Art for Whose Sake?

Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance

by E.H. Gombrich
Phaidon, 332 pp., $9.50

Considering the cult of beauty in the eighteenth century, in the period of Winckelmann and Mengs, Professor Gombrich writes:

The self-sufficient isolation of the picture began to present a problem to the admirers who made their pilgrimage to Italy. Travelers then, as now, found mere looking strenuous and somewhat disconcerting. The mind soon threatens to become a blank unless it is given something to play with—a story, an anecdote, a bit of gossip or background information. Guides and ciceront then, as now, knew of this human frailty to which we art historians owe so much.

So a form of literature was required which would create “a link with the familiar world of man.” The autonomy of aesthetic experience was no sooner asserted in theory than it was denied in practice. “The “familiar world of man” was irreversibly changing in the eighteenth century, when modern aesthetic theory was invented. With the success of Newtonian physics, and the Church’s loss of intellectual authority, sacred objects lost some of their previous sacredness. The natural order, and artifacts also, could be felt to be exciting and significant in so far as they offered clues to a detecting intelligence, rather than as analogies of the mysteries of divine purpose.

It is natural that the aethetic attitude, as a distinct category of experience should have been introduced by Baumgarten and Kant and others to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of spiritual significance from particular material objects, which had long served as emblems of a supernatural order. How can individual objects have at once the mysterious significance that makes them means of worship, and also be thoroughly intelligible as pieces in a larger mechanism? To a secular and scientific intelligence, the whole starry heaven in its lawfulness is an object of awe, rather than the individual star. The decay of an ordinary belief in sacraments must strip individual objects of their peculiar emotional power. The value of perceptions is to be found in their power to confirm or refute the general theories which the intellect has proposed in interpreting the natural order. Why then should men turn aside from their main intellectual interests to dwell on their perceptions of particular sensuously pleasing objects? Could this discrimination of the individual case be more than a trivial satisfaction? Interesting patterns and symmetries are properly interesting to the generalizing intellect, and is it not weakness of mind to need to appreciate them in some sensuous embodiment, in heard music or as illustrated by some perceived object?

THE CULT OF BEAUTY was a disciplined and philosophical answer to these Platonic doubts; a new home for the arts was to be found in the free and useless exercise of the imagination, which is sovereign in its own domain. So there is room for a new virtue, sensibility, alongside the virtues of the inquiring intellect: this is the virtue of the disinterested aesthete, who aims at no conclusions, and attends to no arguments, but who perceives intensely.

But then …

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