About Art in Ancient Greece, about Modern Art and about Contemporary Art

Winckelmann said, in the mid-1700s, that the highest purpose of art is to display beauty and that art has its apex in ancient Greece (under specific geographic and climatic conditions as well as under the conditions of democracy). Winckelmann was, of course, aware that the concept, and perecption, of beauty, is ambiguous. So he said that beauty emanates in the perfect harmony of a being with its intentions and a harmonious subsumption of its parts under the whole. The highest beauty is to be found in God and the highest beauty in art can be reached when man is approximated to the ideal, rounded off and harmonious, resting in itself, somehow innocently and naive as well as heroic, stemming immediately out of himself. „Edle Einfalt, stille Größe“ – Winckelmann was dismissive of the purely lovely, the enjoyable or that which is overly playful or pompous (characteristic of Baroque or Rococo). With this works Winckelmann was highly influentual at his time, and it is true that he somehow intellectually instituted a discourse of the autonomy of art and what art actually is/should be about. What he says was both fresh and virgin but also carried the seeds of institutionalising an empty, overly formal, anemic classicism. Hölderlin and Nietzsche were very fond of the Greeks in which they say an image of perfect humanity – such a fascination isn´t very easy to imagine today. Marxistic scholars claim that Winckelmann´s ideas and ideals and visions of a heroic, natural man, living free from constraints and under conditions of democracy refer to the (half-conscious) sentiments of the (half-)dormant bourgeoisie at this time and, therefore, stand and fall in history with the bourgeoisie being a revolutionary class (and it would be interesting to know how we could approach this when referring to Piaget´s model of the cognitive development of the infant when we try to look at historical stages that way – I hope I can do this somewhere soon). Winckelmann was also influential concerning cyclical models of looking upon cultures/historical entities (e.g. Spengler) and about viewing peoples as cultural units (both in a „progressive“ and a „reactionary“ sense), more generally we can think about developments in art when we try to look at it from a Winckelmannian perspective. That the end of art is beauty, and beauty is, ideally, to be found in God and in free man – well, looks superseded; that this is so because of decay – well: a more filigree perspective is needed.

There is this book „Verlust der Mitte“ (originally published 1948) by Hans Sedlmayr I read a long time ago and now came to remember on that occasion. Sedlmayr makes up a conservative scholar who sees modern art as a process of cultural degeneration (he mourns loss of unity/harmony/completeness that he thinks existed somewhere back in time). – Sedlmayer was a member of the NSDAP and later in his life reportedly had some affiliations to the Green party; indeed, he was hooked on ideas of Ganzheitlichkeit, (reactionary) spiritism and nostalgia for some kind of ideal of embeddedness of man in the cosmic whole; although he is also kind of a misfit within such partisanship and intellectually trangresses partisan affiliations: At the core Sedlmayr mourns the loss of a relationship between man and God. In the modern era, man is cut off from God and becomes dangerously „autonomous“ and makes a mess, resulting not least in dissolution, fragmentation and atomisation of his modes of self-reflection (including art) and developing a mirror image full of self-loathing. Harmony corruption. Definitely no beauty. – Even if you find this unconvicing, „Verlust der Mitte“ is a worthwhile read, many insights and eruditions it carries, and Sedlmayr has a lot of empathy e.g. for van Gogh or Paul Klee.

That the end of art is beauty seems to be quite superseded – although the quest for beauty is inherent to art and has always been there. Since beauty is actually not definable, visionary artists have been aware that what we perceive as beautiful is, to some degree, malleable; and great, visionary artists have expanded our notion and perception about what is to be considered as beautiful. In an accelerating society, within modernity, the quest for beauty also accelerates, and may become overwhelmed by a larger conquest for meaning – as modern art is, as can be said, foremost about locating meaning. Beauty is but an element within meaning.

Illuminatingly, young contemporary German philosopher Markus Gabriel philosophises that art is about evocation of things in a different context, in a context different from normal. By showing stuff in unusual context, meaning is added and transformed (concerning both motif and background), respectively, within such dislocations, meaning per se emanates. The true artwork shows meaning per se (indeed, objects of contemporary art appear somehow fluctuating between being silent and empty and on the other hand so charged with meaning and so uncanny and talkative). It shows how the meaning of things is dependent on context and on interpretation within contexts and that it is linked to the imaginary i.e. to the great wide open. Remember how Angell de la Sierra from Omega Society says that by showing the many facets of a thing in multiple contexts the true artist shows the existential ontology of a thing, and while maybe not showing the „thing in itself“ in a scientific/kantian sense, art shows the meta-noumenon of a thing (respectively „meaning“ as Gabriel says). – It is true that art is highly about displaying intelligence at divergent thinking i.e. at seeing many associations to a given thing which then establishes context and fixation. It is about sensitivity to nuances and tolerance for ambiguity. And the meaning that is revealed in the artwork usually is ambiguous and ambivalent in nature. That is so because art is an investigation of the (so-called) irrational aspects of existence, about man in the universe. Shades of God.

