Education is not a bag of goodies handed over from one generation to the next in the hope that a few utilitarian skills can help each generation grow and thrive. Rather, the via contemplativa builds on the via activa by cultivating ways of understanding and living above pure utility. In order to see things as they are, specific educational traditions and pedagogical practices have sought to elevate the body and mind above the temporal, earthly, fragmented, and abstract. Roaming through Western history, one can pick out the Medieval trivium and quadrivium as an example. The former, composed of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, is currently at the heart of the “classical education movement” making a notable comeback in certain evangelical and Catholic subcultures. Those who build on this pedagogical inheritance often conceive of the pursuit of knowledge as good in itself, which satisfies, in its very acquisition, an essential human need. But a good education recognizes that not all of us can—or should—seek knowledge for itself, a goal in which many become the victims of fine words, intoxicated by their own propensity to think. Instead, liberal arts education shaped during the Renaissance aimed for something greater: a condition of the mind which participates in a collective mission, in which kindred spirits are free and enabled to quarrel as friends because they pursue a holistic account of the whole of human life. This mission necessarily involves a canon, crafted by and made of discontents, disagreements, and debates.
Human speech is corporeal: it is an incarnated mode of expression and learning. Voices echo behind words, images, materials, or sounds; they greet the mind that receives them. In order for those voices to meet beyond time and space, the mind demands to be distilled in a common language. The shared system of rhetoric implemented during the Renaissance represents a fundamental Western cultural framework, which characterizes the citizen’s attitude and disposition toward public life and in which the mind thrives by participating in the ongoing conversation about knowledge, its content, and structure. Cicero, whose works were rediscovered, most notably by Petrarch, deeply influenced the ways Renaissance thinkers envisioned how the arts, rhetorical and visual, were tethered: “all the arts which concern the civilising and humanising of men, have some link which binds them together, and are, as it were, connected by some relationship to one another.”
Here, the aim is not to debate what precisely makes a good education or what education’s telos and contribution to the common good is—although elements of answers might surface. Instead, unwrapping the key qualities of the mind at work, as inherited from the Renaissance model of liberal education, highlights recent ruptures with the rhetorical tradition of instruction and reasoning. This historical break is most prominent in contemporary art: it all too often makes a mockery of the past or, more subtly, hijacks the canons of rhetoric in order to directly erode the intellectual and cultural wellspring from which it arose. Ultimately, this strategy operates not only as a reconfiguration of the institutions that should uphold their cultural legacy but also of the mind itself. A conversion takes place, a strategy that provides more than just a guidance but forcefully nudges people to embrace a deconstructive attitude toward the past.
There has been a breach in the way the mind is formed which was, until recently, achieved through a common tapestry of knowledge and shared habits. The comparison between the early moderns’ use of the rhetorical canon and contemporary artists’ attitude toward it illuminates the original purposes of liberal art education against its recent deformation. Going beyond sweeping claims that denounce postmodern art as vacuous, I argue that the real danger of this art is that it is very much conceptually loaded. Post-modern art’s weapon is a perverted form of traditional rhetoric. Its target is the mind.
Disputatio and Its Discontents
The vision of knowledge as relational challenges current, univocal definitions—primarily the distortion that knowledge is based on power. That knowledge is relational does not foreclose, of course, the idea that power can be intertwined with it. However, this approach sees power as one factor among many others. More specifically, in the Renaissance framework from which our traditional model of liberal education derives, these factors are all subordinated to a set of Christian virtues like hope, justice, and love. A proper teacher does not educate another person because she seeks power over the student, but rather because a lack of appetite for knowledge is a lack of love. It is not just a love for knowledge for its own sake, but, more importantly, a love for the others who may subsequently transmit it and share in the libido sciendi.
