Paul Johnson on Art

One of my weaknesses is a fear of really large books. I have been reading bits and pieces of From Dawn to Decadence for some time and I have untold other tomes sitting on the shelf with bookmarkers a few dozen pages inside. I just got Paul Johnson’s mammoth Art: A New History in the mail and tonight I was determined to start reading. I hope to read a chunk every day, or every other day, and actually finish this one.

For your reading pleasure, here are some choice quotes from tonight’s reading:

“I argue here that art predated not only writing but probably structured speech too, that it was closely associated with the ordering instinct which makes society possible, and that it has therefore always been essential to human happiness.”

“Of all the problems which afflict artists, and afflict them more intensely the stronger their skills and passions, the most important is choosing between conformity and freedom.”

“When we look at works of art, we must remember that often their creator was a prisoner of his time and culture, albeit a willing one as a rule . . . For art is Janus-faced, tradition and novelty fighting for supremacy.”

“By art I mean three things: useful are, concerned with survival; fine art, concerned with beauty; and fashion art, concerned with conformity to social rules.”

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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4 Comments

  • Big books go into the bathroom. I started War and Peace there, but then got hooked. and took it out of there.

    Less than riveting histories or other large tomes are digested on the throne.

  • “Of all the problems which afflict artists, and afflict them more intensely the stronger their skills and passions, the most important is choosing between conformity and freedom.”

    I’d be interested in exactly what he means by this.

  • These are good quotes. I mean they are worth thinking about. What is freedom? What does it mean to be free? Free from not just your time and culture, but free from your life long habits and conditioning. What would that be like? What does it mean to be free from the dictates of your traditions, both personal and cultural. Is it even possible? When you are free does novelty and tradition fight for supremacy? When you are free are you in a state of battle, of tension? I think that most of us know how to conform. I think that most of know what it means to embrace the traditional things of our lives. Freedom however is something different? Can an artist capture in his or her work the spirit, or sense of freedom? I think not. Freedom is not a reaction to tradition. A reaction to tradition is really just another tradition that people will engage to fool themselves into thinking that they are free. Of the three art forms only beauty strikes me as a possible step toward freedom. In the beholding of beauty there is the possiblility of experiencing freedom.