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What is Art?

Art and Anarchy

by Edgar Wind
Knopf, 224 pp., $4.95

The British Broadcasting Corporation is one of the most remarkable monuments, this side of the Renaissance, to the ideals and industry of a single man. For its founder, Lord Reith, was someone who believed whole-heartedly in the improving and uplifting effect of human culture. He also believed that, if all considerations of profit or sensationalism were set aside, this culture could be widely diffused without any loss of quality. Accordingly Professor Edgar Wind has shown himself a master of a certain kind of provocative irony in his choice of subject for the Reith Lectures he delivered in 1960—these being a set of six 28-minute talks given annually on the Home Service in honor of the Corporation’s founder. For Art and Anarchy, which is a revised and enlarged version of these lectures, is a systematic attack upon one of the presuppositions of modern cultural diffusion.

Wind poses the problem like this: For the Greeks art was essentially an anarchic or subversive element. But, in the normal course of their lives, they were exposed to very little of it. Today, however, all this has changed. With modern methods of reproduction and display, we see or hear art a great deal of the time. So the question arises, How do we manage to retain our balance or sobriety? And to this Wind’s answer is that we today are comparatively immune to the distemper of art because art has come to mean so little to us. “We are much given to art, but it touches us lightly, and that is why we can take so much of it, and so much of so many different kinds.” Art, the Professor tells us nostalgically, “has lost its sting.”

For this stark, pessimistic thesis support might be elicited from historical or sociological fact: from descriptions of ancient life, or from our own insight into our own society. But this, significantly, is not how Wind proceeds. He prefers to go to poets, painters, philosophers, for evidence. And even the bold contrast that he draws, and on which so much of his book depends, between the classical city-state where art was held in fear and veneration, and contemporary mass society, where the typical responses to art are apathy or a facile curiosity, is derived entirely from a confrontation of two famous philosophical texts: Plato’s Republic and Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art. It is the distance between Plato’s “holy fear” and the “innocent frolic” with which Hegel identified the typical productions of modern art that Professor Wind is recording when he talks of the extent to which art has, over the centuries, moved from the center of human interest to the periphery.

The testimony of any great artist or thinker upon the condition of his age is bound to be precious, and one could scarcely find a subtler or more ingenious interpreter of these various observations than Professor Wind. Yet as we listen to his highly persuasive argument, it is difficult to resist the feeling that though we may, we need not really accept his central thesis. For, in the first place, must we believe that there was ever a time when art was the nerve-center of a great society?

Even if we take Plato’s deliverances literally, we might still seem to stand in need of further corroboration before we accept them as conclusive. But the profounder question arises; are we to take them literally? Ought we, on putting down the Republic, to think that Plato really anticipated that the miming of a bad character could totally unhinge the mind, or that he genuinely expected the personality to be perfected by listening to enough of the right kind of music? I have called this a profounder question, because it is one that asserts itself so often in connection with all the extreme or extravagant things that men over the ages have found themselves saying when they begin to talk about art. Think, for instance, of the stories recorded in Pliny about the illusionistic effect of certain works of art: of the birds that tried to peck at the grapes that Zeuxis painted, or the curtain in Parrhasios’ picture that Zeuxis tried to open. Or the same story recounted by Roger de Piles, two thousand years later, of the passers-by in the streets of Amsterdam who were deceived when Rembrandt displayed the portrait of his servant at the window of his house. Or, again, consider the many stories of the lives of artists, such as those drawn on so profusely by the Wittkowers in Born under Saturn, in which the disordered or anarchic traits of their existence are dwelt upon in such loving detail. Are these stories to be taken as expressing what contemporaries actually thought to be true? Or is their real significance apparent only when they are set inside the whole magical context of art and there regarded not so much as literal truths about, but as verbal tributes to, art’s omnipotence?

Perhaps there is no single answer to this question. Perhaps the significance of these stories varies from age to age. Perhaps it would be quite wrong to assign the same role to them in an age which was acutely conscious of art’s high pretensions as in an age, like that of classical Athens, which lacked, as far as we can see, even the concept of “art.” But if we take this last point, it rebounds upon Wind’s own thesis. For if for the Greeks the arts formed no evident unity, to what was it that they attributed the strength, the daemonic force, that we no longer attribute to the arts? And to this Wind’s answer seems to be “The power of the imagination”: surely as bad a way as any of identifying art.

When we turn to the other end of the thesis of Art and Anarchy—to our end—what is being asserted in general is really no clearer; in general, that is, in contrast to the many varied and imaginative aperçus that Professor Wind makes about the arts today and the fragmented condition in which he finds them. For it is never made quite precise whether the dictum that in our age art has moved to the margin is supposed to be true of our modern attitudes to art or of art itself. Wind himself is concerned to draw many parallels between these two aspects of the aesthetic endeavor, of what might crudely be called theory and practice, but intriguing and suggestive though many of these contra-positions are, they do not always seem to achieve for his central argument what he hopes of them, and now and again they even seem to make it uncertain what that argument is.

For instance, in one of the most interesting sections of the book, Wind presents Giovanni Morelli, the founder of scientific connoisseurship, as also one of the great harbingers of modern aesthetic sensibility. Now Morelli’s avowed aim as an art historian was to place the process of attribution, which was still largely a matter of intuition or happy guess-work, on a verifiable basis. Trained as a biologist he naturally looked to morphological criteria to provide the fundamental clues for distinguishing the hand of one artist from that of another. But where his real originality lay was in the simple but inspired suggestion he made that these criteria should be sought not, as one might think, in the “important” features of a composition, where considerations of tradition or propriety might assert themselves, but in such minute or trivial details, as a hand or the lobe of the ear. For there, in the inessential areas of the canvas, the idiosyncracies of an individual artist can find free expression, without drawing to themselves the attention of the follower or the forger.