The study of our cultural and historical backcloth, therefore, does not reject disputes among individuals, but rather welcomes it. A well-formed mind understands and argues within and out of respect for the tradition, not because it needs to be preserved at all costs or unceremoniously destroyed. Knowledge arises from the sewing together of contending opinions and variations around archetypal ideas, without which there would be little to dispute. In this way, the tradition is a synthesis of past debates, a compromise from past controversies, a reconciliation between past factions. That said, such disputatio also appreciates the fact that the mind has not existed in one homogeneous way throughout history. Even between the Renaissance and now, the mode of “consciousness” of our ancestors has shifted repeatedly—not to mention the invention of “consciousness” as such. Here lies one of the fundamentals of postmodernity: impeded by the loss of what Eliot calls “the historical sense,” it has mythologized the mind by wrongly assuming its absolute, ahistorical uniformity.
Tabulae rasae phenomena, destructive movements directed at the past—whether shaped by voluntary revolutionary acts or the unintended and unfortunate losses of literature, art, culture, and traditions—recur at regular intervals throughout history. They are not solely bound to postmodernity. Nevertheless, postmodern Western societies present a radically new disposition toward their own histories, and therefore their identities: they have anchored the destruction and reassortment of the past as a core element of the citizen’s mind. If the mind exists in relation to the authority of and from what comes before it, tragically, the preemptive authority of the past does not even now have the benefit of the doubt. In this setting, one does not only look purportedly in a “critical” manner at history, but is compelled to actively seek to denounce and destroy anything that is labelled as a relic of the imagined past. The switch is not a matter of temporary behavior, but a fundamental transformation of the mind, in contrast to the early modern approach to a life of learning.
Speech, for early modern authors, was not a dead letter. In L’age de l’éloquence, French Academician Marc Fumaroli presents rhetoric as something that entirely exceeds the function of persuasive speech as a mere technique with a few precepts. After the rediscovery of Quintilian by Poggio Bracciolini in 1416, the Italian Renaissance rediscovered rhetoric as a science that plays a civilizational role by irrigating and connecting together all forms of human knowledge. As such, rhetoric has been synonymous with “culture,” understood in its broadest sense. It has been implicitly present in the foundations of all areas of knowledge, building a “circle [kýklios] of knowledge [paideía] that the Greeks call Encyclopedia.”
Who participates in such a system of knowledge and is therefore made in return? Fumaroli uses the French term esprit (as well as the expression la vie de l’esprit), that slightly resists translation, but comes close to the idea of “mind” as “ingenious reason.” In French intellectual circles, l’esprit has long been perceived as a tradition of personal doubt and irony against the tyranny of anything deemed to be devotional, pedantic, invasive, or confusing. More generally, the mode of expressing l’esprit has been closely tied to a Western metaphysics of presence, specifically of the subject through logos.
No humanist, perhaps, is more logocentric than Desiderius Erasmus. The Dutch scholar constantly renewed his indestructible faith in the logos, believing that “the first and last things are the logos, the Words, the Divine Mind, the infinite understanding of God, an infinitely creative subjectivity and, closer to our time, the self-presence of full self-consciousness.” The mimetic aspects of speech, for Erasmus, derive directly from the theology of Christ’s inverbation (John 1:1), centering the principle of imitatio and its transformative capacities. Centuries before Buffon exclaimed “Le style c’est l’homme,” Erasmus wrote: “Qualis est sermo noster, talis est spiritus noster.” Speech is the “mirror of the spirit,” a spirit “which cannot be discerned with corporeal eyes” but which is shared directly from mind to mind.
The individual creative mind sharing speech in a spirit of eloquence is demonstrably strong in early modern French literature. Consider the cases of Marot, Villon, Montaigne, and Pascal, among many others. Rebutting such postmodernist categories established last century by literary critics as “originality,” “influence,” or even “followers,” several scholars have shown that such concepts are partly or wholly inadequate to give a full account of how early modern authors thought and how their thoughts were translated into their work. Their “innovations” were conceived as spiritual exercises, while their minds continuously challenged and reorganized the material they were dealing with. Montaigne, for example, presented himself as the subject matter of his Essais: “tout le monde se reconnoit en mon livre, et mon livre en moy.” Montaigne also considered his “choice, arrangement, embellishment, and style” [“chois, disposition, ornement et langage”] as markers of his innovative contribution as an author. “Choice,” here a part of the five fundamental rhetorical canons (inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, actio), is the mark of the mind at work in the act of judgement. A good judgment is not transferable: it is a personal quality. The “logocentrism” of the author—a presence through the text—grants the work a poignant spark of humanity and, perhaps, authenticity. A window opens toward the restoration of the discarded self-image of the author, his mind in the context of his time.
