Taste as an Ethical and Political Idea in the 18th Century
Date: Thursday 19 May 1988
Venue: Lecture Hall
Mark Cousins - Taste as an Ethical and Political Idea in the 18th Century. From the Legitimation and Credibility conference organized and moderated by Roy Landau.
MARK COUSINS: I once had a problem, an interest, which led on to thinking about something else: to try an account for the developing taste for early Italian art, trecento and quattrocento art in England, at the end of the 18th century, and then to the 19th century. It wasn’t difficult to map, the growth of this taste in terms of the usual, scholarly indexes. One could look at the growth of historical scholarship on the 15th century at the end of the 18th century, things like (William) Roscoe’s biography of Lorenzo di Medici, or one could look at collections like the Walker gallery in Liverpool, where Roscoe’s collection is now housed. One could say the way in which engravings were increasingly disseminated, and one could mark the change in the earlier critical remark made by the Italian masters in art history books, painters and a whole range of topographical literature. So, one could chart this as a history, from 1780 to 1820, one could trace a transformation of interest, and one could chart the way in which this class of paintings certainly became valued. However, having simply traced that history didn’t seem to me to give an account of the mechanism whereby this transformation occurred, and it seems pointless to me to try to explain this mechanisms by things like “a change insensibility” yes, it’s totally tautological, yes, that’s what you are seeking to analyze. So, I’ve always found terms like “Romanticism” or whatever, entirely pointless. What kind of mechanisms might be at stake in such limited, but real change. I don’t think one gets an awful lot of help from simply the standards specialists of text, because in a sense, this simply mark the rise and fall of masters, and schools, etc., quite often in an ironical mode, a mode which simply talks about taste, as a kind of worldly fashion, nor did I get much help from sociology texts, again, in a sense, what interests sociology of taste is not what’s valued, or how it’s valued, but the way in which, as it were, the ruling class perpetually falled off on everyone else a set of prefered objects.
What I began to find myself asking, was who or what is the legitimate subject of taste. What is the subject, such that it has taste. Here I began to look at two different issues: one was discussions about taste itself, in the 18th century, and certain transformations in those discussions. In particular, at ideas of certain social practices which, for lack of a better word, are called practices of sincerity. To put my argument on the table, what I want to suggest on this paper is that there is a gradual transformation in discussions of the art object in the 18th century towards what we might call a sensationalism of aesthetic response. Here, perhaps in England, it was slightly different from the continent. On the one hand, you get the rise of the sensationalist count of art appreciation, but this creates a profound difficulty, because it’s clear that this discourse in no way wants to license any response: it’s important to this argument that it finds ways of saying that not everyone’s taste is (to be considered), only some are legitimate. What legitimates the subject of taste is that the subject of taste is capable and actually makes statements in a mode of sincerity. It’s an unhelpful word, and I don’t mean to value sincerity in any sense, it’s not that I think people suddenly became sincere. Various ways of trying to characterize certain mentalities in Modern Europe, tend to write in various ways that at a certain point, the history of the self, added to itself a new attribute which might be called sincerity, in 17th century, perhaps. Clearly, in the idea of sincerity, there is a relation to classical ideas of truthfulness. It may well have certain other origins in 16th century obsessions with falsification, forgery, and pretense, the areas of life in which impersonation might be used by the individual to escape from the actuality, or his responsibilities of his private or social identity. In this sense, the Victorian villain, who violates his social identity by forging a will, is merely the last actor in a long tradition. Nonetheless, the concept has undergone profound transformation. Some historians, tend to locate this transformation in the emergence of the concept of society. Some people have given to Calvinist leaders a kind of early undeveloped sense of society, in which sincerity is tested by the willingness to speak plainly. You can find it vividly expressed by Edward Thompson. The assumption for plain speaking is conviction, and conviction is born and articulated through the development of the sense of individuality.
