When I bought this book, the title sounded to me as something negative that art was, according to Ortega, undergoing, its dehumanization. As I read the essays, (the first one who gives title to the book, and which contains different sections, being the longest), I realized dehumanization is not necessarily a negative process, but it’s more just a process going on. Ortega believes the XIX century’s art (and literature, and music), was bent on trying to be ‘realistic’, on trying to capture reality (even though that’s not possible, -since what’s left on canvas is a draft, a schematic selection chosen by the artist, of the infinity integrated in each person. What about, instead of trying to paint the person, aiming to paint our abstraction or our idea of a person?, then, in his words:
“el cuadro, renunciando a emular la realidad, se convertiría en lo que auténticamente es: un cuadro, una irrealidad”.
my translation: “the picture, renouncing to emulate reality, will become what it genuinely is: a picture, a non-reality.”
And, according to Ortega, art and artistic (and historic) ages, can be understood as we see the relation between the artists and their intentions, -which, in modern art (for him, early XX century), has undergone a switch in focus, and it’s now bent over itself, art is the content of art, the goal of art, and thus, it’s dehumanized.
This quote towards the end, explains the core of the essay:
La aspiración al arte puro no es, como suele creerse, una soberbia, sino, por el contrario, gran modestia. Al vaciarse el arte de patetismo humano queda sin trascendencia alguna —como sólo arte, sin más pretensión.
Pure art’s aspiration is not, as we believe, prideful, much on the contrary, it reveals great modesty. Once art is emptied of all that’s pathetically human, it stands without any transcendence, —just art, no pretensions.
The last essays also address the change of vision. First, paintings (and philosophy), are looking at the short distance objects, and painters paint those objects, their voluminous nature. Then, the artists look to the distance, and try to depict those objects that are further away, (there’s the search for perspective, -trying to find a geometric arrangement, and chiaroscuro, as transitions between painting objects to trying to paint the space we perceive when we stop looking at what we have in front, and when we try to paint the whole of what’s perceive as we project our sight into the distance. Painters pay attention to the space, and start painting the space (Velazquez in Las hilanderas, or Las meninas). When they look at a scene or a landscape, they now paint their ‘vision’ of it (Impressionism), they don’t go after ‘reality’, but they give us their idea of reality, thus painting what’s subjective to them.
Modern art goes beyond the subjective to the intra-subjective. Art is now painting ‘ideas’, (cubism). He says art started to bring the outside to the canvas, and continued to bring the inside to the canvas, to end, -in his times-, focused on art itself. (This is why many of us claim we don’t like new art, -we say that to mean, a) we got it but it’s not our cup of tea, b) we don’t understand it, thus we can’t enjoy it. And if we don’t understand art, it’s probably because artists were left with just this one more thing to explore, -art itself. (I don’t know about you, but this resonated true to me. With art from the XX century up to now, the moment I know something about the artist, what he was trying to accomplish, what he meant in art’s timeline, -the new questions, new dilemmas, new techniques, the artist uncovers-, the more I can understand and thus appreciate.
Part of the first essay, also, is his explanation of what he calls: primitive man, classic man, oriental man, Mediterranean man, and Gothic man. In his Meditations on Don Quixote, he also talked about Mediterranean man and Gothic man, and here I understood that difference even better. Those type of historic man go hand in hand with their view of reality, and the art they left us.
Ortega talks to us a lot about literature too, -in his view, art, literature, philosophy, history, they are all, needless to say, connected.
There’s lovely stand alone short essays too, like the one devoted and entitled La Gioconda.
In all honesty, I’m too ignorant of art history as to know if Ortega is onto something good, of if he is missing the mark. (I’ll be reading again the difficult introduction by someone new to me, Valeriano Bozal.) In it, Bozal gives us the philosophical background of Ortega, -what he understood by image, or by idea. He also tells us that Ortega had many detractors, as many as defenders. It’s true that Ortega starts with very bold assertions, and those may prompt many to not go further, and rebuke him from the start. Here it’s where my ignorance was bliss. I also have a bias, -I do like his style, and I do tend to, in my ignorance, take him face value.
Bozal says that it’s much better to suspend any foundational agreement or disagreement, and let him unravel his thinking, and give us the wealth of his own questions, suggestions, and propositions. I can assure you that reading Ortega is always a rewarding experience. One doesn’t have to know anything about philosophy, and have no more than common place knowledge of art, literature, and history, to be fascinated and informed about many interesting theories and explanations of the world around us he gives to us.