Final Essay: Art of Criticism
“Art Critic! Is that a profession?”
(Edgar Degas, Translated by Richard Kendall, 210)
Who has the right to possess the liberal arts? During the Middle Ages, the liberal arts were placed in the university, where, within modern times, as Derrida points out, the discourse of the arts is conducted “in the departments that belong to the Humanities” (203). Alas, Derrida’s utopian vision of an unconditional university “does not, in fact, exist, as we know only too well” (204). What are the forces that threaten Derrida’s “University without Condition?” Historically, in Metaphysics, Aristotle suggests possession of the arts belongs to the wiser, wealthy members of society, placing control and the subsequent rights of patronage and analysis of the arts among the leisure class. Aristotle places art, its appreciation, and its interpretation into the hands of the privileged classes pointing out that in Egypt, the priestly caste “was set apart as a leisure class” (5), thereby allowing religion to protect and oversee the creation of art, answerable only to the Pharaoh.
Comparative Literature as a discipline at its inception strove to wrest the possession and interpretation from the fascist regimes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, placing art appreciation and interpretation in the hands of the scholars, attempting to at last free the elusive arts from the power of rulers and priests. Franco Moretti, however, using the model of the evolution of the fittest, notes that the arts are still confined, sometimes defined, by economic powers, replacing kings and priests with capitalism and its marketplace demands. Moretti identifies “three positions” created by “the onset of capitalism…the core, periphery, semi-periphery” (401). Although he initially identifies these three positions, later in his essay, Moretti, arguing “capitalism constrains production everywhere on the planet” (401), eventually reduces these triadic positions into the binary opposition of “sameness” and “diversification” the basic elements of the equation us and them, singularity or plurality, the primary binary opposition found within an ongoing struggle for power (403). While Rene Wellek identifies an initial crisis which the scholars of Comparative Literature face, pinpointing America as potentially exempt from these types of struggles, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in Death of a Discipline illustrates that the current crisis facing the American Comparative Literature Scholars is, indeed, a power struggle, with funding as the core issue of this crisis within universities.
Although Moretti identifies the struggle between powers as a result of capitalism, this struggle has existed since civilization emerged; one Mesopotamian city-state supplants another in a succession of shifts in power: rulers marry, adopt local gods, assimilate or destroy old artistic styles as they build a new empire. At the risk of becoming what Paul de Man identifies in “Literary History and Literary Modernity” as an “eccentric member…of the profession” who attempts to illustrate “the value of history” and how it relates the “vested interest” this history has in academics (de Man 478), I would like to address the crisis as identified in Spivak: How can the “modern university,” to borrow Derrida’s definition in “The University Without Condition,” withstand the current economic crisis (Derrida 202)?
To deny that this discourse is about power is naïve. Derrida’s utopian vision of the modern University longs for “an unconditional freedom to question and assert…truth” (202), yet he immediately recognizes that the “politico-economic outside” binds the liberal arts through “the marketplace in publishing,” also acknowledging the “nation-state and…its…indivisible sovereignty,” “economic powers” and “media, ideological, religious and cultural powers,” are external forces that shape the arts, creating a university that does not resemble his utopian ideal (203). Derrida pointedly asks, “to what extent does the organization of research and teaching have to be supported, that is, directly or indirectly controlled…by commercial and industrial interests” (206)? These are the same “commercial and industrial interests,” the economic forces that are part of a “worldwide market that is violently inegalitarian” which contributed to the crisis threatening the studies of the humanities (227). Derrida clearly recognizes the ongoing struggle; though the power is no longer held by Church and King, the arts are still subjugated by external forces.
History and academia, as de Man illustrates, is marked by “violence that surrounds passion and rebellion,” the same pattern of violence that has been part of the discourse of art, power and religion throughout civilization (de Man 478). The Mesopotamian shift in power is evident in the struggle between the Assyrians and the Hittites. After destroying a series of smaller city-state kingdoms, Ashurbanipal II built a wall surrounding his palace in Nineveh which was five miles long. A section of this massive wall depicts in bas relief a simple scene of him hunting lions. While the image itself seems an insignificant representation of his daily life, it pictorially asserts his power over the recently conquered Hittite civilization since the lion was often sculpted in the round as a guardian figure on their protective walls (Van De Mieroop 233). A symbol of strength for one culture is slaughtered by another, and Ashurbanipal II reduces the Hittite’s powerful, full-figure depiction of the lion to a faint etching on the wall protecting his new kingdom. In 649 BCE, Babylon was placed under siege, cannibalism was rampant, and after surrender, Ashurbanipal proudly asserts his act as religious; “the rest of those still living I destroyed at the colossi where my grandfather Sennacherib had been destroyed, making them a funerary offering for him” (Saggs 161). Additionly, Ashurbanipal orders the collections of writings by Babylonian priests and scholars to be placed in his own library at Nineveh (Van De Mieroop 213). As divine ruler, he believes he has the right to possess all artistic representations (word and image), further illustrating religion (as exemplified in his sacrifice) and ruling class manipulate the style of artistic representation. One artistic style fades or is destroyed, only to be replaced by a new or innovative style which is deemed a better representation of the newly established power, an historical event that proves that Moretti’s world of binary opposition is not a result of capitalism, but a result of an older, more primitive struggle of one group asserting its power over another.
