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FUNDAMENTALS OF A PHILOSOPHY OF ART

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II

The technical beginnings of kitsch, as we have seen, stemmed from the Renaissance and found their roots in certain elements of the style and in certain ideas of Renaissance painting. The Greeks, for example, could never have made the mistake about beauty that the Renaissance did: namely, trying to describe perfect beauty by assembling a synthesis of one beautiful woman from a hundred different models. And while, for example, the synthesis of the scientific side of Leonardo da Vinci with the artistic side did not harm his art, the style itself had certain dangers which became apparent later when the technical skills were put to a different use--as they were in the portraiture of the English School which, though it had nothing to do with art, stemmed technically from the Renaissance. This relatively harmless form of this particular type of kitsch--the presenting of reality rather than experience--came to an end at the end of the 19th Century, but kitsch itself certainly did not end--on the contrary: it took on more and more an anti-artistic form.

Now let’s look for a moment at one of the toughest problems facing the artist since about the beginning of the 19th Century: the placing of the human figure in a landscape. With the breakdown of the cosmological and the theological approach brought about by Kant--that is, with the breakdown of the framework within which man had lived for so long (where the world had meaning because it was either made by God or was considered to be a cosmos that contained meaning in itself)--man’s position towards the world changed--and with this change of position the artist found himself struggling with the problem of how to re-unite the human figure with a cosmos that was not even a cosmos any more, that no longer contained meaning in itself, and that no longer carried with it still certain undertones of myth.

Approached from an over-all point of view of man’s new position in the world and his new relation to nature and things in nature (as Cezanne did approach it) the problem was tough enough (so tough in fact that even Cezanne almost faltered and after a few very early attempts only came back to the human figure itself in nature after long years of painting landscapes and still-lifes), but there was yet another complication-- especially for those artists interested in painting the nude female figure: the complication of an almost inevitable association by the beholder between the nude figure in the painting with the model who might have posed for it. Always before this--as long as the poetical image of myth lasted--the beholder of nudes in nature had had a supporting means not to be disturbed by this very disastrous association and had been prevented from being thrown out of the artistic experience by this association by another underlying association: the association of the figure in the painting with the figures of myth--with Aphrodite, with Artemis. Association with the model had been prevented by a sheer psychological non-artistic means perhaps, but still it was a means that kept the beholder within the artistic experience and once this final hold of myth broke down, it became an almost unsolvable problem to prevent this association with the model.

Manet in his “Women in the Green” prevented this by a trick. He placed in the landscape along with the nudes fully dressed men. By this means the non-artistic association of the beholder was rendered artistic by the means of a sheer intellectual performance by making the beholder ashamed to associate a living woman with the nudes in the picture. Renoir too--the late Renoir--managed to avoid this association and to bring about a unity through his discovery of a great invention of Titian’s--that the being of Woman, the being of a “She” could dominate the whole cosmos. The late Renoir, by understanding that the over-all experience of the phenomenon Woman could give insight into certain human experiences, was able to re-unite the nude with nature (which technically he achieved by making nature a sort of decoration around his nude--a sort of cottony softness around her) to a point where the stream of life of Woman united with all the stream of life and to achieve in such a picture a work of art where there was no possibility for the beholder to fall out of the artistic experience because it concentrated on giving to the beholder the essence of experience--which related in turn to certain past experiences of the beholder himself and enriched them.

Now we have a very excellent means here with this question of the nude to make a further inquiry into the workings of kitsch and to see what happens to the beholder when he looks at a nude in a work of art and when he looks at a nude produced by kitsch--when he looks for example at a late Renoir nude and when he looks at a very common form of kitsch: so-called “calendar art” or the “Esquire”-type nude. Both a Renoir nude and an “Esquire” girl are images--and, as far as material reality is concerned, images of unreality. Both are images that use lines and colors and certain means to arouse sensations and to appeal to the senses; both try to convey something to the senses--but what does the artistic image through the means of line and color and so on want to convey to the senses and what does the non-artistic one want to convey? What is the relation of the artistic image to the beholder and what is the relation of the non-artistic image to the beholder?

