Meaning in Muybridge Redone, Bacon Undone, Walter Benjamin, Condone.

I can think of no better critical explication of the station of the contemporary artist and the production of contemporary art than to quote at length a passage from  T.S. Eliot’s 1922 essay, “Tradition and Individual Talent.”:

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.  His significance, his appreciation, is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.  You cannot value him alone, you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.  I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical criticism.  The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere is not one-sided, what happens when a new work is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works that preceded it.  The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work among them.  The existing order is complete before the new work arrives, for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered, and so the relations, proportions, values of each work toward the whole readjusted.”

Arthur Danto thinks that Eliot asserts a complete separation between aesthetic and historical criticism. Everything is aesthetic in a way that is not anchored in the particularities of history.  He writes in his essay, “The Historical Museum of Monochrome Art, “what concerns me is the separation of aesthetic from historical in this way.  It is a move that closes the distance between artistic and natural beauty.  But in doing that it blinds us to artistic beauty as such.  Artistic perception is through and through historical.  And in my view artistic beauty is historical as well.”

In contrast to Danto’s assertion, I take Eliot to mean that there exists a legitimate distinction between historical and aesthetic criticism.  I do not think that Eliot proposes that historical criticism be separated, disassociated entirely from aesthetic concerns.   A work of art, Eliot wants to say, redirects the measure of a movement in which that piece of art seeks engagement. Relative to the contemporary critic, both the historical and aesthetic record of that movement changes because the way we view a work in the past changes, though obviously the definition of that movement remains in place.   Danto wants to think that this is a nonsensical proposition because nothing fundamental changes about that record because we are no longer a part of that record.  We remain mired in our contemporary history: a piece of art made in a Baroque fashion cannot be considered a piece of Baroque art. It can only stand in relation to contemporary practices and a Baroque style of painting.

I do not take Eliot to mean that a work 400 years hence changes irreparably the history of work that was produced 400 years ago.  I take him to mean that some elements of historical practice can be refashioned through contemporary works in the way that Hockney’s work on the methods in which the Old Masters painted has changed our conception of that work.  The claims of beauty that we think those works elicited might have changed thereby.  If we then think that Hockney’s work is a part of that historical tradition, according to Eliot, his work changes, slightly the tradition and history of that work.

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~ by Faheem Haider on December 9, 2009.

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