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Friday, September 14, 2012

Jose Ortega y Gasset

We all like to reminisce. The "good old days" are as ubiquitous to American life as Fritos and the remote control. Note, I could have said hot-dogs and mom's apple pie but my "good old days" aren't all that old. The past few days, friends of mine have been reminiscing about their "goodoledays" (we might as well make it all one word for convenience sake), the war years, and perhaps some goodoledays that, while certainly old, perhaps weren't all that good. Personally, I'd take the nowadays (a phrase already a single word) over the goodoledays any day. They might be a good place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there. Which brings me around to what might be considered the goodoledays of art--approximatelyone hundred years ago, when art still meant something, when art was still important, when artists of all stripes were real celebrities.

Jose Ortega y Gasset, 2008,
Manuel Pardo
The Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset lived through those days. He was born in 1883 and died in 1955, so he not only experienced them but lived to tell about it in the modern context. He draws a diagram of society as a very large circle with those at the centre working to control the movement and direction of the quivering masses of humanity all around them. Within this circle he draws dozens of smaller circles, each a "world" of its own, each with its movers and shakers in the centre doing their moving and shaking to influence the context of their world, and to some degree, that of the rest of the world. Art is one such circle. One-hundred years ago, in the goodoledays, it was very near the center of Gasset's "big circle." Painting, poetry, literature, music, drama, all had an enormous impact upon the other worlds around them.

But as early as 1925, Gasset was already longing for the turn-of-the-century goodoledays as he took note of the fact that, even then, the "art circle" was moving significantly further and further from the center of the larger circle of human society, becoming less and less important in the overall scheme of things. He blamed what he called the "dehumanization" of art as the culprit in this change. He wrote specifically of painting but at the time, his words could have applied to several art disciplines. By dehumanization, Gasset meant art's veering away from human forms or the depiction of real objects into a reality of the artist's own making. He doesn't denigrate this movement, he only takes note of it as being more and more "art only for artists." And by artists, he doesn't mean only those who create, but all those who understand. The problem, as he saw it however, came down to the fact that artists were deliberately going to greater and greater extremes in trying to make this understanding more and more difficult. And in doing so, they were shifting the center of gravity of the art world, moving it more and more toward the periphery of the rest of the world. It was a very cogent, early realization of a trend that continued, even accelerated, during most of the rest of his century. And what has filled the vacuum near the centre of Gasset's big circle? Try sports.

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