where to draw lines

I first, seriously, thought about lines about 15 years ago, when I met that elderly couple in an anonymous lakeside village in Italy - this was the couple that opened my eyes to Ravenna, and who remain an inspiration to me in terms of what the educated life means to advanced years: the poetry has time to come alive, one has time to pursue maverick scholasticism.
Which is not to say that life is all about books; I know a septuagenarian who learned the alphabet five years ago; understands what I teach more than I do, and is a master of humour in the face of adversity. What I mean here is spiritual learning, which is far above book learning. As one of the saint-writers in the country where I live once wrote: humankind has not done itself any favours by worrying more about saving books than saving lives. But I digress.
And yet, not. I embarked on this post with the question of lines, and where to draw them, and my path to this question came through learning - which isn't to say it's the only way to arrive at this question.
Fifteen years ago, my elderly "Italian" friend pointed out that when we sketch - a portrait, a landscape, everything is connected by lines. We all know that such unity lies behind our sometimes seemingly piecemeal lives, but in a sketch, one can see the connections.
I have since thought about lines that separate, because on more than one occasion, I have felt a need for such discernment. But what I find about such lines is that they are very problematic - especially since in making distinctions, one is easily misunderstood as being judgmental.
For instance, in one of my classes last week, the question of modern art came up - and while one student disparaged the state of art today, she was reluctant to lend her ear to the common artist's plaint: that art must be reclaimed, didactic role included, as per Plato (oh, the problems of those who have misunderstood Plato...). But Plato warned us not to take art too seriously - and he also formulated very well the problems that arise in our exposure to art.  What a waste, if one were to disregard his work. His questions are still burning, e.g. whether art should seek to set an example, by not depicting happy criminals and punishing injustice - at the very least through irony.
My art, ironically!, matured through the postmodern and post-Whitmanian. So, I could never be the one to throw that baby out with the bathwater. But I definitely feel the need these days to draw a line, and to clarify standards - both in terms of my personal goals, and my teaching responsibilities. One of my favourite columnist, Harry Eyres, wrote recently that modern art seems to be more about ideas than about masterfully crafting matter: "if you can't wrestle with the material, then you have to wrestle with ideas?", and concludes with an interesting suggestion that such fixations have emerged through too much exposure to media, technology. So, I might add that we are like children when we are introduced to something new.  And, oh, by the way, that is what Plato explained in The Republic: adults are like children toward the truth: not knowing how to discern the good from the bad; the useful from the superfluous. There is little "philosophical" about that - in that it is a very practical, non-extreme view.

My views on art, today, are such that I feel a need for a criteria delineating "good" from "bad," apart from what is dictated by the market or by trend, and according to the aesthetic standards which more equipped minds before me have done the work to elaborate. And before you throw me out as being dated or sentimentally-conservative or blindly enslaved to Classic Literature, wait! I cannot, by default - or by virtue - of my upbringing and sex, be dismissed so easily. Some of us are not culturally clean cut; some of us are compelled to seek shared universal traits, because it is a matter of our own personal survival, a matter of clarifying our own identity - we never have the privilege of slipping into anonymity.
So, if I argue for "aesthetics," I am thinking of what I know of Chinese art (of which I know about as much as all of European and American art), extended travels in different lands, what I learned while studying anthropology, the list does go on.
I have refined that multiplicity of views through time, and come to see similarities. It is on the basis of the similarities that I am thinking of "aesthetics". Reflection, meditation on a theme, concentration, the discipline of mastering technique (historically, culturally determined) to refine "beauty"... The synthesis rests on respect, respect for "nature", respect for craft. And yes, I am idealising - because such an aesthetics strives towards an ideal. And I know that such an aesthetics will not always reach the ideal, but that's the point: there is always something for every generation to work towards.
In another Eyres article, he ends by suggesting that artistic production is a gift, not a commodity to be sold. Perhaps we would grow our eyes to see a better way forward if we were to remove the price tag, and think of these three aspects of any great traditions that greatly need to be renewed in the space of the present: the spiritual, the philosophical and the artistic. People singing together, just because...
Because people have misused or are abusing "standards" and "hierarchies", being overt about any such system is very unpopular right now. But surely one has but to look around to realise that there are still "standards" and "hierarchies" albeit confused, pseudo-meritocratic, insidious ones. Yes, to talk about standards today, one will be accused of being extremist. Who is benefiting from this reactionary state of affairs?And isn't the denial of order a form of extremism? Why is "order" considered primitive? Again, who is benefiting from copies of copies, flying around, dispossessed and homeless?
I think I used to avoid such topics myself because it means taking responsibility for my views. It takes being willing to fight for them and to make concessions - because to formulate an idea well takes a long time of sorting it out. But I see such work as fruitful at this point in time, so I offer this post to you as my first draft of "drawing the lines in art" to include the ethical, the beautiful, and that which inspires man to spiritual questioning and ultimately to love.

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