Historically, the struggle is reenacted by Constantinople’s Emperor Leo III and his son who led one of the first Christian iconoclastic movements, culminating in the Council of Heiria in 754 CE, which declares “the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation,” proclaiming that both artist and artistic representation is sinful: “the painter…from sinful love of gain depicts that which should not be depicted.” In the name of God, the council advocates wholesale destruction of images: “we declare unanimously, in the name of the Holy Trinity, that there shall be rejected and removed and cursed …every likeness which is made out of any material and colour whatever by the evil art of painters,” a decree which led to blackening of 7th century mosaics and frescos across Europe and Mesopotamia, as well as destruction of ancient pagan Greek and Roman works of art (Halsall “The Definition”). The iconoclasts believed they possessed the right to dictate artistic expression, destroying or altering what they deemed to be sinful. The artist was condemned not merely to physical death, but “cursed,” which meant eternal, not merely temporal, condemnation.
The mid-8th century iconoclasts sought to strengthen the weakened Eastern Empire. From Europe, however, Popes Gregory II and III responded by issuing edicts supporting artistic representation, and at the Second Council of Nicea in 787 CE, pronounced “the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel” (Halsall “The Decree”). Derrida points out that shortly thereafter, during the ninth century, society was divided into “the three orders of clerks, warriors, and workers:” Church and King, whereas the clerks represented the Church, the warriors the King, and the workers, who executed the “noble or servile” crafts (228). The end result of the council was excommunication of all who opposed the Holy Edict. Violence again “surrounds passion and rebellion” as noted by de Man.
By the late 14th century, Northern Europe, deriving power from the Holy Roman Empire, had slipped into such decay that the knights wore beak-pointed shoes which would not allow them to walk, women wore caps which towered 2 ½ feet above their heads, and cloaks were made of as many as 3000 sable skins (Kotker 15). In 1398, a few years after the Turkish Sultan Bayazid avowed to hitch his horse on the portico of Saint Peter’s in Rome, the Holy Roman Emperor, “Good King Wencelas” was too drunk to meet with insane Charles VI of France: both were unable to protect the Empire (Kotker 17). The power struggle between the Muslims and Christians transferred to the next generation, and when Phillip, Duke of Burgundy summoned his Knights of the Golden Fleece to renew the Crusades, the Duke of Orleans sported a cloak with over 700 pearls sewn onto his sleeve depicting the lyrics of an ode (Kotker 15, 17).
Within the same generation, Florence had emerged as the cradle of the Renaissance. There, at last, western civilization emerged from the dictates of the Church, producing art imitative of Roman styles, and the shift in power moved from the Church to the wealthy merchant of Firenze. The reaction is predictable: iconoclasm so fervent that even Botticelli turned his angry hand upon his own works, imitating pictorially the self-flagellation encouraged by Savonarola, culminating in the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, which was followed shortly thereafter by a convergence of classical creativity when Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael all worked in Florence from 1504-6 (Kotker 18-9). The power, held by the Church, which was now in the hands of the Medici prince who had been exiled from Florence and the religious fervor of Savonarola, adopts the Neo-Platonist style that had emerged during the Early Renaissance. The struggle between powerful forces produce a hybrid assimilation of the sacred merged with classicism.
Within the past few decades, specialization (which historically had included study of the classics) has all but been set aside. If we devalue, say, Socrates and Plato, why should anyone then place value on what we as modern scholars have to say about art or literature? Not necessarily because these classic analyses carry any particular weight, but because the process of devaluation of one group opens wide the possibility of discounting any and all groups, time periods, authors, or artists. Yes, a tabla rasa emerges, the moment which de Man identifies as “a slate wiped clear from the absence of a past that has not yet had time to tarnish the immediacy of perception” (487), and the moment in which art is arguably free from the oppressive powers that are “so threatening” that, during the period of convalescent healing, these powers have “to be forgotten” (487). Indeed, art may for a moment be free, but it is still vulnerable, still reeling from the constrictive, abusive power. As the liberal arts, at last freed by modernists, goes through the period of convalescence, it remains vulnerable to the eternal forces who always long to shape it, to control it, to possess it. At what point does this tabla rasa become chaos? Derrida notes, like art, “the university is also without any power of its own” (206). If we devalue others, if we too thoroughly long to discount history, we are ourselves at risk of likewise being devalued, stripped of our own momentary protection of the arts.
It is for this reason that Derrida suggests that new Humanities “in all its departments, will have to study their history, the history of concepts that, by constructing them, instituted the disciplines” that were originally placed into the hands of the university during the Middle Ages. One need only a cursory glance at the ancient sculpture rife with scratched breasts and drilled genitalia to understand how dangerous dictating or longing to possess art can be: telling someone else what they should or should not value potentially results in permanent damage to a piece of marble, irreparably damages a work of architecture, alters a work of literature through a careless translation, or even misrepresents a work through an anthology editor’s pen. How often do we within the study of the Humanities inadvertently become iconoclasts ourselves, destroying or hastily overlooking a passage that is pertinent to full understanding of a partial text because we long not to be confined by the history which Derrida encourages us to continue studying?
