Jose Ortega y Gasset: The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture, and Literature (Paperback – Revised Ed.); Edition on Lately writers have defined post-modernism in various ways, but they share in common the belief that the age of modernist art is over and that a. No work of Spanish philosopher and essayist Jose Ortega y Gasset has been more frequently cited, admired, or criticized than his defense of modernism, “The .
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This essay has been a major influence on my work and my thought. See also the note at the end of this essay. The study of art from the sociological point of view might at first seem a barren theme, rather like studying a man from his shadow. But the fruitful aspects of a sociology of art were unexpectedly revealed to me when, a few years ago, I happened to be writing about the musical era which started with Debussy.
My purpose was to define as clearly as possible the difference between modem and traditional music.
The problem was strictly aesthetic, yet I found the shortest road towards its solution started from a simple sociological phenomenon: I should now like to consider all the arts which are still thriving in Europe: An identical inspiration edhumanization recognizable in the most diverse arts.
Without being aware of it, the young musician is attempting to realize in sound exactly the same aesthetic values as his contemporaries, the painter, the poet and the dramatist. All new art is unpopular, necessarily so, and not by chance or accident.
The unpopularity of modem art, however, is of a very distinct kind: An innovatory style takes a certain time in winning popularity; it is not popular, but neither is it unpopular.
Romantic works were the first — since the invention of printing — to enjoy large editions. Above all other movements Romanticism was the most popular. The first-born of democracy, it was treated by the masses with the greatest affection. Modern art, on the other hand, has the masses against it, and this will always be so since it is unpopular in essence; even more, it is anti- popular. Any new work whatsoever automatically produces a curious sociological effect on the public, splitting it into two parts.
One, the lesser group, is formed by a small number of persons who are favorable to it; the other, the great majority, is hostile.
Let us leave aside those equivocal creatures, the snobs. Thus the work of art acts as a social force creating two antagonistic groups, separating the masses into two different castes of men. What is the principle that differentiates these two classes? Every work of art awakens different responses: No principle is involved: But in the case of modern art the separation occurs on a deeper plane than the mere differences in individual taste.
It is not a matter of the majority of the public not liking the new work and the minority liking it. What happens is that the majority, the mass of the people, does not understand it.
This implies that the one group possesses an organ of comprehension denied to the other; that they are two distinct varieties of the human species. Hence the irritation it arouses in the majority. But when distaste arises from the fact of its not having been understood, then the spectator feels humiliated, with an obscure awareness of his inferiority for which he must compensate by an indignant assertion of himself.
Modern art, by its mere presence, obliges the good bourgeois to feel what he is: Wherever the young muses make their appearance, the crowd boos. The music of Stravinsky or the drama of Pirandello obliges them to recognize themselves for what they are — one ingredient among many in the social structure, inert material of the historical process.
The time is approaching when society, from politics to art, will once more organize itself into two orders: The undifferentiated unity — chaotic, amorphous, without an anatomical structure or governing discipline cannot continue. Beneath all contemporary life lies a profound and disturbing misconception: While every step we take plainly shows us the contrary. It is not an art for men in general, but for a very particular class of men, who may not be of more worth than the others, but who are apparently distinct.
The Brooklyn Rail
There is one thing above all that it would be well to define. What do the majority of people call aesthetic pleasure? There is no doubt about the answer: The loves, hates, griefs and joys of the characters touch their heart: In poetry, they will look for the loves and griefs of the man behind the poet. In painting, they will be attracted only by those pictures where they find men and women who would be interesting to know.
In essence, the object which concerns them in art, which serves as the focus of their attention and the rest of their faculties, is the same as in everyday life; human beings and their passions. And they will call art that which provides them with the means of making contact with human things.
Thus they will tolerate certain forms of unreality and fantasy only to the extent that they do not interfere with their perception of human forms and situations. As soon as the purely aesthetic elements become dominant and detached from the human story, the public loses its way and does not know what to do before the stage, the book, or the picture.
Understandably, people know of no other attitude when faced with such objects than that of habit, the habit of always becoming sentimentally involved. A work which does not invite this involvement leaves them without a role to play. Now this is a point on which we must be clear.
