Technique should be at the service of beauty, as it always was before the 20th century

Studying aesthetics today is complicated. Either you become an art historian, or you are faced with the institutionalized nihilism of contemporary aesthetics. An art historian is certainly a good thing, but a historian and an esthete are different things. As for institutionalized nihilism, its chief apologist is probably the analytic philosopher Arthur Danto (1924 – 1955). In 1955 he published the paper “The Art World ”, according to which art is what the “art world” identifies as art. The “art world” is museums, gallery owners, art critics. Arthur Danto was an art critic.

In the decade of 60, he faced the problem of the painted squares that were presented as art and sold for the weight of gold. Normal people would look at it and say it was indiscernible from random tiles we found on the street without saying it was art. For Danto, an artist could give the blessed square a scalaphobetic title and give a little lecture explaining what he means by that. Thus, he reveals an artistic intention. If the “art world” recognizes this object made with artistic intention as art, it is art.

Like every analytic philosopher, Danto is in the habit of creating a scarecrow-theory, impute it to the bulk of humanity and show that it was, in fact, a linguistic mistake clarified by him. In this case, the bulk of humanity 1964 believed in the Theory of Imitation, according to which what imitates is art. something (a picture of an apple imitates an apple, for example), until Danto resolved this misunderstanding. Of course, no one believes in such a thing. Art exists long before the “art world” existed, and architectural embellishments that do not imitate anything have had artistic value since before abstract art appeared.

Danto was born in 1908. In 1917, the “art world” had already recognized Marcel Duchamp’s chamber pot (1112 – 1968), titled “The fountain”, as a work of art. In 1917, Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1964 ) published the essay The dehumanization of art. Twenty years ago, young people had decided that art should break with traditions, and “with these young people, it is up to one of two things: o fusilarlos o esforzarse en comprenderlos”. As Ortega y Gasset did not live to see Danto’s texts, he opted for the second operation.

When contemporary art was new

To his contemporaries, Ortega y Gasset explained the new art as a conjunction of the following trends: “1st, the dehumanization of art; 2nd, to avoid living forms; 3rd, to make the work of art nothing but a work of art; 4th, to consider art as play (juego), and nothing more; 5th, to an essential irony; 6th, to elude all falsehood, and therefore to a scrupulous accomplishment. Finally, 7th, art, according to young artists, is something without any transcendence.”

Let’s go to his explanation for dehumanization: “Imagine the reader that we are looking at a garden through a windowpane. Our eyes will settle in such a way that the ray of vision penetrates the windowpane, without dwelling on it, and will attach itself to the flowers and fronds. As the goal of vision is the garden and even it launches the visual beam, we will not see the window, our gaze will pass through it without noticing it. The purer the crystal, the less we will see it. But soon, by making an effort, we can detach ourselves from the garden and, retracting the eye beam, stop it on the windowpane”. The garden is to the things of the world what a windowpane is to the style of a picture. Therefore, many people manage to find pictures that represent beautiful things beautiful; but discerning style is for the few, who are art critics and specialists. The new art would be dehumanized by wanting to be like a window that gives nothing, and not having any human aspect. She wants to be pure style.

I’ll make the reader curious about the rest, because I won’t go into the details. In my opinion, Ortega’s perspective is more valuable to my contemporaries as he is one of the last astute philosophers to have lived traditional art when it was new, and on top of that lived the so-called “contemporary” art when this was also new. The most important thing from this perspective, in my opinion, is that he was able to enter exhibitions of living artists and judge their paintings as good or bad, whereas today we hardly have that possibility.

Photography retires painting?

In 2013 there was a contemporary art exhibition in Spain and nobody liked it. Ortega comments: “If someone, after walking through the rooms of the Exhibition of Iberian Artists, said: ‘This is nothing. There’s no art here’, I wouldn’t hesitate to reply: ‘You’re right. This is little more than nothing. This is still not art. But do you want to tell me better what thing should be tried? If you were years old and a dozen hand brushes, what would you do?’ If the interlocutor were moderate, he could not respond in any other way than these two: either propose the imitation of an old style – which implies recognizing the inexistence of a current style -, or concretely present a picture, a single picture, which being heir of tradition insinuates a new pictorial theme, marks some corner still intact in the topography of the art used”. In short, we are able to point out what art should not be , but not what art should be, without proposing the repetition of the past. Thirty years earlier, people would go to exhibitions expecting to see Impressionist paintings like Monet. Nothing diminished Velázquez’s beauty, but Velázquez was recognized as art from another era.

