remember, the long shots showed a crowd of about fifty, instead of the hundreds or thousands that viewers were primed to imagine). We (public) are ripe victims for propaganda and adverts. Our uncritical worship of photography and video is particularly disturbing in the face of increasingly sophisticated means of image manipulation ("photoshopping") - there is now a small field of computational research in image documentation to detect the fakes - for example, "candidate was in an embarrassing situation" photos spread by black-ops for the other candidate.