This rhetorical system, building on the Aristotelian tradition, is upheld by three main pillars: logos, ethos, and pathos. If the first appeal to reason and the third appeal to passion are both generally straightforward, the postmodern reader may struggle with understanding the second appeal of ethos. Ethos fashions the subject who speaks or writes through speech that is intertwined with a specific ethic—a practice or norm for how the subject must act. As such, speech—whether written or spoken—is actually alive: this parole vive seeks to be prolonged and embodied. In the performing arts, those most particular media, the incarnation of speech is a particularly salient issue. It is no wonder that, as 17th- and 18th-century intellectuals identified and mapped out the distinctions among oral practices of theater, preaching, as well as political, legal, and ceremonial discourses, they investigated how the subject who speaks and the text that is spoken relate to each other. Treatises about stage performance that addressed the various articulations of ethos and pathos and interrogated the value of imitatio also concealed abundant reflections on the intersection of the voice and body, the text and its components.
D’Aubignac’s dictum, “parler, c’est agir” (“speaking is acting”), for example, directly built upon the principles of the ars oratoria: speaking on stage involves “acting,” yes, as actors move in space, but it also “acts” on the spectators themselves. The audience is “touched” or “moved,” for such spectators are never fully passive beings. They also participate in the collective movement of speech that travels from mind to mind. In fact, the effects of acting upon spectators during the 17th and 18th centuries are so central to the understanding of early modern dramaturgy, they have been the object of a wide breadth of modern scholarship. Jean-Jacques Roubine, for example, has assessed the work of Jean Racine and his contemporaries through the prism of the “pleasure of tears.” Triggering tears, here, is understood in terms of aesthetics and dramaturgical strategy (one of effusion or éblouissement), as well as a measure of theatrical effectiveness on the audience. Speech is an active phenomenon for actors and spectators alike.
Recall that rhetoric engages with culture and the “mind at work” in the broadest sense: rhetoric in the life of the mind extends beyond the sole realm of arts. It involves discovery of truth through intellectual judgements. On this question of inventio, “choice” in regards to “models” of the past has had a variety of applications across disciplines, from historiography to political theory, as plenty of intellectual quarrels exemplify. Machiavelli and Guicciardini, for example, argued about imitatio as a key element of their political and historiographical philosophies, respectively in Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (1512–1517) and Considérations à propos de Machiavel (1530). The Discourses considered history as a reservoir of exempla, a moral guide which—within the tradition of rhetoric—implies the past can indicate what the future holds, while the Considerations held that a reasoning based on past examples is likely to be misleading. Rather, Guicciardini argued that the imitation of role models, while helpful in the education of new political leaders, is never a ready-made solution in political matters. The same tension is visible in the quarrel between Pietro Bembo and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola over the imitatio of Cicero. While Bembo considered Cicero as a perfect model that should be followed, Pico della Mirandola argued for a more eclectic form of imitation. In his opinion, any good writer must find a style more in line with his own nature (ingenium). Against current stereotypes, these past authors argued over how to understand their cultural inheritance. They did not give obeissance, but debated strenuously yet with critical appreciation.
From Imitation to Commentary
Imitation is integral to understanding liberal education. This is true on the one hand for students are taught to integrate the canonical works and, simultaneously, the manners by which people have perfected the art of “play[ing] gracefully with ideas”. On the other hand, one is persuaded by a speech, moved by a sonata, or stunned by a sculpture because some quality in the creative work, in its effect upon its viewer, bestows a parallel quality in the observer. Compared with this Renaissance ideal, postmodern art is often portrayed as a seamless whole of defiant production that typically depreciates representational theory and denigrates beauty, while belittling specific political ideas and leaders. This vision is not only wrong, it inversely harms those who would defend their cultural past and rhetorical tradition. People who affirm that postmodern art is devoid of sense and meaning actually mimic the deconstructionists (of the past) by applying their tactics to the present and its art.
