- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 30, 2001

By Larry Shiner
University of Chicago, $35, 342 pages, illus.

A friend of mine recently gave a talk on Michelangelo's statue of Bacchus, a precocious early work which first hints at the sculptor's genius. It depicts the tipsy god, who has not yet arrived at the reeling stage of inebriation, as he hoists up his flagon and simpers. The best way to view the statue is through the handle of the flagon, whose form neatly enframes the god's leering eye, which has been drilled precisely for this view so that his gaze falls on the startled viewer. My friend spoke of Michelangelo's intention in contriving this effect but for this he was roundly admonished. He was informed that it is no longer acceptable to speak of the intentions of an artist: "Intentionality is no longer a consideration in art."Likewise, "we no longer talk of genius."
At this, my friend could only ask in exasperation, "If we can't speak of genius or intentions, what is left to study? Instances of accidental stupidity?"
Such is the contemporary state of affairs. In fashionable academic circles, the idea that a work of art is an exquisite manifestation of human genius, expressed in terms of form, mass, and color, is now widely discredited or ridiculed. Some might feel the loss of the very idea of art to be a cultural tragedy of a high order, but not Larry Shiner, a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois.
In his ambitious study, "The Invention of Art," Mr. Shiner takes great pains to show that our idea of high art is no universal constant but a peculiar product of 18th-century efforts to formalize the division between the fine and the mechanical arts.
Medieval society knew no such division, nor did classical antiquity. Not until the French state established academies of art and architecture in the mid-17th century was there any official apparatus that elevated the fine arts above mere artisanry.
And not until 1771 was a museum built for the exclusive display of fine art (as opposed to those natural curiosities and oddities that comprised the old Kunst- und Wunderkabinett). Thus the hallowed tradition whose destruction that reactionaries mourn is scarcely 200 years old
Mr. Shiner's thesis is hardly radical to historians of art it is something of a platitude but his interest in aesthetic philosophy brings something new to this discussion. He shows that the experience of viewing of art changed dramatically over the course of the 18th century. At the start of the century, works of art were to be appreciated didactically, or narratively, or as performances of good taste; in other words, they were to be read. By the time of romanticism, there was a widespread insistence that a work of art was to enjoyed in purely aesthetic terms, viewed in a state of rapt attention or disinterested contemplation. This disinterestedness a benign indifference to the "moral, practical, or recreational" function of the work of art was crucial to the idea of high art.
In order to make his case, Mr. Shiner must show that the understanding of art in the Renaissance was quite different from that of the Enlightenment.
He makes much of the fact that the Italian word artifice was used to describe both craftsmen and artists like Michelangelo. He also cites contracts with artists which fastidiously prescribed subjects, colors, and dimensions to show that even a Renaissance artist like Leonardo "was not a modern individualist imposing claims to absolute autonomy." But absolute autonomy is never a prerogative when a patron is involved, as even Frank Lloyd Wright knew.
Mr. Shiner concedes that the Italian Renaissance created the idea of the autonomous work of art, but insists that this doctrine was restricted to a small and cultivated elite. But has this not always been the case?
The sort of disinterested aesthetic contemplation that he views as central to the experience of fine art has never been widely popular, especially in this country. Art for art's sake has never had a wide acceptance here. From the Hudson River School to Norman Rockwell, Americans have always looked to art to tell a story, or teach a lesson. And the same might even be said about the angry political art of Karen Findlay who won notoriety for her chocolate-smeared performances which seeks not to give abstract aesthetic pleasure but to raise consciousness.
Although Mr. Shiner repeatedly points out that the modern notion of high art is profoundly secular, he does not pay enough attention to the relationship of art to religion. The existence of a distinct secular cultural realm is a hallmark of modernity, and is in large measure a consequence of the protestant Reformation, with its interest in the individual spiritual quest. Without this heightened awareness of the individual's personal journey through life, and his inner life, there would be no modern novel.
Not surprisingly, the first true English novelist, Daniel Defoe, began his career as a Protestant polemicist.
It hurts Mr. Shiner's account that he neglects the novel, the one artistic genre that is largely an 18th-century creation.
Mr. Shiner is not alarmed by the recent developments with respect to art. He sees it only as "the end of a particular social institution constructed in the course of the eighteenth century." One hopes his judgment is premature. He certainly spends little time looking at contemporary efforts to preserve the idea and practice of high art. Too much of his discussion of contemporary events is based on the writings of those ghoulish postmodern theorists who have been anxious to write out death certificates for art, for the author, for literature, and so forth.
Most egregiously, Mr. Shiner does not note the New Criterion, which was established in 1982 with the explicit goal of championing formal values in art, literature, and music even if these values are rooted in the 18th century. There is still light flickering, if only in the catacombs.

Michael J. Lewis teaches American art and architecture at Williams College. He has written for Commentary and the New Criterion, and is the author of "Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind."

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