Put the genius back in the bottle

February 14, 2008

The Use and Abuse of Art
Jacques Barzun (Princeton, 1973)
150 pp. First reading.
Originally written 3 May 2006.

Consider the following:

Sitting down on the bench, I cast my eyes up and across the plaza, letting my gaze rest on the front facade of Notre-Dame de Paris. Another man, a stranger, also carrying a backpack, approached and sat beside me, and we looked at one another with an unspoken sense of understanding. “I had to come see her once more before I left,” he said. “She is beautiful,” I answered.

In Madrid, wandering through the Prado, I turned a corner and, with a sharp intake of breath and a tear jumping unexpectedly to the rim of my eye, found myself facing van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. A group of people were there, simply looking at it, not talking, and not going anywhere. I did the same.

In the eighteenth century, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote that the aim of his art was “the recreation of the mind and the glory of God”. In the twentieth century, Alexander Scriabin said his music would bring about Armageddon and give birth to a new era in the spiritual evolution of humanity.

At a modern art show in Montreal I stood facing a large wooden sculpture that looked vaguely like the facade of a wardrobe. Pointing to a series of holes drilled through it, the artist turned to me and said, with a certain air of solemnity, “The pattern of five dots is used by physicists to represent infinity.”

I visited the National Gallery of Canada’s modern sculpture exhibit. Against one wall was a sheet of plywood, and behind the plywood was a small stack of canned food. In the center of the room was a pile of black stones ringed by a halo of Cheezies.

Experiences like these have often made me wonder about the trajectory of the arts in our culture. To me, based on these experiences and others like them, it seems evident that the trajectory has been one of decline, but why has this happened? In this book, which consists of a series of lectures delivered in 1973 at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the eminent cultural historian Jacques Barzun tries to address this question. His title is intended as an allusion to Nietzsche’s famous study of history, and might, he says, be more accurately given as “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Art for Life”. Tracing the history of the arts over the past several hundred years, and focusing on art’s cultural impact and prevailing spirit, he paints a broad picture of bold ambition undone and brought to naught.

The reason for alluding to Nietzsche in the book’s title is that the launching point for Barzun’s narrative is the early Romantic period, in which Western art repudiated its role as the handmaid of religion, and hatched the notion that art itself was a transcendent power which could rival and replace religion. This doctrine found powerful advocates in Rousseau, Goethe, Schiller, and others, and they expounded a religion centered around nature and the sense of beauty. Nature was for them an object which, commanding awe and being fundamentally free and harmonious, was sufficiently sublime to take the place of God. This doctrine of Nature gave birth to the “genius”, an artist who is no longer a mere craftsman or entertainer, but a spiritual force through whom Nature speaks. The genius embodied an ideal; he was a kind of prophet whose life demonstrated the spiritual possibilities of humanity.

An implication of this view of art was that the genius, the new man of art, must be conspicuously different from the ordinary man. If he is to herald new possibilities, he must stand out. And if he is be a teacher of humanity, preaching the glory of art and the primacy of artistic expression, he must reprove society for its errors. Implicit in the idea of the genius, therefore, was, first, a prejudice against the “triviality” and “philistinism” of bourgeois society, and second, a tendency to assume the role of moralizer. In the concept of the genius, then, Barzun finds “the origin of the war between artist and society”, a war which has produced subversive, transgressive art on the one hand, and political, revolutionary art on the other. Barzun takes these two streams to be central to modern art, and both have had eventful careers. In short, if art is to be the supreme expression of humanity’s spiritual aspirations and powers, it must also become the authoritative moral censor and critic of life.

This war, as he calls it, between artists and society is one of Barzun’s main themes, and he devotes a chapter called Art the Destroyer to unfolding it. As critic and moralist, art has often resorted to shock and abuse in its zeal to subvert social conventions. The much publicized case of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ from a few years ago could serve as a particularly infantile example of this species of art, but I would argue that even Pablo Picasso’s fractured, grotesquely deformed portrayal of humanity is tainted by it. In its quasi-religious role, art has had to assume the burden of reforming society, and this it has done by attacking conventional thought, either by outright dismissal (for example, in the music of Schoenberg) or by inversion (for example, in the plays of Oscar Wilde). Yet, says Barzun, these efforts to disturb the self and society betray a weakness of the religious view of art:

To shock by inversion is of course an old device of religions. The Bible teems with examples of it. The high shall be low, the first shall be last, the rich will be beggars, the poor will be clad in gold raiment. . . But it takes an omniscient God to bring justice out of these overturns. To a godless age, the negative part of the inversion alone remains potent. The negative perpetuates itself as a habit of thought – it becomes the highest form of self-consciousness – and it destroys everything in the most direct way, not by physical means, but by corrosion at the seat of faith and action, the human mind.

Furthermore, as the emphasis in art falls more heavily on originality and spontaneity, the artist feels the burden of the past more heavily. The remedy modern art has discovered for this condition is to destroy the art of the past, whether by satire, by the compulsive founding of new “schools” and by nurturing an appetite for novelty, or even by attacking art itself. Modernity has thus witnessed a swarming proliferation of artistic styles, techniques, and doctrines, each of which tries to carve out room for itself by dismissing its rivals.

Yet this is only one side — the negative side — of the ambition of modern art. Yes, it has sought to undermine conventions, but only so that it might usher in a new world of spiritual greatness, greatness grounded, as Nietzsche insisted, firmly in this world, not in God or divine revelation. This, at least, was the ambition in the beginning. And I must admit that there is a certain plausibility in the idea that art is a religious power capable of bestowing spiritual rewards. After all, art is powerful. History is replete with accounts of its transforming, illuminating strength.

