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The Dehumanization of Art – Ortega Y Gasset’s Pernicious Theory of Art
Having admired the Spanish philosopher and art critic José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955) for years, I hesitated to review any of his books. His writing style offers a unique perspective on culture, philosophy and art. As a result, I have been a consumer for years, 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 book title – The Dehumanization of Art – is now a constant in music, literature, aesthetics and philosophy, since in postmodern times the human form mimesis (the representation of the human) is irrelevant to art.
According to Ortega, art does not have to tell a human story; art should be concerned with its own forms – not with the human form. The essay, divided into 13 subsections, was originally published in 1925; in these short sections Ortega discussed the novelty of non-representational art and sought to make it more comprehensible to a public much numbed by traditional art forms.
The search for the substance of traditional art
In the first part entitled “The Unpopularity of the New Art”, Ortega draws from his political credo which can be said to be elitist, aristocratic and anti-popular. His analysis ends with the belief that some people are better than others; that some are superior to others: “Behind all modern life hides the provocative and profound injustice of the assumption that people are actually created equal.”
This unwavering political point of view colors his aestheticism.
The masses, he believes, will never understand the “new art” that emerged with Debussy and Stravinsky (music), Pirandello (theatre) and Mallarmé (poetry). Lack of understanding will mobilize the masses – a term Ortega often uses for ordinary people – to dislike and reject the new art. Therefore, the new art will be the art of the famous, the educated, and the few.
Introducing that kind of divisive tool—the few against the many, the aristocrats against the democrats—into art seems not only narrow-minded, but disingenuous. However, my main objection to Ortega’s analysis and conclusions is more fundamental. In my estimation, ‘understanding’ in art is of secondary importance. Art is created by people to reach out to other people and touch them by appealing to their passions and emotions – through their senses.
When I was 14, I happened to hear a piece of music that was so different and strange to my young ears that it prompted me to call the radio station to find out about the piece. It was Appalachian Spring, a ballet composition by Aaron Copland. What 14-year-old boy from the Andes (Peru) can be introduced to ballet or Aaron Copland to even begin to understand composition? Still, I liked it. And that’s all that mattered to me.
Understanding that piece of music, or even knowing the composer’s name, was as far from my mind as Einstein’s theory of relativity, since I had no idea who Einstein was either. Delight, enjoyment and exhilaration that a person feels without expressed understanding.
Elevating new forms and promoting avant-garde artists and their efforts to produce non-traditional art, Ortega’s book had a significant impact on the rejection of realism and romanticism. Ortega’s prose was so seductive and convincing that many artists and critics began to equate realism and romanticism with vulgarity.
Allowing a brilliant writer to wield such authority should be a sin. Ortega’s authority has bothered me for years. Yet, in spite of this inward agitation, my respect for the man’s writings prevented me from protesting. So, by stripping Ortega’s sparkling prose of its seductiveness – by “bracketing” and performing a phenomenological reduction – we can see it in its own nakedness for what it is: an elitist and harmful point of view.
People should never be ashamed of their tastes, likes and dislikes in art. We should enjoy that touch of aesthetic pleasure 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 forms (universals) and their simulacrums, Ortega invents his own corresponding terms: ‘observed reality’ and ‘lived reality’.
Ortega calls the representation of real things (experienced reality) – a man, a house, a mountain – “aesthetic frauds”. Ortega has a complete dislike of objects, whether artificial or natural: “A good part of what I have called dehumanization and aversion to living forms is inspired by just such an aversion to the traditional interpretation of reality.”
In contrast, the representation of ideas (observed reality) is what he considers true art. Hence he praises the new art as the destroyer of semblance, likeness, likeness, or mimesis. Ortega’s “dehumanization” lies in this destruction of old human forms of art.
However, we must remember that more than 2500 years ago, the pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras said: “Man is the measure of all things: things that are, that they are, and things that are not, that they are not.” Ortega’s will to “dehumanize” art will always be opposed to Protagoras’ wall. Art by definition – anything made by man – is deeply human and could not be otherwise, regardless of Ortega.
Even on the sharp canvases of painters such as Mark Rothko, the artist’s humanity can be felt in his search for the human soul through color and brilliance. Even in the random dripping of Jackson Pollock’s works, one can sense the human struggle for freedom. And what is freedom but human aspiration?
Whenever I look at the forms of primitive African art, the Paleolithic animal paintings in the Lascaux caves, or even the colorful and balanced grids of Mondrian – I marvel at the human spirit. And in such moments I feel that labels, signs, labels, and explanations and descriptions (theories) are completely unnecessary.
What we need are theories of art that can unite people instead of dividing them. Ortega’s “dehumanization” is a toxic theory not because it advocates a disgusting elitism, but because it tries to deny the pleasures of art to ordinary people.
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