Feeling and sentiment
Post #1223 • August 26, 2008, 5:25 PM • 57 Comments
When someone with an eye for art looks at art, he has a felt response to it. That feeling makes viewers with taste value art as much as they do. It appeals to a sense of visual rightness that most people experience to some degree, and some people experience to a high degree. Our descriptors for it are horribly inadequate. Quality, goodness, rightness, effectiveness, and strength all point to something that we can experience but not prove or measure: the value in an arrangement of forms.
It is also possible to have a felt response to what we usually refer to as content. (Actually, content is everything contained in the work of art. To avoid confusion, I refer to recognizable form as "content," and to what we probably ought to be calling content as "traits.") This latter response is a different sort of thing. It appeals to one's emotional or intellectual life, as the art in question drums up feelings that accompany memories. This isn't so much feeling as sentiment. Feeling occurs in response to formal qualities presented to the viewer in the moment. Sentiment, in contrast, accompanies memories and things remembered: ideas, concepts, mental abstractions, and generalities in addition to recollections of one's personal history.
Sentiment has an important role to play in art. Art that uses content in any way at all appeals to sentiment, and likely came into existence because of sentiment. But ideas cling to all human endeavors, and formal art-making is no exception. Excitement about the idea of abstraction in general, or the culture of abstraction, is a sentiment. (Excitement about a particular abstract work might not be.) Lots of things motivate artists to get into the studio and relatively few of them are purely formal, even for the the purest of abstractionists. Modernists make visual art for visual reasons, but the forms of their particular efforts are shaped by life experiences that are unique to each of them. In that they resemble every other artist at work. What distinguishes them from non-modernists is not the lack of sentiment in their work, but the understanding that sentiment will not save their work from failure. Stated optimistically, they know to rely on form for quality rather than sentiment.
So modernist work can deal with content: images, ideas, narratives, and all else. While this doesn't square with what people usually think of as the products of historical modernism, it doesn't, to my knowledge, contradict anything written by Clement Greenberg. Supposedly - I've read variations of this nonsense again and again - Greenberg commanded all art to get in line with his vision of ever-increasing purity, to the exclusion of content. I challenge anyone to produce an excerpt that says as much. He refused to make prescriptions and his aversion to generalities only ever seemed to grow more acute. One rather gets the sense from reading his observations in the 1940s and '50s, particularly that the best art of the time was abstract, that he knew fully that art, immune to rules as it is, might at any time decide to veer off in another direction and take the best art with it. Now the best art is not being produced by any particular movement or style. The new modernist artist has all the sentimental options afforded to the non-modernist by the pluralistic art world. Anecdotes do not equal data, but I know through Artblog.net that a lot of people who work figuratively identify with modernism. They have plenty of room to do so.
It's too bad that "sentimental" sounds as pejorative as it does. Sentiment and sentimentality have distinct meanings. (Sentiment is sincere; sentimentality is weak, mawkish, or affected.) But sentimental can make either adjectival. Sentimentality is a vice, though hardly the worst of them. But fond feelings for a memory, person, or notion is consummately human, and might not even qualify as a foible except according to some stoic ideal. Depending on the nature of the affair, sentiment might enable better judgment than rationality. (Pairing up a potential couple, for instance, or some equally emotional decision.) Certainly any rich emotional life - about which art theory has said nothing worthwhile, despite the nature of the subject - is going to contain a large measure of sentiment. Where English fails me, Yiddish comes to the rescue: I'll use sentimental here to refer to sentiment, and schmaltzy to refer to sentimentality.
Again, any felt response to content is sentimental. An image that reminds one of childhood bliss is sentimental. An image that reminds one of the iniquities of consumer culture is sentimental. All art about something, as people commonly say without thinking enough about it, is sentimental. Increasing the complexity or profundity of the content does not make it less sentimental. And again, sentiment is not necessarily inimical to the success of a work of art. It could prove enabling. Even sentimentality is not inimical to success, at least theoretically. Art can make an end run around the artist's intentions and succeed no matter how fervently the artist tries to derail himself. I'm not a huge fan of his work, but Douanier Rousseau may prove as much.
If its form fails, the content of a work becomes a trivial concern, a bit like talking about the charming personality of a person who has recently stopped breathing. But conversely, sentiment and even schmaltz don't disqualify a work from modernist success. Feeling and sentiment are parallel phenomena, and while the former is indispensible, the latter can operate quite freely and with notable importance within a modernist outlook. Modernism is not puritanism, but a high demand upon art to be good. How we get there is wide open. Whether we ought to get there is not.
(Posted from the Lady Zog, Edmonton, AB.)