January 8, 2010

Arts & Letters

Note: This entry is designed to gather into one place the aphorisms in which Gómez Dávila mentions art and literature, as well as aesthetics and architecture.

Time distills the truth in the still of art. (#1,863)

Reading is an unsurpassable drug, because more than just the mediocrity of our lives, it allows us to escape the mediocrity of our souls. (#1,667)

The collision with an intelligent book makes us see a thousand stars. (#2,300)

A book does not educate someone who reads it to become educated. (#69)

True reading is an escape.
The other type is an occupation. (#2,506)

The books from which we would not like to part tend to be those which we refused to approach. (#1,958)

To teach literature is to teach the pupil to believe that he admires what he does not admire. (#2,047)

The true reader clings to the text he reads like a shipwrecked man to a floating plank. (#2,073)

The pleasant book does not attract the fool unless a pedantic interpretation vouches for it. (#1,820)

The palate is the only suitable laboratory for the analysis of texts. (#1,955)

The perfect transparency of a text is, with nothing more, a sufficient delight. (#2,736)

Contemporary man admires only hysterical texts. (#2,630)

Literature is not a psychological drug, but a complex means of communication for saying complex things.
A melodramatic or cacophonous text, besides being ugly, is false. (#1,959)

Admiring only mediocre works, or reading only masterpieces, characterize the uncultivated reader. (#1,909)

The most dangerous illiteracy is not that of a man who disrespects all books, but that of a man who respects them all. (#2,245)

A good book from yesterday does not seem bad except to the ignoramus; on the other hand, a mediocre book from today can seem good even to a cultivated man. (#2,620)

The “common reader” is as rare as common sense. (#2,524)

An extensive card catalog, an imposing library, a serious university, produce today those avalanches of books that contain not one error nor one insight. (#2,421)

The book that does not scandalize the expert a little has no reason to exist. (#2,645)

Serious books do not instruct, but rather demand explanations. (#506)

The impact of a text is proportional to the cunning of its insinuations. (#1,165)

Only he who suggests more than what he expresses can be reread. (#2,771)

Each new truth we learn teaches us to read a different way. (#514)

How to read is the last thing one learns. (#1,770)

A single paragraph of sense is enough for us to have to attribute the text’s incoherence to our ineptness. (#2,296)

In unremarkable texts we soon trip on phrases that penetrate into us, as if a sword has been thrust into us up to the hilt. (#2,834)

To understand a text, one must walk around it slowly, since no one gets in except through invisible posterns. (#2,096)

In authentic humanism there breathes the presence of a discreet and comfortable sensuality. (#75)

Art is the supreme sensual pleasure. (#1,321)

The spirit searches in a painting for a sensual enrichment. (#87)

We should politely welcome into our souls all of the world’s beauty.
Without delivering our eternal heart up to that transient guest. (#958)

Only goodness and beauty do not require limits.
Nothing is too beautiful or too good. (#2,544)

Goodness and beauty are not mutually exclusive except where goodness serves as a pretext for envy and beauty for luxury. (#2,450)

Every work of art speaks to us of God.
No matter what it says. (#1,089)

Goya is the seer of demons, Picasso their accomplice. (#1,580)

The titanism of modern art begins with the heroic titanism of Michelangelo and concludes with the cartoonish titanism of Picasso. (#2,028)

Art educates no one but the artist. (#651)

The civilizing effect of works of art is due less to the aesthetic value than to the ethic of aesthetic work. (#2,542)

The artist does not compete with his fellow artists; he does battle with his angel. (#1,819)

Civilizations enter into agony when they forget that there exists not merely an aesthetic activity, but also an aesthetic of activity. (#2,449)

The prestige of “culture” makes the fool eat though he is not hungry. (#92)

Arts and letters soon become sterile where the practice of them gives one wealth and the admiration of them prestige. (#2,541)

We should only encourage someone to do something that is worth doing because it is worth it.
Goodness for goodness’s sake, truth for truth’s sake, art for art’s sake. (#2,607)

Whoever does not move among works of art as if among dangerous animals does not know among what he moves. (#2,032)

Indifference to art is betrayed by the pompous solemnity of the homage often rendered it.
True love remains silent or mocks. (#592)

The two most insufferable types of rhetoric are religious rhetoric and the rhetoric of art criticism. (#2,572)

A good painting cuts short the art critic’s lyricism. (#2,109)

The greatest disrespect that can be paid to a work of art is to treat it as an expensive object.
No nouveau riche, fortunately, can hang a poem on the walls of his home. (#2,113)

