The pivotal role of the art critic. A classic by a scholar, a report from the front by a journalist
Art and Anarchy, by Edgar Wind. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. 160 pp. $25, cloth; $10.95, paper. The Revenge of the Philistines: Art and Culture, 1972-1984, by Hilton Kramer. New York: The Free Press. 445 pp. $25. Two important new books remind us once again that to be appreciated, art needs intellect. Art needs criticism.
Before Edgar Wind (1900-1970) was appointed the first professor of art ever at Oxford University, he had established himself as the champion of meaning in the visual arts by making important contributions to the understanding of great works from many periods. But there was nothing abstract about Wind's concern for meaning. He believed the aesthetic experience tested ideas and symbols, making them real and tangible. To the consternation of his idealist friends, he formulated his thesis that ``symbols are
real only to the extent in which they can be embodied in an experimentum crucis [crucial experience] whose outcome is directly observable.''
Wind knew art well, but was in many ways a man of common sense. The ``anarchy'' in the title of his book refers to the ``creative exuberance'' of the artist. In these essays (which originated as the Reith Lectures for the BBC in 1960), Wind begins at the beginning, with Plato. In his time, poetry was the most important art. Plato experienced the anarchy of art in poetry. He recognized it, feared it, and proscribed the poets.
Today, we have found other means for handling that anarchy. Wind points to wide diffusion of art; academic criticism that reduces art to the way an artist does noses or ears; mass production of reproductions of what are termed ``original works of art.'' All these have cheapened our experience of what Plato called a ``sacred fear.''
Wind's argument is crowned by his powerful diagnosis of the role of the will in art.
Left to himself, Wind contends, the artist may be dangerous to himself and society at large. Restrained by the will of a powerful patron, as in Renaissance Rome, and by a cogent and universal system of ideas, the real artist flourishes. One need only mention Michelangelo and the Medicis as an example of this relationship.
The patron represents the will or the informing ideas. Believed in and passionately served by the artist, critical ideas act as limits against which the artist can shape his materials and energy. Critical ideas are the patrons of great art.
Edgar Wind's book is a modern classic. It belongs with Baudelaire's criticism of the Salons, Ortega y Gasset's ``The Dehumanization of Art, and Other Essays on Art, Culture and Literature'' and Jacques Maritain's ``Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry'' on the short shelf of modern art classics.
Hilton Kramer's ``The Revenge of the Philistines,'' on the other hand, is not a classic: It's a report from the front. And his side seems to be losing.
Unlike Edgar Wind, Kramer is not a scholar: He's a journalist. Former art critic for the New York Times, now editor of The New Criterion magazine, Kramer, like Wind, takes art seriously. The problem is, we have taken artists seriously. We have told them to do their thing, and they have done it. We have interviewed them rather than criticized them, he says.
As a critic, Kramer, again like Wind, offers not only a specialized knowledge of a craft or body of work, but also an analysis of contemporary man and culture. By means of a smart use of special language, Kramer has positioned himself in line with Matthew Arnold (known for his use of the word ``philistines'') and T. S. Eliot (who edited The Criterion, where his poem ``The Waste Land'' was published in 1922); and now we have The New Criterion: The coincidence of name is part of Kramer's program.
Does he live up to that pedigree?
Written originally for the New York Times, The New Criterion, and other periodicals, the essays in ``The Revenge of the Philistines'' document the gradual erosion of the authority of modern art in our times.
The title, for example, points to the subordination of the moral purpose of modern art to the need of the upper classes for decoration. Picasso wallpaper in the bathroom, that sort of thing.
In a superb essay on Tom Wolfe, Kramer discusses ``the peaceful accommodation that now obtains between art and the middle class, and -- what is looming as a factor of even greater consequence -- between art and various government agencies responsible for art's support.''
As Kramer sees it, modern art, in its heyday, was a moral response to modern society. It was a form of ``moral combat'' with the wasteland described by T. S. Eliot. Or, in the words of Wallace Stevens, modern art is involved in a ``spiritual quest.'' But when art turned away from its moral purpose toward the exaltation of the mundane and trivial, a moment inseparable from the acceptance of ``camp'' as a way of life and art, art lost its central role and moved to the periphery.
Of the portrait today (``Pearlstein's Portraits''), Kramer writes: ``Evidently for both the artist and his subject and for the public, too, it answers to a need greater than that of the purely aesthetic -- a need for something in art that is `beyond' art.''
Kramer has the knowledge, the skill, and the passion to attend to the ``need'' we all feel ``for something in art that is `beyond' art.'' And he has the wit to make art criticism a form of pleasure. It's a great consolation that we won't have to wait for another book of his to read more Hilton Kramer, only next month's issue of The New Criterion, the most provocative periodical I know.
Tom D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.