In an essay in the December issue of The New Criterion (unfortunately no longer available at the website except through the purchase of a "token"), Roger Kimball offers a laudatory account of Art in Crisis, written by the Austrian art historian (and Nazi party member) Hans Sedlmayr. “Autonomous man,” according to Sedlymayer, “does not and cannot exist—any more than can autonomous art, architecture, painting and so on. It is of the essence of man that he should be both natural and supernatural … . Man is fully human only in so far as he is a repository of the divine spirit.”
Kimball shares Sedlymayer's contempt for the notion that art might have autonomous value:
One need not, I think, share Sedlmayr’s theological convictions in order to appreciate the power of his strictures about the search for autonomy. “The fact is,” he argues, “that art cannot be assessed by a measure that is purely artistic and nothing else. Indeed, such a purely artistic measure, which ignored the human element, the element which alone gives art its justification, would actually not be an artistic measure at all. It would merely be an aesthetic, and actually the application of purely aesthetic standards is one of the peculiarly inhuman features of the age, for it proclaims by implication the autonomy of the work of art, an autonomy that has no regard to men—the principle of l’art pour l’art.” Art has its own aesthetic canons of legitimacy and achievement; but those canons are themselves nugatory unless grounded in a measure beyond art. That is the ultimate, indispensable, lesson of Art in Crisis.
One hears this sort of thing all the time, and not just from conservatives such as Kimball. Art that is "purely artistic" (itself such a logically dissonant notion--what proportion of art should be something other than artistic? 5%? 50%?--as to make all accounts of art proceeding from this assumption inherently absurd) lacks the "human element," privileges the autonomy of art over "regard to men." Art needs to accomodate itself (or be made to accomodate) some larger, more important conceptual order: if not religion, then politics, history, ethics, or "culture" regarded as a kind of substitute for "theological convictions."
But, since art is made by human beings for the consideration of other human beings, I just find it puzzling what it means to say that some art might be "inhuman." Is the "human element" in art something mystical to be intuited from the work, or is it stirred in like the secret ingredient in the spaghetti sauce? (Of course, in the case of the Nazi Sedylmayer, we can make a pretty good guess about who and what is being identified in his use of the word "inhuman.") What, finally, can be more "human" than to exercise the imagination in such a thoroughgoing and transformative way as to create a poem, painting, or musical composition that seems so self-sufficient that we want call it "autonomous"? What's inhuman about admiring such an effort to the extent of creating a vocabulary to describe its effects? In my opinion, people who opine about the "merely aesthetic," who find aesthetic values "nugatory" unless they are subservient to a higher principle of judgment, manifestly disdain art except as an illustrative aid, a utilitarian convenience.
It has always been relatively clear (at least to me) that Roger Kimball's protestations against the coarsening of art and the study of art have always been hollow, at best a rhetorical expedient in the broader struggle against liberalism, in the "arts" branch of which Kimball has been one of the most prominent combatants. But it is additionally illuminating to find him admitting that aesthetics mean little to him. (Although it is a little surprising that he would explicitly cite the anti-modernist ravings of a fascist art historian to support his position.) The view of art Kimball expresses here is in many ways representative of the long-standing conservative belief that art should serve simply as one of the props of culture (as it also explains the reflexive horror with which many conservative commenators recoil from unconventional or transgressive art), but the essay should also be a useful reminder the next time Kimball--or one of his like-minded colleagues--rails against the latest outrage among artists or literary critics that artistic accomplishment is really the least of his concerns.