Two Theories of Art

The recent BBC revisiting of the history of art – Civilisations – is fascinating for its juxtaposition against the 1969 predecessor by Kenneth Clark. The new version tries to be genuinely global, post-imperial, and generally woke, so to speak. However, it doesn’t quite get to the philosophy of the creative act, the artistic imperative. The series grapples with consequences and politics, with religion and hierarchy, but not really with any philosophy of art, or questions of meaning. The interpretations of Martin Heidegger and Gilles Deleuzes, while diametrically opposed in some ways, are illuminating on the subject.

Heidegger’s view (specifically on Modern Art) was that it was essentially destructive. In a 1956 Der Spiegel interview, published after his death ten years later, he argued that just as philosophers could not prescribe a new condition for humanity to confront modernity, art had no suitable perspective from which to contribute. Art in essence, as I read his comments, compounded the inherent entrapment of the modern, further distancing us from our essence, or being.

Deleuze, as commented upon by Giorgio Agamben, argued that all art was resistance, that the act of creation defied hierarchy and power structures that attempted to exert control. Modern political structures seek to dominate ideas, but those ideas that are at the point of being created cannot be dominated, cannot be controlled until after they have been created.

I’m not sure the two theories of art are mutually exclusive; Deleuze argues that art is important as an act of resistance (and one presumes by extension an act of identity, expression, and even perhaps being), while Heidegger argues that whatever it is (in this context) it’s not going to help. As he said in that same interview, ‘only a God can save us!’

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