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Comparing Arts 2/3

Definitions are dangerous. A perfect definition is an obituary. Even an imperfect definition may be restrictive – an obituary in progress, like a resumé. To define art as what is compared to art is a comprehensive definition; but it would be lethal even if it were not comprehensive. Pater was right in this: art cannot survive the possibility of mutual comparison. There are two reasons.

1. The possibility of comparison confuses the hierarchy of arts and art’s place in the hierarchy of activities. It was possible to maintain a distinction of high and low arts only while the conditions of technology denied the low arts the permanence and portability necessary to present them critically as objects of comparison. Criticism is still catching up with what technology did in the 20th century – the fixation of the ephemeral in photos, records, and movies – and meanwhile technology has done much more. Very little that human beings do cannot now be made permanent, portable, and abstract; anything permanent, portable, and abstract can be compared to an art; and thus anything can be an art.

But isn’t that a good thing; isn’t that progress? Pater himself wanted to extend artistic deliberation to every aspect of life, wanted to “burn with a hard, gemlike flame.” He called that “success in life;” so why not bless technology for giving us all success?

But Pater’s flame is hard – it resists – and it is gemlike – it must be cut and shaped. Technology makes us burn with a soft, plastic flame. To live artistically is a commitment; like any commitment, it is defined by what it forswears: vulgarity, compromise, deference, and waste. It is not something you can receive as a gift, not something you can buy. A consumer is not an artist.

Unsleeping technology making unrelieved art will destroy art, but not by cheapening and over-familiarizing it; not by flattening life by raising it all to artistic elevation. Art is a faculty, not an activity. What is done artistically is done by the same means, and with the same technique, as what is done mechanically. Painters and house painters both use brushes and paint; but one is an artist and the other is not. More paint goes on walls than on canvas, but this does not endanger painting as an art. Painting employs the faculty and the activity; house painting employs only the activity.

Instead, the ubiquity and cheapness of art destroys art because the comparisons that define art lose their force when an infinity of potential comparisons promises the certainty of a counterexample. Comparisons become first provisional, then unstable, then uncertain; and art, borderless, falls apart.

2. The possibility of comparing arts confuses quality in arts. This is not a new problem; it has nothing to do with technology.

A great poem “paints a picture”; a great picture “has poetry.” A great piece of music “builds in air”; a great building “is frozen music.” Great novels “have a theme;” great essays “tell a story.” And so forth.

Such reactions are so familiar that their destructiveness is hidden. But they are destructive. They destroy what they praise. They destroy great work because they link genius in one art to mediocrity in another. They imply that the greatest success of a poem to suggest to the reader of sensibility and cultivation what a journeyman painter can show to a child. That a picture succeeds in mere verse. That music succeeds in mere enclosure. The architecture succeeds in a ditty. That a novel succeeds in an epigram. That an essay succeeds in an anecdote.

Of course, if the perceiver is an artist in that other medium, the reaction may itself be a paraphrase of artistic value, and we get Pictures at an Exhibition. But that is rare enough to be sublime when it happens. The rest of the time, the comparisons that result from success are so many ways to negate and contain it: to resize it for criticism; to evade some command in it to change; to suppress your envy of its maker, or your despair, in looking on it, for your own efforts.

This could be what Pater really meant: that comparison of single works is not a way to explain them, but to escape them.