This is the easiest and also the most shallow response to criticism. The truth is that most art is bad. And in our time, most art is not only bad but also dishonest: a form of therapy or political grumbling masquerading as art. Like everything important in human life, art must be judged on the basis of firsthand experience: no formula can be devised prescribing its assessment, including the formula that what is despised today will be championed as great work tomorrow. The art world today retains little of the idealism that permeated Romanticism, but it remains Romantic in its moralism and hubris about the salvific properties of art. In an unfortunate, jejune moment, Shelley wrote that poets were "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." This is an ambition that many artists continue, in more mundane ways, to harbor. But as W. H. Auden rightly pointed out," "The unacknowledged legislators of the world' describes the secret police, not the poets. " Poetry, Auden said elsewhere, makes nothing happen: its province- -like the province of all art--is in the realm of making, not doing. An artist, as the word's history reminds us, is first of all someone who makes something. And just as a table can be well or poorly made, so, too, a poem or a painting can be well or poorly made. This is not the only criterion that we employ to judge a work of art, but it is a fundamental starting point that no disinterested critic can afford to abandon.
Similar considerations apply to the ambition to make art "relevant" to contemporary social and political concerns. Of course, art cannot help being of its time and place, but the interesting question to ask about art that deliberately comments on its time is what makes it more than a mere commentary? What makes it art? As Goethe put it, "only the mediocre talent is always the captive of its time and must get its nourishment from the elements that time contains." The insistence that art reflect the tangled realities of contemporary life is a temptation that most artists should resist, if for no other reason than that giving in to that temptation is a prescription for ephemeralness.
What resources does an artist possess to combat the temptations of relevance? Apart from his talent, perhaps his greatest resource is tradition, for it is through tradition that he has his most palpable link with something that transcends the contingencies of the moment. As T. S. Eliot explained in a famous passage from "Tradition and the Individual Talent," tradition is not simply "following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes: "Tradition," Eliot continued,
"is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his generation in his bones, but with a feeling of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional."
Eliot's aestheticizing conception of the historical sense may not be the bulwark against arbitrariness that he hoped it would be. But by underscoring the element of transcendence, he reminds us that an embrace of tradition is not the enemy but the condition of genuine innovation. It is in this sense that we should understand Hans Sedlmayr' s observation that "many things that are classified as 'backward'. . . might be the starting-point of real inner progress." At a moment when the art world has abandoned art for political attitudinizing, the path forward begins with a movement of recuperation. In an age when anything can be a work of art, the question of whether something is art has ceased to be compelling: what matters is whether something is a good work of art, and about this the official art world has rendered itself bors de combat.
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