The country continues to turn up individuals making works of art—among those in the literary theaters of operation I can think of many—but they traffic in a medium of exchange on which the society doesn’t place a high priority. Maybe it never did; maybe the way I remember the ’40s and ’50s is a tale told, if not by an idiot, by a trivial bourgeois or an obsolete romantic trapped in the dream of a lost golden age. The existence of a civilization presupposes a public that has both the time, and the need, to draw sustenance from the high-wire acts of the artistic imagination. The United States never has produced such a public in commercial quantity, a fact remarked upon by the art historian Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New. “Art discovers its true social use, not on the ideological plane, but by opening the passage from feeling to meaning—not for everyone, since that would be impossible, but for those who want to try. This impulse seems to be immortal.”
Happily so. What blocks the passage from feeling to meaning is the replacing of the thing itself with the price or theory of the thing, which is the difference between money and art as the universal medium of human exchange proposed by Arthur Schopenhauer. “Money is human happiness in abstracto, consequently he who is no longer capable of happiness in concreto sets his whole heart on money.” The dictum accords with the twentieth century’s wars and devourings of the earth, accounts for the modernistic expressions of alienation and despair, speaks to the price paid for the shark in formaldehyde. Although it’s frequently said that the truth shall make men free, the precept is almost as frequently misunderstood. Truth as synonym for liberty isn’t a collectible. It is the joyous discovery of the enlarged sense and state of being that is the change of heart induced by the presence, incomprehensible and usually unannounced, of the lady in the veil.
Image: Thomas Struth, Louvre IV, 1989.