Saturday, January 22, 2011

Art for Art; Art for Ideas

Fort Worth, TX.  Maillol's l'Air, my photo taken there in 1988
In Modern art schools sixty years ago, teachers impressed on us that art and illustration were two things.  In post-Modern schools they dismissed the ‘merely formal’ and the ‘mere design’ and work that wanted ‘meaning’.
But it is not a dichotomy of the higher from the lower, the more beautiful from the less so, but a question, I think, of the use of visual (or musical) means for different ends.  Of course, nothing is pure, quite; crossover is the rule.  And there are many different ways to cut the cake.  Still, I think one dichotomy is worth thinking about.  As an art historian I am comfortable with esteeming what I like best of both kinds.
The very term, Art for Art’s sake is sometimes used in derision.  But considering what it must mean, art that does not exist for some other end than itself, it is easy to think of examples.  Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue comes to mind and most of Cézanne’s paintings.  That is not to exclude figural art, including nudes and madonnas.  My first recognition of a painting that was wonderful for what it was, more than for what it said, came when the Sunday School rewarded my perfect attendance with a good reproduction of Raphael’s “Madonna della Sedia” ; I was only five years old, and only knew that I looked at it differently.  On the other hand, in the balance, the image on the Sistine ceiling of God the Father about to touch fingers with Adam, even considering that it is Michelangelo, is so powerfully a spiritual statement that the persons to whom it is most important as such do not, for once, object to Adam’s being nude, and the most fervent worshipper of art expressing only itself can hardly object that the Pope got what the chapel demanded--and then some.  By the way, the dichotomy holds equally for art works promoting secular ideals: in some the promotional intent is dominant and in others the aesthetically  conveyed content of the artist’s creative effort (here the literal Greek meaning of the verb aisthanomai must be remembered, since we mean the mental consequences of sensing itself).
On the other hand, whether in the work of Gustave Moreau or that of Odilon Redon (in other words, whether explicitly illustrative or inexplicable), let alone that of Salvador Dali or Ferdinand Knopff or the Isenheim Altarpiece or Bastien-Lepage’s beloved picture of Joan of Arc hearing the angels’ voices, either remarkable taste and skill or very great art (surely in the Isenheim Altarpiece) are subordinated to personal and institutional goals.  Irrespective of the effects of visual talent or of any media and techniques, poiêsis in these is devoted to psychologies, faiths, personal fantasies that coexist with the art of painting as such.
A symbol is literally, in Greek, a token or sign of something greater.  Not only all schools of Symbolism but all Surrealism is symbolic, but so are totem poles—I suspect that most human art is fundamentally symbolic, standing for something else, way back to the “Venus” of Willendorff.
Some works, especially in European architectural sculpture of the Middle Ages, are so great that they equally and truly serve the great churches that they adorn (and inspire the faithful), yet if somehow known only out of context by persons who had no idea of what they stood for, they exist as art for art’s sake, too.  That they do can only be due to the artists' striving to make them be such as they are.  Not the whole category, but the greatest.  And similarly Bach’s B-minor Mass (not quite suitable for church use, anyway) would be no less great without a Mass.
In the mid-20th century some Marxist writers on art regarded art esteemed for its realism as characteristically bourgeois, which is obvious in the case of Netherlandish still life and landscapes with cows but becomes confusing with Davidian neo-Classical.  Obviously, too, folk art was exalted (and why not?), but much that has always been popular, such as calendar art, wasn’t considered at all.  A generation later, in the last quarter of the 20th century, the industrial and mundane content of Impressionism (Manet and train stations, for instance) and Post-Impressionism (Seurat, Pissarro and Signac) was privileged in print.  The fact is certain, but the subject matter and the pointillist interest in color theory do not make these paintings studies in either social science or physical science (the latter add nothing to Chevreul’s color theory).  Rather, like all the early Modernist movements, to break with the academy they avail themselves of whatever they are attracted to that is current (including anthropology and modern transportation and photography, which are critical to most of the primitivist impulses: lifestyle doubtless drew Gauguin to Tahiti, but most of the religious iconography in the paintings came from publications, even of Buddhist art) and also is grist for their mills.  I would assert that all the Modernist movements are essentially ‘art for art’s sake’, and they gave birth to forms of criticism to go with them.  Reduced to its simplest journalese, this criticism often made abstraction its criterion for intellectual respectability.
But there is a body of work contemporary with the Modernists that differs from it in much the same way (not to push the analogy very far, though!) as Macs differ from PCs, if you can allow that Macs are chosen for delight as much as for work (though performing most tasks more easily).  That body of work includes almost all Surrealism (remember that it was hatched by poets) and at least half of Futurism (all of di Chirico, but only part of Boccioni), and most of Russian Constructivism: both of these last movements take most of their formal principles from synthetic Cubism but put them in the service of anti-authoritarian ideas.  And, as another excellent blog has pointed out, Vassily Kandinsky’s transition to his own kind of non-objective art has its roots in his beginning in Russian Symbolism.
If I were to pursue these ideas and expand their scope, I’d have a load of work to do.  For example, I'd like to reconsider what formal choices are typical of symbolic work.  And, of course, other dichotomies are interesting to explore, provided only that they aren’t either specious or trivial.

Note: I have tried to use very well known examples, as if in a public lecture; besides, the simplest Googling will produce ample pictorial and verbal documentation.  But the statue of Air, aesthetically luxuriating in a bath of Texas sunshine in her court at the Kimbell Museum, is my own photo, and most of the others are, or may be, copyright.