Art's hardness doesn't get discussed often enough. Too many of us assume that art, especially high art, is good for everyone who lives close to it, the closer the better. Granted, art enhances life in a way that is unique. Its satisfaction is immediate, complete, and final. Once art is received as art, one need not go further in order to enjoy it, one need not know its historical or social circumstances. This autonomy, as Clement Greenberg so rightly calls it, comes from art's ability to convey satisfaction independently of life as lived, to set the sorrows and joys of life aside, fixing the beholder's attention only upon itself, its goodness as art. Art suggests eternity because it provides these satisfactions year after year, century after century. Few experiences compare in this regard.
Yet art does not exist to be "good for" anything. It does not serve any need outside itself; it does not care whether any of us "get" or "appreciate" it. If humanity finds that getting art's point makes life more pleasurable, then humanity must develop its ability to do so. Art exerts no effort to make itself accessible. Its nature is to be good, nothing else.
Aesthetic goodness does not come easily. There is a price for being serious. Many who live close to art pay dearly, particularly artists. Art's indifference to humankind allows ample opportunity for the fool in each of us to act out its delusions. This is art's malice at work, an indifferent, preconscious malice which is more unkind than the active, premeditated variety; since premeditation usually places a limit on the extent of the unkindness. Art allows fools to go as far as they wish. Often, that is indeed a great distance. Nor does art intervene when their foolish acts injure our better artists. Such problems must be worked out in life, not art. Art uses artists, institutions, and whole societies. Not to make them better, but only to satisfy the appetite for its own goodness, with no consideration for those who suffer in order that it might thrive.
There is a paradox here. Humanity, cultivated humanity, anyway, professes to care so much about art, yet art has so little regard for us. Art does not give; it only takes. Art's selfishness is seldom acknowledged, but it is nonetheless unmitigated. When a great artist falls off, that is a problem for the artist, not art. Art simply moves on, finding someone else to serve its continued excellence. It does not give anything back to an artist in trouble, no matter what his or her past accomplishment might have been. Past accomplishment is past accomplishment. Every new day finds art ready to turn to whoever can serve it best, unfettered by obligations from its past.
When the fickle taste of fashionable cultural opinion turns its attention to yet another group of inferior artists, art does nothing to warn art lovers to stay away, nor does it caution the artists to critically evaluate their fame. On the contrary, it allows everyone to indulge themselves in the hoax for as long as they like. The inferior artists are soon collected by our finest and most prestigious museums, as our new "major" artists. They become the stars of the art press. Art's selfish indifference becomes ironical, since these imitation artists hardly deserve such recognition. Middle-brow collectors and critics fight with each other for the distinction of being recognized as the first to have accepted the new group, even though in truth they all accepted it at once, creating a widespread intimidated conformity of "advanced" opinion. Surprisingly, critics and intellectuals are the most eager to conform. They don't often question current dogma until the group as a whole questions it. Dealers, by and large, appear to be more adventurous and independent. They also demonstrate greater conviction. When hard looking is done, which isn't that often, it is done by dealers, not critics. Critics content themselves with constructing elaborate verbal structures which they attach to whatever art is selling in the showrooms. They leave it to the dealers, who must conform to the pressures of the marketplace if they are to stay in business, to evaluate current art. Why does art permit this circus? Unlike the ancient Hebrew God who set his people straight when they fell for the golden calf, art does not mind if we worship false idols. To clarify the mess would be too fair, too understandable, too loving - art is not subject to any of these values.
The noise and clatter raised by each successive group of "great artists" as they enter the marketplace might amuse art, just as children amuse parents when they make their clumsy imitations of adults. But more importantly, they serve art, just as opposition to high art has served art for the past hundred years. High artists seem to do their best - during our time, anyway - when they are denied center stage. The highest sensibilities stay high when they persevere on the edge of respectability, largely ignored by an art opinion which chases fad after fad, whether the fad be the Academy of the 1870's, the social realists of the 1940's, or the postmodernists of the 1980's. High art is made under this hardship now. The commercial success of these groups has been a function of economic factors which have nothing to do with art and its obsession with goodness. Art has no interest in the economy, despite its impact on the lives and reputations of artists. Imitation artists flourish because their work can be marketed effectively. Why should art care about that? Art makes certain that high art exists; that is all. It is up to the culture, on its own, to learn how to recognize and value it.
