Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Importance of Limitations

There is a certain type of empirical judgment [concerning art], which has spread due to the influence of English and French travelers. One expresses one’s spontaneous, unprepared opinion without giving any thought at all to the fact that every artist is subject to many conditions, such as his own special talent, his predecessors and teachers, his time and place, his patrons and customers. None of this—which would of course be required for a pure appreciation—comes into consideration, and so there develops a dreadful mixture of praise and censure, of affirmation and rejection; as a result, every value proper to the works in question is annulled.
—Goethe, Italian Journey, Report for December 1787
Many people, I would venture to guess, unconsciously think like Platonists, at least when it comes to art. They’ve learned from a certain caricature of art critics to talk about art using only abstract nouns starting with capital letters. They speak in grandiose terms about Beauty, as if beauty existed apart from works of art. When they do this, they think they are preserving beauty, and art for art’s sake—but they really don't know much about beauty. (This, of course, excludes the not inconsiderable group of people who think art should be about whatever they feel like, not necessarily about beauty. I won't even bother with them.)

But, as Goethe points out, these amateur art critics do not know much about the individual artist or work of art in question. They have no idea who the artist's teachers were, what his patron demanded of him, or what techniques and materials were available at the time.

This ignorance of history, according to Goethe, is so distressing because it prevents critics from coming to a “pure appreciation.” This is a striking phrase, especially in combination with his initial rejection of a certain type of empiricism. How can Goethe call for more history and reject empiricism? First of all, what he means by empiricism is not an emphasis on concrete, verifiable facts; what he means, rather, is the theory that the human mind is a tabula rasa that can judge correctly about any sense impression it receives, without anything further work required. In other words, Goethe is saying that learning to appreciate art is hard work, and part of that hard work involves learning the historical background about the art we are trying to appreciate.

Second, many people—those everyday Platonists—would argue that what leads us to a “pure appreciation” of art is abstraction from history. The work of art has a value which is independent of the “dirty” complications of history. What does it matter, they argue, what the limitations on an artist were? His work is immortal!

But, in fact, what makes that work of art immortal are the limitations on the artist. Every time an artist chooses to include one type of excellence in his work, he must exclude another type of excellence. For instance, an architect cannot choose both a pointed Gothic arch and a round Baroque arch for the same part of his building. A sculptor must decide whether he wants to use wood, marble, or some other medium for his statue. A painter must decide whether to use oil or water colors. In the end, though, what is really important is how the artist works within these limitations but transcends them. Our limitations are what make perfection possible for us. And--Goethe's point again--only a detailed knowledge and analysis of the artist's limitations will help us come to a "pure appreciation" of the artist's transcendence of his limitations.
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