Sincerity of a subject consists in some way of a congruence between an avow and an actual feeling. Sincerity is praised as a public quality in many 18th century discussions of society. It impinges on such questions as the sincerity of any individual who passes a judgement, and the degree of correspondence between the principles avowed by society, and to the extent to which society fosters, or corrupts the sincerity of its citizens. In this respect, an absolutely central document is Diderot’s dialogue novel, ‘Rameau’s Nephew’. The dialogue contrasts the philosophical, and the respectable, and the noble simplicity of the one, with the flattering impersonating, uncontemptuous cynicism of the “lui”: the simple soul, and the disintegrated consciousness. The text was brought into Germany by Schelling, and it becomes a central text in Hegel’s phenomenology of mind. In the section entitled the heroism of Hegel describes something that is paradigmatic and abstract, but also refers to something that Hegel perceives as something that is developed since the Middle Ages. Somehow, the individual’s realization of his relationship to the external power of society: he becomes conscious of having made the choice to maintain the relationship, and for the credential reasons for doing so. It’s this in a way which breeds the contempt of the “lui” in Diderot’s dialogue. Hegel says: “it looks upon the authoritative power of the state, as a chain, something suppressing an autonomous existence, and hence hates the ruler, obeys only with secret malice, and stands ever ready to burst out in rebellion.” In Hegel’s reading, the simple soul is rejected because in a way, it is defined and limited by its noble relation to the external power of society, and this is rejected by Hegel in favour of culture, which consists, and I quote, “in universal talk and in deprecatory judgement, which rends and tears everything.” It’s clear that in Hegel, the questions of sincerity give way to questions of authenticity. In many ways, this comes to dominate continental philosophy, and to some extent speculation about art. Where authenticity consists of a rather more strenuous moral experience of sincerity, in a rather more exigent sense. The suicide of the young Werther, is really an act of a failure, not a recognition of complete disintegration. Werther lacks the tough irony, and wit to sustain a Hegelian solution. A disintegrated consciousness, in a literal sense, young Werther persists in leaning to the simplicity of the simple soul.
On the other hand, I think that in England, because of Victorians’ interest in the fate of Werther, and I think the bishop of Exeter had a ratio of copycat suicides, it was somehow the simple soul and the simple soul’s sincerity which profoundly embedded himself in a whole range of English speculation on art, and on certain kind of practices. It seems to me the development of feelings of authenticity in England tended to concentrate not on alienation, but on complete identification. Moreover, sincerity was in England never identified with the discredited rationalism, nor with a purely religious sensibility, it took a long time to say that all that poetry spreads from genuine emotions. With the concept of sincerity, it seems to me that one can begin to unpick some of the transformations that occurred within the late 18th century, and start an argument about it in the century’s aesthetics, which in turn illuminates the problem of how and why the paintings of the quattrocento and the trecento suddenly began to be valued. Quite often, perhaps this is now not so true, the idea of sincerity is referred to in the context of the attack upon what’s worth called poetic diction, and in many other simplified schemes of literary history, it’s still argued that the publication of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’ is some sort of revolution in that history. But the hostility of the reviewers, specially (Francis) Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review (1807), was not directed against what was taken to be the revolutionary aspects of the poetics of the Ballads, but to the more specific (William) “Wordsworthnian” references to “language of conversation as it is found in the middle and lower classes of society”. The other idea, that of the poet as a man speaking to man, a poetry being spontaneous, and of diction, being degraded by artifice. This attracted almost no opposition at all, this was no novelty, and there is good reason for this. Far from being radical notions, they were reflections of opinion in magazine literature, of the 1770s onwards. An article in the monthly magazine in July 1796 (Mark seems to mention a slightly different date, but the quote can be found there), signed at the Enquirer, defined poetry “as the immediate offspring of a vigorous imagination and quick sensibility” and goes on to attack Modern productions: “if the artificial diction of Modern poetry would be improper on similar occasions in verse, the taste of the Moderns has been refined to a degree of fastidiousness which leads them to prefer the militricious ornaments of art to the genuine simplicity of nature”. Not in any sense was this opinion new to decay of the 1790s, indeed was mulling over the ideas expressed in the ‘Lyrical Ballads’, he went to the library in Bristol, took out a volume on lectures, which is now very rarely commented on, I think it was extremely influential, the ‘Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres’ by the reverend Hugh Blair. Blair lectured at Edinburgh University from 1759, he did the