To rejoice or suffer with the human destinies which a work of art may relate or represent, is a very different thing from true artistic enjoyment. It is a perfectly simple matter of optics. In order to see an object we have to adjust our eyes in a certain way. If our visual accommodation is inadequate we do not see the object, or we see it imperfectly. Imagine we are looking at a garden through a window.
Our eyes adjust themselves so that our glance penetrates the glass without lingering upon it, and seizes upon the flowers and foliage. As the goal of vision towards which we direct our glance is the garden, we do not see the pane of glass and our gaze passes through it.
The clearer the glass, the less we see it. But later, by making an effort, we can ignore the garden, and, by retracting our focus, let it rest on the window-pane. Then the garden disappears from our eyes, and all we see of it are some confused masses of colour which seem to adhere to the glass. Thus to see the garden and to see the window-pane are two incompatible operations: In the same manner, the person who seeks to involve himself, through a work of art, with the destinies of John and Mary or of Tristan and Isolde and adjusts his spiritual perception to these matters, will not see the work of art.
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The misfortunes of Tristan, as such, can only move us to the extent that they are taken for reality. But the artistic object is artistic only to the extent that it is not real.
The man portrayed and his portrait are two completely distinct objects: Now the majority of people are incapable of adjusting their attention to the window-pane which is the work of art; instead, their gaze passes through without lingering and hastens to involve itself passionately in the human reality to which the work alludes.
In this sense it is therefore accurate to say that all the normal art of the past century has been realistic. Beethoven and Wagner were realists; Chateaubriand, like Zola, was a realist.
Romanticism and naturalism, seen from the viewpoint of today, come closer together and reveal their common root in realism. Works of this nature are only partially works of art. In order to enjoy them we do not have to have artistic sensitivity.
It is therefore understandable that the art of the nineteenth century should have been so popular, since it was appreciated by the majority in proportion to its not being art, but an extract from life.
We will not discuss now whether pure art is possible. Perhaps it is not, but the reasons are somewhat tedious and in any case do not greatly affect the matter under discussion. This would lead to a progressive elimination of the human or too human elements characteristic of romantic and naturalistic works of art, and a point will be reached in which the human content of the work diminishes until it can scarcely be seen.
It will be an art for artists and not for the masses; it will be an art of caste, not demotic. Here perhaps we have found the reason why the modern artist is dividing the public into two classes, those who understand and those who do not, that is artists themselves and those who are not. For modern art is an artistic art. I am not seeking to extol this new manner of art and still less to denigrate the custom of the last century.
I am limiting myself to classifying them. Modern art is a universal fact. During the last twenty years the most avant-garde of two successive generations in Paris, Berlin, London, New York, Rome, and Madrid have found themselves struck by the ineluctable fact that traditional art not only does not interest them; they actually find it repugnant.
With these modern artists it is possible to do one of two things: As soon as one decides in favour of the latter course one immediately notices a new conception of art germinating in their work which is quite clear, coherent and rational.
It is merely capricious, and thus sterile, to resist this new style and persist in immuring oneself within forms that are already archaic and hidebound. We have to accept the imperative of work which our era imposes; submissiveness to his own period offers the individual his only chance of achievement.
Even so he may still attain nothing; but his failure is much more certain if he were to compose one more Wagnerian opera or yet another naturalistic novel. In art all repetition is valueless. Each style in the history of art is able to engender a certain number of different forms within a generic type. But there comes a day when the rich mine is completely worked out.
This has happened, for example, with the romantic and naturalistic novel and play.
It is an ingenuous error to believe that the present-day sterility in both fields is due to lack of personal talent. What has happened is that all possible permutations have been exhausted. It is fortunate that the emergence of a new awareness capable of exploring unworked veins should coincide with this exhaustion.
Analysing the new style, one finds in it certain closely connected tendencies: With vertiginous speed modem art has diverged into a great variety of directions and intentions. It is easy to emphasize the differences between one work and another. But this will be valueless unless we first determine the common basis which, at times contradictorily, modem art shares.
The specific fehumanization in the arts today are of only moderate interest to me, and, apart from some exceptions, I am concerned still less with any one dehumanizatipn.