Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The end of art?

The last half-century has seen a series of proclamations of closure, typically cued by the introductory words “end of.” During the 1960s Daniel Bell and others wrote of the end of ideology (an unlucky prediction since the spread of the New Left was then in the process of reviving ideology). More recently, Francis Fukuyama’s concept of the end of history provoked a flurry of interest. There has been a widespread sense that we have reached the end of the book as a medium of information. Well maybe we stand at the end of the "Gutenberg Era," but books are still thriving, though somewhat less than formerly. One music critic sounded a peremptory doom: the end of the classical CD was scheduled for 2004 (yet this debacle doesn’t seem to have happened).

Many of these statements are rhetorical exaggerations, designed either to accelerate the trend (as with those who hoped that ideology could be hastened to its grave) or, conversely, to sound the alarm, hoping to reverse or at least retard the threatened decline. Sometimes the point seems to be simple provocation, as the volume entitled “The End of Racism.” When there genuinely is a complete end, as with the sodomy laws in the US in 2003, there doesn’t seem to be a felt need to appeal to "end of" rhetoric.

I turn now to my main subject: assertions of the "end of art."

Aesthetic reactionaries constitute the common-garden variety of those who speak of the end of art (that is, of the visual arts of painting and sculpture). These censorious individuals decry the prevalence of modern art as a sign of decline and debasement, spelling the end of anything worthy of being called art. And perhaps (with a side-glance at the fall of the Roman Empire) today’s purported travesties offer premonitions of the end of civilization itself. These commentators, then, do not deny that many are now producing objects that could be called art—they simply claim that no good art is being produced. By signaling this debasement, they hope to spark a return of "standards."

Recently, though, there has arisen a school of critics who admire modern art, even its most challenging innovations, while simultaneously holding that art has come to an end, perhaps in the 1980s. This school asserts that good "art," some very good, is being produced today—but that it is not ART.

Before examining the current form of these arguments, a look at two earlier figures will be useful.

The first history of art that has come down to us is that embedded in the Natural History of Pliny the Elder (first century CE) Himself Roman, Pliny was concerned primarily with the development of Greek sculpture and painting from the fifth century BCE onwards. For two centuries all went well. Then, after a flowering of art about the time of the 121st Olympiad (296-93), "deinde cessavit ars," art stopped; 34:52). But not permanently, for it recovered at the time of the 156th Olympiad (156-53). Given Pliny’s neo-classical taste, it seems likely that this blank century or so witnessed not the total cessation of art, but rather the prevalence of a type of art that Pliny did not like: the Hellenistic baroque. Accordingly, Pliny’s scheme is a model for aesthetic reactionaries, who think that art, as far as they are concerned, is dead now, but may make a comeback.

The German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) is often regarded as maintaining the end of art, a demise apparent in his own times two hundred years ago. This claim stems from his vast Lectures on Aesthetics, which were collected and edited posthumously, largely from student notes. For this reason they contain infelicities and perhaps even contradictions that the writer might not have authorized. At all events, as far as one can reconstruct his views from this somewhat opaque medium, Hegel held the view (common among intellectuals of his own day) that Greek art had achieved an unsurpassable excellence that cannot be replicated. In Hegelian terms this art constitutes the reflection of absolute spirit. Art of this quality has indeed ended. But less perfect forms of art have soldiered on until our own day.

At the end of the Lectures Hegel presents a different view. Art (comprising the five branches of architecture, sculpture, music, and poetry) is like a giant garland, with all the arts contributing strands. That garland, it seems, is now fully complete, and nothing more is to be done. In this sense the art enterprise is a great task undertaken by humanity millennia ago. In that respect it is not unlike short-term, mundane efforts, such as cleaning out the garage or persuading a loved one to get married. One day we recognize that the task has been accomplished.

There are indeed many endeavors that, though protracted, have a definite beginning and a definite end. Consider the acquisition of the Ph.D. degree. This has four main steps: 1) application and acceptance to a degree-granting university; 2) completion of required course work; 3) passing the relevant examinations; 4) production and defense of a written document, the Ph.D. degree. With the accomplishment of stage four the Ph.D. effort achieves closure. May it not be that humanity’s art effort, though stretching over many millennium is now finished? Perhaps the human collective now has its art Ph.D.

Knowing nothing of prehistoric art (the major discoveries were to occur after his death), Hegel assumed that art began in the high civilizations of the ancient Middle East, especially Egypt. Thus there was an era b e f o r e art, for prehistory was preart. Why not then posit an era a f t e r art? As we shall see, this triadic sequence (absence, flowering, absence) has furnished a template for our own time.

In 1984 the American philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto had a kind of epiphany. After seeing Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes at the Stable Gallery in New York, he produced an essay “The End of Art.” Seemingly, Warhol had shown that there was no difference between art objects and objects of daily use. When the artist transported the boxes into a gallery, they became art. At the same time such acts abolished art. Danto’s reasoning was indebted to Hegel. With Warhol art had become philosophical, yet in so doing it had ceased to be art. A few years later he qualified this claim by suggesting that we have entered an era of “deep pluralism.” Art, by ceasing to move in a discernible direction, had lost an essential feature of being art. Despite the implicit qualification Danto was unwilling to abandon his conceit that art had ended in 1984. This is true, even though objects are appearing that look very much like art. Appearances, it seems, can be deceiving.

Almost a century ago, Virginia Woolf, impressed by Roger Fry’s great impressionist show, posited that in 1910 "human character" had fundamentally changed. Still, most people looked and thought much the same. One is reminded of the sosia delusion, a rare mental disorder in which the victim concludes that those near and dear to him have been spirited away and replaced by imposters, who mimic the behavior of those they have displaced.

In 1983 Danto’s friend the German art historian Hans Belting published an essay "Ende der Kunstgeschichte?" Although his manner was less categorical than Danto's, Belting suggested that the collapse of traditional methods of conceiving of art history also said something about the dissolution of art as it had been known.

Trained as a medievalist, Belting advanced another thesis in his book Presence and Likeness (1990). He held that prior to the fifteenth century there had been no art. Any aesthetic qualities that might be discerned in the art-like icons produced before that time were subsumed in the category of the devotional. Art came into existence only when the devotional emphasis yielded to an aesthetic one.

Combining their assertions, we have the Belting-Danto thesis. Art as we know it is a relatively transient convention of Euro-American civilization. It began towards the end of the fifteenth century and concluded in 1984, or thereabouts. Art is not a human universal, but a contingent phenomenon that is socially constructed.

These ideas of beginnings—and consequently of possible conclusions—have been something of a French specialty. A good many years ago, Denis de Rougement posited that romantic love first appeared in the 12th century with the poetry of the troubadours. After a long run, the new convention of “hooking up” among college students may indicate the reign of romantic love is over. Philippe Ariès held that the concept of childhood had begun only in the early modern period (the 16th-17th century. More recently, Michel Foucault held that homosexuality started only in 1869 (when the term was coined). Before that, there were same-sex acts, but no homosexuality. Some queer theorists hold that homosexuality is over now; instead there is a more flexible field in which individuals are free to be sexual, but not homo-, hetero- or bi.

Is there any advantage in continuing to hold that art is finished? The perception may signify that, for the moment, art has become somewhat stale and unexciting. But why should this condition (even if it is correctly described) last? As Pliny the Elder suggested art may make a comeback. In fact it almost certainly will.