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modern artA friend of mine, staying in Paris with his wife, booked into the same room in the Regent Hotel in which they had stayed two years ago in order to enjoy the beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower that it afforded. Upon setting foot in the room and looking out of the window they were shocked to see the view of the Tower obscured by the giant Ferris Wheel that now dominated the Parisien skyline. My friend, being pensively inclined, wondered whether the decay and decline of French culture could be seen symbolically in the transition from the scholastic piety of Notre Dame Cathedral via the secularist pomp of the Eiffel Tower to the superficial preposterousness of the Ferris Wheel. He further mused upon the meaning of modern art and the attitude that tradition-oriented folk should have towards it. What, for instance, was the rationale behind G.K. Chesterton’s disdain for impressionism? Also, taking the example of T. S. Eliot, why was his poetry considered bizarrely modernistic initially but is now considered part of the western canon? Was there legitimate innovation which conservatives should not constitutionally oppose and how is this distinguished from so much modern silliness?

These excellent questions set me off on my own musings on this intriguing topic.

Chesterton saw impressionism as a manifestation of relativism because of its literal abandonment of definition. Following the romanticism that preceded it, the impressionists placed subjective feeling and emotion above reason and virtue, laying the foundations of the radical relativism which followed in romanticism’s and impressionism’s wake. This was refllected in the way in which the impressionists’ blurring of definition led to the abstract expressionists’ obliteration of anything definite, replacing the concrete and the real with the merely abstract. Other forms of reductionism led inexorably towards the reductio ad absurdum of ultimate meaninglessness, such as the surrealism which had its vogue in the twentieth century, much as impressionism had been à la mode in the nineteenth. Surrrealism supplanted the realism of an awakened perception with the imperceptibility inherent in the delirium of dreams.

Although I think Chesterton is right in his exposé of the philosophically flawed foundation of impressionism and the disastrous ramifications that its errors wrought, I must confess to having several Monet prints on the walls of our home! In displaying these images I am hardly likely to be seen as a dangerous radical but, on the contrary, may be accused of being somewhat safe, unadventurous and even unimaginative (perish the thought!). The fact is that impressionism was once considered daring and radical but is now the height of conservative respectability.

Impressions d’AfriqueI would also confess that I have Salvador Dali’s Impressions d’Afrique on the wall above the desk in my office, in which the self-portrait of the arch-surrealist stares at me in eternal perplexity from behind his canvas. Does this make me any more daring, redeeming me for the reprehensibly timid choice of Monet’s landscapes for the living room downstairs? Not really. Surrealism is now as safe and conventional as impressionism. How many avowedly conservative Christians have Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross hanging piously in their homes? The joke is that the avant garde soon becomes bourgeois and acceptable. Sassoon wrote a wonderful satirical poem about Stravinsky’s Sacre de Printemps to illustrate how it had caused a riot at its premiere but was thoroughly bourgeois within a few short years.

Eliot is another case in point. Considered an enfant terrible following the publication of Prufrock and The Waste Land, he was lauded by the nihilistic avant garde as an iconoclast and was demonized by the poetic old guard for what they perceived (erroneously) as his flagrant disregard for tradition. Today, almost a century later, he is demonized by the nihilistic avant garde for his retrogressive Catholicism, classicism and royalism, and lauded by traditionalists for these very same qualities!

What I find most ironic is that abstract expressionism, which was once the epitome of punkish artistic non-conformity, is now ubiquitous as kitsch in hotel rooms. It is now utterly conventional and en vogue because its non-figurative colours are considered completely safe and inoffensive!

As to whether tradition-oriented folk can be comfortable embracing new ideas in art, it depends on how traditional the novelty actually is. This seemingly contradictory connection between innovation and tradition is the paradox at the very heart of art itself. Most people doing so-called new things in art have borrowed enormously from the past. The neo-classicists were “new” because they borrowed from classical Greece and Rome; the neo-mediaevalists were “new” because they scandalized the Enlightenment by borrowing from the Middle Ages. Hopkins was avant garde because he resurrected Gaelic and Old English verse rhythms and scholastic philosophy. Eliot was avant garde because he rejected modernity in modernity’s own language while peppering it with spices harvested from the canon of western civilization. The question is not whether something is traditional or avant garde, not least because the traditional is always avant garde in the same way that Christ is always radical; the question is whether something is good (virtuous in inspiration and expression), true (conforming with right reason, objectively understood) and beautiful (reflecting the order of Creation).

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10 replies to this post
  1. I disagree vigorously. Artistic traditionalists appreciate (a) moral inspiration; and (b) technical skill often, but not of necessity, redirected. Without both a work cannot be good art for anyone who is traditional and artistic, whether we look at Durer or Donne, Eliot or Wyeth. The majority of inartistic traditionalists, chiefly dullards, hang “stuff” that looks familiar and even comfy. The two types differ according to how much capacity, education and imagination they are given by parents, teachers and God. Also, to mention tradition and the ‘avant garde’ in one sentence risks losing the distinction between message, mastery and ephemeral fashion.