The artistic image--the Renoir nude--relates as soon as the essence of experience is made concrete (to mention only one point or contact first) to the woman the beholder loves. The non-artistic image does just the opposite--the “Esquire” girl disrupts the beholder’s contact with the woman he loves and is especially intended to thrust him into an inartistic experience, into error and the wrong kind of reality. An artistic image via the senses has the quality of being able through an unreality (which, as we have seen, all images are in relation to material reality) to put us into a reality--the reality of a human experience. An artistic image can, so to speak, root us in the world; it can, though it never pretends to be the reality of the world, bring us into reality by engaging us in an inner dialogue. A mere image--an artistic one--via our senses can bring to our mind an experience and can engage the mind in an experience where our own experiences are enriched. By leaving us completely free an artistic image can make our senses into servants of our mind--using our senses to convey an experience to our mind. A non-artistic image by throwing us out of artistic experience excites our senses and by means of the senses enslaves the mind by excluding us from the mind. So the effect exerted on the senses of a beholder by an artistic image in a work of art is that of working on the senses of the beholder in such a way that an experience of the mind can be given by purely sensual means. With kitsch, on the other hand, instead of the miracle that can be brought about by art--putting us into the reality of an experience--a devilish kind of black magic takes place--and by the same means: the senses. By the senses the beholder is thrown out of reality altogether and transposed into a fictional reality with which he tries to identify himself--which means that he is really bewitched.

Now this brings us to a point where we have to be most careful (and one which we will touch only preliminarily for now): the temptation to relate good and evil to art--or at least to relate evil to kitsch. To try to relate good and evil to art itself means to try to bring them into the only place--true art--where man is not in a conflict between good and evil, the one place that is beyond good and evil, and the one place where last of all a discussion of good and evil should enter in. To try to relate evil to kitsch can lead to such statements as “Kitsch is the evil in art.” (...Hermann Broch)--which implies, of course, that kitsch is art. We have to be very careful in making distinctions between art and kitsch not to attribute to kitsch qualities making it a kind of negative art--which would mean to completely misunderstand art itself--but rather to make it quite clear that kitsch is the use of artistic means for an inartistic or anti-artistic purpose and to direct our inquiry towards finding out what the difference in the use of means really is.

Now we have seen that by the use of artistic means--means of line, color, etc., which move via the senses--two entirely different purposes can be achieved: the artistic one which makes the senses serve the mind and the non-artistic one which makes the senses enslave the mind. The real difference between the use of artistic means for an artistic purpose and for an inartistic or anti-artistic purpose can perhaps best be described in terms of the difference between convincing a man in an argument and trying to talk a man into something, defeating him in an argument. When a man has really been convinced in an argument it means that he gets into a productive creative line where he begins to cooperate with the other man by bringing into the discussion new arguments for the question at hand out of his own life experience. If a man has been convinced it means that he can use a truth, that he can contribute to it and live in that truth. But if a man has been defeated in an argument, he is merely silenced; he no longer can argue because he no longer can think of any argument against the question.

Art convinces the beholder by the introduction of an inner dialogue and by mobilizing his ability to reevaluate his own experiences in a deeper context with the thing given--and art can only do this because all human beings have the same inner experience (though not always necessarily to the same heights and depths of feeling). Art can only work because of this contact with the beholder’s own experiences which enables him to get into the creative line of an inner dialogue where he is able to bring arguments, so to speak, out of his own inner experience. Art wants to convince--never to defeat (which is one of the reasons why evil in art is not possible). Kitsch, on the other hand, wants to defeat; it wants to talk the beholder into something--until finally he is compelled to act by the fictional reality the images have created for him.

