Friday, December 27, 2013

professional nonsense

I read John Armstrong's article at City Journal titled "What Is Art For?"

Armstrong completely misses the point of art. His evaluation is astonishing in its aesthetic and spiritual misapprehending.  
"The overarching aim is psychological improvement."

Balderdash and zebra feathers. 

He says that art is for therapy. He says that art is for intellectual and moral guidance. He doesn't seem to understand that art is an eruption of the strange into the quotidian. It's not to make us feel better or be better. It's to make us aesthetically haunted and spiritually odder. It's about existential disorientation.

Armstrong appears to be willfully, even militantly blind to how a work of art is an experience of time turned into the unsettling. A work of art is there to possess us, overwhelm us, make us partly mad. The exact opposite of Armstrong's medicinal criteria of interpretation.

Consider great works of art, from Rembrandt to Corot, from Monet to Van Gogh, from Kandinsky to Yves Tanguy. Do you discover in those works the psychologically edifying? Or do you rather find yourself confronted with the aesthetically mysterious and the spiritually peculiar?

The artist's compulsions and unusual visions are transferred to the viewer's consciousness. We become not better or healed people. We become part of a wondrous Uncanny. We enter into time and space turned into the resonance of a deep and subtle labyrinth, into the allurement of the puzzling and undecipherable. Yes, even Corot's paintings are implicit portals into the aesthetic dæmonic -- realms in which pastoral or urban beauty are complexified with an insinuating spiritual otherness.

Art is because art. It's a corrupter of conventional expectations. It's a palpable form of amnesia, a displacement and temporary forgetting of self. It's far beyond any instrumental categories. It's more like anti-therapy than any kind of psychological enhancement. 

John Armstrong probably got paid actual money to write his article.


  1. After a brief perusal of the article, (he makes some valid-sounding points) I found your last remark particularly telling: "actual money." It is as if the author of the article is assuming a material value could be assigned to each piece of art, and that its "function" within society's cold machine could somehow be quantified. The thought leaves me unsatisfied, actually nauseous. The idea of taking one's art in doses, like measured pills, is abhorrent--as is the notion of categorizing the intangible, of forcing it into some narrow utilitarian niche, in order to create more compliant zombies (here I am confessing my complicity, having often worn a zombie-outfit).

    The words of Christian Bobin, as quoted and translated by the mysterious Fiodor of France, speak more eloquently to me:

    “To write," says Bobin, "is like drawing a door on an impassable wall, and then opening it”.

    “My idea of life is a book, and my idea of a book is a draught of ice-cold water like the one coming out of the mouth of a lion fountain on a mountain road in the Juras, one summer. I was in one of these joyful penal colonies that one calls ‘summer camp’. I was left there for centuries, integrated into a small troop of singing killers, my peers, when in the middle of a forced march under a broiling sun there appeared the fountain belching out its foam of light. I rushed under the lion's mouth, opened my own and swallowed an ocean of cold water. The water rushed into my body right up to the heart where it extinguished the fire of abandonment that ravaged it. Decades later, I still remember the mystical comfort given by that icy water. Whenever I open a book, I look for the lion's mouth."

    1. I mentioned "actual money" because it irks me that such wrongheaded and complacent thinking gets rewarded.

    2. "Nature is a haunted house. Art is a house that wants to be haunted." - Emily Dickinson.
      I am in agreement with your "rant." And also, the commentary above, including Bobin, is excellent.

    3. The Wondrous Uncanny would be a great title for something not aimed at making actual money.

    4. "Art is a house that wants to be haunted." -- yes, especially the art of poetry. It would much rather be haunted than blasted with ego, opinion, harshness, and babbling.