What happens when any notion of perfection, this Ideal, the Logos, what Lewis referred to as the Tao, is corrupted, rejected, or ignored? That is the long story of the decline of the west and many are the voices that have cried out. Architectural historian Li Shiqiao, writing on seventeenth and eighteenth century English architecture, sets up the debate:
At the core of their intellectual disputes were standards of credible knowledge: whether they consisted in observable and measurable data which would lead to useful applications, or whether they were to be found in innate ideas of virtue and beauty perceptible in great literary and artistic works.[v]
Li goes on to suggest there are two camps, those empiricists who sought new forms that fulfilled practical function, and the humanists who desired to make a clear link between virtue and practice. And thus we have set up that dualistic bane of western culture from then till now: the classical versus the romantic, or the head versus the heart, or any other number of ways to divide. What they share is a denial of the transcendent. Eighteenth century neoclassicism sought to emulate the styles and uphold the rules of classical world, if one may put it that way, but without the appeal to a transcendent Ideal. Romanticism sought something more meaningful than mere quantity but equally rejected the transcendent. We ended up here: “In the absence of that great philosophic tradition with its insistence upon an objective, rationally explicable Good, there is left a great gaping hole in any imaginable intellectual conception of the world, and objective grounds for any and all conduct, including intellectual endeavour, are completely ruled out.”[vi]
Where then, may artistic, and indeed intellectual, endeavour go? Many are the authors in recent years who have explored the effects of such thinking on, for example, education. Thomas Molnar suggests that, fuelled by John Dewey’s theories, education is now about progress but one without direction.[vii] Much like Harold Bloom, Anthony Kronman, sees the problems in the Academy, this lack of direction among them, as linked to the denigration of the classics, or Great Books. Kronman is particularly frustrated that the research model won out over the study of humane learning. His solution is where we can also see the problem; he aspires to return to secular humanism, something he recommends as, apparently, there is no going back to transcendent theology. But he desires his humanism be more substantial than mere existentialism:
Secular humanism neither reaffirmed the religious dogmas of the old order nor embraced the most radical doubts of the new one. It refused to endorse the idea that human life has meaning only in a world created by God and directed towards His ends. But it also rejected the notion that we are able to create for ourselves, as individuals, whatever structures of meaning our lives require in order to have purpose and value. Instead, it emphasized our dependence on structures of value larger and more lasting than those that any individual can create.[viii]
The empirical model doesn’t answer the questions that need to be asked. But where are those answers? Not with God but with our combined human experience? It does not require much thought to consider how well that worked out in the twentieth century.
Richard Weaver has this problem squarely in his sights. “The issue ultimately involved is whether or not there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind.”[ix] Weaver finds the problem a result of the shift to nominalism, the attempt to “banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect” and only accept that perceived by the senses.[x] Note that this has a direct connection to the fine arts. This empirical shift leads to art no longer interested in the divine nor eternally perfect but in the lower regions where the sensuous reigns supreme. When the objective and the Good are removed what fills their places are the subjective and the aesthetic both in life and in art.
Examples of this trivialization in the art world are legion beginning with nineteenth century realism and culminating with, say, Mark Rothko. While the artists in this period vary wildly in form, medium and technique, they share a few things in common: a denial of the transcendent and an obsession with the self. The pedigree for this can be seen with comments like those of the architect Louis Sullivan, the father of Modern architecture and a transcendentalist:
It is of the essence of Democracy that the individual man is free in his body and free in his soul. It is the highest form of emancipation – of liberty physical, mental and spiritual, by virtue whereof man calls the gods to judgment, while he heeds the divinity of his own soul. …the individual man should stand self-centered, self-governing – an individual sovereign, an individual god.[xi]
Jackson Pollock is right there, claiming “… painters do not have to go to a subject matter outside of themselves”[xii] Art Historian Wilhelm Worringer suggested: “Aesthetic enjoyment is objectified self-enjoyment.”[xiii] Critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell: “Art is a religion. It is an expression of and a means to states of mind as holy as any that men are capable of experiencing. It is towards art that modern minds turn, not only for the most perfect expression of transcendent emotion, [sic] but for an inspiration by which to live.”[xiv]
Artist and critic Barnett Newman wrote in 1948:
I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it…We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.[xv]
What about what we might hope are more thoughtful thinkers? Kronman says art matters as it distracts us from the distraction of technology so we can get in touch with our mortality.[xvi] Critic Donald Kuspit suggests much the same depressing theme: the humanities, and art in particular are good because they help us forget our mortality, the source of all our pain.[xvii] Widely published critic Jed Perl says good art is about a work having “internal logic.”[xviii] Would any thoughtful person wish to built art, or a life, on these grounds?
The problem is, if we look at art for the aesthetic, we can accept anything. However, if we look, for example, for an orderliness that is connected to the Divine, or wisdom, or hope, then suddenly a lot of art looks pathetic. Fred Ross, Chairman of the Art Renewal Center explored this in a public lecture he gave in ’01 at the MET. He skewered the cult of originality that can lead to whatever one wishes. Here is one of his suggestions for “brilliant” and “original” artwork:
I could imbed into the walls, ceiling and floors of a small room, pieces of neon lights, parts from broken machines and engines, and broken pieces of structural building materials like bricks, beams and cinder blocks. Then I could glue between everything millions of nails, nuts and bolts, and have clever writers and critics point out how this room (which could be installed at MOMA or the Guggenheim) is the quintessential statement of the effects of the industrial age on human psychology.[xix]