Yes, many pieces of contemporary art have little to no value, and being an artist is now often branded as a short-cut toward easy, empty activism. Nevertheless, it is reductive—and therefore false—to pretend that no postmodern artists engage with the inheritance of our cultural tradition—with beauty, God, and the sacred. In theater production alone, internationally renowned artists such as Romeo Castellucci and Angélica Liddell brilliantly wield the cultural and dramaturgical codes related to religious poetry, sacred liturgy, and its mysteries. Their manipulations of the representation of the divine, which have regularly sparked fiery controversies, do not come from a place of contempt, but, quite the contrary, are deeply grounded in an acute understanding of the spiritual challenges and crises of our time.
Reconsidering postmodern art in a new light, a more pertinent claim addresses the fact that most institutionalized art forms do attempt to shape minds, albeit in a radically different way than pre-modern, early modern, and even modern artists. By systematically engaging with previous authors, works, themes, as well as topics and techniques, via negativa, postmodern art resets our cognitive enframing. The mind mutates from one mapping that used to build on the shoulders of the past to another one that is historiographically illiterate. Such a mind perceives the rhetorical canon as doing the most good when deployed against itself. Rules are welcomed only when they can deconstruct the context in which they arose and, ultimately, when they nullify themselves. It is no surprise that postmodernity’s failure to engage with the roots of its own identity goes hand in hand with the progressive ineptitude at recognising that the mind incarnates itself through style, that it simultaneously presents a coherent whole and a cluster of stitches.
How recent this rupture is between the rhetorical tradition and postmodern art remains an open question, depending on the parameters taken into consideration. Many in the artistic avant-gardes have articulated a very negative and destructive vision of art’s role well before postmodernity. Futurism and Dadaism, as examples, made self-consciously provocative statements in that vein. Marinetti’s manifesto called for a revolt by directly borrowing from “the destructive gesture” of war, setting fire to the library shelves in order to regenerate Western societies’ blood. The painter Umberto Boccioni declared that Futurism was against “all forms of imitation,” while Tristan Tzara wrote, “Let each man proclaim: there is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished.” Later, from the 1960s to the 1990s, the debate danced around the “shock of the new” becoming the “tradition of the new,” —to parody the French poetic cenacle’s motto, “Art for art’s sake”—a kind of “new for new’s sake.” Again, cultural tradition became correlated with a deeply negative value.
In the post-World War II context of an unchallenged, liberal marketing of art—not only tied to principles of reproduction and copying but also forsaking the importance of eschatology and morals—the renewed association between art and the “new” had further dimensions. Instead of taking place in the margins of the main market, the apology of the destruction of the past moved toward its center: it became increasingly bad for the art business to support artists preoccupied in positive ways with the tradition. Futurist and Dadaist artists agitated for the destruction of commercial art institutions. Postmodern art, on the contrary, is perfectly compatible with the bourgeois liberal order. At best, mainstream creators like Jeff Koons pretend to “neutrally” observe the past from afar. Koons’s set of “Gazing Balls Paintings” are explicitly presented as a pseudo-agnostic form of imitatio, no longer about copying but about putting the past under glass, stuffing it, and rejoicing in our own narcissism.
Across traditional art media, the same diagnosis holds. Musicologist Philippe Albèra has pointed out, for example, the “confused” and “diffuse” state of contemporary classical music. The multiplication of so many different trends in the second half of the 20th century has prevented any clear direction and meaning to emerge. On the contrary, these trends encouraged many living composers to withdraw into esoteric technicalities. Consider Pierre Boulez, a famous advocate of a tabula rasa phenomenon in music and supporter of the deconstructivist serial method right after the Second World War. Later in his career, Boulez admitted that a system of creative rules that mostly made sense for one individual only was a dead-end. In pieces such as Répons (1981, 1982 and 1984), Boulez attempted a return to a more traditional understanding of the musical “theme,” a figure clearly enunciated and recognizable by the audience. Yet, the damage was done. Stuck between an abuse of theory and a breach of trust with the audience, classical composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are trapped in their private systems of meaning and their elitist social circles.