same course of lectures for 23 years until 1783, when he felt compelled to publish them because of the appearance of inaccurate versions. In the lecture entitled ‘The Origin and Progress of Poetry’, he defines poetry as “the language of the passions,” or “the enlightened imagination formed most commonly into regular numbers”. He dispenses with any absolute distinction between poetry and prose, and the function of the abolition soon becomes clear. The origin of poetry, for Blair, lies in the oral tradition of primitive public declamation. A tradition closely linked to him with salm and ceremony. Literature and specialized subdivisions appeared with the invention of writing, which a post-Derridian generation must find surprising: he attacks writing the whole time. What writing did, as far as Blair was concerned, was to divide poetry from song, and the performer from the community. Such a division of labour contributed to an exact and accurate cultivation of its functions, but Blair had his reservations about cultivation. “Poetry” he says, “in its ancient, original condition, was perhaps more vigorous than it is in its modern state. It included then the whole burst of the human mind; the whole exertion of the imaginative faculties: it spoke then the language of passion, and no other; for to passion it owed its birth. Prompted and inspired by objects which to him seemed great, by events which interested his country or his friends, the early bard arose and sung. He sung indeed in wild and disorderly strains; but they were the native effusions of his heart”. This natural effusions become very important, what they consist of is the congruity of emotion and expression which characterizes sincerity. And it’s this lack of congruence which Blair detects in modern poetry. “In after ages, when poetry became regular art, studied for reputation and for gain, authors began to affect what they did not feel. Composing coolly in their closets, they endeavoured to imitate passion, rather than to express it; they forced their imagination into raptures, or to supply the effect of native warmth by those artificial ornaments which might give the composition a splendid appearance.” This prevailing sense of corruption through artifice, and to some extent to professionalism, and the recognition of the problematic nature of imitation is again by no means isolated in Blair, he is in the mainstream of certain remarks in England and more specifically in Scotland on art and aesthetics. His ideas upon the nature of the aesthetic experience are central and indeed typical of a shift in traditional arguments about art. This shift, which I want now to point out, is one which might license the idea of sincerity as a normative criterion, both within aesthetics and indeed in art production. The topography of appreciation, for Blair, is what he calls taste, but it’s interesting to know that when he introduces the idea of taste he is some discomfort. He recognizes that if we talk about the correct rules of composition, for any object, once we think that there can be rules for the construction of artifacts, he is worried that “a sort of art is immediately thought of, that is ostentatious and deceitful; the minute trifling of words alone; the pomp of expression; the studied fallacies of rhetoric; ornament substituted in the room of use.” This fear of corruption through cultivation, once he recognized, was provoking in the very notion of taste itself a pejorative sense. So Blair states, finally, that proper criticism finds out what is false, making taste a means of moral purification. When he actually defines taste, it’s in this way: “the power of receiving pleasure from the beauties of nature and art. It’s not an act of reasoning, for objects strike us forcefully and immediately. Without that being able to define the reasons for our pleasure,” he says “it is a sense impression.” The characters of taste are reducible to two for him: delicacy and correctness. Yet, Blair has to admit that the disposition of taste in history has been so wide as to lead some to suppose that taste is purely arbitrary. Blair doesn’t accept this, and he tries to reason his way out. First, he argues that if there were not standard of taste, even though somehow the origin of taste is outside standards, if there were no origin of taste, all opinions would be equally true, which of course, he says, is palpably not true. Secondly, some opinions may be different and they may not conflict in principle, they simply refer to different emphasis of cultured, but different sensibilities. This gets us no further to what would provide a standard of taste, so he goes on: the standard of taste is given by nature. But finally, he admits, that this is perhaps lacking specificity. Then he says: taste is, as it has already been admitted, founded upon an internal sense of beauty, therefore the standard of taste is to be found in the internal sense of beauty of the perfect man. Shadowing the taste of the individual, there is the norm of the perfect man. Of course, this perfect man is not, as it were, the son of the preferences of all, but rather the general will of free and privileged opinion. Free and privileged opinion, and yet in advanced, and yet uncorrupted nations. It’s quite clear that only, actually in Britain can taste exist. Just in case at any point the collective taste in that sense, were rotten, there is a final thought of appeal for Blair, which is his history. Somehow, history is a medium, against the derelictions of purely contemporary taste, and will leave us masterworks. I’ve gone