Now art has one very powerful and wonderful means to protect the beholder from taking an artistic image as an image of reality itself: the miracle of form. Form has the wonderful capability to put the beholder at a distance, so to speak, so that he can never make that wrong identification that kitsch talks him into of the image and reality--which amounts to a kind of partial hypnotism. Since kitsch is formless, the beholder is always without the protection that form can always give: the negative effect of protecting the beholder from being talked into the acceptance of a fictional reality. Certain mass medias, like television and the movies, through their very technical means seem especially vulnerable to kitsch, For example: in order to introduce into us by an image an acceptance of an unreality as fictional reality (that identification of the unreality of an image with reality itself) one of the best means is hypnosis--and what better means is there for a certain kind of hypnosis than a movie theater which by its very darkness has a tendency immediately to isolate us from ourselves. This process of isolating us from ourselves is really the very beginning of hypnosis itself and makes it only too easy for us to get into a stream of moving images which finally blurs out every control we have, dissolves every restraint, taking us away from ourselves, Whether this actually happens or not depends, of course, upon the movie--whether it is a work of art or whether it is kitsch to begin with--but the outward means nevertheless are there and make it immeasurably more difficult to avoid falling into kitsch. A work of art has only one medium--it speaks to the personality--and therefore if art is dealing with a mass medium like the movies, it means that it must speak to masses of personalities directly. Whether or not it can do this depends upon whether or not it is a work of art--that is, whether or not it has form.

Now it might be said that a happening of life-giving is the miracle of art, a happening of death-giving the black magic of kitsch, and to find out what the strange relation between these two phenomena in this respect might be we must go back to the Greek gods and ask Dionysus--because in the mythical context there is a relation of a very strange nature between life and death to be found in Dionysos himself and also between Apollon and Dionysos, between Apollon as the god of clear vision, the god of arts, and Dionysos as that double god of joy and suffering, who feels everything and who just lives, so to speak.

Dionysos was conceived of as an insane god--or rather as a god who fell sometimes into insanity; he was also the god of wine and, according to Nietzsche (who saw in Dionysos the will to power that must be put to use by Apollon, the god of seeing) he was also the god of music. Now what kind of a strange god was this? A god who seemed to have such double powers of joy, wisdom, and life--or of tyranny, numbness, suffering and death--and a god who fell sometimes into insanity! There seems to be a strange linking here of wine and music to occasional insanity; a strange relation of certain possibilities of wine and music to certain symptoms of insanity--to being possessed, being tyrannized, being enslaved, losing control of the mind; a certain binding together of life-giving possibilities with death-giving possibilities. And what could be the strange bond between Apollon--who was conceived of as the god of clear vision, the god of prophets and seers, the god of the pictorial arts, the god who had everything in restraint--with Dionysos, the god of wine, and, as Nietzsche conceived of him, the god of music--that double god of life and death?

Nietzsche knew very well why he thought of Dionysos as the god of music. Music is the most subjective expression in art. In its Dionysian character music can rule us; it can make us dance; it can put us in certain moods; it can carry us away; it can tyrannize us--and as such it has always been used in rituals and for such things as hypnotic dances (as the hypnotic crow dance done by little girls in Bali). Music--when its very special power over the senses is not used to convey an experience to the mind--can be, and is, misused. Even works of art in music, where that experience for the mind is there for the listening, so to speak, are misused--and constantly so--by the largest part of the public who get drunk with music, carried away for sensation without the experience of the mind. But music is still art--it is only misused.

These same double qualities of giving life or death, giving mastery or enslavement, are also to be found in that other gift of Dionysos: the gift of wine. Wine can give us wisdom or it can give us complete dumbness; it can give us joy or misery; it can enslave or free us--it is only a question of degree, of how much and why. Drunkenness enslaves us to our motions and emotions--but what does wine in only a lesser degree do? It makes us the master of our moods. This is the double meaning of drunkenness--and it carries a very clear insight for our inquiry into the phenomenon of kitsch for kitsch too enslaves the mind, carries it away, and even makes it act for this fictional reality it is trying to bring us into by means of the senses.