Indeed, the late 20th century has merely been the diffusion of market culture prolonged under neoliberal auspices. If “[i]n principle a work of art has always been reproducible,” then it becomes only another commodity to exchange within a commodity culture that desacralizes and disenchants all it touches. One visible effect of this tendency now is that one rarely sees art’s value residing in “itself” and for its own sake, using transcendental concepts such as the platonic understanding of beauty. Instead, its value is debased in the aura of commentary that generally precedes, accompanies, and overwhelms art production. Contemporary art’s worth increasingly dwells in everything that surrounds the art, not that resides within it. The direct consequence is the ever-growing importance of art marketing discourses, purposely sewn with claptrap arguments and low-resolution concepts.
Reflecting in the early ’70s on the drifts of modern artistry away from representativity, Tom Wolfe argued in a whimsical philistine manner that visual arts now were less about what one was actually seeing than about the theory explaining what one was looking at: “I had gotten it backward all along. Not ‘seeing is believing,’ you ninny, but ‘believing is seeing,’ for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” Dealing with increasing numbers of self-absorbed creators who fake their subjectivity and strike ex nihilo, art marketing discourse, as a mirror, emphatically assumes the omnipotence of the subjective critic. As a result, art creation in general has been watered down: everyone’s opinion is equal and no specific criterion needs to be learned and shared to assess the value of art. If everyone can be an artist, everyone can be a critic, which means that nobody is either one or the other.
Art, however, can never totally be reduced to the status of cultural commentary. As an essential tool for overcoming the shadows of the past, the rhetorical tradition is at the same time invested in the vital mission of enabling immediate dialogue and creativity. The blast of futurist, Cubist, or Dadaist artists drew some of its strength from the fact that, although the Western world was torn apart, caught between the fall of empires and the rise of nationalisms, it still grappled somehow—even if imperfectly or vainly—with its own cultural tradition. An ideologically violent avant-gardes did not have the monopole over the ways people engaged with the past and conversed about it.
Despite existential despair and the smell of death, art creation as a whole in the early 20th century never came close to the permanent sense of vacuum that now clouds the postmodern mind. A clear innovation of postmodernity is that this mode of creation has ceased to be the prerogative of only a few artists. It has now become a mainstream motto diffused relentlessly throughout institutions, often publicly financed. It is thereby more pervasive, and thus far more efficiently acculturates the citizen to its underlying moral system. This arrangement obliterates collective memories and ways of thinking by flattening the past and facilitating specific narratives to explain current issues and identities. If postmodern art appears devoid of any apparent telos, it is only because we appear so. Its emptiness is the direct reflection of the mind that sustains it. . . or of the mind it wants to model.
Ugliness and its disease
On Trafalgar Square, the Fourth Plinth designed by Charles Barry in 1841 and opened in 1844 never welcomed the bronze equestrian statue of William IV originally intended to stand there. After more than a century and a half of debate over its use, the Royal Society of Arts finally decided in 1997 to put on display diverse artworks. Typically rotated biannually, these pieces of art are supposed to mirror the “nation’s mood” at the time of their exhibition. In the past few years, the choices have sparked various reactions, frequently negative. If some projects have provided a clearly recognisable symbolic meaning, such as Rakowitz’s reproduction in 2015 of a sculpture kept in the Mosul Museum and destroyed by ISIS, many other artists have ostensibly chosen a more provocative angle. The latest infamous creation to throne there is The End, a sculpture by Heather Phillipson, which can hardly be described as anything other than an egregious spit at the face of any Briton who passes by. Who can reasonably conceive that this monstrous mountain of whipped cream, spilling over the sides of the plinth and crowned by a drone and a fly, is supposed to be a genuine account of the “nation’s mood”?
