Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ortega y Gasset: The Dehumanization of Art (Artistic Art - Excerpt 1 of 2)

PaintingsImage by Airelle.info via FlickrARTISTIC ART

If the new art is not accessible to every man, this means that its levers are not of a generically human kind. It is an art not for men in general, but for a very special class of men who may not be better than the others but who are evidently different.

Before anything else, one point must be clarified. What is it the majority of people call aesthetic pleasure? What happens in their souls when they "like" a work of art; for instance, a theatrical performance? The answer is straight: people like a play when they have become interested in the human destinies presented to them. The loves, hatreds, sorrows, and joys of the personages move their hearts: they participate in them as though they were actual happenings in life. And they call a work "good" if it succeeds in creating the necessary quantity of illusion to make the imaginary personages appear like living persons.

In poetry they will seek the passion and pain of the man that throbs behind the poet. In painting, the only works that will attract them are the figures of males and females with whom it would be interesting to live. A landscape is pronounced "pretty" if the real landscape it represents deserves for its loveliness or its poignancy to be visited on a trip.

Which means that for the majority of the people aesthetic pleasure isn’t in essence a diverse spiritual attitude, separate from what is habitual in their ordinary life. It differs only in accidental qualities: being perhaps less utilitarian, more intense, and of painless consequences.

Definitely, though, the object in which art focuses, the goal of its attention, and with it all their other mental powers, is the same as in daily life: figures and human passions. And they will call art the set of means through which they are brought in contact with interesting human affairs. They will tolerate the artistic forms proper, the unreal, and fantasy only if they do not interfere with the perception of forms and human adventures. As soon as these purely aesthetic elements predominate, and the public cannot grasp well the story of John and Mary, the public will remain disoriented—at a loss as to what to make of the scene, the book, or the painting. And it is only natural; they don’t know any other attitude before the objects other than the practical one, what en-passions us to infuse feelings in them. A work that does not invite this intervention leaves them clueless.

Now, at this point we must be perfectly clear. Rejoicing or grieving at such human destinies as a work of art presents or narrates is a very different thing from true artistic pleasure. Moreover: that preoccupation with the human content of the work is in principle incompatible with aesthetic enjoyment proper.

What we have is a very simple optical problem. To see an object we must adjust our visual apparatus in a certain way. If the adjustment is inadequate we won’t see the object or we’ll see it badly. Let the reader imagine that we are seeing a garden through a glass window. Our eyes will adjust in such a way that the ray of vision penetrates through the pane without being held up by it, going to rest on the shrubs and flowers. Since our goal is to see the garden, our ray of vision is thrust toward it, we do not see the glass but look clear through it—remaining the glass unperceived. The purer the glass, the less we see it. With some effort we can also disregard the garden and, withdrawing the ray of vision, detain it on the glass. We then lose sight of the garden; what we behold of it is a confused mass of color which appears pasted to the pane. Hence to see the garden and to see the windowpane are two incompatible operations which exclude one another because they require different ocular adjustments.

Similarly, whoever seeks in the work of art to empathize with the fate of John and Mary or Tristan and Isolde by adjusting his spiritual perception to them, will not see the work of art.

Tristan's sorrows are sorrows and can arouse compassion only in so far as they are taken as real. But an object of art is artistic only because it is not real. In order to enjoy Titian's portrait of Charles the Fifth on horseback we must forget that this is Charles the Fifth the authentic and living person, and see instead a portrait, an unreal image, a fiction. The portrayed subject and his portrait are two entirely different objects; we are interested in either one or the other. In the first case we "live" with Charles the Fifth, in the second we “gaze” at an object of art.

But the great majority of people are incapable of adjusting their attention to the pane and the transparency that is the work of art; instead they look right through it, wallowing passionately in the human reality alluded to in the work of art. Should they be invited to let go of this prey and to direct their attention to the work of art itself, they will say that they cannot see such a thing, which indeed they cannot, because they cannot see human objects; only artistic transparencies and virtual purities will they see.
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