My rating: 4 of 5 stars
At the end of the 18th century, with the Enlightenment giving way to Romanticism, German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller wrote his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. In that book, he defined the play drive, a uniquely human mental capacity that mediates between the formal drive (associated with reason, morality, and judgment) and the sensuous drive (associated with all physical experience). Without this ludic, or artistic, capacity, we would veer between the chaos of experience and the rigidity of reason, the one too hot and the other too cold; but art converts experience into form by way of sensual and, as it were, living embodiment. For this reason, artists, who live and work by the play drive, in some sense typify human subjectivity itself, since only aesthetic thinking can translate experience into form without loss of either vitality or rationality. Art becomes the model for life.
This Romantic defense of art has perhaps not been bettered—today’s instrumental appeals, to the effect that art makes us better critical thinkers or more empathetic citizens, are weak in comparison. But Schiller’s Romantic aesthetics have also been bruised and battered by any number of challengers in the last century, from the monstrous (concentration camp commandants who read Goethe and listened to Schubert) to the ridiculous (words of wisdom from great writers on your burrito bag). If the aesthetic drive cannot prevent its appropriation by brutal murderers or crass businessmen, then what is it worth?
J. F. Martel’s Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice can be read as an update and a correction of Schiller, a Romantic aestheticist manifesto for the 21st century. For Martel, art is a force that opens a “rift” in the world of the merely given, a rift that discloses other ways of being, for both good and ill. Art is the appearance of the nonhuman—all the larger forces to which we are subject—within a human artifact. Any seeming work of art that does less than this, Martel dismisses as mere artifice, an appeal to the senses for utilitarian purposes, whether of pleasure (pornography, entertainment) or of control (didacticism, propaganda). Unfortunately, contemporary society’s whole approach to art seems to be take place under the aegis of artifice. Today we see those who would subject art wholly to the market, thus demanding a kind of audience-flattering pornography in place of the audience-offending disturbances that real art offers, and those who would submit art wholly to political considerations, from those on the right who influentially derided the non-patriotic in the years after 9/11 to those on the left who have recently taken to decrying everything they deem oppressive, triggering, etc.
But these contemporary errors—the commercial and the political—have a long genealogy, which Martel traces intelligently. He is admirably clear and forthright on the three great calamitous appropriations of aesthetics in the 20th century: 1. the right’s aestheticization of politics, which ended in the genocidal violence of fascism and Nazism; 2. the left’s politicization of aesthetics, which ended in the terrors of totalitarianism and the crudity of political correctness; 3. the historical avant-garde’s aestheticization of everyday life, which ended in a coercive because inescapable commodity and fashion culture. That these appropriations still have their defenders, especially the last two, which have proliferated on the Internet, makes Martel’s book all the more necessary.
In place of artifice, Martel calls for a renewed commitment to the dislocating and even prophetic power of art to open up the world. He does not repeat Schiller’s overly optimistic Enlightenment plea to reform society around the aesthetic; that dream died with the 20th century and should not be resurrected. In fact, Martel cites the shamanic practice of certain indigenous cultures, for whom the shaman was a person set apart from the workaday world of community and necessity. Art and politics, play and work, should be kept apart so that each may perform its necessary function, the one of rational organization and the other of supra- or sub-rational exploration. This is perhaps my favorite element of Martel’s argument, since I believe there are too many people who think the solution to today’s minimization of art is to find some way to make everyone into artists. But everyone can’t be an artist, any more than I can be a physicist or an athlete or a veterinarian. We artists should argue that we, too, have our necessary function, and that we should be left to pursue it, and Martel presents this argument beautifully.
Martel summons an impressive array of thinkers and artists to his side: Werner Herzog, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, Carl Jung, James Joyce, William Gibson, Martin Heidegger, Herman Melville, Gilles Deleuze, J. G. Ballard, H. P. Lovecraft, William S. Burroughs, Stanley Kubrick, and more. No Schiller, though, surprisingly—or perhaps it’s not surprising, given Schiller’s Kantianism. Avowedly wanting to avoid the cliché of blaming Descartes for the modern dualism that relegates art to the realm of the irrational, Martel instead makes Kant his villain. It was Kant, he claims, who permanently severed subject from object, thus rendering art’s testimony merely subjective, of no truth value whatever. This is persuasive enough, for a short and non-scholarly book anyway, and strikes through Kant at postmodernism, with its endless deferral of meaning. It is interesting to see in such an anti-postmodern book what remains of the postmodern critique, and which authors of ’68 survive. Going by Martel’s book (but not only by Martel’s book), it seems to me that the question of what is living and what is dead in postmodernism can now be answered with some precision: Romanticism is living, and Marxism is dead. Deleuze might get a century to himself, after all.
I do have a few quibbles with Reclaiming Art:
1. While I am not bothered, as some people might be, by the introduction of Jung into Martel’s canon, there is a New Age nimbus around the text—it is published by an imprint of North Atlantic Books and blurbed by Daniel Pinchbeck—that makes me wonder how literally some of the language of “rifts in reality” might be secretly meant. Martel does a superb job of keeping his claims for art both modest and radical: art is a disclosure of a new world, but this “new world” is not a literal place to which one could ever travel. Mistaking the world the artwork lets us glimpse for a utopia we could visit is precisely what led to the death camps and the gulags, in Martel’s own account, so any flirtation with such literalism as one finds in New Age idealism is troubling.
2. Martel seems somewhat poptimistic for a person whose aesthetic standards are so severe. He repeatedly assures his readers that anything can be great art, from pop song to video game to symphony. He is not indiscriminate in his assessment of mass-cultural works, as shown by a strongly negative reading of Cameron’s Avatar as a work of supreme artifice, forgettable because both didactic and overly controlled. But surely any product involving the vast sums expended on Avatar will be artifice and not art; and Martel seems to have a sufficiently Shelleyan temperament to see the ruins of ancient architectural marvels as the remains of artifice, rendered aesthetic only accidentally, by their fallen state’s ironic disclosure of where monumental contrivances of control end. (Perhaps a “ruined” Avatar will be similarly compelling in two millennia.) In short, when too much money and too many people get involved, you will get artifice, not art, almost by definition. This is definitely implied in the book, but not addressed squarely.
3. Martel has some superb pages on the difference between the artist and the maker of masterworks. The master craftsman does everything right, is at one with his or her tools, and produces superior product. But the artist has no such assurance, often feels alienated from his or her tools, and produces works of weird excess that violate all sorts of artistic norms. That is all true, but the naive reader could come away from this with the idea that breaking rules is in and of itself all one has to do to make great art. It seems to me that some fierce dialectical engagement with the rules is what makes for great art; merely breaking them is not sufficient, is not even really interesting. Otherwise, I could pee on the floor, and it would be great art. So I missed from Martel’s book much acknowledgement of thinkers (e.g., Eliot, Bloom) for whom the shaping force of tradition is the necessary resistance that any new work has to overcome.
But Martel’s is a book well worth reading, despite any faults I find with it. Reclaiming Art has the rare virtue of being concise, precise, and conversational all at once, and most of what it advocates is, from my perspective, correct.