The experience of great art. . .is a massive blow from which one recovers slowly and which leaves one changed in ways that only gradually come to light. While it is going on, the reported physical signs of such a magnificent ordeal have been reported to include sweating, trembling, shivering, a feeling of being penetrated and pervaded and mastered by some irresistible force.

The experience of beauty can lift one out of the ordinary world, conveying an inarticulate sense of the profundity and glory of life. And of course we must not have the impression that all artists are insolent revolutionaries bereft of this spiritual sensitivity. Barzun relates a telling anecdote about a young painter that highlights the genuine connaturality between religion and art:

After striving in several directions, he found that all he could do to communicate his vision was to cover a square of canvas with an even layer of pale yellow. When he was despondent, he would use charcoal on white paper for the same totality of effect. In the end, baffled by the difficulty, he joined a religious order.

It is this connaturality, after all, that lends an initial plausibility to the whole idea that art could rival religion, and it should not be forgotten. For its part, Christianity has recognized this close relationship, not only by being the greatest patron of the arts in our history, but also by teaching that in the creative act itself the person imitates, in a limited but real way, the creative action of God, and so is united, in a limited but real way, with God. This, however, Barzun does not discuss.

Though he is appreciative of this positive side of the ambitions of modern art, in the end he believes it has failed. That it has failed is evident in the present cacophony, in which the destructive force of art has ultimately revenged itself by attacking the arts themselves, and in the collapse of the ideal of the artist as exemplar to the cult of the artist as mere celebrity, a declination in which art has lost sight of the spiritual ambition it once had:

. . .having no unity, no eternity, no theology, no myth, no minister, its cult can only fall into the worship of the instrument – idolatry. And to say idolatry is to say failure, for what is wrong with idolatry is that it is a dead stop along the way to the transcendent.

I myself would add that the project has failed precisely because the object in which it tried to invest the transcendent strength of the deity — whether that was Nature, or beauty, or pure form, or the human breast — was simply unable to receive it. Being finite, these things are by their nature not able to absorb God.

But even this is not the end of the story, for if art seeks influence in society, yet cannot succeed at replacing religion, then another option lies open: it may cast itself as a science. On the face of it this might seem unlikely to succeed, or even unlikely to be tried, but it has been tried. Science and art, when they were not ignoring one another, have had a tense relationship. Science, for its part, has sometimes attacked the arts (as when, in the early days of photography, some claimed that it made painting obsolete) and even sometimes colonizing the arts (as when some physicists refer to their work as art exhibiting all the hallmarks of beauty — a claim to which I am sympathetic, but which does not convince Barzun). For the most part, though, it has been art aspiring to be science, whether by speaking of “experimental” art, or of an artist as “solving a problem”, or by invoking technical jargon of dubious relevance when describing a work. Perhaps the most pitiable example of scientific influence on art is in the sphere of art criticism, which has aspired to sound scientific. “The prevailing mode of criticism is analysis and its medium is pretentious jargon.” (Barzun gives a hilarious example of this, appended below.) In addition, he claims that major artistic movements like Abstract Art, which rescind from representation to the world of pure form, did so under pressure from the sciences, which, they thought, had drained Nature of all meaning, revealing it as nothing but particles in motion and emptiness. This, in turn, only compounded the destructive force of art, for abstraction severs the connection between art and our world and destroys the relationship of art to human life and love. In Barzun’s view the obeisance which the arts have made to the sciences has been disastrous, for he sees the role of art as precisely to counter the sometimes inhumane habits of thought incubated by science, in which, for example, sunsets are reduced to nothing but refraction, or a mother’s love is nothing but animal instinct, and so forth.

In the end, Barzun is not optimistic about the future of art in our culture. He believes that it has failed in its bid to become a quasi-religion, and that it has fallen too much under the influence of science to serve as a humanistic counter-weight. It is too burdened by its past to proceed with confidence, yet the efforts to strike off in new directions have led to a quagmire of conflict. In his view, there are two broad options: either a crisis or social revolution of some sort will produce a fresh environment in which the arts can operate, or they will gradually decline, becoming more and more innocuous until, perhaps, artists will once again warm to the idea that art is a craft at the service of society – and even, perhaps, of religion. I myself don’t know what to expect, but I agree with Barzun that the arc which the arts have followed in the past few hundred years appears to have reached its terminus, and we are reaping diminishing returns.

[The artist against society]
If we adopt Picasso’s formula of art as a weapon to fight the enemy and the enemy turns out to be the public as a whole, the first question is how long the surgery — not to say butchery — ought to last. If we need to be shaken and shattered, if we go to the artist in order to face again and again what an enthusiast of Ezra Pound called `his celestial sneer,’ then it is proper to inquire how the treatment is succeeding. The object presumably is to cure the beholder of his detestable complacency and materialism. (There is about this purpose a curious air of Victorian moralism, scarcely brought up to date.) Yet the cure is to offer him in visual or imaginative shape nothing but visions of deformity. He naturally identifies himself with the misshapen and the malcontented that (says Art) is the way he is. No doubt, but it ought not to cause surprise that the patient continues deformed and malcontent. Add the angry artist’s will to humiliate as he teaches, and you perceive why the process has no end — or rather, it ends in a higher complacency, the complacency of the hopeless.

[Art criticism interpreted]
“– 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. [Translation: 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. [Translation: 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, expressiveness of the essentials of a tree and its leaves in relations 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 aspirations. [Translation: Rousseau painted just as he liked and he liked painting trees]“

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One Response to “Put the genius back in the bottle”


  1. [...] Related reading: Jacques Barzun – The Use and Abuse of Art [...]


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