Wretched Hybridity – Art Losing Self-Control

Posted: February 5, 2019 in Music, Uncategorized

“Something for everyone!”
–Sarah Chang

Below is a promo for Sarah Chang’s performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s beloved “The Four Seasons”. Have a look and a listen. I won’t even bother to ask whether this is Art or Kitsch. What I will ask you instead to consider is why it is so bad. Is this kitsch through and through, or is there actually something genuinely decent buried in all this?

As for the sonnets or poems to which Chang refers, they are the same poems which Greenberg calls “oratorical and frivolous literature of the 18th century,” in “Toward a Newer Laocoön” (1940).

Lessing in his Laocoön written in the 1760s, recognized the presence of a practical as well as a theoretical confusion of the arts. But he saw its ill effects exclusively in terms of literature, and his opinions on plastic art only exemplify the typical misconceptions of his age. He attacks the descriptive verses of poets like James Thomson as an invasion of the domain of landscape painting, but all he could find to say about painting’s invasion of poetry was to object to allegorical pictures which required an explanation, and to paintings like Titian’s “Prodigal Son”, which incorporate “two necessarily separate points of time in and and the same picture”. … It was not realistic imitation in itself that did the damage so much as realistic illusion in the service of sentimental and declamatory literature.


The Seasons
by James Thompson
(1700 – 1748)

See! Winter comes, to rule the varied Year,
Sullen, and sad; with all his rising Train,
Vapours, and Clouds, and Storms: Be these my Theme,
These, that exalt the Soul to solemn Thought,
And heavenly musing. Welcome kindred Glooms!
Wish’d, wint’ry, Horrors, hail! — With frequent Foot,
Pleas’d, have I, in my cheerful Morn of Life,
When, nurs’d by careless Solitude, I liv’d,
And sung of Nature with unceasing Joy,
Pleas’d, have I wander’d thro’ your rough Domains;
Trod the pure, virgin, Snows, my self as pure:
Heard the Winds roar, and the big Torrent burst:
Or seen the deep, fermenting, Tempest brew’d,
In the red, evening, Sky. — Thus pass’d the Time,
Till, thro’ the opening Chambers of the South,
Look’d out the joyous Spring, look’d out, and smil’d.
THEE too, Inspirer of the toiling Swain!
Fair AUTUMN, yellow rob’d! I’ll sing of thee,
Of thy last, temper’d, Days, and sunny Calms;
When all the golden Hours are on the Wing,
Attending thy Retreat, and round thy Wain,
Slow-rolling, onward to the Southern Sky.

BEHOLD! the well-pois’d Hornet, hovering, hangs,
With quivering Pinions, in the genial Blaze;
Flys off, in airy Circles: then returns,
And hums, and dances to the beating Ray.

. . . (read more, if you can bear it.)

With respect to the painting of the same cultural moment, Greenberg passes a similarly harsh verdict: “The worst manifestations of literary and sentimental painting had already begun to appear in the painting of the late 18th century – especially in England, where a revival which produced some of the best English painting was equally efficacious in speeding up the process of degeneration.” To whom or what could Greenberg be referring here? I will wager that by ‘the best English painting’ he was referring to this (click the image).

William Hogarth
(1697 – 1764)
The Marriage Contract,
from the “Marriage a la Mode” series (1745)
Tate Gallery, London

To what abysses of vulgarity did Greenberg believe such painting inevitably lead? How about the Pre-Raphaelites? What you see below is, at least as far as Greenberg is concerned, just about as wretched as art can possibly get.


Holman Hunt
“The Hireling Shepherd” (1852)
Oil on canvas – 30″ x 48″
Manchester City Art Galleries

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