who does this aldous huxley guy think he is?
Post #203 • January 30, 2004, 10:37 AM • 6 Comments
I recently posted an excerpt from an essay by Aldous Huxley entitled The Best Picture, in which he announces that a particular Piero ressurection is exactly that. The essay caught my eye partly because it makes fun of the kind of Best-Of list-making that we see in the art world at the end of every year, something in which I refuse to participate even when other writers I respect are doing it. I was also impressed with Huxley's audacity on behalf of Piero. But is he correct?
Postmodernism, which is relativistic, dismisses the idea of an absolute good in art as a fixed, eternal entity. Indeed, such a thing is difficult to make a case for. But Huxley's absolute good is not fixed in this way:
...there does exist, none the less, an absolute standard of artistic merit. And it is a standard which is in the last resort a moral one. Whether a work of art is good or bad depends entirely on the quality of the character which expresses itself in the work.
He is not referring to conventional morality.
Not that all virtuous men are good artists, nor all artists conventionally virtuous.
He is talking about a kind of integrity and inquiry into the self.
One can be dishonourable towards one's publishers and yet preserve the kind of virtue that is necessary to a good artist. That virtue is the virtue of integrity of honesty towards oneself.
In other words, self-criticism.
This is a tempting line of thought: that self-criticism is itself an absolute good. Self-criticism must be fluid. It must be personal. We're not used to thinking of absolutes as being fluid and personal. But Huxley studied Eastern philosophies, in which the absolute is the state of perfect fluidity. The emptiness in Taoism, for example, is a space filled with possibility and spontenaiety.
Zen formulated a relationship between the absolute and relative aspects of reality that recognized the presence of both, something that contemporary art criticism has done a bad job of. One Zen sutra entitled The Identity of Relative and Absolute says:
The subtle source is clear and bright; the tributary streams flow through the darkness. To be attached to things is illusion. To encounter the absolute is not yet enlightenment.Each and all, the subjective and objective spheres are related and at the same time independent. Related, yet working differently, though each keeps it own place.
Within light there is darkness, but do not try to understand that darkness. Within darkness there is light, but do not look for that light. Light and darkness are a pair, like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.
Postmodernists state this oppositely. When they talk about absolutes, they talk about rigid standards imposed from above in an authoritarian, coercive manner. Their fluid situation is a relative one, in which boundaries and judgements have been erased. They would do away with absolutes in favor of freedom and opportunity, but even stated this way, it's as though they would get rid of one of art's feet and try to walk.
Whether Huxley's beloved Piero is the Best Picture is beside the point. Huxley, writing in 1938, indicated a way out of the postmodernist mess: the idea of an absolute good in art that is individual, flexible, and derives from an activity instead of a belief. Based on this, an art theory that reconciles absolutes and relativities could be constructed.