Art and Aesthetics: on the artist and history

The following text is from the book Art and Aesthetics, which I wrote in my early graduate student days (mainly in Heidelberg and Paris), but which will be published in France by Lux Classic on February 5. This and the next installment will feature a few excerpts from that book.


A segment of Vienna's Ringstrasse

Let me recall [Austria’s] fin-de-siècle architects Camillo Sitte and Otto Wagner[…] I find the aesthetic struggle that took place between these two gentlemen genuinely fascinating. Camillo Sitte was the historian who desired deliberate copying of past home-grown styles, even when those styles had themselves been involuntary, the results of necessity more than aesthetic taste. He desired to rid the city of its impersonal distance to the man on the street that overly grand monuments and too broad, open spaces might cause. He therefore disapproved of the grand Ringstrasse, gravitational center of Vienna, constructed around his time with Neo-classical, Gothic, and Baroque architecture of the most spectacular sort. Although these architectural modes did of course come from previous times, they were used to emphasize a monumentality which was to be found in the spirit of the present, and which Sitte rejected. Otto Wagner, on the other hand, wished to develop a unique voice of the mechanized age, having industrial iron and glass being given their proper roles in his architecture. Therefore he, too, scoffed at the Ringstrasse. That was the one thing these two men had in common. However, their dislike for Vienna’s cultural and political center came from very different points of view – the one from the past, the other from the present, the true industrial present – and as such provides me with quite appropriate material[…]

Detail of a villa façade by Otto Wagner

Otto Wagner’s aesthetic philosophy quite naturally caused him to join the Austrian Secessionist movement, the members of which sought to give their age its own art, its own voice, free from past shackles. In developing his modern urbanism, he rebelled against history in order to let his own age breathe its free air. And this is something that is lacking today.

A railway station pavilion by Otto Wagner

One of the banes of our age is that we have no style of art that signifies it. The rather bombastic idea that art is whatever the artist deems it to be bears not only the flaw that I exposed in Statements [New York 1999] (I, 1, namely, that one must first answer the question “Who is the artist?”, which has not been done; my stance in that work needs correction only by pointing out that the very question “What is art?” is futile and sophomoric: rather, does this work, whether you call it art or not, enrich you as an individual, or does it not – that is the only question, a more private question, worth posing in this regard). This popular notion that art is whatever the artist deems it to be also carries with it the weakness of rendering more difficult the development of any trace of a unified movement of art, and thus, of a “culture” of art. As curious as certain works may seem, there is no style or governing pattern in the vulgar displays of pretentious quotes suspended over the streets of New York’s Chelsea district, or in Britart’s tossing of dead sharks into tanks, or in the self-advertising students of Paris’ École des Beaux Arts who take photographs of the grit in the street. These are just random acts in the space of time. There is no ruling motto. But that, in itself, is the style of the age? – Hardly, since any one pseudo-artist is completely divorced from the next. There is no artistic endeavor in our time that may properly be said to be a reflection of our time, unless it be the notion that skill and innovation have no relation to success, which, if true, would be a paltry assessment indeed of our age. There is no movement. Indeed, if anyone will be reading these words a hundred years from now (I flatter myself), he will say – if one does not say so already: “Ah, yes, he mentions the Austrian Secessionist movement, I know their work well. But what is this Britart and this Parisian street-grit of which he talks?”

Church of the Immaculate Conception, by Camillo Sitte, in Prívoz, Czech Republic

The “Freiheit” that is called for in the secessionists’ outcry is not the type of mock freedom that is touted by the drones in Chelsea or in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. These would have it, apparently, that any artistic movement is what shackles – how can we be free if we live under a “movement”? But that is not what I mean. No great artist of any artistic movement deliberately created his work so that it might coexist with a particular set of pre-established ideals (except, possibly, medieval Christians, but that would be pushing the definition of “great artist” in any case). The reason we see movements in history is because the genius of an artist would create things that ultimately was seen to be a comment of its time – not a direct, benevolent product of it, but a reaction to it. If a work is completely divorced from that, then it is truly just a random act in the space of time. And this is our current state of affairs. All this is the one side of that spectrum which illustrates our inability to produce beautiful things.

