Art: Contemplation or Commodity?

January-February 1992By Ronald Austin

Ronald Austin is a Hollywood producer, writer, and social worker, and Chairman of the New Oxford Review Forum of Southern California.

Art and Scholasticism. By Jacques Maritain.

What is art? How should it be judged? Given the importance of “the arts,” and the endless conflicts as to what should be government-funded and what should properly be trashed, one would think that some minimal criteria would be at hand. But the most disputed term in all the recent controversies isn’t “obscene,” but “art” itself. And, curiously, most of those disputing whether art has lasting standards seem to be the critics, curators, and even the practitioners themselves. Andy Warhol may have summed up this “post-Modern” skepticism when he mockingly opined, “art is the name of a man.” Art is what I say it is, sayeth Andy. Practically, this means judgment is left to the marketplace, and caveat emptor.

Earlier Western ideas about art, however, were often more definitive. Art centered on the perception of an ideal form, usually called “beauty,” “significant form,” or the like. This notion of art stemmed from the Greeks by way of the Renaissance and effectively died, aside many other ideals, in the trenches around 1918. In a time when many denounce the relativity that swamps our ethics or deplore the New Age murk obscuring an aspiration for truth, it is of historical interest, at least, to observe that beauty was the first of the “classical triad” (the Good, the True, and the Beautiful) to slip from modern consciousness.

We have not only lost the notion of beauty; the present inability to express our appraisals of art, music, or literature in any common language reflecting shared values has led to flagrant charlatanism on the one hand, and unapologetic contempt on the other. The most recent political reaction to the breakdown of critical standards has been mostly yahooism, understandable but depressing. Yet perhaps what’s worse is the philistinism of the entrenched opposition to yahooism: the patrons of the oxymoronic (namely, a socially approved, correct-thinking “avant-garde”).

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