Contemplating the art of the Aztecs, Schjeldahl thinks, shows that "a civilization based on slaughter steadied and inspired human genius." It's a sobering thought, but the very concreteness with which he imagines Aztec brutality ("Sights and smells of gore attended normal life in Tenochtitlan--children must have grown up liking them") testifies to the depth of his need to check his own aestheticism. The lesson is clear: art is good--Schjeldahl has no doubt of that--but not necessarily good for you. A persistent warning note is sounded: "beauty isn't nice." That's not too hard to disagree with, but how about "beauty can be a kind of murder"--this, apropos not of the Aztecs but of, again, Chardin? For Thomas Eakins, less dramatically, "the dignity of art may have stood in an inverse relation to the nobility of its motive." An Inquisitor painted by El Greco seems "repellently cruel," but the painter "regards severity as part of the man's important job and a good thing for everybody." In short, art is always capable of going against the grain of socially sanctioned good or of supporting socially sanctioned cruelty.
The Philosophy of Art & Aesthetics.
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