Art provides a way of seeing, a mode of consciousness that, in the hands of a great artist, directs our thoughts and shapes our understanding. This natural response to beauty sees aesthetics as a direct link to virtue and goodness. There is a difference between deciding on the basis of a rational response that an object is beautiful and sensing its true beauty. Today, unfortunately, many scholars, even those with the best intentions, ignore the sensory and choose the rational when considering a work of art. Blindly committing themselves to reason—and worse, to dogma and the politics of the culture war—they succeed in closing doors instead of opening them.
There has been a litany of well-deserved complaints from knowledgeable scholars, artists and writers about the precipitous decline of standards in art, education and popular culture. Many agree that postmodernism is bankrupt and look back fondly to the achievements of high modernism. But traditionalist art, whether nineteenth-century academic or contemporary classical realist, is often dismissed or treated with downright contempt.
Why? For two main reasons. The first is the understandable aversion to the way Western civilization was structured at the brink of World War I and the art forms it represented. Indeed, the senseless ferocity of the Great War was a reflection of Europe’s rigid hierarchical order reinforced with modern weapons of death and destruction. The second reason is more subtle. Confusion over the temporary rejection of this order—the eschewal of absolute values—and the nature of modernism itself have led to a rejection of permanency in matters cultural.
The idea of beauty inspires and lifts the mind to permanent values and eternal truths. The Greek word kosmos means “sense of the world,” implying an aesthetic judgment as in a fitting order—an appropriate, right arrangement, so that attention to particulars takes precedence over universals. Kosmos is also a moral term, meaning becoming decent, honorable. For the ancient Greeks, the aesthetic and moral were one—the words straight, true, right and sound all imply both the good and the beautiful.
How do we define permanency, especially as it manifests itself in the arts? It does so by appealing in a universal sensory way to observers (from all cultures) who have the capacity to see. It requires, Matthew Arnold suggests in Culture and Anarchy (1869), “first-hand experience.” We find the same universal qualities of formal aesthetics manifest in works by Ingres or Leighton as we do in works by Degas, Cézanne and Picasso. What is different, very different, are the divergent epistemologies of modernism, postmodernism and traditionalism.
When critics attack a nineteenth-century academic painting, they are reacting to the content of the painting. They are ignoring its beauty, formalism and originality. Personally, I am quite willing to make a case for content in a work of art—or for an entire art movement. I believe I am not alone in being attracted to iconography drawn from myth, religion and history. Indeed, they are the stuff of memory and civilization, as timeless and archetypal in modern times as they were in fifteenth-century Florence or Periclean Athens. Although it may no longer be fashionable to study Great Books and Great Art, that doesn’t mean these works have lost their universal appeal. Yet even if this were so, if the canon could be redacted to a hierarchical power structure, there would still be in these works the universal appeal of sensory aesthetic beauty. Scientists and biologists confirm the universality of sensory perception in the ontology of the human species. Theologians have long advocated the connection between spirituality and beauty.
High modernism also has content, even when works appear abstract or non-objective. Only this content reflects the archetypal theme of loss and alienation.After the duplicitous Treaty of Versailles—which marked the end of World War I—it was no longer possible for serious artists and writers to commit to values now held responsible for initiating the war. The subsequent loss of God, religion, the sacred, myth, nation, virtue and order led to the wholesale rejection of the traditional iconography of church, family and state, the core of official academic art. High modernism sometimes celebrates life and beauty but often opens a vortex of despair, lamenting this loss of the sacred in contemporary life.
Modernism’s dark night of the soul descended over the West with prophetic gravitas. Indeed, the Bible and great works of the past are full of such stories of grief and loss. The crucifixion is about loss, but it is also about renewal. Seen in this context, modernism becomes the great story, the raison d’être of a century marked by terrible loss. Existentialism and “art for art’s sake”—the best of which, many believe, high modernism exemplifies—are manifestations of this tragic tale, a story whose meaning is to be found in hermeneutics that deconstruct the most revered symbols of Western civilization and values.
Modernism at its best, objectively considered, made the darkness of the night beautiful, even strangely nurturing. It was a genuine, fitting expression of what had been lost.
But in the interim between our dark night and the dawn of a new order, many Americans still cling to the darkness they know. For a while, this impetus produced exemplary and enduring artwork across media. Despite our postwar affluence and success—or perhaps because of them—Americans were drawn to lonely landscapes and the lonely crowd. The solitary figures in empty hotel rooms and icy farmhouses by Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, the solitary cowboys and wanderers of innumerable Hollywood noir films silhouetted against the night sky, the quintessential adolescent James Dean riding in a boxcar searching for his mother, Kerouac On the Road driving across a continent through the endless night, angel-headed hipsters in urban ghettos yearning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land—these are twentieth-century American icons. The lament of Colin Wilson’s cultural “outsiders,” Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Rimbaud’s Season in Hell, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Giacometti’s existential man appeal to Americans in ways not even Europeans can appreciate. Existentialism has shaped our national perception for much of the twentieth century. It roused the imagination of the best of our creative artists and writers. The proof lies in a substantive body of high art and popular American culture. If art is the American “religion,” as Tom Wolfe observes, it became in the twentieth century a haunting solitary voice rising and falling in the monastery in the middle of the night.
But no longer. The vespers have faded to silence. A new generation of creative artists, writers and composers now sees only emptiness, where earlier generations once saw the darkness as a way of knowing. These earlier generations welcomed the darkness because modernists introduced beauty and spirituality into it. But postmodernism provides only a distorted memory of what modernism once was. It offers only a flat empty canvas and an ironic gesture. Its darkness is illuminated by a cheap light bulb, a neon sign that flashes polemics and advertisements.
Thus the most talented and creative artists are seeking a new vision. For this reason they have turned to figurative art, realism and classicism, to recover the spiritual, moral and religious. But such efforts are doomed unless they are accompanied by a recovery of beauty. That’s why the best of the new realists have a modernist appreciation for aesthetics, and a conservative appreciation for timeless values. They do not approach art as a manifestation of will, something to be consciously targeted, but rather as a process, a search for beauty.
In the dawn of a new century, a new millennium, we turn away from the postwar darkness and yearn instead for the light of the soul. We cannot objectively deny works by artists who seek beauty, based upon the old criteria of modernism or the flawed multicultural politics of postmodernism. If we are objective, the criterion of artistic excellence transcends art movements and civilization itself. We cannot deny a religious and moral renaissance if it truly evidences artistic excellence. Indeed, beauty and artistic excellence provide the litmus test for the artist’s sincerity and the gravitas of a new culture. If the universe itself implies beauty, if we live in an aesthetic world, then the primary mode of adjustment to the cosmos would be through the sense of beauty. We need now to find ways to invite the return of beauty.
—James F Cooper
Director, Newington-Cropsey Cultural Center