The Use and Abuse of Art. Jacques Barzun.

Barzun, Jacques. The Use and Abuse of Art. A W Mellon Lectures, Princeton Press 1974. NF; 3/22.

I can’t avoid mixed feelings about contemporary (modern, post-modern or whatever we call it) art (painting but also music, poetry, dance, theatre etc) as we found it in the late 20th century.  A couple of experiences stick in my mind. One was in university in 1968, walking through an artistic installation consisting of a small furnished room in which everything was wrapped in cellophane. The second was more recently in the “contemporary” section of the Chicago Art Institute, looking into an artistic installation which was a room full of haphazard junk: pieces of plywood and plastic of various sizes distributed as if someone had just thrown them in and walked away (see photo below). This last after seeing in the rest of the museum paintings by everyone from Michelangelo to Monet. I don’t think I’m alone in wondering what happened to creativity in the 20th century.

Barzun explains his understanding of this in this 1974 lecture series. He was a well-respected culture historian for almost 5 decades at Columbia University who died in 2012 at the age of 104. Although by any measure an intellectual he was quite anti-intellectual in some of his writing. Here in 1974 he’s not shy to tell the world that contemporary art (not just graphic) is both destroyed and destructive. He says everything of any value around in the mid-1970s originated in ideas and aesthetics that existed before 1914, and that somehow since then we have lost our way. He’s convinced that what has to happen is the “creation of a new art and culture (which) will depend on the appearance of a new man.” (or woman, we would say today). I’m not sure whether that epiphany has even started yet.

Inside this story of how art developed and then collapsed into what it looked like in 1974 is for me a problem of perspective blindness. I seem to keep concluding that it’s close to impossible to have a full understanding of people and events at some time in the past, when we use the standards that we believe in our current wisdom are universally true and reasonable. I think it’s very hard to properly put yourself in the middle of the opinions, economy, prevailing attitudes, and so on and what everything looked smelled and felt like way back in the past. That past world is often nothing like the one we live in now and people in it usually had different information, different priorities and a completely different understanding of their future than we who are privileged to see it having played out. I imagine this is one reason we and artists in our ideology overreact to what we see as mistaken belief or behaviour in the past. I seem to feel that this is especially so recently, tied up with the divisive worldviews that have developed.

Dr. Barzun instantiates this in discussing art and religion. He says ecstatic experience in the imagination of a different world than the one we normally see in front of us changed, approximately with the Enlightenment, from literal belief in religious things to what it feels like to contemplate great art. “Art, then, is the gateway to the realm of spirit for all those over whom the old religions have lost their hold.” Northrop Frye in the 1960s was saying more or less the same thing:

…the imaginative world and the world around us are different worlds, and… the imaginative world is more important… this ideal world that our imaginations develop inside us looks like a dream that came out of nowhere, and has no reality except what we put into it. But it isn’t. It’s the real world, the real form of human society hidden behind the one we see.

Barzun calls the moral basis of art “the repudiation of utility”. Presumably in favour of different priorities than those we are all forced to observe in daily life. But through and after the “turn-of-the-century” time from 1890 to 1914 the educated world seemed to start thinking about that alternative to utility in a different way. He says, “…nature—the world—had lost its hold on the imagination. It had been fully exploited by four generations of great artists; and what is worse, it had been taken over by science and reduced to meaninglessness.” Science, which to many looked to be a possible ultimate authority, replaced Newton’s practical universe with Einstein’s theoretical one.

…in every variety of non-objective art, we recognize the movement of mind that took science from the lever and the lump of quartz to the particles, waves, orbits, and magnetic fields that are inferred and not seen.

I also think the 20th century’s terrible wars made finding artistic joy in the world and nature much less sensible. How could the world around us be beautiful when it contained what happened to 40 million military and civilian people in World War I? Artistic cathexis turned negatively ideological: disillusioned, disgusted, and ironically ugly. Political, not beautiful anymore.

Artists, in order to be themselves, came to speak their own invented idioms, less and less widely understood, and were finally driven to make a more general appeal through the expedients we looked at before—minimal art, junk, jokes, and the free access afforded by giving up intention altogether.

Chicago Art Institute 2013

Artists focusing on ideology according to Barzun lost in the 20th century the specific effectiveness of the objects of their work, contemplation of which had for so long prompted real transcendent or ecstatic experience. Focused on denouncing society and life, 20th century music, painting, dance, and even writing has (or had) turned toward jokes and bitter irony and away from what Barzun says is arts’ purpose: “to enhance life … to increase hope and self-confidence, to reduce fear and self-doubt, not the reverse”.

I’m nowhere near enough of a connoisseur to be able to gauge whether there has been anything like progress since Barzun’s 1970s lectures. Have we found or have we become his “new” people where art is concerned? I’m guessing in some ways maybe yes. I sense a persisting and even renewed appreciation of pre-20th-century classics. Contemporary classical music isn’t as atonal as it was in the 60s and 70s. Ashbery and many less-known poets without resorting to rhyme and tight rhythm are experimental in a less wildly formal way. The kind of installation that bewildered me in Chicago would I think be considered passé today. But in other ways things are even worse, and Lionel Trilling’s warning that “unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like” has come true. A lot of new fiction, original music, and theatre feels heavily political to me.

And I can’t escape worrying that we are locked in a kind of destructive self-criticism and attempted revision that ignores how very different the world was in past decades and centuries, and how increasingly hard it is to see others’ point of view.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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