Saturday, May 21, 2011

But is it art?

In the last post I addressed the shortcomings of Bodmer's literary efforts, which were widely considered by his contemporaries to be little more than moral tracts. These works were written in the 1740s, after his large critical treatises, and indicate the transitional position Bodmer occupies. From Plato onward, there were many critics who were uncomfortable with the power of art to affect the imagination, and thus poets themselves were often quick to point out that instruction went down better when it was dressed up with pleasing language, imagery, characters, and so on: docere yes, but don't forget movere. Bodmer's contemporary Salomon Gessner also presented exemplary portraits of humanity in his idylls, but they were widely popular, even up into the 19th century, as indicated by translations.

But I continue to think about this question of what constitutes art, and I continue to incline toward the importance of playfulness (of which there is plenty in Gessner's idylls, by the way). Thus, I was struck by something I read in a recent (April 15, 2011) Times Literary Supplement "Commentary" on the 100th anniversary of the birth of the novelist Sibylle Bedford. I had heard Bedford's name, but have not read any of her novels. In the "Commentary" by Caroline Moorhead, Bedford is quoted as saying the following: "There does exist ... an absolute standard of artistic merit. And it is a standard which is in the last resort a moral one. Whether a work of art is good or bad depends entirely on the quality of the character which expresses itself in the work. ... That virtues is the virtue of integrity, of honesty towards oneself."

With this in mind, how is one supposed to react to new works on view at the Metropolitan Museum? The Met has gone out to produce a truly glamorous exhibition (Savage Beauty is the title) of some of the exotic creations of fashion designer Alexander McQueen. The lines are as long as might be imaged for such a blockbuster. One of the first works you encounter on entering is the dress at the top of this post, made of thousands of razor clam shells. It is really gorgeous and, yet, I can't see any moral purpose that it serves. Well, McQueen didn't call himself an artist, but the exhibition is supported by the Museum's textiles department.

The English sculptor Anthony Caro produces "public art." I like public art, especially when it is playful. I don't know what to make of the works on the roof garden at the Met. There is certainly a lot of craft here, which is, for me, an important criterion, but the works leave me cold. They leave little to the imagination. McQueen, in contrast, works better because of the employment of the flourishes. I can't say that his creations "move" me, but there is an element of delectation (delectare).

Neither McQueen nor Caro has made works that are useful or even instructional, and I suspect that is an aspect that underlies the work of many successful contemporary artists.

Picture credit: Walking Off the Big Apple

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tolstoy, had he lived that long, would have detested Joyce's "Ulysses," which was all the rage for moralists on the left (Thomas Merton) and on the right (T.S. Eliot). Of course, the great Russian novelist did not trust Shakespeare as a teacher of men--and probably for good reason. Tolstoy renounced his own masterpieces of the 60's and early seventies, if I'm not mistaken (War and Peace and Anna Karenina). I must say there is something in Shakespeare that resists "teaching" in the sense of "instruction." But maybe Tolstoy just did not appreciate the fact that when someone dies in a Shakespearean tragedy, there is a REASON for it. This weekend I read Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace." I had to dig down very deep indeed to find some redeeming value in it; the redeeming value, for me, turned out to be the brilliant writing itself. And perhaps a very indirect "teaching" about grace versus "earning it." And then there's our Faulkner. For some, his nihilism is right up there with the best of them (Sartre liked "The Sound and the Fury"). Cleanth Brooks finds no trace of Christian grace in the early to mid Faulkner; the later one seems to respond to all this criticism in, e.g., I'm told, "The Rievers."