The Cult of Oblivion: CIA, Abstract Expressionists, and Kant

da Vinci, study of hands

Evolution and the Undermining of Art

From the cave paintings of the Horses Heads to figurative art today, visual art is about perception and subject. We artists, and our ancient ancestors, look at the world around us, focus on important aspects of it, digest it, then, in acts of passion express our view of humanity. Visual art is inextricably linked to human evolution; its best examples further our potential as human beings. Visual art refines our perceptions, explores our emotional potentials, and expands our minds. But for the last century art has been under attack.

In the mid-20th century these three forces––Kant’s philosophy, abstract expressionists, and the CIA––congealed ostensibly to champion freedom and originality, instead accomplished an undermining of art and consequently humanity. The connections and machinations are so complicated and obtuse it is hard to take them seriously, but it does make a difference in understanding them, at least in the sense of whether or not our culture evolves.

Progress is Not Automatic

There are a few things that are embedded in our DNA, like sex and consciousness, but art is one of the most powerful. It has been said that the human species doesn’t have instincts—that we have to make choices, make mistakes, and figure out future directions. We can implode, exploit wars, exterminate populations, and commit suicide. There are no guarantees that philosophers, experts, government institutions, and artists have it right. And we are only a few nuclear explosions away from eradication. It is a sobering obligation that we must choose and possibly be tragically wrong and sometimes be wonderfully right. 

da Vinci, study of hands

Da Vinci, Study of Hands c. 1474, in silverpoint on prepared paper heightened with white (chalk?).

Visual Science and Heart

This sketch by da Vinci represents everything great about humanity and art: skill, discovery, knowledge, light and shadow, science, empathy, humanism, beauty, and effortlessness. An interesting thing is that this work uplifts us and can inspire our farthest reaching aspirations whether for science or heart or both. Da Vinci’s near-contemporary, Vasari, wrote about him: 

“Leonardo’s disposition was so lovable that he commanded everyone’s affection… his magnificent presence brought comfort to the most troubled soul; he was so persuasive that he could bend other people to his will. … He was so generous that he fed all his friends, rich or poor… Through his birth Florence received a very great gift, and through his death it sustained an incalculable loss… an artist of outstanding physical beauty who displayed infinite grace in everything he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied were solved with ease.”

Continue reading “The Cult of Oblivion: CIA, Abstract Expressionists, and Kant”

Making Sense of Kant’s Senseless Sublime

1051px-Giovanni_Battista_Tiepolo_-_Rinaldo_Enchanted_by_Armida_-_Google_Art_Project.jpgGiovanni Battista Tiepolo, Rinaldo Enchanted by Armida, 1742 until 1745. Was this the kind of work Kant associated with charms and sensual delights of beauty?

Originally published online at The Atlas Society.

Making Sense of Kant’s Senseless Sublime

In the last decade of the 18th century Beethoven composed his 1st and 2nd piano concertos, Goya etched the series Los Caprichos, Jacques-Louis David painted The Death of Marat, and Mozart composed the Requiem in D Minor and the great Jupiter Symphony. These works coincided with the French Revolution, and together they guided European culture away from the extravagant art of Rococo exemplified by the sweetly-colored paintings of Boucher and Tiepolo, with their floating florid nymphs, cupids, silks, and princesses.

699px-Jacques-Louis_David_-_Marat_assassinated_-_Google_Art_Project_2.jpg

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793. The period of the French Revolution marked a new period of art with more gravitas.

This was a paradigm shift from the superficial to gut wrenching passion, as if Western art was going back to its roots in the dramas of Aeschylus and Euripides; answering the big questions of what is the good and what is important while at the same time elevating the creative process by innovation and superlative skill. This wasn’t for the faint of heart. The artists would have to face inner turmoil and outer rejection as they attempted to get patrons to sponsor wildly dramatic depictions of death, war, and executions, which didn’t lend themselves to the decorative palace dining room.  Risking their livelihoods the artists bore down in this new direction. With this revolutionary spirit we can see the need for a new aesthetic to champion and reflect an Age of Enlightenment.

The Sublime the Absolutely Great
The year 1790, when Beethoven was 20, also marked the publication of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment. It famously compares and contrasts the aesthetic values of Beauty with that of the Sublime. The treatise identifies Beauty representing the lighter more sensual pleasing side and the Sublime addressing what is the “absolutely great beyond all comparison.” Kant wanted to free the Sublime from the constraints of art and launch it into the world of the mind unfettered by perception, form, or realization. Continue reading “Making Sense of Kant’s Senseless Sublime”