Where, then, does that leave us? Have the modernists freed art from the oppressive dictates of priest and king? And if so, why are the Humanities still undergoing a crisis? Rene Wellek identifies 1914 as the beginning of a crisis, and, although the Great War impregnated the discourse which gave birth to deconstructionism, the struggle for power over the arts and their interpretation has been extant since civilization began. As he attempts to identify the crisis, Wellek points out a potential flaw of the study of humanities, noting that scholars spend their time “tracing motifs, themes, characters, situations, plots, etc.” producing “an enormous mass of parallels, similarities, and sometimes identities,” the catalogues of information one could easily dismiss as mere connoisseurship (285). He is critical of this intensive approach to academia, indicating that these lists are compiled by scholars who are merely trying to prove their own merit, noting “they have rarely asked what these relationships are supposed to show except possibly the fact of one writer's knowledge and reading of another writer” (283). Although Wellek criticizes this approach taken by scholars, a quick view of medieval manuscripts reveal this type of scholarly discourse has existed for centuries, a dialog one generation of Latin scholars recorded in the marginalia or interlinear textual analysis, a dialog which continues with the next generation in Italian, later all meticulously copied and included in the late 15th century typeset copies of, say, Vergil’s Aeneid. Criticism and thoughts, the scholarly exegesis, are preserved, later aiding in translation and transmission of historical content that is so easy to forget over time. It is not simply “one writer’s knowledge and reading of another writer,” as Welleck identifies it, but establishing the dialog necessary for historically accurate conveyance of the original event or work. Wellek further points out that the “specialist who often may have only the bibliographical knowledge” falls short “of the nonspecialist whose wider perspective and keener insight may well make up for years of intense application”—the nonspecialist, if you will, who can take only a few lines from Plato or Aristotle to declare these works in a modern classroom as an ineffective approach to literature in an academy built upon “New Humanism” (291).
Wellek denotes that “fenced-off reservations with signs of ‘no trespassing’ must be distasteful to a free mind,” but immediately turns around and places a value judgment on “inert facts,” presumably those produced by the specialists rather than the nonspecialists, thereby placing his own “no trespassing” sign the “free mind” abhors. (291). In his effort to create an “effective New Humanism,” he figuratively does to the specialists what the iconoclasts did in the eighth century; dismisses, destroys, or cuts away the integral parts, placing fig leaves over the areas which are not fit for the modern eye. Too often Humanities Programs, in an effort to step outside of the “stagnant backwater” Wellek places them, likewise devalues the specialists, dismissing them as academically worthless as the iconoclasts once declared art and artists alike as sinful (292). Yet specialization is what has empowered the study of the Humanities since its inception.
Nearly forty years after the fall of the Second Empire, literary critic Frederic Loliee in A Short History of Comparative Literature observes in 1905, “Modern Europe, not to say the greater part of the world, must be considered, when regarded as a whole, as a very complex organism.” In his history, he analyzes the same works we now would classify as world literature, including works from China, Japan, and Europe, excluding through omission only the works of Africa (it was at this point heavily colonized ant assumed to be part of Europe by extension), drawing together the human experience as a unified, living entity, a product of modernity. He continues, “As nations become more closely united they seem more like a single body of human beings conscious of their collective existence amidst so many points of contact.” Plurality, he points out, results from increasing interaction among the nations and will produce a unified, yet diversified whole. He believes plurality, a unified approach to world literature, to be the natural approach to humanities, adding, “man has so prodigiously extended his power over time and space that the frontiers of countries are mere demarcations for purposes of custom duties, purely arbitrary boundaries and where the ocean unites all the scattered peoples of the earth by commerce and the exchange of thought” (358). His mention of the demarcated boundaries as well as the “duties” identifies this process as one embedded in economic pressures, alluding also to the power struggle between us and them, Moretti’s “sameness” and “diversification.”
Loliee, long before the current crisis regarding curriculum and funding plagued the modern university discourse, recognizes and addresses the struggle for power. Ironically, the old, dusty volume sitting on the stacks in our modern university, right beside the tomes of anthologies containing essays written by Wellek, Moretti, de Man, Spivak and Derrida, has many uncut pages: the volume, perhaps because it contains the word History in its title, was silenced by the modernist tendency to view its specialized content as too restrictive, the “past that…is so threatening that it has to be forgotten” (de Man 487). History, indeed, does have valuable lessons to be learned, and even though they may be written as texts which “masquerade in the guise of wars or revolutions” (de Man 493) isn’t it our right within the University without Condition to write about anything—history, politics, religion, cultures, ethnicities, rulers—without a set curriculum (and all those broad topics encompassed in the liberal arts which are safeguarded by the departments of Humanities and Comparative Literature), the right to wield words as though they were swords? As caretaker, do we have the right to begin dictating the content of the curriculum, or is it our responsibility to compare anything within the liberal arts using all the means that gives the modern university power?
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