It is too easy to pretend that some random elements can prove the intelligence and pertinence of the mind at work behind such atrocity. Yes, the fly is an easily recognisable symbol of death. Yes, the cherry on top could vaguely resemble some twisted version of a Dutch still-life. But is that what we—spectators of this disaster—are reduced to? Should we give such artists the benefit of the doubt, wrapping up their stools with refined, apologetic discourses, when they themselves do not even bother to elaborate the most basic form of respectful speech with their audience, talking from mind to mind as peers?
The rhetorical weakness of the sculpture is its strength, because as it stands, unchallenged, it proves that people have somehow accepted being fed vacuous artistry. The soft brutality of the bourgeois state triumphs in symbiosis with this type of postmodern art. Instead of rebelling against the sheer horror, instead of toppling the gross indecency, people have merely shrugged. The statue was intended as a satirical object, implying that it would comment on society from an outsider, oblique, and “critical” point of view. Yet, the work and its author very much embody the institutional status quo and, by letting them do so, we have given them our benediction. As we let such ugliness spread and multiply, ultimately, we must accept the effect of the disease it carries with it: a breach in the mind.
Cicero, Pro Archia Poeta, 1.2, trans. C.D. Yonge (1856). ↩︎
T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Sacred Wood, 1921. ↩︎
Marc Fumaroli, L’ ge de l’éloquence, Paris, 1994 [Geneva, 1980]. ↩︎
Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 1.10.1: “ut efficiatur orbis ille doctrinae, quem Graeci ἐγκύκλιον παιδείαν vocant.” ↩︎
Voltaire defines it in those terms: “This word [esprit], inasmuch as it signifies a quality of the soul, is one of those vague terms to which all who use them nearly always attach a different meaning: it expresses something from judgment, genius, taste, talent, penetration, breadth, grace, finesse, and it draws qualities from all of these: it could be defined as ingenious reason.” (Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique, trans. by Fumaroli and Lapidus in “The State, Culture, and ‘L’Esprit’,” SubStance 24, 1/2, 1995, 134.) ↩︎
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Preface” to Derrida’s Of Grammatology, lxviii. ↩︎
Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707-1788), Discours prononcé à l’Académie française, 25 August 1753. Desiderius Erasmus, Ecclesiastes: On the Art of Preaching, 1535. ↩︎
Desiderius Erasmus, Ecclesiastes: On the Art of Preaching, 1535: “the speech of man is the image of his spirit.” ↩︎
Michel de Montaigne, Essais, III, 5, 875: “Everyone recognizes me in my book, and my book in me.” ↩︎
Idem, III, 8, 718. ↩︎
François Hédelin, abbé D’Aubignac, “Des Discours en général,” in La Pratique du théâtre, Champion, 2001, Livre IV, Chap. 2, p. 407: “[S]peeches happening [in theater] must be like the actions of those that appear [on stage]; because there, speaking is acting.” (“les discours qui [se font au théâtre] doivent être comme des actions de ceux qu’on y fait paraître; car là parler, c’est agir.”) ↩︎
Jean-Jacques Roubine, “La stratégie des larmes au XVIIe siècle,” Littérature, n°9 (1973): 56‑73. ↩︎
Oscar Wilde, *De Profundis,*1897. ↩︎
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism, 1909. ↩︎
Umberto Boccioni and al., Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto, 1910. Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918, 1910. ↩︎
Philippe Albèras, Le Son et le Sens. Essais sur la musique de notre temps, Contrechamps, 2007. ↩︎
Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction , in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1969. ↩︎
Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, New York, 1975. ↩︎
Featured Image: Allegorical Figure of Grammar painting (1650) by Laurent de La Hyre via Wikimedia Commons.
Lola Salem is currently pursuing a DPhil at the University of Oxford and holds MA degrees in Musicology (ENS de Lyon) and Philosophy (Paris-Sorbonne). Her research focuses on opera singers during the early modern period. She conjugates theory and practice as an historian, musician, and art critic. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.