José Ortega y Gasset, “The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays”

Princeton University Press has issued a reprint of a significant work of art history, “The Dehumanization of Art” and four other essays on culture by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). The titular essay was first published in 1925; it will be treated last because of its importance. All the essays were written in the late 1920s and p1930s; three of them were published in Partisan Review in translation in 1949-1952.

In “Notes on the Novel”, the author considers the exhaustion of the novel form. “It has become practically impossible to find new subjects.”[i] In the essay considered last, Gasset takes up this theme with regard to painting. Familiarity blunts the originality and value of past novels, he writes. The highest purpose of literature and art is to present a heightened, more intense understanding of the world. Modern novels often fail because they are thinner, sparser, less original, less complete. For Gasset, Don Quixote, the earliest of Spanish novels is the best because it is the richest of novels.

“In Search of Goethe from Within” uses the centenary of Goethe to take the German novelist, playwright, poet and thinker as the complete polymath, taken in contrast with the inadequate figures of Gasset’s day. Goethe is a thinker who stepped out of himself and conceptualised a life as a man’s task – the result of conscious effort. (Does this prefigure Sartre and Camus’s existential man wrestling with the absurd?) Gasset sees Goethe as battling his own nature, “Hence his depressions, his stiffness, his distance from his surroundings, his bitterness. It was a life à rebours. […] But a man’s life is not the operation of the exquisite mechanisms which Providence put inside him. The crucial question is to ask oneself in whose service they operate. Was the man Goethe in the service of his vocation, or was he, rather, a perpetual deserter from his inner destiny?”[ii]“All our ideas are reactions – positive or negative – to the situations with which our destiny confronts us.” Goethe, Gasset decides, is fundamentally at odds with his own nature, hence his restlessness and awkwardness.

“The Self and the Other” functions as a companion piece to the Goethe essay, which explores the nature of working from within (that is, personally) and truth to one’s self. He describes the world in 1939 on the verge of war, when (in the Western world) the private individual is about to be temporarily abolished in favour of the patriotic citizen put in service of the defence of his country. “Almost all the world is in tumult, is beside itself, and when man is beside himself he loses his most essential attribute: the possibility of mediating, or withdrawing into himself to come to terms with himself and define what it is that he believes and what it is that he does not believe; what he truly esteems and what he truly detests. Being beside himself bemuses him, blinds him, forces him to act mechanically in a frenetic somnambulism.”[iii] A prime definitional characteristic of man is his capacity for interiority. Man becomes animalistic when he is faced with threats that demand he always be ready for fight or flight; he loses his capacity for detachment and inwardness. Gasset goes on to define thought as secondary to action in importance. In his evolution-influenced view, abstract thought arises only to support better action for survival and reproduction, although thought lifts man above the beasts.

As with all of these essays, there are persistent concerns between topics. The decline of culture is something that comes up in relation to fine art in the essays reviewed following. Gasset writes of “an overproduction of ideas, of books and works of art, a real cultural inflation. […] And, as occurs in capitalism, the market became saturated and crisis ensued.”[iv] Subsequent decline and stupefaction presage violent turmoil and war, when demagogues hustle men in unthinking action, preventing men from contemplation.

“On Point of View in the Arts” discusses the value and implications of distance and movement in art. Gasset nominates as significant proximate vision and distant vision “of which physiology speaks are not notions that depend chiefly on measurable factors, but are rather two distinct ways of seeing”.[v] At a distance “the structure of our hierarchized elements disappears. The ocular field is homogeneous; we do not see one thing clearly and the rest confusedly, for all are submerged in an optical democracy.”[vi]

Gasset notes that the object seen close up has greater corporeality through volumetric presence and the affect of stereoscopic parallax vision. When this close-up quality is removed through not just through simple distance but the expansion of the optical field through the inclusion of more legible forms. Gasset notes that concavity is the primary quality of proximate vision and convexity of the distant vision. In other words, close-up favours depictions of the solid object as volume; distance favours depictions of the hollow place as space. Gasset contends that Western art has developed from a depiction of the solid object to open space, with an ever-greater democratising flattening distance, notable in the development of the pure landscape. He sees multiple sources of attention but all treated with the same singular devoted fixation. The transition occurs in the Late Renaissance. The dematerialisation of form comes from Venice but first finds perfection in Velázquez and the transition to the triumph of the distance vision is achieved. From now on, the eye will be directed by the painter.