We have seen that form seems to be the miracle that keeps the beholder of a work of art at a certain distance, so to speak, so he can never make that disastrous association of the unreality of the image with reality, and one of the best means to see how this really works is in relation to feeling and sentimentality. Aristotle thought that tragedy brought the beholder into pity and suffering in order to purify him of these two passions:-I, as the beholder, suffer with this person on the stage, and I pity with this person on the stage, and by this identification I suffer less and pity less--but one thing I do not do: I do not identify this image of unreality with reality in such a way that it is possible for me to lose myself in this person on the stage--as I can and mostly do when I see a movie. I recognize the reality of an experience that touches my own inner experience when I see “King Lear”--but I certainly never for a moment believe either that Lear is a real man or that I am Lear. I do not lose my own identity in that of the person on the stage.

Now what is being appealed to here when I see a tragedy? My feelings. And because tragedy as a work of art is form it gives my feelings--here suffering and pity--form, and by that makes my burden lighter. Kitsch, on the other hand, appeals to sentimentality. There is a definition in science of dirt as misplaced matter. Sentimentality is misplaced feeling, feeling in the wrong place. And how is it misplaced? By reflection--by the wrong kind of reflection, by endless reflection and re-reflection on one’s self, meaningless reflection that is a kind of mirroring and re-mirroring of one’s self. Odysseus in “The Odyssy” weeps only once--and when? When at last still unknown he is in his own hall and hears the bard sing of his, Odysseus’, sufferings, and he weeps. He is suddenly forced to look at his own sufferings and memory and tears come, but his tears are a far cry from the tears of self-pity that come from false reflection and sentimentality, from the tears that come from permanently reflecting everything upon one’s self, from the tears that come when the right feeling that could drive to tears is changed by the wrong kind of reflection into the false feeling of sentimentality that also drives to tears--but tears of self-pity. By and because of sentimentality and wrong reflection we have become such great weepers--weepers either of tears of self-pity (self-pity as the habit of the wrong kind of reflection--the habit to reflect permanently upon one’s self all that happens) or tears of frustration (because frustration too is only another kind of sentimentality brought about by false reflection, brought about by not facing experience but by endlessly reflecting on the feeling of experience).

So as real feeling is used and appealed to in tragedy, sentimentality is used in kitsch--the sentimentality of false identification. I, as a beholder of a movie, for example, am put out of business until there is only the association of things that happen to people on the screen (where, unfortunately, as we have seen, this identification is only too easy to make) and my putting myself in their place. This is not true identification or tragic identification. In tragic art I can identify my own personality with the tragic hero--with Lear, with Oedipus--because as true art this image of unreality puts me into the one reality of art: the reality of experience. I can identify with the tragic hero because while the experience is real the distance of form is always there to prevent any pretense of taking the image of unreality for reality--as in the movies the hero can be taken as an image of an unreal man who is supposed to be real. In the movies there is no distance (which means no form), no reminder that this is not real--and I, as the beholder, am taken into this fictional reality, losing myself, being driven to tears by sentimentality and false identification, Kitsch produces a stupor that is as bad as constant alcoholism--a stupor that works on the mind, enslaving it, deadening it. Kitsch is a destroyer--a destroyer of personalities--and one that can be and has been put to use by a totalitarian system for the systematic destruction of the personality. Since works of art are the only things created by human beings that always enforce freedom--that always speak directly to the personality, training it, enriching it, but never trying to take it away to put it to some non-artistic use--it is small wonder that in a totalitarian system kitsch and the hatred growing against art today are not only used but are put to systematic use against the personality, against freedom. This means conversely, does it not, that if man wants to be a free, whole human personality who can act to put meaning into the world, and not merely be acted upon, who can condition and not merely be conditioned (which is man’s great possibility), that the existence of the two human creative abilities that are most closely related to freedom--art and philosophy--are a matter of life and death to him. And make no mistake about it, in an age where we have seen the full consequences of what loss of freedom and the human personality can mean, art and philosophy have become a matter of life and death for man--art because it re-enforces man’s freedom, so to speak, by speaking directly to the human personality, strengthening it, enriching it, but always leaving it free; philosophy because it is the one creative human activity that is directly concerned with freedom, that cares first for freedom.

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