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Arts criticism today

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 9 May 2013


I have become aware of a continuing argument between myself and various people involved in the fine arts concerning arts criticism. As the discussions ran along similar lines I have decided to attempt a written explanation of my side of the argument.

In order to understand my point of view it is necessary, as with so many contemporary issues, to begin with the thought of the European Enlightenment. This movement, its arrogance obvious from the implications of its name, claimed to discover reason and place it at the pinnacle of all discussion. While the sciences thrived on this method that nurtured observation and experiment, the movement was a disaster for theology and the arts because they could not be reduced to the empirical method.

The emphasis on reason is essentially an emphasis on individual or autonomous reason. It is reason with an actor of one. For the Enlightenment was determined that each person had to arrive at their own conclusions using reason alone. Thus discourse was severed from the past, it became a-historical and a-communal. It is otherwise called "the view from nowhere" because it refuses to stand in any tradition. Again this was a boon to the sciences because it meant that the physiology of Galen, the astronomy of Ptolemy, the physics of Aristotle could be dumped, to be replaced by a new science built on the empirical method. But for the humanities it was a disaster that we have inherited. For such was the success of science and technology that it became to be accepted that all truth had to be forced through the sieve of the empirical method. I still get comments on this blog that ask where is the concrete evidence for the things I am writing.

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The exclusion of previous thought and the focus on autonomous reason has been called the "turn to the self." As John Locke emphasised in regard to Christian faith, every man was his own orthodoxy. This isolation of the individual has two outcomes in the sphere of the arts. This first is subjectivism. 'I do no know much about art, but I know what I like." The assessment of a work of art is ultimately reduced to whether it is liked. No other warrant is necessary because the self is autonomous, the self knows, it makes up its own mind. It makes up its own mind according to vague feeling states because it is isolated from the debates of the past about truth and beauty.

The next step on the path to nonsense is that because individuals are different and because they have different responses to art, all taste is relativised. At this point any warranted art criticism disappears. We can no longer say what is adept and inept, profound or naïve, art or fashion, easy and slick or the product of intense effort and focus. We can no longer talk about beauty or meaning. We cannot because all is relative; it is a matter of individual taste. We have reached the absolute tyranny of the self and this is a very bad thing because the self can no longer be drawn out by ancient traditions of thought but must remain caged by its own narcissism. But worst, the public is held captive to the latest arts fashion because it no longer has the critical skills to call facile art to account.

In our time the self-proclaimed artist has joined celebrity. It is dangerous to state that a work of art is shallow and manipulative because, without any warrant for criticism, it may just be the next big thing that changes everything. After all, there have been plenty of examples of misunderstood genius' in the past. This brings the art world into disrepute and vulnerable to someone who is not scared of being a Philistine to say out loud that it is rubbish.

One can make a connection between the reduced status of the Church in our time and our subjectivism and relativism. Prior to the Enlightenment, even in the Renaissance, art was produced to the glory of God. Its excellence was not based on individual feeling but upon the truth and beauty of the work. In my discussion on arts criticism this is when things fall apart because no one wants to talk about truth or beauty any longer, we have dispensed with those categories under the auspices of liberalism, the view from nowhere.

The only way to restore the arts, the only way to see the artistic charlatans for what they are is to come to grips with truth and beauty. And the only way that I know is to recognise Christ as the figure of truth and beauty. Certainly Jesus is identified with the truth in the face of Pilate who asks the very question of our time "what is truth." The rather Greek term "beauty" can be replaced by the more biblical term "grace." This makes John's gospel uniquely relevant to our discussion: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth." (1:14) All art before the Enlightenment was measured by this standard, did it reflect the grace and truth of Christ? Did it glorify God?

Contemporary art is largely empty because this centre, the wellsprings of our culture, has been cancelled. There are now no criteria by which a work of art can be judged. The abandonment of ideas of truth and grace has left a vacuum at the centre of art that is filled with neoism and the desire to shock the viewer. Many artists take on the role of prophet whose aim is to shock the viewer out of their complacency by producing objects that disgust and disturb. Alas, no new revelation or salvation appears, we are simply disgusted and disturbed.

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It is the aim of art to reveal the truth and grace (beauty) of the everyday. A bowl of fruit becomes a wonder, a portrait plumbs the depth of character, a landscape teaches us to see landscape in a different and deeper way. Without art our senses and our intellect are dull because they are not exposed to truth and beauty.

In removing God from our lives we also have removed the transcendent, that which is not apparent from the surface of things, that which is revealed to us by the artist who is skilful in craft and developed in soul. The view of the world in late modernity suffers from flatness. Largely, entertainment, diversion has replaced the deep connection with truth and grace that is the object of all art. This is the world of what you see is what you get. The idea of God is also the idea of the unseen, that which is hidden from us. In sacramental theology the host of the Mass is both bread and the body of Christ, the wine is both wine and the blood of Christ. This is fundamental to how we view the world, there is, as we say in the creed, the seen and the unseen. There is a hidden reality in all things that is the purpose of the arts to reveal. Think about the play and film "Who's afraid of Virginia Wolfe". Underneath the boozy, adulterous wife and the hopeless husband lies the tragedy of a barren marriage.

Think of the painting of the resurrection by Piero della Francesca with Christ rising from the tomb with that implacable stare that challenges the viewer and the soldiers asleep below and behind the landscape in transition from winter to spring.

Think now of photorealist art that seeks to represent each blade of grass and each leaf of a landscape. This is painting my numbers, a shallow but accurate interpretation of landscape that offers nothing more than appearances.

Art is too important in our lives to be reduced to untutored taste. If we really want to experience it we must educate ourselves so that we attain the perception to see that which is before our eyes. We must put our likes or dislikes aside and be willing to be tutored by a tradition that knows that you had to believe before you understand instead of the other way around. But we also must honestly spurn the gimmicky and the slick and hold out for truth and beauty.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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