Art and Anarchy

Art and Anarchy

"Art and Anarchy" is a collection of essays by Edgar Wind, a distinguished twentieth century iconologist, historian, and art theorist. In 1960, Wind gave several lectures for the BBC as part of the Reith Lectures series; these lectures were collected, revised, and published as "Art and Anarchy" in 1963.

First essay

The work takes its title from its first essay on Plato’s “sacred fear,” a central feature, as Plato described it, of the Greek response to a powerful work of art. Since this essay offers an informative introduction to the collection, it is outlined below. Wind starts in the style of an artistic polemic: “I hope that the word ‘anarchy’ in the title of these lectures does not suggest that I shall speak in defense of order. I shall not. A certain amount of turmoil and confusion is likely to call forth creative energies.” Based on his readings of the classical and renaissance historians and philosophers, Wind contends that art once acted as a primal emotional force, able to enthrall the masses and stir them into frenzies. But Plato’s sacred fear has dissolved since the renaissance and the experience of modern art has become one of superficial delight without lasting emotional force.

From reading the works of philosophers, theorists, and artists such as Plato, Johann Goethe, Charles Baudelaire, and Jacob Burckhardt, we learn that effective art disturbs those who experience it, particularly the artist himself. Goethe and Baudelaire both contended with its erratic and wild force, and fought to tame it, direct it, and prevent it from overwhelming their sensitive creative faculties. Artists and audiences both draw upon the sacred fear of the imagination (Plato’s term is θειος φοβος or 'theios phobos'). Plato argued that art not only could excite disorder, but could fundamentally alter those who experienced. According to Plato’s analysis, just as we imitate the roles we are to fill and the behaviors we are to emulate in childhood, in adulthood we imitate art and are thereby transformed by it. Such a transformative force warranted strong censorship in Plato’s ideal state, lest it unhinge order. Wind argues this is impossible; what Plato proposes is a consciously administered palliative that cannot treat the affliction. Like any other instance of censorship, it will either encourage what it restricts or kill it (and its host) entirely. As it was, Wind argues, censorship was powerless in the face of the most potent art (“the really dangerous artist is the great one”), and it was this sort of art Plato most feared.

Wind speculates that Plato’s views were influenced by the simultaneous dissolution of the Greek state and the ascent of a Grecian artistic golden age. Greek sobriety seemed undermined by their great and receptive imagination. Based on this, Wind admits that the linking of art and anarchy is not new; art has been a constant force of disorder, and if the artist suffers under its reckless ardor, so do we in experiencing art. Wind asks, therefore: what precautions must we take, looking to the example of the Greeks? Why have we, in a time when more art is available than ever before, not found a potent enemy to order in our own art?

The answer is as Georg Hegel predicted in his Aesthetik II: “art has worked itself out” and Plato’s sacred fear has left the modern experience of art. The modern audience has acquired an immunity to the chaotic force of art, and so art has “lost its sting.” Wind attributes this immunity to “diffusion,” a proliferation and increase in accessibility of art, which was accompanied out of necessity by a “loss of density” in the viewer; that is, the only way any person is able to take in such a wide variety and vast quantity of art is to absorb each work of art on a more superficial level. Audiences crave an ever-greater quantity of art as their “receptive organs” continue to “atrophy.” Wind’s dismay at this degeneration is epitomized by the thought of a person being able to view exhibitions of works by Picasso and Poussin on consecutive days and enjoy both equally. To a scholar of the Renaissance, a period that still witnessed strong reactions to art, this is bewildering.

We see artists grapple with this atrophy of audience’s artistic sensitivity in the adoption and generalization of shock techniques: before they become just another placid and accepted artistic methodology, tactics such as Bertolt Brecht’s ‘alienation theater’ seek to overwhelm the reticence and impassivity of the modern artistic audience. However, these tactics eventually fail as they become familiar and therefore lose their ability to shock or surprise an audience. Art has not only lost its piquancy, it has lost what made it truly great: as Wind contends, the “glory of art is inseparable from its risks.” Instead, ‘interesting’ becomes the most common epithet attached to new art, a way of thinking developed in the romantic period as a substitute for artistic intoxication and a sign of art “that has no lasting effect.” Wind hypothesizes that putting art in museums helps produce such detachment: the museum not only promotes artistic diffusion, but engenders a certain kind of rational, intellectual response to art and inhibits more potent emotional response. Wind upholds Hegel’s conjecture that art has, in a sense, been replaced by rational inquiry: this replaces art as the central concern of our existence and art becomes a “splendid superfluity.” Wind mentions, for example, the shift from producing religious art as objects for veneration to producing religious art that is intended “to be admired as sheer painting.” Art created in the spirit of “art for art’s sake” can still be skillfully wrought, and can please us, but it can no longer stir the deepest regions of man’s soul. The one benefit of this shift, as Wind sees it, is a gain in artistic freedom due to the artist’s loss of a sense of responsibility towards his audience: an infinity of new arts can exist when all are equal in being powerless. (Wind provides a brief sketch of the history of “art for art’s sake” in the essay’s footnote.)

Wind ultimately rejects Hegel’s certainty that art will remain worn out and detached, however, and this sets the tone for the rest of the essays in the collection. Hegel himself spoke of the latent force of history (see essay’s footnote), and Wind, momentarily taking on the manner of the prescient shaman, concludes the first essay warning that this latent potential may again manifest itself.

Besides having been strongly influenced by Hegel, Wind’s ideas have some commonality with several other philosophers and theorists. Immanuel Kant shares Wind’s concern with the lack of clear purpose in art; he sees the art of his era to be tending towards a purpose without actually having one (Critique of Judgment). Martin Heidegger and Wind both studied with Edmund Husserl, the father of modern Phenomenology, and both argue, as Heidegger explains in his Origin of the Work of Art, that art is fundamental for human culture—or at least should be. Leo Tolstoy in his essay What is Art? shares a similar complaint: that the art of his era has become cheapened and superficial, no longer capable of performing its principal function of profoundly altering the lives of people for the better.


* [ Dictionary of Art Historians page on Edgar Wind]
* [ New York Review of Books review of Art and Anarchy]
* [ Wind’s theories applied to music]
* [,4,7;journal,56,96;linkingpublicationresults,1:102999,1 Essay on Art and Intellect, examining Wind in context with other theorists]
* [ Essay on the Transformative Purpose of Art, analyzing and comparing the theories of Wind and others]
* [ Book Review/Synopsis of Art and Anarchy]
* [ Interview with Joseph Hirsch, artist who agrees with Wind’s concepts and cites them]

Further reading

* [ Quigley, T. R. "Summary of Heidegger's 'The Origin of the Work of Art'", 1996]
* [ Amazon: Wind, Edgar. “Art and Anarchy”]
* [ Amazon: Tolstoy, Leo. “What is Art?”]
* [ Amazon: Young, Julian. “Heidegger’s Philosophy of Art”]
* [ Amazon: Preziosi, Donald. “The Art of Art History”]

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