The Use and Abuse of Art

The Henson episode has raised some questions about the role of art and artists that Jacques Barzun addressed in his book The Use and Abuse of Art. Barzun (1907 – ) turned 100 last year and deserves to be better known as arguably the premier scholar in cultural studies in the 20th century. Check for an overview of his life and books (30 or more). And here for interviews and other commentaries.

To summarize Barzun’s take on the matter, which he delivered in a series of lectures:

Barzun is a lover of art, and a lover of progressive, avant garde art moreover, but he sees a need to challenge some of the abuses of art, or Art, on account of the diverse and contradictory theories and interests that are promoted under its banner.

To clarify his concerns he identified “three productive moments in western civilization, all of which unfortunately are called modern.” First the Renaissance, representing a break from the Middle Ages from 1400 to 1600. Second, the era from the French Revolution which he labels the Romantic Period from 1789 to 1840. And finally the more recent turn of modernism in ideas, art and manners that he places at the turn of the century from 1890 to 1914.

He acknowledges the power and influence that Art can exert as a vehicle of communication and he is concerned about the perverse messages that are being conveyed by Art at the present time “in opposition to every traditional idea, feeling and activity, including art itself”.

He examined the rise of art as a substitute for religion in the nineteenth century. Art simultaneously became the “ultimate critic of life and the moral censor of society”. The next phase in that development is the topic of the third lecture on Art the Destroyer, treating Estheticism and Abolitionism during the period 1890 to 1914.

He sketched the destructive function of some attitudes to art over the last 150 years (now 180). “By the tradition of the New, art unremittingly destroys past art, though by the cognate tradition of historical sympathy we deny ourselves the unity of a contemporary style. By making extreme moral and esthetic demands in the harsh way of shock and insult, art unsettles the self and destroys confidence and spontaneity in individual conduct.”

Art in this function has helped to undermine the assumptions that the state and civilized society are valuable or admirable, thus impairing the effectiveness of political and social institutions and proving the destroyers’ own case. By linking the growing interest and respect for art in modern times with the “dominance of bourgeoise values” Art has effectively turned on art itself by becoming a vehicle for every kind of assault on traditional standards of beauty, craft, morality and commonsense. This was written thirty years ago and all that has changed is the increased number of students who are exposed to more advanced “theory” to justify the assault of Art on our senses and sensibilities.

In the fourth lecture he moved on to another piece in the crazy pavement of modern art, the function of art as redeemer, linked with the previously noted concept of art as a substitute for religion. Barzun accepted the common ground, that the power exerted by great art on receptive persons is a religious power, and he pursued the defects that follow when that insight is not checked by critical thinking. He discussed the individual and collective forms of salvation through Art that have been promulgated for 200 years. By the term collective salvation he means the appeal of revolutionary art which offers the artist a special role, first as evangelist and later as beneficiary, in the utopian society brought about by the revolution.

In the next lecture he turned his attention to the troubled relationship between Science and Art, describing how artists have entered into competition with scientists to claim some of the respect (and the material benefits) that have been generally granted to modern Science. One of the fruits of this endeavour has been the proliferation of “art bollocks” (not his term) that is , the use of pretentious jargon to emulate the (supposed) precision and profundity of scientific discourse.

The following passage is an early example of the genre, with a translation provided by a cynical commentator.

For Rousseau a painting was a primary surface on which he relied physically as a means for the projection of his thought [Translation: Rousseau wanted to paint on canvas]. But his thought consisted exclusively of plastic elements. While structure and composition constituted the base, the pictorial substance was distributed gradually as execution progressed. [He painted while painting, since one cannot cover the whole canvas at one stroke]. In his work, what simplicity! Nothing descriptive – only surface relations on the given primary surface. These relations are infinitely varied and, without losing their inherent reality, they can also compete with nature within the limits of the painting. [He drew natural objects in two dimensions, or, to avoid tautology, he drew objects]. Rousseau does not copy the exterior aspect of a tree: he creates an internal rhythmic whole conveying the true, grave expressionism of the essentials of a tree and its leaves in relation to a forest…But his style was established neither derivatively nor in obedience to fashion. It stemmed from the determination of his whole mind as it incarnated his artistic ambitions. [Rousseau painted just as he liked, and he liked painting trees].

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