I suppose the Puritan’s (and maybe Plato’s) hesitation about something like Delacroix’s Basket of Flowers is that its excellence and this-worldly self-sufficiency seem to divert beauty from a better function. (I’m no doubt making too much of this, but the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom and all that so I’ll pursue it a bit.)
Our other major stop in the visit to the Met on which we saw the Delacroix painting was the Roman galleries (click on the central courtyard for a view of what we saw). Classical sculpture is of course considered “improving.” I don’t think that’s just because of a Philistine desire to glom onto symbols of stability and high culture as a way of propping up one’s status. Classical sculpture, the Crouching Venus or whatever, is intended to give visible form to gods. That means it subordinates decoration and lays off eroticism and the like. Instead, it focuses attention on form, which goes beyond sensation and, as Clive Bell emphasizes, is somehow independent of the physical thing portrayed.
That gives it a different function. Plato observes in the Phaedrus that beauty when it is most truly itself is not simply about pleasure. There’s something shocking and painful about it, because it seems to present something essential that we lack and can’t quite grasp. It seems to go beyond itself. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger took that point and ran with it in a Christian setting in a talk he gave not long before he became Pope.
Dunno what all this leads to, and I have no idea how seriously to take any of it. Doesn’t blogging have room though for puzzling over things you don’t altogether understand? There’s nothing particularly shocking or painful about a basket of flowers, and there shouldn’t be. I suppose my reaction to the painting was provoked by the oddity of putting the purely decorative front and center and devoting that much effort to it. That plus the surrounding Ingres portraits, which seemed to suggest refined enjoyment and satisfaction as the point of life.