Among other things, this deployment of the critical spirit acts as a bastion against the engulfing rust of presentism.
For two decades, The New Criterion has dedicated a large portion of its December issue to the visual arts. We do this, as we devote much of our April issue to poetry, for a couple of reasons. In the first place, putting together these special sections gives us an opportunity to reaffirm one of the magazine's primary aims, which is to provide a historically aware and critically sensitive inquiry into our cultural inheritance, not as an academic or antiquarian enterprise, but with full acknowledgment of the pressure of contemporary taste and the pulse of lived experience.
A second primary reason we publish these special sections involves our often polemical interactions with those contemporary imperatives. T. S. Eliot was right, we believe, when he observed that the most difficult, and also the most rewarding, part of criticism is discerning what is both genuinely new and artistically vital. "The rudiment of criticism," he noted in his Norton Lectures of 1932-33, " is the ability to select a good poem [painting, dance, concerto, etc.] and reject a bad poem; and its most severe test is of its ability to select a good new poem, to respond properly to a new situation." That requires both what Eliot elsewhere calls "the historical sense" — a perception "not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence" — as well as a sort of tuning-fork sensitivity for quality, which by nature involves a positive as well as a negative talent: appreciation of what is good and a nose for what is meretricious.
This process has what we might call an existential as well as an aesthetic component. That is to say, the fundamental act of criticism — from a Greek verb meaning "to discriminate," "to pass judgment" — involves conjuring not just with formal qualities available to our perception but also with the ambient human significances of those qualities, the "mark" they make upon our consciousness and emotions. This is what elevates art and criticism from a purely aesthetic endeavor to, taking the word in its largest significance, a moral enterprise. Ultimately what we talk about when we talk about art is, as Socrates put it to Glaucon in The Republic, the "right conduct of life." We suppose this was part of what Dostoevsky meant when he said, in The Brothers Karamazov, that "beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man."
Among other things, this deployment of the critical spirit acts as a bastion against the engulfing rust of presentism, that voracious temporal despotism whose chief liability is always to lure us into a hall of distorting mirrors in which tiny objects loom large while those of greater importance vanish in a consuming distance.
Month in and month out, The New Criterion offers a refuge from that carnival of fatuous if often angry superficiality. With the eight features on art in this issue, we have assembled an especially capacious and wide-ranging alternative to the sterile twitterings of the woke establishment.
Eric Gibson's analysis (we almost said "handling") of the multiple significances of the Virgin Mary's left hand in Michelangelo's Pietà (1498-99) opens up new vistas of meaning in that familiar Renaissance masterpiece and its complex maker. "When it is discussed," Gibson writes, "the outswung arm and open hand are said to betoken two things: [Mary's] final acceptance of God's will in the sacrifice of her son, and the artist's desire, through Mary's simultaneous act of revelation, to include the viewer in the implied narrative of Christ's Passion and maternal grief." Gibson goes on to argue that a fuller consideration of the sculpture shows that, in fact, "Mary's left hand tells us not two things, but five." Read the essay to discover the other three…
Roger Kimball. "The New Criterion on art." The New Criterion (December, 2020).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Roger Kimball for The New Criterion.
Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the publisher of Encounter Books. Mr. Kimball is the author of many books, including Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism, The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, Tenured Radicals, Revised: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age, The Survival of Culture: Permanent Values in a Virtual Age, Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity, The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, and Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse.Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion
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