In the Final Days of the Arts (II)

In the Final Days of the Arts (II)

Written by Alfonso Elizondo



At the end of the 19th century, aestheticism emerged as a reaction to the prevailing utilitarianism of the time and the materialism and ugliness of the industrial age. Then Théophile Gautier started a trend that gave art and beauty their own autonomy. With ‘art for art’s sake’ Gautier attempted to isolate the artist from society in order to freely seek his own inspiration and be led by an individual search for beauty, removed from any moral consideration, with art becoming the ultimate goal of the artist who comes to live his own life as a work of art. Another theorist of this movement, Walter Pater, declared that the artist must live his life intensely, pursuing beauty as an ideal.


For his part, Charles Baudelaire was an art analyst in the industrial age and he created the notion of a ‘modern beauty’. He believed that there is no absolute beauty, but that every concept of the beautiful has something eternal and something transitory. According to him, beauty comes from passion, therefore each individual has his own concept of beauty.


Regarding its relationship to art, beauty expresses, on the one hand, an idea that’s always there, which would be ‘the soul of art’, and another that is relative and circumstantial, which is the ‘body of art’. The duality of art is an expression of the duality of man and of his yearning for an ideal happiness that comes up against the passions that drive him towards it.


In contrast to the eternal half that is anchored in ancient art, Baudelaire saw the variable half of ‘modern art’, whose distinctive signs are the fleeting, the transitory, the ephemeral and the changing that come together in ‘fashion’. Baudelaire’s Neo-Platonic concept of beauty is the human pursuit of a higher ideal that can be achieved through art. The artist is the hero of modernity, whose basic quality is melancholy as a desire for ideal beauty.


Contrary to Baudelaire and his aestheticism is Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, who formulated a sociological theory of art and in his Philosophy of Art (1865-1869) invested art with a determinism based on race, context and time. According to Taine, aesthetics operates like any other scientific discipline, in that it has rational and empirical parameters. In the same way, Jean Marie Guyeay put forward an evolutionary view of art in 1888, affirming that art is within life and evolves in the same way, therefore art is a reflection of society.


Sociological aesthetics had a strong link with ‘pictorial Realism’ and with leftist political movements, particularly with ‘utopian socialism’. There were authors like Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and P. J. Proudhon who defended the social function of art, whereby beauty and utility are combined into a harmonious whole. There were also theorists such as Ruskin and William Morris who put forward a ‘functionalist’ view of art.


From a totally different perspective, Leon Tolstoy proposed the idea of the social justification of art as a form of communication that its only valid if the feelings it transmits can be shared by all human beings. For Tolstoy, the only valid justification of art was its contribution to the brotherhood of man, that is, feelings that promote the unification of peoples.


In the late nineteenth century art started to be studied from the point of view of psychology. Sigmund Freud applied psychoanalysis to art, saying that art would be one of the ways of representing a desire or something suppressed subliminally. Freud believed that the artist was a narcissistic figure very much like a child reflecting its desires in art, and he believed artistic works could be studied in the same way as dreams or mental illness in psychoanalysis.


For his part, Carl Gustav Jung linked psychology to several disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, religion, mythology, literature and art. In 1928, in his book Contributions to Analytical Psychology he suggested that the symbolic elements present in art are ‘archetypes’ that are naturally present in the collective unconscious of the human being.


In the 20th century the concept of art was radically transformed beginning with the Romantic movement and crystallized in the work of authors such as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard who made a break with tradition and caused a total rejection of classical beauty.


In the 20th century, the concept of reality was questioned by new scientific theories, such as Bergson’s subjectivity, Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, Freud’s theories, etc. The new technologies brought about a change in the function of art because photography and cinema took over capturing reality in another totally different way from the plastic arts.


These developments have produced abstract art; the artist no longer tries to reflect reality but his inner world by expressing his feelings. Art today is constantly changing, unlike classical art that was based on a metaphysics of immutable ideas. Art today, with its Kantian roots, finds pleasure in the social consciousness of pleasure or mass culture. We must also take into account the gradual reduction of illiteracy, because in the past, when much of the population could not read, the best means of transmitting knowledge was graphic art.


One of the recent spin-offs from philosophy and art is ‘postmodernity’ that postulates the current validity of a historical period that has superseded the modern world. Avant-garde art does not propose new ideas, ethics or aesthetics, but interprets reality through the repetition of earlier images that thus lose their meaning. Repetition encompasses the framework of art within art itself. It assumes the failure of artistic commitment and art’s inability to transform everyday life.


Postmodern art goes back to the work of art-object, to ‘art for art’s sake, without pretending that it has evolved. Its most important theorists currently are Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. The conclusion is that the old formulas that based art on the creation of beauty or on imitation of nature have become obsolete. Nowadays, art is a dynamic quality in constant transformation, embedded in the mass media, in consumer channels, with an ephemeral appearance of instant perception, where the idea and the object are present in their conceptual origins and in their physical execution.


Addendum: In fact, the arts are in their final days.