through this arguments, because they seem to me kind of changed. It’s clear that Blair has dug himself into his own problem. He obviously wishes to shift any discussion about standards of taste away from the object itself. The criterion of beauty is in the percipient rather than statable as a property of what is perceived. Clearly in that sense, his whole argument is based on certain sensationalist empiricist assumptions, but at the same time he is absolutely insistent that we should not give up standards of objectivity, and as a consequence, he tries to shift the objectivity into the an of an internal sense of beauty. So it’s internal, this standard of beauty, but it doesn’t refer just to any individual. Taste is to be protected from common prejudice, by the rational barrier of what in fact is social privilege. At a logical level this is a fragile, unsatisfactory defense, but I don't want somebody to attack it, the point I’m trying to make is that it flows from a consequence of shifting the focus of assessment away from the work of art and onto the psychology of the observer. Although I have gone through it in Blair’s case, it’s a problem shared by all of Blair’s contemporaries, one which eroded not only conventional standards of beauty in the world of art, but came gradually and inexorably to the central notion of beauty itself. A lot of the speculation in a practical fashion, in a practical fashion, had concentrated upon qualities that a work of art needed to exhibit in order to satisfy, in some crude sense, the rules governing the production of beauty. The categories which subdivided this inquiry concerned the genres of art and their properties that governed their construction, and once the properties and rules were satisfied, in an easy sense, the work may be said to be beautiful. But in Britain, perhaps starting with (Joseph) Addison the direction of the inquiry is transformed. Falling ideas which catalogued experience in terms of faculties of sense, the central concept of this aesthetics becomes the faculty responsiveness. Addison is not concerned with the inventory of art forms, but their effect on the imagination, and he admits history and intellectual activity into his examination: “a truth in the understanding is as well reflected in the imagination, and we are able to see something like colour and shape”. This shift of aesthetic experience reduced interest in what might been called as the outer categories of art, formulation of rules by which the objective quality of art may be one, is called off in favour of the attempt to construct an inventory of the pleasures of the imagination or the emotions of taste, and their reduction to psychological simples.
To (Alexander) Gerard, in his ‘Essay on Taste’ in 1759 these simples are: nobility, sublimity, beauty, imitation, harmony, the ridiculous and the virtuous. Variations on these classes are, to Addison, beauty and simplicity. For Burke, however, in the essay of the same year as Gerard, (‘A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’)
the beauty and the sublime are not only conceptually distinct, but to some extent mutually exclusive. The sublime, for Burke induces “a state of mind in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror; whereas the beautiful does not paralyze, but rather relaxes and melts.” This introduces a crucial distinction which comes to influence continental philosophy as well. The pleasures enjoyed by beauty had been rather vaguely treated earlier. Now the feeling of horror enters into the (aesthetic) response, and in relation to the object, the property of beauty that had been associated with harmony, balance and proportion, in Burke’s idea of the sublime is vast, infinite and obscure. A great clearness helps but little towards affecting the passions, whereas we are mostly moved by what is dark, uncertain, and confused. It’s clear that having turned attention from an objective, a statement of the rules for the construction of beauty to an examination of responses, the hierarchy of values was bound to be replaced. By contrast with the sublime, the beautiful came to seem slight, fragile, and attenuated. In this sense we might say that the concept of beauty no longer remains central, in an inquiry of aesthetic response, not even highest in scope of values. (Francis) Hutcheson wrote in his, ‘(An) Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue’: “Let it be observed, that in the following Papers, the Word Beauty is taken for the Idea raised in us” this is not questioning what precipitates the idea, but his answer is “uniformity amidst variety”. That’s not the meaning of beauty (...) For a long time, British writers tried to hold on to old qualities, which earlier, non relativist theories had signaled as crucial categories. Some, like Burke, provided as it were, too much evidence against the idea that some notion of common rules or criteria could be sustained. Other like (Joseph) Addison and (Lord) Shaftesbury provided a phenomenological account against it, by stressing that aesthetic response is immediate and disinterested, so the perception of the qualities is incompatible with the aesthetic attitude. Burke accepted this, and in making proportion, “a creature of the understanding, rather than a primary cause acting on the senses and imagination.” He concludes: “I have great reason to doubt, whether beauty be at all an idea belonging to proportion” one by one the old positions were evacuated. (Richard) Payne Knight declared that beauty was “simply a general term of approbation of the most vague and extensive meaning.”
