T.S. Eliot and Arthur C. Danto Reconsidered

I’d earlier tried to tie together T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” to Arthur C. Danto’s writings on the philosophy of history and the historicism inherent in much of art theory.   I was wrong to pull those two strains of philosophical and critical thought.  Here I hope to set myself straight and tell you, my reader, how that will go.

Please allow me to quote myself at length.  There is a point here in all that follows and that point is to correct myself.  I’ll only be able to do that if I show you what I’ve done wrong, in odd musings from last year on T.S. Eliot and Arthur Danto.

I wrote in an effort to squeeze together Eliot and Danto into some happy whole:

“Arthur Danto thinks that Eliot asserts a complete separation between aesthetic and historical criticism. [Of Eliot, he thinks] “everything is aesthetic in a way that is not anchored in the particularities of a specific history.  He [Danto] 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 assert 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.”

I was wrong to think that there can be any change whatsoever in our appreciation in the historical record of that work, qua record.  That is to say record X becomes record X^ as a new work of art claims to challenge the posterity of the work that came before.  I know understand that Danto is correct.  A work of art that tries to stand in relation to older works simply creates a new tradition.  The older tradition remains and next to it, stands a revisionistic model of the older, then contemporary, tradition.  Works that quote Andy Warhols Brillo Boxes cannot stand in the same historical context as the original 1964 boxes. Rather, as a quotation, they create an entirely different tradition that cannot move Andy Warhol’s original boxes from the space (historical, art theoretical) they now occupy.

It were as if we lived in as many dimensions as there are works of art, each specific to its milieux, each anchored by its own objective substance.

I cannot push together modernism and postmodernism–better tagged as post-historicism. For neither belongs to the same conceptual stream.  They are disjunctive nodes in our collectively wrought view of the world.

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~ by Faheem Haider on July 29, 2010.

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