Gasset puts it nicely thus: “Proximate vision dissociates, analyses, distinguishes – it is feudal. Distant vision synthesizes, combines, throws together – it is democratic.” He applies a philosophical view to High Modernism. “Instead of painting objects as they are seen, one paints the experience of seeing. Instead of an object as impression, that is, a mass of sensations. Art, with this, has withdrawn completely from the world and begins to concern itself with the activity of the subject.”[viii] He reduces further. “First things are painted; then, sensations; finally, ideas. This means that in the beginning the artist’s attention was fixed on external reality; then, on the subjective; finally, on the intra-subjective. These three stages are three points on a straight line.”[ix]

  • “The Dehumanisation of Art”  

The essay “The Dehumanization of Art” is an approach to explain why High Modernism was so unpopular in 1925. While time, the canon and the subsequent general acceptance seems to have undercut the hostility towards High Modernism in the arts, Gasset’s points are well observed and worth raising, as they do seem valid and to persist. His argument runs thus: all new styles and schools have a period of lack of acceptance as they arise, challenging, as they do, the established styles and values. (Including, one might add, the vested interests of the dominant school’s practitioners, collectors and critical supporters.) In the case of High Modernism (which he does not describe with that term), Gasset says is different to other movements, for example Romanticism. The opponents of earlier vanguard art works were hostile because they understood the new art and realised how it defied conventions and promoted values inimical to the dominant ones; it consequently went through a phase of lacking popularity before finding a general audience. High Modernism, however, provokes actual hostility. “Modern art, on the other hand, will always have the masses against it. It is essentially unpopular; moreover, it is antipopular. […] It divides the public into two groups: one very small, formed by those who are favourably inclined towards it; another very large – the hostile majority.”[x]

“When a man dislikes a work of art, but understands it, he feels superior to it; and there is no reason for indignation. But when his dislike is due to his failure to understand, he feels vaguely humiliated and this rankling sense of inferiority must be counterbalanced by indignant self-assertion.”[xi] This is the prompt for the blustering rebuttal to an abstract painting in a museum “my child could have painted that”; in other words, he does not even recognise what is in front of him as art. To this we must consider the later complication of the situation of Post-Modernism, after Duchamp’s Readymades. In that, what is not art may be nominated as art. At which point we lose all critical apparatus and become passive subjects to consume, being unable to scrutinise, qualify, rank, reject and offer counter proposals.

He writes of difficult high art being a status marker used by elites. “[T]he new art also helps the elite to recognize themselves and one another in the drab mass of society and to learn their mission which consists in being few and holding their own against the many.”[xii] He sees accepting and conversing about difficult high culture as a mechanism as a way of separating the elite from the mass. It indirectly asserts an outlook that cannot be expressed plainly. We have been conditioned too much by the Enlightenment falsehoods of egalitarianism. “Behind all contemporary life lurks the provoking and profound injustice of the assumption that men are actually equal. Each move among men so obviously reveals the opposite that each move results in a painful clash.”[xiii] 

Gasset takes a cyclical view of art, repeating with unique elements arising. Certain forms get exhausted when the permutations and combinations become depleted through use and familiarity. Hence, new movements arise and seem vital, because the old movements have become tired. What did High Modernism mean to Gasset in 1925? “It tends (1) to dehumanize art, (2) to avoid living forms, (3) to see to it that the work of art is nothing but a work of art, (4) to consider art as play and nothing else, (5) to be essentially ironical, (6) to beware of sham and hence to aspire to scrupulous realization, (7) to regard art as a thing of no transcending consequence.”[xiv]

Gasset imputes antagonism to the artist, who is flaunting his distance from tradition and the common man. He detects a pervading irony which leaves the viewer wrongfooted. In a famous passage he identifies the problem of irony, which will poison so much art from the era of Late Modernism onwards.

“Madame Tussaud’s comes to mind and peculiar uneasiness aroused by dummies. The origin of this uneasiness lies in provoking ambiguity with which wax figures defeat any attempt at adopting a clear and consistent attitude toward them. Treat them as living beings, and they will sniggeringly reveal their waxen secret. Take them for dolls, and they seem to breathe in irritated protest. They will not be reduced to mere objects. Looking at them we suddenly feel a misgiving: should it not be they who are looking at us? Till in the end we are sick and tired of those hired corpses.”[xvi]

Organic forms have become repugnant to artists, who instead turn to crystalline mineral forms, flat facets and straight lines. As outlined in the previous essay, Gasset declares that Expressionism, Cubism and so forth are all attempts at painting ideas, detached from emotions and reality of lived experience. Gasset sees as indivisibly bound to the rise of Modernism “this negative mood of mocking aggressiveness”.[xviii] “Baudelaire praises the black Venus precisely because the classical is white. From then on the successive styles contain an ever increasing dose of derision and disparagement until in our day the new art consists almost exclusively of protests against the old.”[xix]

José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture and Literature, Princeton Classics, 2019, paperback, 204pp + xiii, $16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 19721 0

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[i] P. 59, José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture and Literature, Princeton Classics, 2019

[ii] Pp. 157-8

[iii] P. 178

[iv] P. 198

[v] P. 109

[vi] P. 110

[viii] P. 124

[ix] P. 127

[x] P. 5

[xi] P. 6

[xii] P. 7

[xiii] P. 7

[xiv] P. 14

[xvi] Pp. 28-9

[xvii] P. 48

[xviii] P. 44

[xix] P. 44