In literature laughter dies quickly, but the smile is immortal. (#1,267)

In order to be able to speak disdainfully of the great writer who has passed out of fashion, the intellectual refrains from reading him. (#2,240)

How rare are those who do not admire books they have not read! (#553)

An illustrious author is not someone whom many people read, but someone whom many people believe they have read. (#1,205)

The readers of an illustrious author can be divided into two groups: those who admire him without reading him and those who disdain him without having read him. (#1,242)

All literature is contemporary for the reader who knows how to read. (#110)

When one century’s writers can write nothing but boring things, we readers change century. (#1,389)

The only 18th-century writer to be revived by the admiration of our contemporaries is de Sade.
Visitors to a palace who admire nothing but the latrines. (#812)

The sciences, particularly the social sciences, are depositing successive strata of barbarisms on top of literature. (#2,101)

Contemporary literature, in any period, is the worst enemy of culture.
The reader’s limited time is wasted by reading a thousand mediocre books that blunt his critical sense and impair his literary sensibility. (#512)

Prolixity is not an excess of words but a dearth of ideas. (#111)

Literature does not die because nobody writes, but when everybody writes. (#1,256)

Sub-literature is the group of worthy books that each new generation reads with pleasure, but which nobody can re-read. (#1,145)

Whereas contemporaries read only the optimist with enthusiasm, posterity rereads the pessimist with admiration. (#2,894)

The abundance of translations has taken away from translation its function as a selective gesture.
Translation used to be posterity’s advance; today it is the publisher’s business. (#2,185)

A truthful, upright intellectual life grabs out of our hands arts, letters, sciences, in order to prepare us to confront fate alone. (#134)

Art never grows tiresome because each work is an adventure which no previous success guarantees. (#141)

The perfection of a work of art depends on the degree of obedience of its diverse elements to their proper hierarchy. (#1,641)

Discipline, order, hierarchy, are aesthetic values. (#2,483)

The object is not constituted by the sum of its possible representations, but by the sum of its aesthetically satisfactory representations. (#1,849)

The definition locates the object, but only the description captures it. (#1,755)

Aesthetics indicates to the artist in which region of the universe the beauty for which he is searching can be found, but it does not guarantee him that he will succeed in capturing it. (#469)

The grandiloquence of theories of aesthetics increases with the mediocrity of the works, like that of orators with the decadence of their country. (#752)

The most disastrous folly in letters is observance of the aesthetic rule of the day. (#1,947)

The aesthetic impossibilities of an age stem not from social factors, but from internal censors. (#2,576)

Discipline is not so much a social necessity as an aesthetic obligation. (#477)

Aesthetic pleasure is the supreme criterion for well-born souls. (#1,853)

In aesthetics as well, one only reaches heaven by the uneven road and through the narrow gate. (#2,537)

Ethics should be the aesthetics of conduct. (#986)

Ethical conduct is the aesthetically satisfactory conduct. (#2,406)

Ethics and aesthetics, when divorced, each submit more readily to man’s whims. (#2,526)

Sin ceases to seem like a fiction when we have been slapped in the face by its aesthetic vulgarity. (#1,772)

The ugliness of the modern face is an ethical phenomenon. (#1,877)

If we are ignorant of an epoch’s art, its history is a colorless narrative. (#2,952)

The novel adds to history its third dimension. (#147)

The passage from one book to another book is made through life. (#179)

Words do not communicate, they remind. (#180)

Books are not tools of perfection but barricades against boredom. (#190)

Many a modern poem is obscure, not like a subtle text, but like a personal letter. (#195)

What is personal in the artist is not the person, but his vision of the world. (#834)

A writer’s biographers tend to eliminate the person in order to occupy themselves with his insignificant life. (#968)

The biographer should not confuse his obligation to tell us the how of his subject with the ridiculous pretension of explaining to us the why. (#1,765)

Interesting autobiographies would be plentiful if writing the truth were not an aesthetic problem. (#2,683)

We call the beauty of a language the skill with which some write it. (#1,395)

Classical Castilian means, with a few exceptions, an unreadable book. (#2,640)

Literary skill consists in keeping a phrase at the right temperature. (#1,885)

Precision in philosophy is a false elegance.
On the other hand, literary precision is the foundation of aesthetic achievement. (#1,918)

Poetry which disdains poetic musicality becomes petrified in a graveyard of images. (#336)

