Francisco Goya: "Why?"

After Bramann's presentation of his paper "Understanding the End of Art" during the Philosophical Forum debate on October 28, 1998, Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities Dr. Philip Allen responded with the following remarks:

(1) There is something disturbing about the suggestion that just as marginalized groups have begun to be recognized as producers of art, we now declare the end of art. (2) Even if a case could be made for the end of art by reference to the history of two-dimensional painting, it is far from clear that a parallel case could be made by reference to the other arts. (3) Great art is still being produced today, but it is outside the structure of the artworld and its social context. (4) The underlying purpose of art is to "make the hidden visible." It is not plausible to believe that art in this sense has (or could) come to an end.

Dr. Randall Rhodes presented his reply in the following paper::

It may be too pessimistic to contend that the cutting edge of the human spirit has far outpaced the developmental trajectory of art. That, rather than finding new modes of creation and enlightenment, art has sunken into a protracted state of disorientation and exhaustion. That, no longer purposive, art has become caught up in its own production and effete aestheticism. Yet, considering the whole context of its historical progress, art has been only incidentally purposive. Drafted into the service of political or social agendas, art has been periodically reduced to mass illustration and the aping of nature. However, ever since Plato and the advent of critical theory, art has been characterized as neither cognitive nor moral. Perceived as, at best, a shadow image of an imperfectly ordered planet, art has but one objective - to eschew the empirical and function as a phenomenal embodiment of dimly perceived metaphysical truths, an eternal representation of the innermost unfolding of the Idea.

Hegel's reading of art's developmental progress up the anagogical ladder, from the symbolic to the classical, and ultimately, to the romantic, locates the situs where the Idea is freed from the concrete image and the moment when it surpasses our understanding and wins our wonder. But Hegel's theoretical fallability in regard to art's history obscures the fact that art has been romantic since its inception. Mimesists have always been consigned to the lowest hierarchical ranks, or even to Hell, and Platonists, to the highest academic ranks and immortal fame. As practitioners of le beau ideal, Platonists find that truth lay not within the worldly referential, but in the liberation from it.

For example, Donald Judd's Untitled sculpture from 1967, celebrates minimalist abstraction. In its geometrical and textural purism, it rises upward, step by step, leading our vision to its sequential conclusion. It is an aesthetic transport to the world of divine exaltation, a phenomenal leap of faith above and beyond the limits of created and physical matter.

Playing Riegl against Hegel, a certain aspect of art's historical progress operates according to its own internal demands and structural concerns. This developmental chain is animated by the Kunstwollen, a larger will that moves throughout a culture with an inner inherent necessity to generate transition and movement. Yet while this stream of art suffers through slopes and movements, genetic and geological mutations, its organic living power of apprehension endlessly flows onward and upward. For example, a Persian rug, in its balance of florettes and vignettes, embodies this historical quest for compositional harmony and virtu. Though visually an interweaving of signs and "effete" aestheticism, it is not a harbinger of the end or death of art, but functions rather as a mandala diagramming chains of linear movement and romantic trains of associations.

The transaction of art consists of such a dialogue between author, sign, and reader. Tolstoy observed: "Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously,by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them." (What is Art?, trans. Maude, 1930)

Predicated on the reader's delicacy of imagination and susceptibility to sentiment, the semiotic reading of the presented lines, colors, and forms shall indexically point to the author's condition of soul and unite author and reader in a oneness through sympathy. "Not only is infection a sure sign of art, but the degree of infectiousness is also the sole measure of excellence in art" (Tolstoy). As such pleasure may be indirect, intuitive, or reflective, the reading is indifferent to the objective basis of the preferent and free from a subservience to reason and understanding.

Mark Rothko's theoretical emphasis on infectiousness is evidenced in his painting Orange, Gold, Black, 1955. Rothko wrote: "I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anythingelse…I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on - and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!" (Ashton, Rothko, 1983)

Rothko's expressionist canvas lies within the realm of the Poetics, a sensual celebration of the emotive aesthetic as read within the soaking paint, melting shapes, and breathing colors. Without absolutes, universals, balance or harmony, the signage floats unanchored along the edge of human consciousness.