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death, 1991

To locate the other side of the spectrum, I shall return again, briefly, to France. Wherever one walks in [Paris], one sees one monument more breathtaking than the next, things so astonishing that one starts to wonder why one should bother creating anything new at all[…] The French have not forgotten – which means they cannot look forward – and how could they forget when, in Paris at least, they are surrounded by such indomitable beauty, the awesomeness of which has rendered them passive and immobile? […] One of the reasons why the Germans nowadays are indeed far more culturally active than the French is that they have been forced to look ahead: their history is little but one tragic disaster after the next, and so they have no incentive to look back (they must not forget their crimes, of course, but that is another matter). Although the drones in the Berlin Mitte and so on deserve little of our attention, there can be no doubt that Germany is today the most cultured land in Europe precisely, in very large part, because they have nowhere to look for solace and potential except in the present and future. It is a nation born anew less than two decades ago, having everything to gain and nothing to lose. It is true that the greatest human achievements usually occur where one also finds the worst, and hence Germany has become fertile ground[…] And it is no coincidence that these two extremes can occur under the banner of one people – it would almost be strange, unhistorical, if you will, if things were otherwise[…]

For those of us who truly love and adore the past, we must learn to reject it in some measure[…] for otherwise we know that it will have existed in vain, and we cannot bear to assign the beloved past to such a cruel fate. This is why our love of the past is in fact truer than that of the academic who spends his entire time occupied with it. The past is like an old master whom we much admired as students, but who must ultimately recede to the lower parts of our consciousness if we wish to become masters ourselves. We must therefore learn to walk between the two extremes of our current aesthetic problem, and hence to conduct our promenade above it. This is not very easy. The one extreme is too full of blind affection, and the other of belligerent hatred[…]

In addition to distancing oneself in this way from the past, one must also learn to keep aloof of oneself. The past is, in fact, the reason why we find also this task so difficult. We who are students have become so ingrained with the minds of those who have preceded us, of those to whom we owe our existence as students, that we have become much too aware of ourselves. When the endless lines of genius are constantly flickering before our weary eyes, how is it not inevitable that those lines ultimately break in upon us and humble us? The more intelligent of my generation (I know them well, for they are few) are constantly occupied with casually commenting on the work of someone whose very smallest achievement they can scarcely hope to equal. But this is but a false shield, a defense mechanism that enables them to avoid, for a time, the inevitable question: “What about me?” Those who succeed in putting off that question in infinitum inevitably become academic drones and journal-mongers – people who to such a great extent isolate their own selves from the conception of the highest that they have forgotten that such a thing is still possible – but as for the rest, as for the aspiring artists and thinkers, that question will at some point come to the fore. And that is the point at which they rebel against the past in too violent a way (for an excessive and gratuitous amount of violence, at least initially, is almost always the result when someone attempts to free himself from any influence) – that is the point at which they become so obsessed with establishing their own personas, that they forget to be aloof of themselves. They become more obsessed with their own projected persons than with their craft and thereby cease to be their original selves… One [example] whose name is not fit to be mentioned in this text, but which I suppose I should mention only to avoid charges of copyright infringement, namely Dorothy Iannone, some of whose work I had the misfortune of coming across in the Tate Modern in London, had written as part of the exhibit: “There are other forms of censorship besides confiscation. To ignore a work is a subtle and very effective form of censorship.” Obviously, this poor woman has felt herself ignored, and likes to interpret that as being part of the same violent fate that true artists in the past have suffered. (Of course, my dear Dorothy, when I have no interest in your art, when I take a look at it and dislike it and thus pay no further attention to it, I am actually perpetrating the same horrible crime that fanatical Christians committed when they defaced or removed the beautiful pagan monuments at Delphi, that the Nazis committed when they confiscated and burned Heine’s poetry and Mann’s novels.)

The book being published on February 5, 2016

Otto Wagner[…] used, as I have said, modern materials for his creations, and modern also in the sense that they aimed to be as useful as possible to human beings. The phrase by Quintilian[…] Numquam vero species ab utilitate dividitur [“Nowhere are appearances separated from usefulness”, Institutes of Oratory, Book 8], leads directly to my preference for Otto Wagner, because his modern ways were useful ways, and something that is useful for man does inherently make it more beautiful – because man is after all in the center. And so it is indeed that architecture is the only art form that is still alive and well today – one shortcoming of the Greeks is that they did not abstractly quite recognize the greatness of architecture, even though they excelled in it. It depends upon technology more than does any other art, and must also by necessity have at least some usefulness to regular human beings by producing places of habitation or work – otherwise it becomes not architecture, but sculpture – and this allows the practitioners of architecture, for the most part, not to be carried away by overly foolish ideas, but rather, while remembering the past, to stay focused on the virtues of the present and on the practical craft, a state of mind for which other artists would also do well to strive. By having to look at what is actually going to work in the real world, and rejecting that which would not, an architect is less seduced by the fashionable pseudo-philosophies and postmodern ideas that haunt other media. Architecture is thus the art form least prone to the cultural prejudices and depravities of any given era, and therefore the only art form that is almost always alive and well: as I peer through the ages, I marvel at select architectural feats of most eras. To Otto Wagner, and to any great architect, man is always in the center: it is an art for all human beings, as opposed to the isolated playgrounds by and for rich people that one finds at venues like Art Basel, groupthink islands where those who think they are challenging in fact only reinforce each other in their petty ideologies.

© 2006 by Benedict Beckeld

© 2016 by Lux Classic