There was not now an a-priority, but there was a customary limit on what might be found beautiful, moreover, the development of the ideas of the sublime, with their response of horror, would admitted as legitimate aesthetic responses. Beauty had been transvalued as a concept and devalued within the hierarchy. Beauty was now wider in application, but at the same time no longer a necessary constituent of response.
The consequence involved in the admission of horror, that might cause a stronger, and aesthetically relevant feeling, was an important element in underwriting a certain taste in art, whose object traditionally failed the taste of harmony and proportion. Furthermore, the delimitation of beauty, licensed a taste for art that evaded the canons of progress and perfection in the history of art. Finally, if the concept of aesthetic value could be shifted from the artifact to the response, to some extent the reverse operation occurred, which is to transfer the exhibition value back from its exhibition in the object to the expression on the part of the artist. Some of these arguments and their consequences seem to me too bare on the growing taste for primitive paintings, however, there are two forces that must be examined, for their complicate any simple notion that caused a shift in taste. One was the development of the concept of picturesque, the other was the restraining of an academic conservatism. To (William) Hazlitt, in his essay "On Imitation" the picturesque, he said, “was nothing but the over cultivation of the eye. Art may be said to draw aside the veil from nature. To those who are perfectly unskilled in, and imbued with the principles of art, most objects present only a confused mass. The pursuit of art is liable to be carried to a contrary excess, as where it produces a rage for the picturesque. You cannot go a step with a person of this class, but he stops to you to point out some choice bit of landscape, or fancied improvement, and teases you almost to death with the frequency and insignificance of his discoveries!” In fact the picturesque had kind of more consequential basis this implies, and had his lineage on the same relativity that drew new boundaries between the beautiful and the sublime. The transformation described involved the rise of the picturesque, fixed importantly upon landscape and through the pictorial appreciation of its nature, poetry, painting, gardening, and architecture derided to a single art of landscape. Uvedale Price wrote his ‘Essay(s) on the Picturesque’ after reading Burke and finding out that there were many things which delighted the eye, but which differed from the beautiful and from the sublime. He extended the principle of the picturesque beyond simply that which was suitable to painting, for the idea of picturesque music became admitted, and picturesque travel. The theory was extended by (Archibald) Alison, in his ‘Essays On The Nature And Principles Of Taste’ of 1790, where he denied absolutely the existence of objective qualities in nature, and accounted for emotion raised in eh spectator by it through the association of ideas. In this context, picturesque objects where simply those that reminded a person of the pictures that he had seen. This clearly introduces an astonishing degree of subjectivism, but again, there was an attempt to limit this by the fact that most writers in the picturesque accepted Claude as the artist whose compositions looked best in nature. The psychological concentration on what in nature forms a proper composition, and what in art forms a natural composition, gave the proposition could picture (orthopoesis), a new complicated and unstable dimension. Notions of the prescriptive rules binding the poetic aspect of painting, and the visual content of poetry, developed into a set of horrors about the emotion of vision, and how to educate the eye. Writers had to pick their way between the artificial and the abandoned. This nervous trade between nature involved in the picturesque responses; illustrated by Payne Knight’s ‘Didactic Poems’ of 1795, ‘The Landscape’:
“How best to bid the verdant Landscape rise,
To please the fancy, and delight the eyes;
Its various parts in harmony to join
With art clandestine, and concealed design.”
