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 …

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