Saturday, September 7, 2013

Romantic Delusions

Something occurred to me just now about a situation I have experienced many times. The situation is that of NOT having strong emotional reactions to art objects, and the fear that I have perhaps NEVER had appropriately strong reactions. There is a presumption that such strong reactions form the rationale for the existence of art objects at all, and that artists (if nothing else) should be the one group that has such things. So when a so-called artist reveals the dirty little secret of not strongly feeling anything, it is as if you are excommunicating yourself from the company of artists.

So that is the situation… and that is the problem.

What occurred to me today is this so-called problem is due NOT to the nature of art, but to a particularly modern view of what art is. I suppose it begins with the Romantic movement in art, whereby strong emotions and aesthetic reactions were seen as authentic, whereas the rationalism of Classicism was seen as stifling and dead. The Romantic view shifts the emphasis inward, whereby art is validated by reference to the internal, subjective, and non-rational aspects of the artist, rather than those aspects of art that are rational, externalized, and objective.

I am not arguing for or against reason or emotion… Classicism vs. Romanticism. Such dichotomies always seem ridiculous, though history is full of battles fought over the supremacy of one, at the expense of the other. In as much as human beings are composed of reason and emotion… and more generally… of many ranges of experience… such dichotomy battles simply leave people divided against their own nature, and sow the seeds for the inevitable reaction in the other direction. And this is how history plays out, as one side or the other seeks to dominate… seeks to assert one side of the coin over the other. It's an inherently unresolvable approach, producing the tensions that seem to provide the motive force for all social energy.

So I suppose we live in the long shadow cast by Romantic ideals. I suppose some would argue this. After all, the official period of Romanticism is long over, and the 20th century is full of abstraction-ism seemingly free of any emotive qualities. Also, conceptual art often suffers from a near total lack of emotional impact, in as much as those artists strive to operate from an emotionally detached point of view. And so this line of reasoning wants to conclude that these are things are "classical" in nature, in as much as they emanate from thought, rather than emotion. Such parallels are mostly superficial. Though they cut out the emotive aspect of the artist, they are not really rational and objective in the way classical art is considered to be. After all, the conceptual artist validates their analytic product NOT by an external reference, but to their own internal state. The modern view is not "WHAT IT MEANS", but "WHAT IT MEANS TO ME". These two may be identical in some instances, but having "TO ME" be part of the definition of meaning leaves the door open to the dominance of subjectivity.

At any rate… that is whole long idea in it's own right.  And it concerns the artist as maker. But what of the artist as viewer of art, which is the initial problem? When we view art, why are we worried that we are not having appropriately strong emotional reactions?

I think (again) that it goes back to the Romantic presumption that art is equivalent to "aesthetic experience", and that such experience is naturally subjective, emotional, and non-rational. If so, then the only meaningful aspect of viewing art is that some psychological experience should occur wherein we are immediately made aware (emotionally) of the full impact of the art object. But this is only a theory.

Let's call this the Romantic Theory of Viewing Art, and think of it as the natural counterpart to the aforementioned Romantic Theory of Making Art. If the art object is made by artists who are mostly concerned with their own internal processes, then the art object begins to drift (to some degree) from the common visual language of the culture. It becomes less communicable to others thereby. The viewer begins to be less concerned with "understanding" the art object, since such "understanding" would require a common basis in visual communication. The viewer is then forced (to varying degrees) to "interpret" these incommunicable aspects, but such interpretation involves one NOT in understanding artistic intent (which again, is not possible without a visual language for communicating)… but interpreting in terms of what THEY (the viewer) take something to mean. In this way, subjective construction of art leads to subjective viewing of art.

So this is the crux of my idea… that we judge ourselves harshly because we don't think we are having the "correct" reaction to art, which needs to be a strong emotion... an aesthetic response of the highest order. But all of this is built on a modern presumption about what art is, both in the making and in the viewing.

As an aside, there are a few further interesting correlations one can draw.