As you recognize, the task of picturesque landscaping is a complicated one, and one can easily violate the sense of scene. There is no canonical formula for success, nature, still irregular and free, acts not by lines, but general sympathy. The best of rules are those of common sense, affected taste is but refined abuse. Such an abuse was exhibited for Knight in the work by (Capability) Brown and (Humphry) Repton, their violations of nature simply exhibited to him a wealth of land and poverty of mind. But all this begs two questions: what is natural; and how nature could be improved to become more natural. Philosophically, like his contemporaries, he uses the word nature in exactly how it’s suited: sometimes it means some visible phenomena, not made by artifice, sometime it’s used in a more Aristotelian sense, sometimes it denotes whatever gives pleasure to the mind. Payne knight, in the end, settles for a kind of pragmatic application, which is common sense plus (...): “True composition all extremes rejects, and just proportions still, of all, selects; Wood, water, lawn, in just gradation joins, And each with artful negligence combines.” He argues that picturesque effects can only be achieved by watching accidents, and by profiting from circumstance. It takes this opportunity to defend Claude from those landscape painters who do not think they have to treat natural phenomena directly.
All this kind of opportunism within arguments about mimesis, shifts with extremely uneasy jerks, from artistic preset to natural example as the criterion of artistic education. The picturesque traveler, forcing the landscape into a composition is not an obvious candidate to return to my problem for the idea of sincerity. The point I want to make, however, is that it had been very important in expressing sensation in the percipient, and it constituted a kind of interim in which there was a practical education of educating the eyes. The other complicating factor is what I call academic conservatism, this expressed itself in several modes, but i was chiefly patriotic, clerical, or just playing silly. The reverend Anthony Bromley published his ‘Philosophical and Critical history of the Fine Arts’ in 1794. To him, painting was an instrument to hide, it had the advantage over writing of being written into universal language. For him Raphael and Michelangelo failed the test of being great painters because they lived in an age which was monkish and superstitious, in effect they were bad painters because they didn’t have a chance to read 39 articles. Moreover, there was something for him about Southern temperament, which unless it’s guided by Northern discipline is incapable of producing greatness. Meanwhile, the first essential of a history painter is to keep as close as possible to the known facts. Unfortunately, there was a general tradition of history painting that produced what he calls a hermaphrodite, something which is half history and half poetry, and hence for him, neither. Raphael, and indeed Winckelmann, are convicted of falling into this by-error, which are abstracted ideas mistakenly couched under sensible images. They should have had before their eyes (Benjamin) West’s absolutely correct ‘Death of Wolfe’ (‘The Death of General Wolfe’, 1770), as for the position of the arts and society, the reverend (George) Romney is pretty confident about their desirability. They inculcate a sense of honor, and a zeal for commercial intercourse. In a period of revolution, patronage is no less than a patriotic duty; the book was dedicated to George the III - a re-dedication might be coming. When he deals with the revival of the arts in Italy, this kind of academic conservatism begins to recognize at least some achievement with the foundation of the academy in Florence. As for the actual artistic productions, however, they’re tainted with superstition, and “independent from superstition, which will find the taste of this times, leaning strongly to the dark, the stravagant, and the horrible.” (George) Romney did not seem to have met with the concept of the sublime, let alone felt a taste for it. Fortunately Fuseli was quick to insult him. The successfully the scheme was Volume I of the work, publicly excluded from the library of the Royal Academy. Reverend Romney started Volume II with a couple of outraged letters to Fuseli attempting to justify himself on points of scholarship, defending the homolytic content of his work by insinuating that Fuseli’s own work was distinguished by corrupt and sensationalist taste. “The painter of the Nightmare” it was suggested, “could only be expected to attack the proprieties of the Christian art criticism. Fuseli’s own views at this point on art history, would be made public in his Royal Academy lectures. He recognized, conventionally, the 15th