End of art?

Eduardo Berliner, Serrote, 2009.
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By FLÁVIO R. KOTHE*

Considerations on the nature and purpose of art

Never has art developed as much as it has since Hegel predicted his death. He needed her to introduce the necessity of the philosophy of art like Minerva's owl that takes flight in the twilight of events. In the name of what could one suppose an agony of art?

Perhaps from an idealized view of Hellenic culture, in which it was assumed that all people participated in artistic events. It is known today, however, that theatrical performances excluded slaves, women, young people, foreigners: they reached perhaps 5% of the population. There has never been an apogee of art. A carnival parade in Rio draws more people than Greek art: it wants to be flashy and beautiful, but it lacks artistic depth.

Heidegger endorsed Hegel's thesis without proving it. The two wanted to extract truths that validated philosophizing, as if art existed as a function of some philosophical current. When Kant defined the beautiful as purposeless, he failed to consider the uses of the aesthetic in society. It was convenient and conniving. He prioritized, in his table of categories, the purpose (to say that there was none) and left aside the origin, which was hidden in the figure of the genius, as if he lived alone and as if the power relations that propitiate or not the emergence and the circulation of a certain work were not relevant. Although Kant was revolutionary in opposing the use of art for religious, political or moralistic propaganda, he did not examine how art works in reality and how the conception of what art is has deep ideological marks.

When German idealism, with Solger and Hegel, proposed that the work of art should convey an idea, it was inventing a purpose for art: transposing ideas. Beauty does not have “one” purpose because it has several. Architecture is always done according to a program of needs, that is, it is always finalistic. In that sense, it would remain outside the arts, but in the systems of the arts it has always been present. As art, it stands out when it has something else, an idea, a symbology, which makes it more than a mere space built to meet needs. But right there is a hidden problem.

The most imposing works tend to be temples, palaces, fortresses and – in modern times – the headquarters of large companies, that is, apparatuses of power. Exactly because they are ideological, they are presented as “ideas”, as “works of art”, as “truths”. On the other hand, you don't have to be Catholic to admire the cathedral in Florence or the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or be Russian Orthodox to admire the beautiful church in Red Square. On the contrary, when you are a believer you admire the object of worship, not the work of art. You have to lose faith to gain art, admire the work for what it is and not for the fake it pretends to be.

A Kantian concept of beauty as “endless purpose” is translated into Portuguese, which leads one to think that there are infinite possible purposes for art, but the expression “Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck” rather means “fitness for purpose without having purpose”. Now, how is something structured as if it had functions to fulfill to end up having none? Architecture meets a program of needs and only from that it can be outlined as beautiful. What meets needs lasts as long as there is no more adequate and economical way to meet them. Talking about purposes ends up desacralizing art. As long as art has purposes, it will not end.

It is just beginning to emancipate itself from the servitude to castes of aristocrats and priests, bourgeois and oligarchies more or less well advised in promoting the arts. Only when they are no longer at the service of the aura that makes the power that is only local seem transcendental will she break free and manage to discover what she can be. The work of art has been a useful slave for millennia. Only with capitalism did she manage to be a salaried worker, which is still not her full emancipation.

What marks the understanding of art in philosophy is the projection of a theology of what man would be. Every definition has been a failure, from supposing that he has an angelic dimension, the soul, to that he is rational or good by nature. It is assumed that he would have body and soul, hence art is seen as being thing and idea, thing and alétheia, signifier and signified, material support and aesthetic object. From there comes philosophy and wants to rescue the noblest part for its own heaven. Art ceases to be valid by itself, becoming valid only insofar as it transmits an idea and is saved by philosophy. Then art becomes valid to feed philosophy with ideas and it could be replaced by the Philosophy of Art, which is what Hegel proposed and Heidegger endorsed. Now, art is not made with the aim of feeding the vampire of philosophy.

The catastrophic view of art, proposed by Hegel and contradicted by later history, was propitiated by the Kantian view that art would be structured as if it had a purpose without having one. It's very strange to structure something as if it had purposes, only to end up giving up on them. It's a fun paradox. Since art has no purpose, it would need to be saved by the knight of philosophy, at the price, however, of condemning its difference to death.

Hegel and Heidegger had an Apollonian and idealized view of ancient Greece. Art was not something in the full public domain. Excluding women, children, young people, slaves, periecos and foreigners, there was barely less than 5% of the population left to attend theatrical performances. Greek theater itself was harmed by the religious beliefs it had to propagate. When Euripides dared some themes, such as religious manipulation by the priestly caste, the equality of slaves or women's freedom, he was forced to flee Athens in order not to be killed.

What Kant meant was perhaps something else, for another reason. As an Enlightenmentist, he wanted to free art from the servitude of incensing beliefs, prelates and aristocrats, but also not submitting it to the interests of the market. He wanted art as an exercise in freedom. For this, the artist could not depend on the orders of a boss, be it a government agency, an ecclesial authority or the taste of the buyer. Hard to escape so many lords.

Egyptian art for three millennia always repeated the same patterns (profile design, outlined eyes, the size of the figure according to its political or religious relevance), which allowed it to be identified, that is, the artist was obliged to comply with aesthetic norms established by the ecclesial power. He had no freedom, he could not invent. He didn't even want to, because he thought it was right to obey the rules in force. For example, the pharaoh had to be the biggest figure (no matter how bad his tyranny was) and always in profile (the exception was under the pharaoh who adhered to monotheism, which was even presented in family scenes). For more than two thousand years, rules like this have been followed.

Enlightenment, Kant could want to free the artist from the bondage of exalting mythology or the market; as a Lutheran, he had no objections to Bach in the cults, nor to the exaltation of his beloved despot, Frederick, called the Great. He was in favor of strong but constitutional government; he didn't believe in democracy, which would always be the tyranny of one party against the rest (as if monarchy, aristocracy, or theocracy didn't do that too). On current labels, Descartes and Kant are stamped as Enlightenment, even though one was Catholic and the other Lutheran.

The art market, which seems to be a neutral judge in determining the value of works, measuring it not by the average social work invested in production (since the artistic gift is not on average) but by what one is willing to pay for they fluctuate greatly from auction to auction, from season to season. What is fashionable today may be despised tomorrow. He also floats within himself, at the same time and in the same country. Equivalent works can be purchased at very different prices. The same work that one day was bought for 5X may be resold a few years later for just 1X or 50X.

The work continues, however, as if identical to itself: changing, however, the material support or/and the receiver's profile, alters the aesthetic object that is constituted. The work becomes different, it even changes category: it can go from religious to artistic or vice versa, from respectable to problematic. The market is manipulated by advertising, by fluctuations in taste, by non-aesthetic vectors. Artistic value should, however, be independent of this. There is an underlying “metaphysical” structure, which determines an appearance of continuity.

Catholic sacred art lasted for centuries, was placed in preservation sites and remained untouched by the market. When this, however, imposed itself, the desacralization of the works took away much of their price and appreciation. While oligarchies managed to be accepted because it was believed that their privileges stemmed from divine origin or will, the art that auratized them managed to be accepted, placed in museums, priced in galleries. When other classes were able to buy works, tastes changed, there was a flood of -isms.

The poor, who barely earn, if they earn, enough to eat, need to meet their primary needs, they cannot invest resources in art. They even consider it a virtue not to have art and they don't seek the art they could get for free. There is no guarantee that living with art will soon make people better.

* Flavio R. Kothe is professor of aesthetics at the University of Brasilia. Author, among other books, of Culture semiotics essays (UnB).

 

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