This diversification of meaning probably has always been prominent in art yet while in more „ancient“ art you have a tendency towards holism and rounding things off, in the most contemporary art the trajectory of production of meaning is permanent evasion and establishment of meta-levels. While the one thing may appear boring and conservative in our time the other one risks losing substance and degenerating into farce and derision. As Francesco Bonami, curator at the Biennale, says: „The great curators had an almost Christian attitude with respect to the exhibition, as though attempting the moral and cultural conquest of the world, while the curator´s attitude today must be more pagan.“ (Likewise, when I read Greenberg or Carl Einstein I sense there is some coolness in the harsh verdicts of semi-ancient art criticism of days bygone, supposedly something that is absent in today´s „anything goes“ tolerance within a degeneration of standards … then, I also probably don´t miss it so much, since lenience and tolerance have some things going for them (if this is a correct idiom at all, I don´t care atm, because I like it right now and people going to understand it anyway).) – „It is – and perhaps always has been – the function of art to take us to the margin of contemporary experience, to try on what seems far-fetched, peculiar, different, and new so as to explore what may be on the verge of becoming essential to know“, it says at the end of „Art since 1940 – Strategies of Being“ by Jonathan Fineberg. – The problem is that, under such a flag, we today seem to be, under the disguise of art, confronted with too many empty peculiarities and „objects that resemble objects of art“ („kunstähnliche Gegenstände“, as the Merowinger says) replacing (true) objects of art. True objects of art are a rare thing however, as you recognise when you gaze back through space and time. Yesteryear´s epochs seem so great and monolithic because only the masterpieces are still around, while we can see a lot of trash and ephemeral stuff of our epoch. Some day we will be equalised along these lines (and e.g. Basquiat or Duncan Wylie will remain).

So, alongside the trajectory of opening, there are the demons of banality. Once, when I was young, I appeared bitter over that, but over time I seem to see it more casually, and I am grateful to live in this fantastic epoch. It is good, and underappreciated, that we are living in great times today! That when we go to the museum there we find the half-inflated rubber raft on the floor, a magnetic tape which displays „Ha Ha“ in an endless loop and a camera which films the scenery supposedly forever, as an artwork called („The Illusion of) Permanence“ or so. Ahh, exciting, ahh, eccentric; the meaning of it rests in a superposition. – Tbh this stuff from ancient Greece is, indeed, harmonious, but also not very exciting. The endless production of meaning (and making it collapse) is cooler. Incipit Zarathustra.

I do not want to throw it under the table that – as it appears to me – this note is not written as good as I would have wanted it to be. It is a bit tattered, I suppose. It was not written as easily as other notes and not in straight line but from accumulation via different spots. Then again, I think it is actually quite okay and nothing to be worried about. Maybe some will think that some of the stuff in here is banal, but it is not; is very deep and I have left out some mental leaps that are probably explicative, but also a nuisance, as I intend to write concise and relatively short notes which are nevertheless very comprehensive; I do not like verbose stuff, I am maybe too lazy to write verbose and I hate long conversations anyway. These notes about art are designed to aesthetically as well as intellectually display compactness – that is the idea.

A conclusive remark about the question of who is right: the Christian priest or the pagan? In art, s/he will be right who carries spiritual truth (and this usually means transcending the supposed pagan/priest opposition and being universal). What spiritual truth is, respectively how it is displayed, cannot be stipulated. You will, however, easily notice it when you finally see it, death to false metal. – The final conclusion of Sedlmayr´s „Verlust der Mitte“ is that there is an „empty throne“ which shall be occupied by the perfect man, the Gottmensch. – I  have also half-erratically ruminated about an Omega Man that will come and will provide a solution to the contemporary art problem and to the contemporary philosophy problem (and that the solution will, likely, come in unexpected fashion and be poorly understood). The ongoing vacany of the throne is probably due to the Gottmensch of today needs to be quite more comprehensive and all-encompassing than even Picasso or Michelangelo – although this may be an erroneous assumption since the times of Michelangelo or Imhotep probably weren´t less complex than ours; and for the Omega Man the complex (e.g. metaphysics, science…) is simple while the simple (e.g. politics or everyday human interactions) seems complex and stuff for endless ruminations to him/her. Apart from that the Gottmensch of today will need, among his powers, extraordinary mental strength, since s/he will have to try to establish connection in a world that is, forever, atomised and very superficial, and old ideas that art or philosophy are going to save us aren´t applicable anymore and the Gottmensch cannot shelter behind such illusions anymore. Technology is the prime mover and, as always, will produce both order and wreckage. History is some form of chaos and will continue to be. In some years I may have a 3D printer and my home will be „smarter“ than me.