Because I have admired the Spanish philosopher and art critic Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955) for many years, I have been reluctant to review any of his books. His writing style offers a peculiar angle of vision about culture, philosophy, and art. As a result for years I’ve been a consumer, always taking from his work and never giving anything back.
But now it’s time to give something back. So, here are some very personal likes and dislikes.
Ortega’s title of the book -The Dehumanization of Art- is now a constant in music, literature, aesthetics, and philosophy, having come to mean that in post-modern times human-shaped mimesis (representation of the human) is irrelevant to art.
According to Ortega, the arts don’t have to tell a human story; art should be concerned with its own forms-and not with the human form. The essay, divided into 13 subsections, was originally published in 1925; in these brief sections Ortega discussed the newness of nonrepresentational art and sought to make it more understandable to a public much benumbed with the traditional forms of art.
A search for the substance of traditional art
In the first section entitled, “Unpopularity of the New Art,” Ortega draws from his political credo which one can say it is elitist, aristocratic, and anti-popular. His analysis concludes with the belief that some people are better than others; that some are superior to others: “Behind all contemporary life lurks the provoking and profound injustice of the assumption that men are actually created equal.”
That unbending political point of view colors his aestheticism.
The masses, he holds, will never understand the “new art” that was emerging with Debussy and Stravinsky (music), Pirandello (theater), and Mallarme (poetry). A lack of understanding will mobilize the masses -a term that Ortega uses frequently to refer to the common people- to dislike and reject the new art. Therefore, the new art will be the art for the illustrious, the educated, and the few.
To bring that kind of divisive tool -the few versus the many, aristocrats versus democrats- into the arts seems not only narrow minded, but also disingenuous. Yet my main objection to Ortega’s analysis and conclusions is more fundamental. In my estimation, ‘understanding’ in the arts is of secondary importance. The arts are created by humans to reach out and touch other humans by means of appeals to their passions and emotions-through their senses.
When I was 14 years old, by accident, I heard a musical composition that was so different and strange to my young ears that prompted me to call the radio station to find out about that piece. It was Appalachian Spring, a ballet composition by Aaron Copland. What 14-year old boy from the Andes (Peru) can be familiar with ballet or Aaron Copland to even begin to understand the composition? Yet, I liked it. And that is all that mattered to me.
Understanding that piece of music, or even knowing the name of the composer, was as far away from my mind as was Einstein’s theory of relativity, since I had no idea who Einstein was either. Delight, enjoyment, and rapture one feels without expressed understanding.
By extolling the new forms and promoting the vanguard artists and their efforts to produce non-traditional art, Ortega’s book had a significant influence in the rejection of realism and romanticism. So seductive and convincing was Ortega’s prose that many artists and critics began to equate both realism and romanticism with vulgarity.
To allow a brilliant writer to exert so much authority should be a sin. For years Ortega’s authority has bothered me. Yet, despite that inner annoyance, my respect for the man’s writings inhibited me from protesting. So, by stripping Ortega’s dazzling prose of its seduction -by “bracketing” and performing a phenomenologist reduction- we can see it in its own nakedness for what it is: an elitist and harmful point of view.
People should never be made ashamed of their taste, likes, and dislikes in art. We should enjoy that touch of aesthetic delight whether it comes from primitive, Greek, Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, realism, or romanticism, surrealism, or any period or movement.
Ortega advocates the ‘objective purity’ of observed reality
Following Plato’s division of reality into the forms (universals) and their simulacra, Ortega invents his own corresponding terms: ‘observed reality’ and ‘lived reality.’
The representation of real things (lived reality) – man, house, mountain- Ortega calls “aesthetic frauds.” Ortega totally dislikes objects be they man-made or natural: “A good deal of what I have called dehumanization and disgust for living forms is inspired by just such an aversion against the traditional interpretation of realities.”
In contrast, the representation of ideas (observed reality) is what he views as the true art. Therefore, he praises the new art as the destroyer of semblance, resemblance, likeness, or mimesis. In that destruction of the old human forms of art lies Ortega’s “dehumanization.”
Yet one must recall that more that more than 2500 years ago, the pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras said, “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.” Ortega’s will to “dehumanize” art will always run head on against Protagoras’ wall. Art by definition – anything that is man-made- is profoundly human and cannot be otherwise, Ortega notwithstanding.
Even in the stark canvases of painters such as Mark Rothko one feels the artist’s humanity in search of the human soul through color and luminosity. Even in the random drippings of Jackson Pollock’s works one can sense man’s struggle for freedom. And what is freedom but a human aspiration?
Whenever I look at the shapes of primitive African art, the Paleolithic images of animals in the caves of Lascaux, or even the colorful and balanced grids of Mondrian-I’m in awe of the human spirit. And at such times I feel that labels, signs, markings, and explanations and descriptions (theories) are totally unnecessary.
What we need are theories of art that can unite people rather than divide them. Ortega’s “dehumanization” is a toxic theory not because it advocates a detestable elitism, but because it attempts to deny the pleasures of art to the common people.