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Ortega Y Gasset and the Dehumanisation of Art


I was hesitant to review any books by the Spanish philosopher and art critic Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955) because I had long admired him. His writing style provides a unique perspective on culture, philosophy, and art. As a result, I’ve been a consumer for years, constantly utilising his efforts without returning the favour.

It’s time to repay the favour now, though. Therefore, these very personal likes and dislikes are listed below.

The Dehumanisation of Art, the title of Ortega’s book, has become a common phrase in music, literature, aesthetics, and philosophy. It has come to signify that human-shaped mimesis (representation of the human) is irrelevant to art in post-modern times.

Ortega argues that art should be concerned with its forms, not the human form and that the arts don’t need to tell a human story. In the essay’s 13 brief subsections, which were first published in 1925, Ortega discussed the novelty of nonrepresentational art and aimed to make it more understandable to a public that had grown accustomed to traditional art forms.

Finding the traditional arts’ substance

Ortega draws from his political tenet, elitist, aristocratic, and anti-popular, in the first section, “Unpopularity of the New Art.” The premise that some people are superior to others and some are better than others is the conclusion of his analysis: “Behind all contemporary life lurks the provoking and profound injustice of the assumption that men are created equal.”

This unyielding political viewpoint influences his aestheticism.

He contends that the “new art” that emerged with Debussy and Stravinsky (music), Pirandello (theatre), and Mallarme (poetry) will never be understood by the general public. Lack of comprehension will cause the masses—a term Ortega frequently employs to refer to the general populace—to mobilise against and reject the new art. Therefore, only a select few well-educated people will have access to the new art.

It seems narrow-minded and dishonest to use the arts to divide society along racial and ideological lines (the few versus the many, aristocrats versus democrats). However, my primary criticism of Ortega’s analysis and conclusions is more fundamental. “Understanding” the arts is, in my opinion, only marginally significant. Humans produce the skills to connect with and affect other people by appealing to their passions, emotions, and senses.

Accidentally, when I was 14 years old, I stumbled upon a musical composition that, to my impressionable ears, was so unique and strange that I called the radio station to ask about it. The piece was Aaron Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring. What 14-year-old Andean boy from Peru could know enough about ballet or Aaron Copland to begin comprehending the piece? Still, I enjoyed it. For me, that was everything necessary.

I had no idea who Einstein was either, so understanding that piece of music or even knowing who the composer was was as far from my mind as was the theory of relativity. Without verbalising it, one feels rapture, joy, and other positive emotions.

Ortega’s book greatly influenced the rejection of realism and romanticism by extolling the new forms and championing avant-garde artists and their initiatives to create non-traditional art. Ortega’s writing was so alluring and persuasive that many writers and artists started associating realism and romanticism with vulgarity.

It should be sinful to allow such power to be exercised by a great author. I’ve been bothered for a long time by Ortega’s power. Although I was internally annoyed, I refrained from objecting out of respect for the author’s writings. Therefore, by “bracketing” and performing a phenomenologist reduction to strip Ortega’s beautiful prose of its allure, we can see it for what it truly is: an elitist and destructive point of view.

Never should anyone be made to feel inferior because of their aesthetic preferences. We should value that element of aesthetic pleasure regardless of the period or movement it originates from, whether primitive, Greek, Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, realism, romanticism, surrealism, or any other.

Ortega advocates for the “objective purity” of reality as it is perceived

The terms “observed reality” and “lived reality” are inventions of Ortega to correspond to Plato’s division of reality into the forms (universals) and their simulacra.

Ortega refers to depicting actual objects (lived reality) like a person, a house, or a mountain as “aesthetic frauds.” Whether they are created by humans or naturally occurring, Ortega utterly detests them: “A good deal of what I have called dehumanisation and disgust for living forms is inspired by such an aversion against the traditional interpretation of realities.”

On the other hand, the representation of ideas is what he considers to be true art (observed reality). As a result, he praises the new art as the destroyer of mimesis, resemblance, semblance, and likeness. Ortega’s “dehumanisation” is manifested in the destruction of the traditional human art forms.

Protagoras, a pre-Socratic philosopher, once stated, “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not” more than 2500 years ago. The wall of Protagoras will always stand in the way of Ortega’s desire to “dehumanise” art. Despite Ortega, all human-made objects, by definition, are profoundly human and cannot be anything else.

Even in the stark paintings of artists like Mark Rothko, one can sense their humanity as they look for the human soul through colour and luminosity. One can see the human struggle for freedom even in Jackson Pollock’s works’ haphazard drips. And what is freedom if not the aspiration of humanity?


I am constantly in awe of the human spirit when I see shapes in early African art, Palaeolithic animal carvings in the Lascaux caves, or even Mondrian’s vibrant and harmonious grids. And at those times, I believe that all labels, markings, signs, explanations, and theories are entirely unnecessary.

We require art theories that can bring people together rather than drive them apart. Not because it promotes an abhorrent elitism, as with Ortega’s “dehumanisation” theory, but rather because it seeks to deny the pleasures of art to the average person.


Words by Marciano Guerrero

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