the worldliest of all things ...

“art works are the worldliest of all things” (1)

A phrase that raised my hackles some 10 years ago. Art? Worldly!? Art works mere Things? Was not art part & parcel of the life of the mind, unsullied by the base materialistic connotations of words like “worldly” and “things”?

It has taken me quite a few years and quite a few Arendt reading sessions to understand that Hannah Arendt’s “world” is neither base nor materialistic. For Arendt the “world” is the sum-total of cultural, technological and political artifacts that lend a degree of permanence to our transient human existence.

That “world” is meant to outlast the short lifespan of each succeeding generation. It is meant to resist the forces of living that consume and devour without leaving a trace. And so we can for instance contrast the world’s cultural objects with life’s entertainment.

“Entertainment, like labor and sleep is irrevocably part of the biological life process. A metabolism feeding on things by devouring them”.
We consume entertainment.

Whereas the excellence of the world’s cultural objects is precisely measured by their durability. “The cultural world, which, insofar as it contains tangible things – books and paintings, statues, buildings, and music – comprehends, and gives testimony to, the entire recorded past of countries, nations, and ultimately mankind. As such, the only nonsocial and authentic criterion for judging these specifically cultural things is their relative permanence and even eventual immortality. Only what will last through the centuries can ultimately claim to be a cultural object.”

And what is the factor that ensures this relative permanence? It is not functional usefulness…. Use-objects are prone to become obsolete and to be discarded. Not many contemporary spectators stand in awe of highly useful medieval horseshoes. …

So is not beauty then the ultimate criterion? That “most important and elemental quality, which is to grasp and move the reader or spectator over the centuries.”

Why can I, agnostic 21st century city-dweller, still be moved by a medieval cathedral? Why am I, Brussels-based dilettante, moved by photos of 15th century indo-islamic buildings?

Because in that cathedral I am dazzled by the elaborate music of pillars & arches & light& shade (2). Because the buildings in the New Delhi Lodhi Gardens are “treasure troves of light & shade & shapes & incredible soul” (3).

And so yes, I now fully agree with Hannah Arendt :

“art works stay longer in the world than anything else, they are the worldliest of all things”

But this is a highly contested affirmation these days … in an art world that distrusts aesthetics, that values concepts and processes over objects.

Just by way of exemplary contrast – here are parts of the Wikipedia entry on Artur Barrio , a contemporary Brazilian artist:
“Artur Barrio is seeking to create an experience. He uses both ephemeral and precarious materials […] . His use of inexpensive materials (garbage, toilet paper and urine) was a rejection of the aesthetic elite and the art world they controlled”

He repudiates any aim of permanence:
“Barrio has no interest in the preservation of his pieces since the art he is interested in is the experience of creating the art and the experience of interacting with art. To Barrio, the artifacts that are used to create these experiences are not the art and do not need to be preserved. […]
This and the fact that so much of the materials used in creating his works are perishable and decay means that there is very little work of Barrio’s in existence in permanent collections.”

But in the end, the artist’s yearning to leave a trace in the World of durable objects does seem to win out – or so I conclude from the fact that durable replica’s of the artist's eminently perishable works were made to ensure a more enduring afterlife in art galleries.
Wikipedia about Barrio’s legacy:
“Artur Barrio has become more accepting of the greater art community. His work (or replicas created as examples of his work) is now exhibited with increasing frequency”

But whereas I can feel sympathy for Barrio’s initial passionate plunge into transience and for his wish to defy elitist standards, I am deeply suspicious of the motives of an artist like Damien Hirst.

After a rich career of shocking and un-aesthetic installations (diverse animals on formaldehyde), he recently went for the permanence of a richly decorated object (to be precise: “a platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds, including a pear-shaped pink diamond located in the forehead of the skull”).

I suppose the title he gave to his decorated skull, “For the love of God” is meant to cynically echo the dedication “ad maiorem Dei gloriam”(4), which motivated generations of anonymous cathedral builders (1) and sublime composers (Bach).

But no doubt this 50mln pound skull should be interpreted as a courageous statement of the artist exposing the mercantile and materialistic ways of the contemporary art world.

footnotes, again, not to be missed

(1) Hannah Arendt “The Crisis in Culture”
(2) “The cathedrals were built ad maiorem Dei gloriam, while they as buildings certainly served the needs of the community, their elaborate beauty can never be explained by these needs. […] Their beauty transcended all needs and made them last through the centuries; but while beauty […] transcends needs and functions, it never transcends the world. On the contrary it is the very beauty of religious art which transforms religious and other-worldly contents and concerns into tangible worldly realities. In this sense all art is secular […] it reifies and transforms into an ‘objective’, tangible, worldly presence – what had existed before outside the world, whereby it is irrelevant whether we localize this ‘outside in the beyond of a hereafter (traditional religion) or in the inmost recesses of the human heart” (from: "the Crisis in Culture”)
(3) see this Flickr Photostream treasure trove
(4) to the greater glory of God


Phoenix said...

:-) the medieval arches, shapes, tombs, their shadowy residents (and the relatively contemporary (?) flickr owner somewhere) are deeply honored, I'm sure, to find a place in your fine thoughts.

was reminded of an old Sanskrit maxim, 'satyam shivam sundaram', which kinda means Truth, God and Beauty are one - and timeless.

ffflaneur said...

the 'relatively contemporary' flickr-owner sure is well versed in all things timeless! :) how apt, that sanskrit maxim -
indeed, truth & the sublime (or the good , or God) are beauty's fellow candidates for relative permanence