    Parenthetically, how many 19th Century couples honeymooning in Paris found their views blocked by the new and execrable Eiffel Tower? I’m told it is now popular. With attractive lines, design and construction of (then) novel materials, I like to think I’d have also liked it when new.

  2. Good, true, and beautiful is the criteria, but what is good, true, and beautiful is often hard to appraise. Whenever this question comes up I’m reminded of St. Francis of Assisi who considered the disfigurement from leprosy to be beautiful. Or Grunwald’s gruesome depiction of Christ’s death on the cross. Or the brutal scenes of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” There is an argument that might be made that none of those are beautiful, and I would disagree.

  3. “Chesterton saw impressionism as a manifestation of relativism because of its literal abandonment of definition.”

    This is simply absurd and Chesterton should be embarrassed. This is like scolding an orange for being relativistic, referencing the objective standards as applied to apples. Chesterton is not just clueless here, he is causing great harm.

    Impressionism is every bit as objective as what preceded it. In fact, in many respects it is more true to life: it ventured outdoors, partly because of technology (tubed paints, easels), but also partly in search of greater reality by depicting true scenes of real life, not posed scenes of the life of nobility. Does Chesterton really think that academic painting with its “lets pretend” poses is somehow reflective of “reality”? Why is capturing movement of dancers (who are actually dancing) seen as relativistic? While capturing a noble in a costume seen as being objective?

    With regards to the blurring of the lines, the subject matter of Impressionism is often the play of light. (This is pretty basic art history, by the way). That is why Monet and others would paint the same scene at different times of day…so they could see the subtlety of light, changing colors, moving shadows and so on. In other words, they were making heroic efforts to capture an aspect of reality that had gone previously unnoticed…and it had gone previously unnoticed partly because of (again) technology, but also partly because of a failure of imagination, and a failure to see the whole of reality. They were simply revealing a greater reality than what came before. Obviously they were especially interested in an aspect of reality (light and color) and to that extent they perhaps exaggerated what they were interested in. But this is what art has always done. That is why Michelangelo’s David has hands which are not “objectively real”: they are larger than reality…they are somewhat exaggerated for effect and for the overall impression of the work.

    With regards to “replacing the concrete and the real with the merely abstract,” which is probably what Chesterton would have said about abstract expressionism, again, his critique is completely misguided. Kandinsky wrote a nice little treatise about this (Concerning the Spiritual in Art) at the early part of the 20th century. Suffice it to say that he was trying to uncover spiritual realities and had an elaborate and concrete method for doing so. One of the reasons he was trying to uncover spiritual realities is because in his day, what passed for concrete objective reality was a pack of lies (Paul talks about this in Ephesians 6. The TRUE reality is spiritual warfare. That which we do not easily see with our eyes. Was Paul also a great “relativist” by trying to uncover and expose deep truths that lie below the surface?). As the world was about to plunge into World War I, in retrospect clearly Kandinsky and others were on to something. The seemingly “objective” world was not true at all. But truth is not dead…by its very nature it cannot die, so they went in search of it and Kandinsky at least thought he found a path to it. Perhaps Kandinsky was not correct, but to say that he and others who followed him as abstract expressionists were relativists is nothing but propaganda. It is to condemn them for precisely what they were working against.

    The Chestertons of the world are they same people who put William Blake on trial for sedition, the same people who thought that he was “insane” because he saw what others either couldn’t or refused to. I think Malcolm Muggeridge’s appreciation of Blake is instructive here when he praised Blake as being the most sane and showing that it is the rest of us who are mired in falsehood: “People believe in money, for instance, but not in God, whereas money is a fantasy, but God is the living truth. When the disciples saw Jesus after the Resurrection, his presence was more real to them than it had been during his lifetime – so real that they founded a religion on it which has lasted for two thousand years. Similarly with Blake’s spiritual visitants….Mad? I should say sane to the point of sublimity.”

    Precisely so. Impressionism, relativists? We should say, no, objective to the point of sublimity….

  4. Is there “legitimate innovation which conservatives should not constitutionally oppose and how is this distinguished from so much modern silliness?”

    It is not to ring the bell backward
    Nor is it an incantation
    To summon the spectre of a Rose.
    We cannot revive old factions
    We cannot restore old policies
    Or follow an antique drum.

    Eliot, Little Gidding.

    With regards to whether one sides with Eliot…or with Chesterton, apparently Eliot said this: “Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas. I see no evidence that it thinks.”