If we take Abstract Expressionism to be the height of the Romantic view of subjective, non-ration art in the 20th century, then we clearly see the drift between the MAKER and the VIEWER…. and how the two sides cannot connect to each other. The maker of such art presumes no intent that could be grasped by the viewer, and the viewer interprets in ways unknowable to the artist. The artwork is understood to be a non-rational form of cathartic expression by the artist, whereas the viewer treats the apprehension of the object as the basis of eliciting subjective reactions.

If we contrast a drip painting with a simple math formula, we have (probably) the two extremes of human reception. If we view the formula "2+2", there is no way to view it other than as intended. On the other hand, if we view a drip painting, there is no way to view it as intended, and so we are forced either to disregard it, or to supply our own meaning totally.

This emphasis on subjective reaction seems to underwrite forms of post-modern skepticism, whereby we presume that the author of a text is not in control of it's content. After all, each reader will construct meaning based on his own personal consciousness. The author cannot "insist" that the text mean this or that. This is actually more extreme than the case with drip paintings. After all, drip paintings clearly don't have external referents, whereas language is made from such references. But philosophers have gotten around the obvious meaningfulness of language by (a) resorting to skeptical argument generally, and (b) investing decades in a complex web of structuralist/deconstructionist logic. When you question things long enough while ignoring the answers at each turn, things turn very cloudy very quickly, and the fog of confusion that ensues will seem totally natural.

At any rate… such is the world we live in. The idolizing of self, the mistrust of reason, the resulting confusion, the seeking of answers in pure subjective reaction, or perhaps in public consensus.

It's interesting to note that the rise of Romanticism correlates (historically) with the modern age… with the individualism of modern democratic societies. The political philosophies that created this modern age were born of prior Enlightenment Era attitudes of reason. But the freedoms they unleashed led to a generations that only wanted to deal with the subjective. Again, this is the inevitable pendulum swing of history, whereby the Enlightenment "over emphasis" on reason left new generations of thinkers feeling starved for something more human. And so they cast aside the mindfulness of their forbearers.

I'm not attacking this pendulum swing as being wrong. It's really just inevitable, and unfortunate. But what is worse (it seems to me) is that we continue to live in the shadow of that casting-off of mindful approaches, and are asked to experience ourselves ONLY as self indulgent. This is shown most clearly in the world in general, whereby society takes on increasingly complex economic forms, so as to allow us to generate sufficient disposable income, so that we can afford a lifestyle of materialistic purchases of consumer goods, so that we will be contented from cradle to grave, wrapped forever in feel-good products and services. For those who feel like something real is missing in all of this, such a system is NOT protecting our humanity… but is actually destroying it.

Of course, mindful approaches are not cast off totally. After all, the complex economic system is nothing if not rational. The production of products, the exchange of money, and the accumulation and management of wealth all require vastly rational processes, and people to carry them out. So one half of life is regimented under the control of business logic, and the other is a dream of total subjective freedom, wherein we sit in front of the TV and dream, or go on vacation and consume tourist fantasies.

As a person who is inclined to understand things… ALL things… by both THINKING and FEELING about them as appropriate… it's frustrating to consider that (in the world of art) I am required to only FEEL artworks. If I walk through a museum or gallery and do not stand in full Romantic rapture before a work of art, wherein I channel pure aesthetic response… then I am considered to be artistically stunted… emotionally close off, etc. Apparently, art has been consigned to the world of fantasy…. like TV programming, or tourism, or web-sites. It's somewhere you go to enjoy your own self. When you seek for understanding… for a view of the world… for a grasp of the real… you are confronted only with mirror… with a smooth surface where the mind slides right off…. of a waiter asking if they can take your order.

I don't buy it. The long shadow of Romanticism… my indulgent self stripped of intellect… left exposed to gurgle to a mindless crowd all murmuring their own irrelevant responses… everyone desperate to feel, incapable of knowing, and in the end simply expending vast energies on artifice, generating nothing but heat, the waste product of animal existence.

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