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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.




January 30, 2004, 7:13 PM

I have no problem with the excerpt you previously posted by Huxley. I don't need to agree with his choice of Piero's Resurrection as the best picture. We're all free to choose our own best picture, if we're so inclined, which obviously does not obligate anyone else to agree with our choice. As long as that choice is personally and honestly arrived at, and a reasonable case can be made for it, there's no need to take offense or get defensive if we disagree.

As far as I can see, Huxley simply stated his position, which he was quite entitled to do. He did not say "You must agree with me, or you're an idiot." I found his arguments interesting and thought-provoking. I always prefer that to people who do not take a stand or who feel that doing so is somehow suspect or too "authoritarian." Whether I agree with said stand or not, of course, is entirely up to me.



January 31, 2004, 1:30 AM

Jack - I read Huxley's essay to say an artist which did not meet his standard was a "sham." This may or may not be a synonym to "idiot," but it stretches credibility to call it a compliment. I can support Huxley having whatever standard(s) he wants, but I can't support him calling artists "shams" when he doesn't like them, nor calling his personal preferences some sort of elevated universal "absolute." If anything in the world is a sham, I'd think it would be anyone one who tried to make such a claim as that.

Franklin - Is the word "absolute" used differently by the sutra than by Huxley? I think Huxley is proposing a single universal standard for all artistic comprehension, but I wonder if the word "absolute" in the Zen sutra refers to a person's own individual metaphysical boundary, which they would have to confront themself. In other words, does Buddhism claim everyone's form of enlightenment is the same?

Back to Huxley, I think you're on to somthing, but you go farther than I would have. I'd agree it's fair to say each person has their own absolute(s), and fair to allow each person their own standard(s) of judgment, but I would stop before I claimed there's a universal absolute which applies to all art.

In commerce, science, and life, there are conditions which approach the absolute. It's often clear that a country living under one set of cultural norms will outperform another, or that a human living under one set of conditions will outlive or outenjoy another. Postmodernism is wise to dispense with absolutes, but it throws the baby out with the bathwater when it refuses to compare between different standards. It's competition between standards which elevate society in the long run.

Art is neither commerce, science, nor life. It's entirely subjective by its very nature (even for those of us who believe in neuroesthetics). I may have my standards, and indeed even my absolutes, but I don't think it makes sense for me to claim they're universal. To Huxley's point about defining the absolute standard for art as individual sincerity, self-examination, or something like this, I'm sure there are any number of different definitions which would make art interesting, successful, and "genuine."

What if someone believes the most "genuine" art is that which is superficial? For example, it expresses esthetic pleasance without complexity, communication, or complaint? What if someone believes genuine art is socially subversive, ironic, satiric, or revolutionary? What if someone believes it's art-historically subversive (like Duchamp), poking establishment in the eye with a wink or a chuckle? Or what if it's that which expresses human primitivism, expressiveness, and vibrance, either visually or gesturally (like Picasso's primitive works, or Pollock's expressionistic ones)?

I think all these views are held by respectable persons in many societies, they're all certainly suitable, and they all arguably go against Huxley's absolutist notion. Again, I agree that Huxley's is an acceptable standard, even perhaps an appealing one, but I can't support using the word "absolute" to describe it, I can't declare it superior to other standards (especially when no lives or economies are at stake) and I have moral difficulty referring to those who practice other forms of art, or who have different standards than my own, as "shams."



January 31, 2004, 6:33 PM

Hovig- yes, everybody's enlightenment in buddhism is absolutely the same, to say otherwise would point out distinctions and individuations, which are what keeps one from being enlightened to the "absolute nature" of things.

To try to attach dogmas to art-making is a bit over kill I think. (it does make for some of the best drama though...)



February 1, 2004, 3:17 AM

Hovig, it seems you're taking Huxley too personally. Anyone serious about art needs to develop his own way to deal with it, his own philosophy, as Huxley did. It's a given that everyone will not agree, but ultimately it probably doesn't matter. Art is very personal, or should be. You don't need Huxley's approval any more than I need Arthur Danto's.

It's understood, of course, that nobody should be pressured to espouse a philosophy he doesn't believe. As long as we're free to judge and decide for ourselves, others can think what they like.

The real problem, apart from imposed artistic dogma typical of various totalitarian systems, is people who adopt whatever philosophy is most fashionable or "correct" because that's easier and safer. Such people aren't really into art; they're into image and fitting into a particular "scene."

I can respect Huxley, right or wrong, because I think he was being honest. I cannot respect trendy poseurs or ignorant dilettanti. Even they, however, are free to be that way without my approval.



February 1, 2004, 3:37 AM

You state "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. "

If your meaning of "personal" is that it is specifically directed at yourself in a reflexive fashion dependent upon your own particular history, biography, etc. etc. then yes, it is personal. However, in a more general sense, a sense you imply (and you can only have it both ways sometimes) then it is not necessarily an absolut good. In fact, it can be quite self-destructive since too much self-reference (reflexiveness) is what produces the post-modernist position, leads to the various declarations of the "end of ______" and results in authoritarianism, (the Modernist and the Post-Modernist varieties equally). Because once one admist self-criticism as a process, eschewing the specifically individual applications that may or may not be appropriate, founded or correct (depending upon the premises of that criticism), what remains is a kind of intellectual navel-gazing and increasing focus upon philosophical, aesthetic, ethical, etc. minutia.
Self-criticism is not an unmitigated good, nor is it something to be embraced without consideration of where it has and does lead. The unconsidered embrace of self-criticism in art, while initially sponsored by Clement Greenberg's flavor of "Modernism" eventually forced him to reject it because he didn't like where his premises could be said to logically lead. Extending these thoughts doesn't lead out of Post-Modernism or critical theory, it leads deeper into them.



February 1, 2004, 5:28 PM

Let me quote the man again: Whether a work of art is good or bad depends entirely on the quality of the character which expresses itself in the work. ... That virtue is the virtue of integrity of honesty towards oneself. I'm calling this self-criticism, despite the fact that Z is correct in saying that postmodernism's failures are a result of people pursuing self-criticism to an absurd conclusion. Maybe it would be better to call it honest self-inquiry, which is what I believe self-criticism is when practiced in a constructive, personal, heartfelt way. (And yes, Z, I do mean it as something directed at oneself, and dependent on one's biography and history. As you point out, self-criticism is a tricky activity when applied to other targets, and can degenerate into something ridiculous like anything else. Jesus's aphorism about the beam in one's own eye might apply here.) This activity could well be absolute good.

Hovig, I think Huxley is saying that there is a single, universal standard, but look how he defines that standard - as a personal process. He says that good art depends on the quality of the artist's character, as measured by the integrity of the honesty towards himself. I think you could plug in any style or cultural framework (your list includes pleasant, ironic, comic, and subversive) into that process and come up with effective art, which is why I think one could make a case for it being an absolute good. Judgements about works of art themselves, from both the artist's side and the viewer's, remain completely personal and reflective. In that light, I don't have a problem with him calling bad art a sham. He seems to occasionally like shams - he calls Bernini's work "almost sublime" - and wonders aloud whether he is one. His attitude really is rather gentle.

My understanding is that enlightenment is the space in which reality takes place - Buddhism talks about it as a "ground of being." That would seem to make it the same for everyone, although I would feel more competent about addressing this if I could tell you first-hand. I don't think it would abuse Huxley's argument to paraphrase him by saying that honest self-inquiry is the space in which good art takes place.



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