While some critics state that art is dead as it has reached its conclusion in perfectly knowing itself, in knowing what it is, it would be more appropriate to recognize the collapse of critical, propositional, or epistemological structures. As the author is reduced to a sign maker, and his/her signs, hieroglyphs for feelings, art criticism must be repositioned. As the reader has no other means of recognizing a work of art than his/her feelings for it, art functions as a mirror, not reflecting objective but psychologistic truths. Through this venture into the narcissistic realm of projections and reflections, the reader sees the self as the other and the other as the self.

Carlo Maria Mariana's painting entitled To See Oneself in a Celestial Mirror, 1984, recalls Socratic constructs of love and Platonic metaphysics. The human is exalted as the divine, and the divine is anthopomorphized. Truth is sought in the drama within, and the powers without. Art's chromatic and calligraphic torsions and tensions shape a self-nourishing enthusiasm which continually spirals upwards culminating in a religious, phenomenological liberation of the reader.

Gary Hume's Vicious, 1994, executed in glossy paint on wood panel, similarly functions as a mirror, inviting the seeing of the self within the other's silhouette. Simulating the flatness of commercial sign painting, the brown skin functions as a palimpsest, a tabula rasa, onto which our private selves flow. The artist has not invented anything, but he has engaged everything. The work is made up of endlessly proliferating meanings which have no stable point of origin, nor of closure. Boundaries dissolve, signs cross fertilize, and new and ignored subjectivities (re)surface. Executed with the usual insolence of artistic genius, Art, according to Charles Beaudelaire, floats in a realm where "the working of latent heat allow no rest, but everything is in a state of perpetual vibration which causes lines to tremble and fulfills the law of eternal and universal movement." (Salon, 1848)

Susan Rothenberg's Blue U-Turn, 1989, depicts an indeterminate figure, drifting and twisting in its liquid environment. The figure's u-turn reflects this anti-historical about face, a deconstructive dissolution of physical being and reintegration of the self into the primal order. Art, as the filter of fundamental doubt and the religion of universal anguish, will continually reveal an unconscious symbolism that confesses this hidden course of sensibility for mankind and the Geist, "the innate symbology of innate ideas." (Heine)

Obviously, as Donald Judd observed, with the acknowledgment of these oblique shifts in frames and formats, linear history unravels and art history ceases to be developmental. If historicity is predicated upon a concreteness, then such epistemological frames must be abandoned. Walter Benjamin wrote:

"Fools lament the decay of criticism. For its day is long past. Criticism is a matter of correct distancing. It was at home in a world where perspective and prospects counted and where it was still possible to take a standpoint. Now things press too closely on human society. "(One Way Street, 1928)

Now that the cultural past has been subdued through internalization, what should be the form of critical discourse? As the artist without hands remains truest to the phenomenological Idea, because he doesn't pollute it with the burden of objectivity, perhaps the true critic is one who never writes but senses his world without imposing texts upon it. All that remains in this decentered, unbounded world is the hermeneutic expression of hope that the cultural space left by the demise of epistemology will not be filled, and the liberated human spirit and the Kunstwollen (the spirit of Art) will continue their upward journeys.

Dr. Bramann responded shortly by pointing out that he was not  necessarily in disagreement with most of the contentions of  the respondents: Paintings etc. are undoubtedly still useful by making the hidden visible, by giving voice to marginalized people, by arousing deep emotions in individuals, or by giving expression to people's feelings about the world. Nobody argues for the idea that people do not or should not paint etc. anymore. Rather, what Hegel and others aimed and aim at is a recognition of the fact that art as art has run its course, that what was peculiar to the nature of art was finally and explicitly realized after a long historical struggle and development. Feelings and understandings are expressed in many ways, not only artistically, and aspirations are voiced in other forms than aesthetic ones. With respect to such functions art is just one way of conveying things among many others. What sets art apart from such other forms of expression is its aesthetic dimension, its inevitable concern with means not only as means, but also as ends. This aesthetic dimension had to be grasped, and was grasped by being radicalized in the form of perhaps one-sided Abstraction and art for art's sake. After its full self-recognition in this radicalization art can go back to where it came from: Into midst of "real life," into more brutal struggles than aesthetic ones, into endeavors that may lead far beyond aesthetic contemplation.

Back to "Understanding the End of Art"