September 14, 2007


The Crisis of Modern Art: Nicholas Berdiaev’s Prophetic Critique (Heinrich Stammler, Summer 1991, Touchstone)

In 1931 there appeared in the Zeitschrift für Aesthetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft an article entitled “The Historicity of Art.” The author was a young assistant professor of Philosophy, Helmut Kuhn, who later made a name for himself as a Platonist philosopher, aesthetician, and specialist in problems of ethics. In his essay Kuhn was concerned with the question of the degree to which art is either subject to the laws of historical change or exempt by virtue of its intrinsic qualities—thus in some way transcending the perishability of all earthly things.

Paradoxically, the historicity of art becomes manifest in its very origin in a given present. This origin at a distinct point in the flux of history establishes a special relationship of the work of art to the specific situation of that moment. And so, the degree to which art is involved in the institutional life and public concerns of a given age is an indicator of the degree to which the arts are an integrated part of the life of a society. On the other hand, even the degree to which the arts are withdrawn from public concerns reflects a judgment of the time upon itself. Kuhn wished to emphasize that art cannot be regarded from a purely formal-aesthetic, phenomenological point of view; it must be seen, at least in some essential characteristics, as a sign of the times, and therefore expressive of them, either in assertion or denial.

Since the days of the Renaissance, and particularly the great age of European classicism, renewed attempts have been made to determine the specific aesthetic, moral, and even religious properties of a given period by the art forms in which it seemed to express itself. The name of Winkelmann springs to mind, who believed he could define the aesthetic and moral essence of classical antiquity on the basis of the character of its artistic creations. This was a belief that was to have a tremendous influence on the contemporary mind, being shared by authorities such as Goethe, Schiller, Keats, Pushkin and the entire neo-classicism of the age of the Empire, until toward the end of the nineteenth century, when Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Jacob Burckhard, Renan and others shattered this belief beyond all recognition.

From the Middle Ages to the age of impressionism, as long as these varied interpretations were preferred within the framework of an art, which was representational, pictorial, and objective, and for which the aesthetic values of classical antiquity and the Renaissance could be to some degree, tacitly assumed, they were not devoid of a certain plausibility—especially when formulated by ingenious, empathetic, and well-informed critics.

But in view of the jumble of confusing phenomena in the arts of our present, which seem to defy rational description, painting, sculpture, music, even writing, have appeared to break away from all established canons of taste. What began to dawn upon a startled world with cubism, fauvism, futurism, expressionism, abstractism and atonality, was tantamount to all-out iconoclasm, a nihilistic destructiveness. The artists resolutely turned their backs on the natural shapes and contours of the cosmos. All form, the human image included, was ruthlessly subjected to dissection and disintegration. The canons of beauty bequeathed by antiquity and revived and enriched by the Renaissance, were neglected or set aside. The very concept and ideal of beauty was consigned to obsolescence.

But this was not all: Art increasingly became inaccessible. It ceased to be the expression of a consensus regarding what is beautiful, harmonious, well-proportioned and pleasing to the senses. Thus, what we are accustomed to call “modern art” became “unpopular,” a stigma that it has not been able to live down even to our day. It became an art for artists and trendy critics. And art criticism, where it was not dominated by purely commercial interests, tended more and more to turn into a dialogue between “experts.” The general public was excluded from the lucubrations of the connoisseurs. The ordinary art lover saw himself relegated to the benches with the ignoramuses and the philistines.

It could also be said, in more philosophical terms, that art, with its centuries-old Western tradition of striving for ever regenerated visions of beauty, fell out of the platonic trinity of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good. Now, so it seemed, art had divorced itself from the world of meaning, shutting itself up in a realm of an arbitrary formalism devoid of all human content.

In this, art merely followed science.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 14, 2007 12:00 AM

And built The Cube.

Posted by: Luciferous at September 14, 2007 2:49 PM

Oh, but it's so much fun to discuss at cocktail parties. I've seen some collected by friends that appear to have been a kindergarten class project. However, I will admit having seen a few that were well done, tasteful decorative pieces, in the same sense as a chair, couch or colorful rug.

Posted by: Genecis at September 14, 2007 4:04 PM

From Bauhaus to Our House by Wolfe is all about this and rocks.

Posted by: Benny at September 14, 2007 5:20 PM