The pleasure of guessing the ingenious meaning of a metaphor tries to replace, in modern “poetry,” the mysterious joy of song. (#2,814)

In order to act, an operational notion of the object is required; but a poetic notion is required in order to understand. (#1,706)

To be stupid is to believe that it is possible to take a photograph of the place about which a poet sang. (#1,926)

The past is the source of poetry; the future is the arsenal of rhetoric. (#1,487)

Poetry must slip into this gloomy dusk like a partridge into the brush. (#1,675)

Oneiric poetry does not prophesy; it snores. (#1,476)

I appreciate the pedestrian gait of certain poetry, but I prefer the hard rhythm of where song is raised. (#2,543)

Lyric poetry alone survives, because the human heart is the only corner of the world which reason dares not invade. (#563)

What the beauty of a poem signifies has no connection at all with what the poem signifies. (#1,634)

Poetry is God’s fingerprint in human clay. (#870)

Poetry rescues things by reconciling matter and spirit in the metaphor. (#2,337)

Love uses the vocabulary of sex to write a text unintelligible to sex alone. (#2,686)

Man does not admire anything sincerely except what is undeserved.
Talent, lineage, beauty. (#1,552)

The laws of biology alone do not have fingers delicate enough to fashion the beauty of a face. (#1,317)

There are people who admit, without shame, that they “study” literature. (#630)

An authentic reader is someone who reads for pleasure the books which everyone else only studies. (#1,600)

In every age there are two types of readers: the curious reader in search of novelties and the aficionado of literature. (#1,847)

To feel capable of reading literary texts with the impartiality of a professor is to confess that literature has ceased to be pleasurable for us. (#965)

The mortal sin of the critic lies in secretly dreaming that he could perfect the author. (#1,726)

Cowed by the vehemence with which the artist reminds him of his famous follies, the critic walks with cautious steps, fearing that patent ugliness might end up being unusual beauty.
It is not in order to admire that one requires courage today; it is in order to censure. (#1,999)

A contemporary literary review never allows one to figure out whether the critic believes he lives among geniuses or whether he prefers not to have enemies. (#2,332)

The critical analysis practiced by contemporary criticism is unreadable and makes the work it analyzes unreadable. (#2,045)

Criticism loses interest the more rigidly its tasks are defined. The obligation to concentrate only on literature, only on art, sterilizes it.
A great critic is a moralist who strolls among books. (#201)

Journalism was the cradle of literary criticism.
The university is its tomb. (#1,619)

When a society’s intelligence becomes plebeian, literary criticism appears more lucid, albeit cruder. (#1,961)

Modern criticism usually credits the author’s modest lineage to him as a literary merit. (#2,347)

It is not only to the native reader to whom the foreign critic’s vision seems out of focus; it is also to the foreign reader.
To appreciate pantomime or criticism, then, one need not be a critic or a mime. (#1,890)

Countries with an impoverished literature have an insipid history. (#2,417)

Literary nationalism selects its themes with the eyes of a tourist.
It sees nothing of its land but the exotic. (#1,911)

Whoever stuffs his text full of idiomatic expressions creates linguistic folklore for literary tourists. (#2,392)

Authentic French art and authentic French literature have always existed on the fringe of those “latest Parisian intellectual fashions” which the foreigner so admires. (#2,325)

Cervantes is guilty of the insipidity of Spanish Cervantes criticism because he bequeathed an ironic book to a people without irony. (#662)

The interjection is the supreme tribunal of art. (#792)

Art criticism’s worst vice is the metaphorical abuse of philosophical vocabulary. (#516)

If the philosophy and the arts and letters of the past century are only the superstructures of its bourgeois economy, we should defend capitalism to the death.
All stupidity commits suicide. (#222)

The book that “today's youth” adopts needs to do decades of penance to atone for the silly ideas it inspires. (#1,793)

The controversy surrounding a work of art today is not a measure of aesthetic importance but of political exploitation. (#1,149)

Contemporary painting has more enthusiasts than contemporary literature, because a picture can be seen in two seconds of boredom, whereas a book cannot be read in less than two hours of tedium. (#751)

One soon turns one’s back on the art of the end of this century not because it shocks one with the scandal of what is unusual, but because it overwhelms one with the tediousness of what has already been seen. (#2,462)

Art is the most dangerous reactionary ferment in a democratic, industrial, and progressive society. (#1,138)

The basic problems of an age have never been the theme of its great literary works.
Only ephemeral literature is an “expression of society.” (#2,690)

“Progress,” “Democracy,” the “classless Society,” excite the crowd, but leave the Muses cold and disagreeable. (#637)

