art 2003/1

Gediminas Akstinas. ± Begalybė. 2002, metalas, stiklas, 540 x 400 x 31

The Importance of the History of Art and Criticism in Culture

by Algis Uždavinys

The discussion should start by redefining key concepts of “art”, “history”, “culture”, and “criticism”.
We are interested in the question why history of art today becomes instrumental in deeper understanding of the world and man. In modern civilization, it can counter the one-sided technocratic attitude, which turns human being into a screw in the postmodern consumer society. Yet plunging into the realm of art and aesthetics also entails some dangers and may result in developing snobbishness or museum fetishism. Indeed, it takes almost supernatural ability to differentiate between the real and pseudo art and to share this with others. Chronological tables of contemporary positivistic art history can hardly reveal any spiritual experience for a student of art.
If art is a spiritual phenomenon, does that imply the existence of some spiritual hierarchy, denied by the adepts of Postmodernism? Being rooted in the soil of the Enlightenment, history of art in its current shape explains just one facet of the overall picture and fails to address this hierarchic anatomy.
Art history was formed under the influence of the 19th century historicism, contemporary concept of “art” emerged even prior to that. At that stage the history of art was subjected to the methods of historical rationalism and presented stereotyped picture of the development of art.
While looking for the sources of art criticism, it becomes obvious that history of art – as the phenomenon aesthetic, cultural or secular-cultic – is only possible when “art” is defined as an aesthetic experience and a form of conceptualism separate from integral religious and rational scientific truth. Yet as soon as art gained complete independence and became art in the sense of musee imaginaire, it trigged the great art revolution. Nowadays this was brought to the extreme where questions arise whether that still is art.
This doubt proves the fact that art based on exclusively aesthetic considerations is a bastard of Modern times. In post-Christian civilization it clandestinely absorbs sacramental functions of religion. Spiritual experience is reduced to the sphere of pure aesthetic experience.
Postmodernists are probably right in declaring the end of art, as the New Ages applied this concept only to a certain specific category of artworks. Later attempts were made to project the same criteria on the art of previous ages and to forge a uniform history of art. Art history in its present shape applied classification and analysis methods borrowed from the 18th –19th century historicism. It cast away criteria of value and separated traditional (including sacral) and untraditional (modern) art. Metaphysical categories of beauty and truth were artificially replaced by a dynamic institution of art criticism.
What is art criticism? It is a substitute of “magic” legitimization and legal approval. Art critic performs the functions of a judge, magician, actor, and a jester. In the epoch of Enlightenment and Romanticism, art critic hides behind a mask of a double-faced character, which reflects the old opposition between philosophy and sophism. Art criticism is inevitably poised between romantic idealism and bourgeois pragmatism. Idealism turns artists into semi-gods, while art critic retains the role of a shaman. When an artist becomes a sanctified idiot, his critic is a double idiot interpreting mirages created by fools. Such a situation is only possible when a certain world outlook blocks the entire horizon of existence and establishes itself as a reality to be taken for granted. On the practical level, art critic performs functions of a publicity agent.
In the critical discourse on Modern art, several rules apply. These rules are based on expectation of uniqueness and novelty, as these qualities serve to support the hypothesis of the creative spirit inherent in history. The legacy of the Enlightenment is a vision of an intelligent and bright future for culture. As some mutations of art compromise such a prospect, art criticism ends up playing a double game. Art critic or historian must restore a balance every time when “a genius” destroys the established aesthetic and psychological order.
Modern technology and entertainment industry have placed art into a difficult situation. Science has appropriated truth, therefore art champions “artistic truth”. Art history and criticism play the role of a servant and chronicler. The fact that each classification and collection is in a sense interpretation, and even propaganda, seems to be ignored.
I want to note how much art criticism depends on specific conditions, which have produced contemporary art as a pure aesthetic phenomenon. It largely depends on a certain conventional world outlook, ontology and ideology in its broadest sense. That means that the cult of art, which emerged in the New Ages in Western world and the critical discourse, which supports it, are neither universal nor completely convincing.
I would like to stress that art history does not necessarily need to be dogmatic: it can relate more closely with a certain philosophical or religious perspective.
Deeper knowledge of art, which was created in different traditions, and an insight into underpinning believes give hope that a common platform will be established enabling a better understanding of our culture and that of others. When different cultures and civilizations interact, the language of art and comparative art history discourse can provide impetus for gaining more spiritual wisdom.
In the face of triumphant technocratic ideology, art becomes a refuge and shelter for man. The art critic or historian is tasked to draw boundaries and post signs separating the realms of material phenomena, aesthetic-artistic domain, and the sphere of virtual deceit. It means critical revision of the same “eternal” categories of life and death, truth and beauty, reality and fiction, pleasure and pain, as reflection on art and its interpretation is not something neutral, but a factor influencing human consciousness and the subconscious.