On the other hand, these would-be-artists are like dilettantes in that they do not recognize art's selfishness. They seem to be always waiting for art to give them something, to make them feel better, to unlock the riddles of life, to help them "express" themselves. The more grandiose among them extend their personal demands to include those of entire social groups, and attempt to bring art into service against war, racial prejudice, sexually based injustice, pollution, and other evils. Art, they insist, must involve itself in human affairs. Postmodern "art" is especially bent on invading life. If the postmodernists can't solve the problems of life, they nonetheless attempt to illuminate them, expose them, "say" something about them. They have confused content with value, which Darby Bannard demonstrated in his essay, "On Content." The price they are paying for this mistake is the quality of their art.
Many of them will reply that quality is something they deliberately avoid, that it would get in the way of their "message," that the renunciation of aesthetic goodness is the next "great step" in the progress of art. This avant-gardist rationalization protects them from the self-examination and self-abandonment that is essential to making high art. Their attempts to think ahead of art, to guess where it is going, and to get there first, serve only their own arrogance. They are dated radicals, like the imitators of Elvis Presley. While they certainly are offensive, they don't scare anybody, like the real Elvis and the real radical artists did. Those who don't like their work sense no threat in it. It has no power. It is kitsch taken to a pseudo-high level. Truly radical art confronts the taste of the tasteless. Theirs has reinforced it.
Art doesn't notice self-expression and rationalizations, no matter how clever or sophisticated. Nor is it interested in the problems which truly interfere with our lives, or the political groups which organize around these rallying points. Giacometti said that were a building containing a live cat and a Rembrandt to catch fire, he would save the cat before the picture. His statement not only asserts that life is of a higher order than art, it also warns us not to expect art to save the cat. Life must save the cat. It might seem that art, because of its purity and goodness, ought to be able to bring these qualities to bear on the problems of life. But that isn't so. Art has a very poor record for solving social problems. Politics, for all its scandal and disregard for truth, has been far more efficacious. Aesthetic value has no relationship to social value. If art were to accept political and moral imperatives, it would be required to sometimes sacrifice the aesthetic good in favor of human good, which would violate its nature.
To deliberately choose a volatile example: even though many artists have been and are women, art does not care that very little great art can be attributed to women. Mary Cassatt wasn't as good as Degas, or Renoir, or Monet, or Manet. Georgia O'Keeffe did not keep up with the best artists of her time. Art acknowledges that these two women were good, but it does not hide that they were not good enough to be counted among the best. It makes no excuse for their shortcomings. Instead, it looks elsewhere for the highest achievement. Art does not apportion achievement in accordance with affirmative action quotas, nor does it respond to picket lines and political pressure. It sees to it that the aesthetic exists at the highest level somewhere in the culture. Nothing more. Nothing else counts; nothing else is considered. High quality is restricted and exclusive, not democratic or fair. Art does not contribute to programs for the underprivileged. If the reason a certain artist can not realize his or her potential casts shame on society, then it is up to society to correct itself. Life, not art, must come to the rescue. Art lacks conscience and caring. It sloughs off under-achievers without any regard for why they didn't measure up.
If art enriches life, it does so as a time-out from the daily affairs of humanity. It is not a causal agent involved in changing, directing, or explaining life, even when its "content" includes the dark parts of living, the parts that ought to be changed, the parts which cry out to be explained. Whenever life, as it is used in art, succeeds in diverting the viewer's attention away from art, aesthetic distance breaks down, and the art becomes inaccessible.
