From the Shelf: A Mirror for Artists

I’ve written before on the degradation of the art world, and specifically Modernity’s impact upon both the interpretation of art and its creation.  In short, the commodification of art, the development of the art market, and the disintegration of art patronage by an aristocratic class has had a twofold impact upon the development and presentation of the arts: on the one hand, art has become inaccessibly obtuse and designed for the consumption of a philistine elite, and its market increasingly a platform for money laundering; on the other hand, art has been reduced to the most base common denominator of a banal and equally philistine public, in which consumption and marketability are the deciding barometers of its success.

Well, as it turns out, it doesn’t take the wretched state of the market in 2018 to have figured all of these things out.  Continuing on with our brief excursion into I’ll Take My Stand, Donald Davidson approaches the topic of the arts in the wake of an industrialized society in his essay, which follows up John Crowe Ransom’s piece that I touched on last night.  Davidson’s work, “A Mirror for Artists,” directly attributes the over-commodification of the arts to industrialization’s tendency to reduce all objects and peoples into economic units which can be measured according to terms like scarcity and surplus.

Davidson outlines rather clearly how the revolution in thought that both precipitated and got energized by the industrialization of the last three hundred years left its tracks all over the gradual shifts in artistic output beginning with the Romantics of the nineteenth century.  The Romantics, he argues, emerged as artists who pitted themselves against the societies in which they functioned as artists; art became removed from its proper place and in turn became a vessel for critique or for fantasy.  It’s not hard to follow his logic when one considers how suddenly artistic output shifted from not only the aesthetically pleasing, but also the glorification of the religious and the veneration of the past, into an outright glorification of ancient paganisms and eventually the myopic interest of the mundane, as exemplified by the impressionists and realists.

As that perfidious herald of Modernity crept into the brush strokes of artists and the pens of poets, they ceased to deliver content made explicitly to serve an audience—and not simply to please but to elevate that audience spiritually—and instead produced works of increasing rational opaqueness, limiting its reach until works were made with only the artist himself in mind.  “In short,” he says, “the condition of the arts themselves, whatever the field, gives little ground for thinking that they are actually cherished by an industrial civilization” (47).

He continues by separating, I think unsuccessfully, the democratic politics which have endangered the art world so catastrophically from the industrialization that allowed that democracy to crystalize into its current form:

“Democracy did not, after all, disturb society unduly.  It was a slow growth, it had some continuity with the past, and in an agrarian country like pre-Civil War America it permitted and favored a balanced life.  Industrialism came suddenly and marched swiftly.  It left a tremendous gap.  Only as democracy becomes allied with industrialism can it be considered really dangerous, as when, in the United States, it becomes politically and socially impotent; or, as in the extreme democracy of the Soviets, where, converted into equalitarianism within class limits, it threatens the existence of man’s humanity.” (49)

I mention that this separation is unsuccessful because the democratizing principle at work in the arts, which turned the reverent artistic content of the past into the naval-gazing output of the nepotists today, was already at work prior to the rampant growth of the industrial age.  It was the ideological schism with the past—the philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment in particular—which brought this change on.  When Donaldson is referring to industrialization, he’s only referring to the tangible, economic results of the sudden philosophical changes that had run roughshod over the eighteenth century elite.  America, as you can note in a reading of Alexis de Tocqueville, was birthed as a direct result of this schism.

Donaldson wraps up his essay by drawing the contrast with the Southern way of life and its relationship to the arts, and here he is fairly undeniable.  The South’s style of architecture had remained, at the time of his writing, quintessentially Southern; its great writers had already begun to peak, and they wrote not against the Southern tradition but directly within and in line with the arteries of its culture.  The Southern artistic traditions did not lapse into the broadly self-obsessed and indulgent culture of narcissism that awaited their industrialized counterparts in Europe and New England, at least for the most part.

What we see with Donaldson’s piece is an optimistic glimpse of what was perhaps the last worthwhile American artistic movement before the academies, universities, and institutes were so fully compromised as to make the arts—be it visual, literary, poetic, or musical—unaffordable, useless, stupid, and irrelevant endeavors.  In retrospect, it reads in some senses as a timeless commentary on the dangers of industrial modernity and how damaging it is to artists.  On the other hand, it is also a product of its time, as Donaldson here failed to fully grasp the utter wasteland of the arts that awaited not just the South, and not even just America, but the West as a whole in just a few scant decades.


From the Shelf: A Catholic Introduction to the Bible – The Old Testament – Chaps 1 & 2

I bought this tome a few months ago and have spent much my time around it flipping around to random chapters, so today I thought I’d crack it open from the beginning and share some general thoughts.

This strikes me as one of the single best resources a Catholic could have when it comes to education on the context of the Old Testament.  As both tradition and the physical composition of the Bible teaches us, the Old Testament is to be read in light of the revelations of the New.  Unlike some commentators who insist only on the importance of the New Testament, the Old is not simply a collection of antiquated myths that served to somehow contextualize the New Testament back when it was complied, and as a result have little to say to contemporary audiences.  It isn’t just a bunch of Hebrew or Jewish gibberish thrown in to pad out the story, and the God of the Old Testament is every bit the same God of the New.

So with this in mind, authors John Bergsma and Brant Pitre take a crack at examining the nature of the biblical canon both in substance and in history.  A sort of canon used by the Hebrews around the time of Christ had already been more or less agreed-upon, and it resembled what is today called the Tanakh.  Organized into three parts, the Tanakh derived its name from the Torah (the Books of Law or Books of Moses), the Nevi’im (the Prophets), and the Ketuvim (the Collected Works).  This resulted in a Hebrew Bible that numbered about 24 in total; compare this to what was eventually to become the 46 books of the Old Testament as agreed upon by the early Church fathers of the first half of the first millennium.

It was the words of Jesus to St. Peter, however, which formed the guiding principle around which the Catholic Old Testament would be organized.  The authors point out that Jesus said:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

What the authors explain is that the “binding” and “loosing” include the binding of books—i.e. the canonization of sacred scripture for the obvious purpose of evangelization.  Pointing out an historical case of de facto Papal authority, the bishop of Rome had by custom been the authority for deciding disputes as to the binding of what constituted sacred canon.  And this in no way contradicts the fact that councils and synods were the ultimate validator, of course.

The authors close the second chapter by tackling various methods of criticism and analysis with which the Old Testament is approached.  They outline a variety of methods of critique, some more obviously valid than others, and emphasize the importance interpreting the scriptures as we have them, even though outside information such as the context of their writing and the context of the period in which they are written can still important.

While this hasn’t gotten into the meat of the book yet, the first couple chapters display an interest and rigor of historical study that many laymen with even a passing interest in Catholic thought should invest some time into reading.  This book is a 1000-some page monster, so stay tuned for more.