Those who proclaim themselves avant-garde artists usually belong to yesterday’s vanguard. (#262)

The modern poet is a peasant who despondently sows a plot of eroded soil. (#2,397)

The extravagance of modern art is teaching us to appreciate properly the blandness of classic art. (#970)

In modern art there were numerous trends that exhausted the aesthetic consciousness’s capacity for indignation. (#2,849)

“Modern art” still seems alive because it has not been replaced, not because it has not died. (#2,665)

I am not so dumb as to deny the indisputable successes of modern art; but when I look at modern art in itself, just as when I look at Egyptian or Chinese art, I feel like I am looking at exotic art. (#2,800)

Baroque, preciosity, modernism, are noble failings, but failings in the end. (#2,938)

Mere talent is in literature what good intentions are in conduct. (L'enfer en est pavé.) (#1,466)

The contemporary artist’s ambition is for society to repudiate him and the press to praise him. (#647)

A ridiculous sense of shame will not allow the intelligent writer today to deal with anything but obscene topics.
But since he learned not to be ashamed of anything, he should not be ashamed of decent sentiments. (#1,664)

Glory, for the authentic artist, is not the sound of praise, but the terrible silence of the instant when he believed he hit his mark. (#1,353)

The glory of the truly great writers is a glory artificially imposed on the public, an academic and subsidized glory.
Authentic, popular, spontaneous glory crowns none but mediocre men. (#2,868)

In the arts what goes by the name of authenticity is the convention of the day. (#360)

The only thing that makes modern man ashamed is to confess admiration for an author who is out of style. (#1,615)

The Muse does not visit the man who works more, or the man who works less, but whomever she feels like. (#880)

Modern artists are so ambitious to differ from one another that that very same ambition groups them together into a single species. (#639)

Compared to so many dull intellectuals, to so many artists without talent, to so many stereotyped revolutionaries, a bourgeois without pretensions looks like a Greek statue. (#871)

Those who insist on being up to date with today’s fashion are less irritating than those who try too hard when they do not feel that they are up to date with tomorrow’s fashion.
The bourgeoisie is aesthetically more tolerable than the avant-garde. (#2,955)

It is possible to inculcate in the contemporary bourgeois any stupid idea in the name of progress and to sell him any grotesque object in the name of art. (#1,520)

Revolutions bequeath to literature only the laments of their victims and the invectives of their enemies. (#1,658)

Only the political failure of the right balances, in our time, the literary failure of the left. (#1,705)

I do not know whether, in another world, the devil punishes an irreligious society.
But I see that it is soon punished here by aesthetics. (#1,106)

When religion and aesthetics are divorced from each other, it is not known which is corrupted sooner. (#2,382)

The current liturgy makes official the secular divorce between the clergy and the arts. (#1,536)

Approaching religion through art is not the caprice of an aesthete: aesthetic experience spontaneously tends to expand into a presentiment of religious experience.
From an aesthetic experience one returns as from a sighting of numinous footprints. (#2,487)

At the end of the last century there was only an “art without style”; in the second half of this century there is only a style without art. (#969)

If yesterday’s bourgeois bought pictures because their subject was sentimental or picturesque, today’s bourgeois does not buy them when they have a picturesque or sentimental subject.
The subject continues to sell the picture. (#985)

The arts flourish in societies that view them with indifference, and perish when the devout reverence of fools encourages them. (#264)

A work of art, today, is anything that sells for a high price. (#1,385)

Modern “Eastern spirituality,” like the Eastern art of the last centuries, is merchandise from a bazaar. (#1,449)

The object of bad taste is manufactured where social prestige makes people acquire objects which give no pleasure to those who buy them. (#667)

“Cultural activities” is an expression we hear not in the mouth of someone who spontaneously engages in them, but in the mouth of someone who performs them for profit or for prestige. (#787)

“Culture” is not so much the religion of atheists as of the uncultured. (#435)

May God preserve us from purity, in all fields.
From the mother of political terrorism, from religious sectarianism, from ethical severity, from aesthetic sterility, from philosophical stupidity. (#1,246)

The internationalization of the arts does not multiply their sources, but rather the causes of their corruption. (#1,589)

In no previous age did the arts and letters enjoy greater popularity than in ours. Arts and letters have invaded the school, the press, and the almanacs.
No other age, however, has produced such ugly objects, nor dreamed such coarse dreams, nor adopted such sordid ideas.
It is said that the public is better educated. But one does not notice. (#650)

