Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Two Distinctions Regarding Art

Art has a two-fold function. First, it should reflect the times, the zeitgeist, the present state of things. Second, it should be normative, describing how things ought to be. (These are, of course, two sides to the same coin, both manifestations of the Truth, but in practice they are fairly discreet functions.) Modern art, while embracing and more or less fulfilling the former function, has all but abdicated the latter. The films of Ingmar Bergman, the paintings of Pablo Picasso: these and other works are capable of describing - in often powerful and poignant ways - the alienation that modern man often feels from his work, his neighbors, his environment, his God and himself. Such works frequently convey the disorientation experienced in the modern age. But what they frequently fail to provide is a normative direction, an orientation which can remedy the disorientation of modern life.

This shortcoming, though unfortunate, is not entirely surprising. Providing both descriptive and normative content not only requires doing two things at once, but can have an added difficulty. In an age that frequently lacks direction, those in touch with the zeitgeist are themselves all too often lost; those with a sense of direction can sometimes be jarringly out of touch with those around them who lack such direction.

Without a normative dimension, descriptive art risks becoming self-referential. This happens for the simple reason that people look for and implicitly assume normative content. Thus, if someone sees a work which describes modern alienation, they are liable to assume that alienation is the proper response to the age. And they, in turn, will then produce works which describe their state of alienation. Without a normative dimension which can depart from the present state of things, descriptive art becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

When, or how, did this state of affairs come about? Though no art historian, it seems to me a key turning point happened in the move from impressionism to expressionism, the second distinction I would like to make. Though there is sometimes a sort of middle ground between them where they can look similar, the concept behind each is quite different. Classical realism sought to depict things as they are, in literal physical detail. Impressionism - such as Monet's Impression, Sunrise, pictured right - was a kind of Kantian development of this approach, still representing physical things, but adding the subjective quality of depicting them as they appear to the artist' senses. Expressionism changed this approach in a radical way, turning art in upon itself and making the artist the subject.

There is, I think, I real connection between the descriptive/normative distinction and the impressionism/expressionism (world as subject/artist as subject) distinction. Unless one adheres to a philosophy that the answers to all life's questions and problems lie within one's self, normative statements must acknowledge the world around us. "I am miserable because my wife berates me all day, as a consequence of my treating her like I would a fork or knife." "My business is about to be ruined because erosion on the hill above us is triggering a mud slide which will soon envelope us." "The little birds that sing outside my window put me in a good mood." "My soul finds rest in God alone." All of these statements, though about the self, connect one's state of being - unhappiness, failure, happiness, tranquility - to things outside the self. All of these statements are, in fact, descriptive, but by taking into account some aspect of the world that surrounds us, they imply normative behaviors: The husband should quit objectifying his wife. The businessman should work to end the erosion, or move his business quickly (or both). The listener should continue listening to the birds. And the Pslamist should place his full confidence in God.

It comes as little surprise then that modern art, for all its descriptive power, is so rarely normative. Would we expect anything different from navel-gazing?
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