century as an epoque of restoration. But he still saw it as an uphill struggle. The demands of the church “substituted a medium of art as much inferior to the resources of Paganism in a physical sense as incomparably superior in a spiritual one.” One it was considered that the restoration was carried out by Italians, “the remnants of Gothic adventurous, humanized only by the cross, mouldering amidst the ruins of the temples they demolished, embattled fragments of the image they’ve arranged and crushed.” Apart from certain problems of Fuseli’s analysis, he follows a traditional pattern, until he suddenly reaches Luca Signorelli, and Michelangelo. Signorelli, “seems to have been the first who contemplated with a discriminating eye his object, and saw what was accident and what essential, balanced light and shade, and decided the motion of his figures.” No one else seemed to have commented on this, but 40 years later, Mrs. (Anna) Jameson, in his ‘Memoirs of the Early Italian Painters’ remarked “This painter was apparently a favorite of Fuseli, whose compositions frequently remind us of the long limbs and animated, but sometimes exaggerated action of Signorelli.” But the real shift of Fuseli’s critical plause, was from Raphael, to Michelangelo, for sublimity of conception, grandeur of form, and break with manner. Compared to him, Raphael more insinuating, more pleasing to our hearts, is less elevated and less vigorous.
This association did not go unchallenged. Martin Archer Shee wrote a long poem in ‘The Elements of Art’ 1809, in which he took issue with this identification. Standing as a swaft defender of the conservative wing of academicians, he stated that the lectures of the eminent professor appeared to have effected a revolution in favour of Michelangelo, and to have invested him with that supreme dignity in the empire of art, which Raphael had so long enjoyed. He puts the acceptance of this validation down to fashion, and goes on to scorn the sublime. Of all the qualities of art, the sublime appears to be the most vague, irregular and undefined - as this wasn’t exactly was it’s meant to be. It is to (Martin Archer) Shee, the insane point in a critical compass. He ends his attack by quoting (Joshua) Reynolds, wondering whether some figures are “in the highest degree sublime, or in the greatest degree ridiculous.” This is enough to frighten (Martin Archer) Shee off, he says: “Who shall walk in safety on this brink? whose Taste shall hope to be fixed, where the pendulum of Reynolds shakes with so tremendous a vibration?” However, it does seem to me that, by this time, the language of the sublime had substantiated itself and was not to be moved. One of the consequences of this concerns a re-evaluation of the share of the beholder, and the spiritual nature of the painter. The security was now made between the Gothic and the sublime, this became well associated. This was not simply a change of taste, and a switch of preferences, rather it was the very surfacing of a subjective response, licensed by developments in 18th century aesthetics. A taste for the Gothic, or for the sublime, meant a concentration upon sentiment. Moreover, the sincerity of the artist, as part of this association with the Gothic, as a precondition for the production of great art, was an idea which lent itself to an increasing religious revival. I quote a letter from Henry Drummond to Mr. Phillips on the corrupting influence of pageant imagery connected with Lorenzo de Medici’s patronage.
The conclusion which I want to come to is that what this transformation involves, in terms of an aesthetic transformation, in favour of subjective response, but one that has to be limited by a customary barrier, so that it doesn’t simply become a relativistic democracy, is one that comes to privilege not just the idea of sincerity, on the part of the person who looks at a painting and indeed the actual painter, but is a faculty which arises, which now conceals itself as a no-faculty at all. That is to say, to take one small example, at the end of the 1790s, the tradition of the publication of rhetoric handbooks, which had been going on ever since Cicero, suddenly stopped. All critical remarks become hostile to an address against the notion of rhetoric, against which is posed sincerity, as a practice, and as the opposite of rhetoric. What I think this reveals, as a fact, is that sincerity as a practice, becomes a kind of semiotic, which actually represses itself, precisely because it argues that it is “what it’s natural, and in this way, the idea of, and in fact the practice of sincerity becomes a tyrannical norm in England, not just in terms of remarks and arguments about art, but actually in an expanding, surrounding area of social life as well.
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