On the other hand, as far as the aesthetic goes, any process which contributes to art's single pursuit is fair enough, even when it violates life as lived, as long as the violation does not interfere with the excellence of the art. Art can be good when the life that constitutes its subject is revolting. Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus, for instance, is a beautiful picture despite its celebration of the killing of a woman. If the "immorality" of the scene offends an individual viewer, drawing him or her into the picture as life, rather than as art, then the picture no longer works aesthetically for that viewer. For art, though, it remains a great picture.
Life also invades the experience of art from the opposite direction, with a similar but more confusing result. Many of the admirers of Leon Golub's war crimes pictures like them because they "agree" with the way in which they depict acts of war and those who perpetrate them. While "agreement" does not necessarily destroy aesthetic distance, it can easily become a substitute for the aesthetic, if the viewer does not look hard enough. In the case of Golub, the real thing, or something very close to it, is there to be seen in many of the large works, regardless of whether one likes or dislikes war. His small portraits of generals, however, are not satisfying as art. Many people like them anyway because they like their "statement." They are thought to be beyond aesthetic devaluation because their moral position is beyond criticism. To deny the aesthetic value of such art causes uncomfortable guilt feelings in many people. The success of Judy Chicago's Dinner Party demonstrated just how far this phenomenon can be taken, when the appeal of a certain moral stance is widespread and intense.
Thus life invades the experience of art. It does not invade art itself. Art does not honor any attempt to use life as a shield from a negative aesthetic judgment, anymore than it honors moral outrage as a reason to deny a positive one. "Morality" in art is nothing more than keeping its quality up. Being aesthetically good is as close as art ever comes to being moral. Nothing in life can manipulate art because it exists outside the rules of life. The callosity can not be penetrated. Art's goodness is for itself. It is not "for" anything else, no matter how desirable or needed.
Art is above all not for the self-gratification of the artist. The most difficult obstacle serious artists must overcome is the ego, especially that part which takes their individual quirks seriously, the part that celebrates the self and whatever it happens to be doing, without evaluating the result. Having the attention of art means they must confront art's requirement that they give up everything which holds their work back, in order to get better. Art is not interested in individuals and whether they like themselves. It annihilates ego in order to get more from them, to get more for itself. High artists must subjugate themselves to the tradition in which they work; they must confront their aesthetic shortcomings every day; they must recognize just how far they are from the real thing, the best their tradition has produced. This process tests every nerve of the artist's sensibility; it embarrasses and humiliates; it disturbs and frustrates. When art finds that pressure on artists keeps the quality of their work up, it encourages anxiety, to soften the defenses of the ego, to keep it tender and sore, so that the artist can't evade the demands of art, which are extreme when the level to be achieved is high. When an artist is prepared to do anything which would make his or her work better, undergo any hardship or humiliation, when he or she is totally defenseless before the demands of high art, then he or she can be truly serious. Great artists do not "express" themselves. They do not try to out-think, one-up, or out-guess art. Such arrogance is the way of mediocrity. They serve art, pure and simple, or they fall off.
It happens that, by not caring, by being so hard on artists and their audience, art provides a unique satisfaction to those who are open to it and know how to recognize it, one which pushes life aside in a way that helps to make the unbearable in life bearable. It happens that, once its quality is renewed, art grants these privileged few the opportunity to transcend the unfairness of life and the unfairness of art. It happens that, by setting aside their egos, great artists share in a higher sense of self, a self subjugated to intense discipline and pressure, but free nonetheless, free to be truly good, free to make a difference that will last.
But art's only finality is as art. This finality does not apply to life, or its effect on life, not even in the sense of the "goods" I just described, which are of but minor consequence. Though they come from great art, they are several of its accidents, and not part of its substance. All that matters is that art be beautiful.
Presented March, 1985 to the public at St. Lawrence University
Presented May, 1985 to Music honor students, Western Michigan University
Published in Arts Magazine, November, 1985
Published here thanks to the kind permission of its author
Posted June 29, 2002
© John Link, 1985-2002