Tuesday, November 21, 2006
I am still in the middle of Dianne Durante's fascinating article, "19th-Century French Painting and Philosophy" in the Fall 2006 issue of The Objective Standard, but I have noticed an interesting parallel between the historical progression it describes and a scene from a clinical tale from the field of neurology.
Consider the common analogy between man's brain and his cognitive ability on the one hand and computers and programming on the other. Man's brain, the hardware, has a definite nature and must be functioning properly, at least in most respects, for him to have the ability to reason and act efficaciously within reality. His philosophy, the software, will help or impede his ability to reason depending on how "glitch-free", or correct, it is. (The analogy is not perfect because, among other things, man has free will and thus the power to question his philosophy and change it.)
With the above analogy in mind, consider the effects of progressively worse "programming" on a succession of French artists, taken from the conclusion of the article on p. 140:
As a result of the changes in philosophical ideas from Enlightenment assumptions to Kantian premises, we have seen the subjects of French 19th-century paintings move from the heroic to the ordinary to the unrecognizable, and style move from the careful evocation of texture and atmosphere to daubs and smears applied with a palette knife. By the early years of the 20th century, the works being produced by the French avant-garde were bizarre and incomprehensible, but were defended vehemently by the artists and critics. Hence, although it is startling that Matisse's Luxe, calme, et volupte (fig. 2) was accepted as an admirable work of art a mere century after David painted Madame Recamier (fig. 1), it is understandable in the context of the time. Art is, after all, subject to cause and effect. Most artists, like most other people, uncritically adopt the ideas circulating in their culture. The philosophical ideas circulating by 1900 were horrendous. Art followed suit.Compare this to the following passage from the clinical tale whose title lends itself to the collection The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks, in which he shows us the dramatic toll a physical illness can take on a man's cognitive powers:
"Yes," Mrs. P. said, "he was a gifted painter as well as a singer. The School exhibited his pictures every year."Fortunately, if we regard Western civilization, too, as a patient with an illness, the prognosis is uncertain, but it is far from hopeless.
I strolled past them curiously -- they were in chronological order. All his earlier work was naturalistic and realistic, with vivid mood and atmosphere, but finely detailed and concrete. Then, years later, they became less vivid, less concrete, less realistic and naturalistic, but far more abstract, even geometrical and cubist Finally, in the last paintings, the canvasses became nonsense, or nonsense to me -- mere chaotic lines and blotches of paint. I commented on this to Mrs. P.
"Ach, you doctors, you're such Philistines!" she exclaimed. "Can you not see the artistic development -- how he renounced the realism of his earlier years, and advanced into abstract, nonrepresentational art?"
"No, that's not it," I said to myself (but forbore to say it to poor Mrs. P.). He had indeed moved from realism to nonrepresentation to the abstract, yet this was not the artist, but the pathology, advancing -- advancing towards a profound visual agnosia, in which all powers of representation and imagery, all sense of reality, were being destroyed. This wall of paintings was a tragic pathological exhibit, which belonged to neurology, not art. (p.17) [link added]
Today: Two minor edits.
11-22-06: Corrected a typo. (HT: Adrian Hester)