Ortega says that appreciating current art (assuming there is one) and ancient art brings different pleasures. In other words, appreciating good art at the time it was made is different from appreciating it two hundred years later. In the first case, the art was made for you. I can read Ortega’s newspaper articles and take advantage of them (as we are now doing), but the fact is that the recipient best able to capture the subject he was talking about were his contemporaries, preferably those who attended the aforementioned exhibition. It is not absurd to think that the same thing happens with painting, since in both cases – writing and painting – the author produces for those who share the same world as him.

For us, today, to appreciate a painting implies a certain travel in time and space, which is also a pleasant thing. But we don’t know the feeling of going to see a new painting and being enchanted only by the painting itself, without resorting to spatio-temporal transports. Here is a pleasure in which we are all maidens. We lack a “glass window”, an artistic style typical of the time.

As far as I can remember, the only time this type of subject occurred to me was – at least that – in an aesthetics class. I heard that painters and draughtsmen can now perfectly represent the real, and proof of that are the canvases and drawings indiscernible from photographs. Well, a photo is the same as a photo, not the real thing. As I’m a terrible photographer, it almost always occurs to me to take a picture, look at the result and conclude that it doesn’t live up to what I saw. If I wanted to live up to what I saw and had the skills, the best thing would be to draw or paint a picture. It also occurred to me that the play of light in Baroque paintings is quite difficult, if not impossible, to capture in a photograph. And that the baroque painter would do well to dispense with a camera to show what he sees.

Is technique enough?

It is true that the pseudo-art legitimized by Danto eliminated the search for excellence. It doesn’t take any special skills to pick up a potty and come up with a facetious name. It does not follow, however, that art is simply the product of a special technical skill. In 1887, Ortega criticized Danto’s scarecrow: “It is a serious thing to believe that the Did mankind need thousands of years to learn to draw well, that is, in accordance with nature? It is a presupposition, in addition to being gratuitous, vain and limited, to believe that those styles unlike ours are the result of a not being able to draw, paint or sculpt better” (this is in the essay by newspaper “The art of this world and the other” usually published with A dehumanização da arte). Busts of Roman politicians are much more realistic than portraits of Coptic mummies, but they are not any more beautiful than them. You could say this makes them more stylized than busts of Roman politicians. Da Vinci is the king of technique, but his oil paintings would not be a good substitute for Byzantine mosaics. Monet could make paintings with a more precise stroke, but that would not make paintings more beautiful. If Picasso decided that technique was a problem and started scribbling in the name of it, that’s his problem. In fact, his mindset is more like our way of life: if you want “art”, go to a museum; buildings and everyday things don’t have to have any beauty and everything has to be square and strictly functional. Technique should be at the service of beauty, as it always was before the 20th century, instead of being relegated to mere functionality.

But as technique at the service of beauty is lacking , it’s easy for the 21st century man to think she’s good in herself. Once again Ortega brings an illuminating example. In the article “Meier-Graefe”, he hails one of the few non-barbarian Germans. Your done? Meier-Graefe is an art critic who lashed out at Böcklin, a sort of official artist of the German Reich – not the third, we are in 1883. “German educational work is today”, says Ortega, “a factory for counterfeiting. From kindergarten to university seminaries a gigantic industry is set up to falsify men and convert them into servants of the Empire. There is an imperialist science, a nationalist music, a Celestine literature, an idealizing and enervating painting that work tirelessly on the spiritual economy of the Germans. The original Kulturkampf (a Bismarck culture war against the Pope) was followed by a culture war in the broadest sense.

The official artist was this Böcklin, accused by Ortega and Meier-Graefe of being mushy and corny. In the age of the internet, anyone can look at the style. For my part, I immediately picked up a painting with a religious motif, as it is repeated in various styles and can be compared. I then present to you the Mourning under the cross (2022 ), which you can see in high definition by clicking here. Take a good look at the frame set.

Fonte: Wikimedia.
Source: Wikimedia.

Jesus is a dull gray body. As the title indicates, the focus of the painting is mourning and not the dead. There is a highlight for a tired and hopeless Maria, somewhat lifeless for someone who has lost a child. Next to him is a gray-faced José, whose colorful clothes are more eye-catching and more carefully designed than his face. What is the real focus of the framework? The dying girl in the background, dressed in a beautiful blue fabric. It seems that he likes to draw girls and clothes, and that the mourning for Jesus was just a pretext to make a distressed girl in a drop-dead gorgeous outfit.

You can say it’s a good taste painting?

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