Now all this, Wind emphasizes, has to do with art history and science, not with aesthetics or art. Nevertheless Wind would have us observe and ponder on the very close parallel that can be drawn between attention to detail, to the minor flourishes of an artist’s style, which is intrinsic to a certain method of art-historical enquiry, and the pre-occupation with touch, with freshness, with the instantaneous, above all with the fragmentary, that is such a feature of our modern response to art, and which indeed has become a feature of our art itself. In our admiration for Rodin, for Mallarmé, for Stefan George, for early Schoenberg, we reveal ourselves to be “unconscious Morellians.” “The peculiar sensibility of the connoisseur, which guides him in making an attribution, merges with a far more universal foible of the imagination in which most of us share, connoisseurs or not.”

The parallel is interesting: obviously. But it is also misleading because of what it leaves out. And what it leaves out might (if we ignore the comparisons across the arts, which tend to confuse the issue) be expressed by saying that it omits the fact that by and large Morellian method is peculiarly inapplicable to modern art. Of course this too is an overstatement, but the point is that in modern art the idea of the insignificant or the trivial has been virtually eliminated. There is no part of the canvas in which the painter betrays himself in a sense in which he very specifically or deliberately does not do so in some other part. To say that he uniformly betrays himself or that he betrays himself “all over” might be one way of characterizing the modern style. This is, however, not merely an obscure characterization in itself, but it scarcely aids us with our present problem, for it suggests no evident way in which Morellian techniques might find an application. Or put the point this way: It is sometimes claimed, and rightly that in certain details of a Lotto or a Velasquez we can find startling premonitions of Degas or Monet. But this does not mean that painting since the middle of the nineteenth centry has become an art of detail. On the contrary, we might say that in modern art the notion of detail has been obliterated. (A painter like Rauschenberg restores it, but then this may in part account for his popularity amongst those ordinarily hostile to the modern movement.)

One could, I suppose, imagine an aesthetic that was the direct equivalent of Morellian method, and so by extension a “Morellian” art. But surely this would be an art that was distinguished by an utter indifference to considerations of unity. In late Monet, in Kandinsky, in Pollock we have experienced an art in which the traditional conceptions of picture-making were overturned, but the art that I envisage would go far beyond this: it would be an art in which there would be a profusion, an unco-ordinated profusion, of highly physiognomic detail, in which a great deal of the accidental would survive, but would survive, as it were, accidentally. And certainly as a characterization this, pace Wind, goes far beyond anything that the painting or sculpture of our age exhibits.

Or let us consider another way in which, according to Wind, the “marginal” nature of art in our society displays itself: that is, in the cultivation of “pure” art. But here it is even more uncertain whether what is being criticized is a particular conception or ideal of art, which leads us to distort art as it actually comes, or a particular art form. For surely what is wrong with the theory of “pure” art is that it is necessarily vacuous, that in principle there could not be works of art that satisfied it. An age may effect this or that dissociation in its art—from morality, from anecdote, from social documentation—but it does not follow from this that there could be an art that was totally dissociated: any more, as Ernst Gombrich has shown, than because we can talk of one school as being more naturalistic than another it follows that there is a kind of total naturalism which has been or could be realized. “Pure” art, “neutral” naturalism, it is not even correct to talk of these as ideals, for surely what is really wrong with them is that they are incoherent concepts.

But Wind’s ambiguity on this issue, the systematic elusiveness he evinces as to whether he thinks pure art a critical fiction or an impoverished style, is not just an eliminable defect of his thought. It has its roots deep in his conception of the content of art. For this he seems to equate roughly, with statable propositions, so that it is significant that when he pleads for a less dissociated art, the historical exemplars to which he appeals are such paragons of didacticism as Constable’s cloud sketches, Calcar’s illustrations to Vesalius, and, above all, the School of Athens. Now holding such a view of what it is for art to be “about” something, he understandably concedes that there could be pure art: and having made the concession, insists that today we have it in plenty.

In so far as he does hold such a view, he has difficlty in persuading us that it is a good thing for art to be impure, or, to return to the language of his central thesis, that it should cease to be marginal. And it is significant that, in the main argument he advances for works like the School of Athens, the reasoning comes full circle. For we are told that the supreme merit of making a picture in the way in which Raphael did, with an elaborate intellectual scaffolding, is that it permits a certain kind of criticism which guides the eye. But surely the only reason why we think that the eye should be guided by such criticism is because we think that the criticism corresponds directly to the intellectual scaffolding. There seems to be no independent value (as Wind’s argument would seem to suggest) in the eye’s being “intellectually guided.” Otherwise we could simply invent for, say, Matisse’s L’Escargot a completely arbitrary critical account, which would certainly serve as a guide for the eye but surely a spurious one.

I am sadly aware of having failed to convey the peculiar subtlety and distinction of Wind’s book. In reading it one constantly has the impression of being led through a landscape by a guide of genius. One had seen it already, but not in these exotic colors. Had one failed to notice them before, or is one’s present vision in part the effect of one’s companion’s mesmeric powers? In the nature of the situation it is difficult to arrive at a stable estimate, and if in this review I have protested harshly against some of Wind’s judgments, that too is testimony to the compelling power of his rhetoric.

Finally an amusing, though also a revealing, sign of Wind’s powers to make us see something familiar afresh. At one point he writes, apropos of Morelli, “Whether intentionally or not, his analyses leave the reader with the perplexing impression that a great work of art must be as tough as it is fragile”: only twenty pages later, he can repeat the same phrase but with a very different emphasis, “Great works of art, we must remember, are as tough as they are fragde.”

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