  5. I believe we could eventually arrive at a satisfactory definition of excellence in art that would allow you your Monet, me my Rouault’s face of Christ, and admit T.S.Eliot’s forms if we spent the time with Aquinas. As far as literature goes, I am happy with Adler and Doren’s approach in How To Read a Book, which is consistent with St. Thomas and also with the rubrics of the best current essay sections of various exams. I have used Adler’s approach in my analysis of O’Connor’s Revelation, on my blog.

    So I think we need not suffer confusion on the matter of art if we begin to apply ourselves to the work. Another area that needs to be clarified, and it relates to the first, is the working definitions we have of modernism, of liberalism, and of conservatism, and when I say working definition I mean that we ought to begin to work with them in our critiques and commentary throughout the web.

    Archbishop Lefebvre (the missionary founder of SSPX whose brave voice was among the few fighting for Tradition at the Council) said that we must restore the use of philosophical terms in the struggle, and that they had been replaced by terms referring to nationality. “The Belgian bishops say” rather than “the liberal position taken by ______” and so forth. Modernism hid behind the skirts of nations at the Council. And now of course the same works for gender, or gender-bender, or whatever. Someone speaks for ‘women,’ for ‘Africa,’ for ‘Poland,’ not for literalism or conservatism. You know what I mean. We could and should try to reverse that.

    This particular website, btw, is not conservative, or so it seems to me, if we began to apply the classic definition for that term. It is, rather, liberal. That explains many of the contradictions they are so often decrying. But T.S. Eliot is a conservative in that true sense. I invite you to read his Culture and Christianity, which abhors secularism (as only Eliot can), whereas this site appears to worship secularism and religious liberty and capitalism (they along with our liberal bishops and our liberal pope).

  6. In his fabulous book “The Arts of the Beautiful” (as well as his earlier “Painting and Reality”), Etienne Gilson made the case for modernism in art. All artistic taste, he argued, is at once dogmatic and indefensible; truly, there is “no accounting for taste.” One of the things he saw as a great liberation in modern art was how it focused on Art qua Art — as opposed to Art qua Representation. A Mondrian or a Rothko, e.g., is purely and utterly “about” Form and Color — i.e., it is “painting about painting,” art which points to nothing further than itself. Walter Pater famously said that all art aspires to the condition of music; for music is absolutely formal, with no content. And that, I think, is what characterizes the pleasures of modernist art. Postmodern art, on the other hand, seems (to me anyway) to, under the guise of modernism, promote ideological and political agendas of various stripes; it claims to be about form, but is in fact all about content, all about Making A Statement. But, as per Wilde, art is only truly art to the extent that it approaches utter uselessness.

  7. “Walter Pater famously said that all art aspires to the condition of music; for music is absolutely formal, with no content.”

    I have to wonder about this statement. It seems to me that music can communicate sadness, anger, even rage, and tenderness. Isn’t this content?

    And I agree about modernism, promoting ideological content–and maybe it even does it through form, because as humans we seem incredibly capable of noting expression. We can differentiate hundreds of different facial expressions, even as infants, and I believe we can see expression in form–menacing squares as opposed to the feelings we get from forms that occur in nature more frequently. And so forth. Art is the spoonful that makes the modernist medicine go down.

    • What I mean by content in this case is “subject matter”, not emotions; various emotions will be aroused what ever the case, relative to subjective tastes. E.g., the “content” of Da Vinci’s Last Supper is the story/narrative and theology of the historical Last Supper, not that there’s anything wrong with that; but to consider the painting as “about” the actual Last Supper is to consider it not As Art but As Story or As Religious Instruction. Whereas if one were to conduct, say, an analysis of the linear perspective Da Vinci used to compose the painting, that would be considering it As Art — as something “made” by human thought, hands, and work, having nothing to do with the “story” of the Last Supper, but rather with the formal geometry upon which the composition is crafted.

      I didn’t say modernism promoted ideology; I said POST-modernism does. Modernist art had more to do with, as I said before, abstracting art into those purely “formal” arrangements, and absenting the problem of “content” altogether.

  8. I think a few of the comments come from those who have googled Chesterton, Eliot, and art – not from those who have actually read much of either author, or seen Chesterton’s own art/illustrations, or spent significant time studying the ever-changing monikers for art styles.

    • EXCELLENT POINT. I think you must be just about exactly right. I’d never even heard before of this sort of gaping “chasm” between Eliot and Chesterton. In any case, even if Eliot did say that Chesterton was some kind of scatter-brained lunatic — and I’d need to see a citation before I’d believe that — the rejoinder comes from (yes, I’ll mention him again) one who was more intimate with the history of philosophy than probably anyone else in the 20th century, Etienne Gilson, who said that Chesterton was “one of the deepest thinkers who ever lived.”

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