I lost my aesthetic innocence in the Art Institute of Chicago. I have never felt completely or comfortably at home in my own time and culture since. Coming of age in the 1960’s I knew about cultural criticism and counter culture. In the Art Institute it all came together suddenly.
The institute was laid out so that one could travel through the exhibits in historical order. One could see the movement of artistic expression through time, tracking and comparing styles and schools, and observing within schools the things that set the masters apart. The artistic embodiment of tradition emerged for me for the first time – despite my lack of education and experience. I saw beauty in pieces I had not expected to find beautiful. I did note that, starting with what seemed to be the “post-impressionist” age, it seemed harder for me to see differences among the pieces – mastery did not stand out against the more mundane quite so clearly as it had earlier. I could not perceive a tradition.
Finally, we came into the hall of contemporary art. The first thing that assaulted my eyes as I rounded a corner was a wall hanging. It consisted of a common snow shovel (I figured it to cost about $8.95 at Walmart). I believe the blade had been painted a dull silver. Beneath the snow shovel was a nicely groomed conical pile of sand – about a foot tall. And then it hit me: I was being asked to regard this display as art, but it didn’t feel like an invitation to see it as art; it felt like a demand. I had just seen the Great Masters. I had just seen the best of our tradition. I had seen and understood real effort to capture, and even improve on what had gone before. And now this. It simply did not fit. It was a rude interruption. I felt oppressed because it felt to me that the artist was demanding that I legitimate that shovel and pile of sand as art simply because it was the artist’s self-expression.
Art was suddenly reduced to the self-expression of the creator, the observer, or both. I wasn’t sure at all what was being self-expressed through the shovel and sand from the “artist’s” part, but I know what my self-expression was in response to it. Mine was not aesthetic. I felt exploited. The feeling was mitigated only by a particularly decadent chocolate turtle pie consumed in the Institute’s cafeteria a short while later.
No doubt a contemporary artist might read this whole account and conclude that “that’s the whole point of art – to disturb and unsettle those who are at ease.” As I consider this defining description of art, it seems inadequate. There is something that sounds wrong about the “Disturbance Institute of Chicago.”
Further reflection on this experience brought to mind a very influential essay by T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” first published in 1920. Its general conclusion deals with the fact that modernity seems always to value originality in art, and to evaluate the talent of the individual artist in terms of unique expression that breaks with or even rejects tradition. Eliot points out that a more thoughtful analysis shows that it is the tradition that allows for creativity, and any evaluation of talent as well as the value of any particular nuanced confrontation with it. He relates this to his observation that every culture “is even more oblivious of the shortcomings and limitations of its critical habits than of those of its creative genius.” Indeed without a developed critical sense (of one’s own time and its products, including art) a culture’s creations cannot really be evaluated because a real evaluation is necessarily an evaluation against something – a standard already recognized as worthy. Without a tradition (whether lost to rejection or apathy) evaluation of quality in art or any cultural product cannot be genuine. In the case of artistic expression, lacking a recognized and serious tradition all that is left is mere self-expression. And “How,” many in our contemporary culture might ask, “can one judge self-expression?”
Eliot was speaking of poetry, but it is also true of other meaningful human expressions. He observed that “[the] search for novelty in the wrong place . . . discovers the perverse.” He concludes his essay with a crucial observation about the nature of art: “The emotion of art is impersonal.” If the purpose and meaning of art is the personal self-expression of the artist, then any artistic production is potentially as meaningful – and as artful as any other. Any person’s self-expression is as meaningful, and thus, as artistically legitimate as any other person’s self-expression. Under this aesthetic intellectual regime, the snow shovel and sand pile must stand on equal footing with the Sistine Chapel. Both reflect the self-expression of the individual artist. This is, not, however, a conclusion we ought to reach. I certainly felt disinclined to reach it that day in the Art Institute of Chicago. No doubt many in the artistic community would object to my conclusions, saying that I’ve gone too far. The point is, however, there is nothing in the contemporary approach to aesthetics that in principle legitimates art as self-expression, that prevents one’s going too far, or provides a firm basis for rejecting the extreme case of self-expression. It is often said that art imitates life, but also that life imitates art. Just as it has been increasingly common to devalue or even reject tradition in the arts as unimportant and restraining, it has become increasingly common to reject tradition in virtually any aspect of culture.
Basic cultural institutions that have proven their worth in establishing standards and providing individuals and cultures with aspirations for refinement and flourishing, are now the subject of sharp criticism, and in dissolution – in the name of self-expression. In our individualistic and self-absorbed culture self-expression has become the end and purpose not only of individual lives, but of cultural institutions and communal life. Marriage, children, and family are increasingly taken to be not ends in themselves, goods by their very nature, but rather merely means of self-expression, to be valued only insofar as they facilitate individual self-expression and preference. Legal systems and moral systems are to be evaluated in terms of how well they safeguard and sanction the individual liberty of self-expression.
The real loss in this denigration of tradition is the possibility for judgments of quality and the positive aspirations such judgments provided for human life and culture as well as for art. T. S. Eliot makes the point that the most original and creative part of artistic expression is often the part that is most influenced by tradition. He concludes that art can transcend mere self-expression only if the artist lives in the “present moment of the past.” The past – tradition – provides consciousness “not of what is dead, but of what is already living.” It provides the means not of expressing self, but of transcending self, its pre-occupations, and introverted worship. Only in so doing can we really hope. Javoslav Pelikan defines tradition as the “living faith of the dead.” Traditionalism (which involves a mindless reverence for the superficial aspects of tradition), which Pelikan defines as “the dead faith of the living . . . is what gives tradition a bad name.” In the preservation and refining of our most important traditions and institutions we find the essence that allows us to aspire to what is greater and better than ourselves and our menial self-expression.