• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On Aesthetic Standards

August 2020


Even if, God forbid, good art entirely lost its currency in the vast marketplace of the world, even if it were cheapened in the opinion of the lumbering herd, the chattering cattle by whom, with blurred vision and dirt-filled hooves, such swift and errant appraisals are often made, even if it were turned into an object of whose real value these empty masses became completely neglectful, “it would still be abundantly worthwhile to continue to enjoy it by oneself”. That, at least, was the conclusion drawn by the British poet, Matthew Arnold, the sage writer and dazzling conversationalist to whom, as it happens, the notion of solitude was rather foreign.


Still, in the intervals of his coffee house visits and nightly soirees (out of which, reliably, he emerged society’s incontestable favorite), Arnold recognized the place demanded by art in the unaccompanied mind. There it sat, in need of no further adornment, in the quiet repose of individual thought. It allowed no distraction, and caused no encumbrance in the mind of the host in which it now lived. There was a time, not long ago, when good art wasn’t forced to resign itself to so discreet a place, to so silent a convent as only the anchorite or the monk might know, but that time has since passed. Sadly, it no longer is so universally relished, and we must savor it where and when we can.


Yet, that said, despite good art having become, since the age of Arnold, a solitary and isolated pursuit, one for which the countless Philistines among whom we live have neither the sensitivity nor the leisure, the refinement nor the taste, it would remain, doubtless, a beloved and satisfactory pleasure. Not for all, mind you—though none is excluded from the enjoyment that it brings—but for the individual alone.


In this way, good art would forever persist. It would do so as if an undying ember, one resilient to the frigid gusts of persuasion and the mean hostilities of the wind. It would steel itself from the whirling tempests by which, from one climate to the next, one age to another, the art-loving man is continually battered. Confident in his stance—slightly bent at the knees and tensed at the waist—he would stand athwart the assaults of this irascible weather. He would push back against the enormity of its howl and elude the flying projectiles of its malice. All the while, in the silent chamber of his heart, now fiery, now lonely, the inextinguishable light of good art would burn in its corner without flicker, without cease.


For him, good art would remain a quiet happiness, a gentle and warm delight, a source of hot aesthetic bliss out of which one, and one alone, might derive an inexpressible joy. But, according to this maxim, these lines of Arnold from which we might seek further encouragement, in which, for the sake of art, we might find our everlasting hope, art “never will lose currency with the world”. It won’t and it can’t. Its continuance is absolute, its regal sovereignty, confirmed. This is our abiding comfort, the great conclusion at which, thoroughly wearied by the journey we’ve trodden, we gratefully arrive. So too is it the knowledge by which, in our movement forward into the distance of uncertain decades, we might be fortified and led.


In spite of monetary appearances, crude assessments, and the vagaries of the herd atop whose neck the beam of the common sentiment is yoked, good art “never will lose supremacy.” Arnold’s faith in the future of art, to put it mildly, is not just optimistic; it’s pure and categorical. Its continued success is a reality of which, despite the passion of an aesthetic outburst to which, surely, the steady guidance of Arnold’s reason lent an unfailing hand, he’s completely assured. We might call Arnold an art supremacist, an uncompromising acolyte of beauty and good taste, to the frankness of whose honest discrimination, we might calibrate our own. This is a kind of supremacy—a supremacy of beauty—by which we, a nation of egalitarians, might be made to feel uneasy, yet one to which, with no loss of benefit, we might do well to adjust ourselves.


Ultimately, though, we humans aren’t the final arbiters of what is or isn’t aesthetically supreme. We merely follow the dictates of a higher judgment, a deeper reason, an inner force about which can hardly speak. On this ineffable feeling, the herd of opinion can have no effect. As it pertains to good art, great statuary and fine painting, those subjects to which our attention, if we don’t blind it, is so devotedly fixed, “Currency and supremacy are insured to it, not indeed by the worlds’ deliberate and conscious choice, but by something far deeper—by the instinct of self-preservation in humanity”.


Thus is good art immune to the caprice of the unruly market, to the fleshy valuation of both merchant and client at whose bartered price, it simply turns and laughs. It cares not for the appraisal of those money-grubbing men, those avaricious, uncultured changers of coin above whom, with ethereal dignity, it floats. At this distance, it can’t be touched; it rests with Plato and his Forms, Pythagoras and his spheres, Jesus and his apotheosis in the clouds. It listens not to those by whom it’s diminished or besmirched. Their mud-slinging is useless, their estimation dumb, for good art deals in a currency beyond that of the world in which they undercut, lie, and steal.


That, at least, was the philosophy of our dear Matthew Arnold, the philosophy by which the whole process of evolution, that incremental and slow change of one species to its successor, is undergirded. That’s the instinct of self-preservation. It is an instinct, mostly salutary in the forests of nature, to which all blood-soaked beings must finally submit.

Humanity, despite the creativity of its mind and the occasional self-loathing of its spirit, is no exception to this mean dictate and natural law. Its applicability admits no exemption, and none can bend or evade its demand. And while we, as humans, might clamor with the unique anatomy of our mouths, with the honeyed articulations of our lips, and with the dizzying contours of our reason for self-perfection—preservation, in the end, will always suffice.


In adherence to this doctrine, then, art will never escape us. It is not something of which we can be dispossessed; it’s far too deeply entrenched in our souls, as if intertwined in the double helix out of whose subtle combination, our living, breathing body blooms. It is the immutable quality of a species forever in a state of flux, the fixed component of a people always in a process of change. “Amidst all the variety of caprice of taste”, the philosopher David Hume once observed, “there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind”. Good art, I think, is that very general principle of which the brilliant Scotsman spoke, onto which our approbation will forever be cast. But I think a “careful” eye isn’t even necessary for its detection; one merely needs an open eye—not an especially acute one—with the assistance, of course, of a feeling heart.


Both are the inheritances of the individual man, the solitary being to whom—despite the mean assessments of the world in which he lives—good art will forever be a pleasure. His eyes turn toward his heart, his heart toward his eyes, and both synchronize their fluttered pulse in the veneration of good art.

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