The now secular task of “democratizing culture” has achieved the result not that more people admire, for example, Shakespeare or Racine, but that more people believe they admire them. (#789)

It is fine to demand that the imbecile respect arts, letters, philosophy, the sciences, but let him respect them in silence. (#2,895)

The cultural propaganda of the last decades (scholarly, journalistic, etc.) has not educated the public; it has merely obtained the result, like so many a missionary, that the natives celebrate their ceremonies in secret. (#788)

Popular art is the art of the people which does not appear to the people to be art.
That which does appear to be art to the people is vulgar art. (#295)

Words are born among the people, flourish among writers, and die in the mouth of the middle class. (#2,898)

Just as in our society the dregs of society triumph, so too in our literature the dregs of the soul triumph. (#766)

Since the authentic work of art is obviously original, the cultural illiterate imagines that the original work is necessarily a work of art. (#619)

The modern desire to be original makes the mediocre artist believe that simply being different is the secret to being original. (#2,754)

The conventional is not necessarily an aesthetic defect, since it is merely a sociological trait. (#2,039)

A great artist is obviously one who is disconcerting.
But a great artist is not one who plans on being disconcerting, but one who begins by disconcerting himself. (#2,100)

For art’s current anemia let us blame the doctrine which advises each artist to prefer the invention of his own aesthetic idiom to the unmistakable use of a common aesthetic idiom. (#1,637)

Abstract art is not illegitimate but limited. (#357)

The devil is the patron of abstract art, because to represent is to submit. (#2,022)

A work of art has, properly speaking, not meaning but power.
Its presumed meaning is the historical form of its power on the transitory spectator. (#307)

The existence of a work of art demonstrates that the world has meaning.
Even when it does not say what that meaning is. (#2,623)

Unless it runs up against successive barriers of incomprehension, a work of art does not impress its meaning [on anyone]. (#1,845)

A work of politics is unrepeatable, like a work of art, and equally capable of the same eternity. (#1,241)

Rather than from the disturbing spectacle of injustice triumphing, it is from the contrast between the earthly fragility of the beautiful and its immortal essence that the hope of another life is born. (#2,776)

The history of art is the history of its materials, its techniques, its themes, its social conditions, its psychological motives, or its set of intellectual problems, but never the history of beauty.
A value has no history. (#606)

The nature of the work of art can depend on social conditions, but its aesthetic quality depends on nothing. (#2,850)

The history of literary genres admits of sociological explanations.
The history of works of literature does not. (#2,601)

Literary genres are born and decline as mysteriously as empires. (#2,165)

What is great, for the sensibility, is not the sum of the parts, but the quality of certain wholes.
Greatness of size—every modern building shows this—is not related to monumental greatness. (#354)

Everything is voluminous in this century.
Nothing is monumental. (#1,613)

It has required a titanic effort to make the modern world so ugly. (#2,373)

Words are not enough for a civilization to be transmitted.
When its architectural landscape crumbles, a civilization’s soul deserts. (#1,800)

The most serious charge against the modern world is its architecture. (#1,780)

More so than the immorality of the contemporary world, it is its growing ugliness that moves one to dream of a cloister. (#2,832)

Modern architecture knows how to erect industrial shacks, but it does not succeed in building either a palace or a temple.
This century will leave behind only the tire-tracks of the transports it employed in the service of our most sordid greed. (#388)

Nature just died in this century.
Only in the art of past centuries do we discover, to our astonishment, that nature is not a simple physics experiment exploited by diligent organisms. (#1,050)

Until the end of the 18th century, what man added to nature increased its beauty.
Since then, what he adds destroys it. (#2,667)

Museums are the invention of a mankind that has no place for works of art, either in its home, or in its life. (#1,306)

The possibility of selling to the public any man-made object in the name of art is a democratic phenomenon.
Democratic ages, in effect, foment the uncertainty of taste by abolishing every model.
If the most excellent work of art is still possible there, lesser art dies and extravagance abounds.
Where an authority exists, on the other hand, enjoying unfamiliar works is not easy, but taste is infallible when dealing with contemporary art, and lesser art flourishes. (#2,237)

The evolution of works of art into objects of art and of objects of art into investments or into articles for consumption is a modern phenomenon.
A process that does not evidence a diffusion of the aesthetic, but rather the culmination of contemporary economism. (#2,409)

The wealth of a merchant, of an industrialist, of a financier, is aesthetically inferior to wealth in land and flocks. (#2,824)

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