First, I would like to apologize for the delay in posting and not finishing the October series. Personal life seems to have gotten in the way. I intend on updating the horror discussion, however. But, for now, I’ll post the third section on criticism.
I think that, before pressing further into the subject of what makes something “good”, I’d like to address one of the troubles I mentioned from before. I really have a hard time feeling very charitable towards those who limit beauty to an era, a style, some pet-love. But, the question remains, is there a right or wrong in art?
I think my previous blog post probably makes it clear that I am by no means a relativist. I believe it was Richard Dawkins who pointed out that a relativist will abandon his ideas when, say, boarding a plane. Some things are just better than others, and a well constructed plane is superior to one that will blow up in mid air. There are real, measurable truths, and I have enough faith to believe that we can reason to them –such as the truth of existence, matter, individual thought, mathematical truths, and general a priori knowledge. I think that fluffy, wishy-washy –ism is fairly out of vogue, anyway. So, no, I’m not a relativist. And, as far as art goes, I do not believe anything is art. But…
I do believe anything can be art.
These statements are syntactically different, and that difference is important. I’ll try to do my best to deconstruct them. The first premise is Anything Is Art. If something “is” something else, then the “is” can be thought of like a little equal sign, like in a math equation:
Anything = Art
Of course, the word anything means just that: any sort of thing. If you see a thing, it is a part of this “anything”. Your baseball, your aunt’s doily collection, your uncle’s spittoon, your father’s favorite brown loafers, your mother’s gardening gloves, Labradors, Super Mario Brothers, every Michael Bay movie, that picture of a dog your wannabe-artists friend drew, gibbons, Precious Moments figurines, the statue of David, the pyramids, The Great Wall of China, absolute zero, microbiology textbooks, The Mona Lisa, David Lynch’s house, Donald Trump’s hairpiece, a lost and forgotten sock, your cat’s hairballs, giant squids… these are all part of the “anything” category. If we accept the above premise as correct, we have to say that anything, anything at all, is art.
But, what is art? If you mean an artificial thing then we still have a problem, because Labradors, squids, gibbons, and possibly even absolute zero would not count, and so obviously “anything” cannot be art. If that were the case, you could enter your goat in The Louvre. While goats are charming in many ways, and may be beautiful and entertaining, I don’t think it is categorically the same as a painting.
So, should we say anything that is made by humans, that is any artifact, is art?
All artificial things = art?
But, then we still have a problem. Even those who do not understand art will probably agree that a bandage, a Barbie, and a Botticelli are not categorically equal.
What we have here is called equivocation. This is a logical flaw that happens when a word has two different meanings, and those meanings are mixed up. It’s like mixing up honey, the sticky, sweet stuff, and honey, the slang for sweetheart. This could result in a problem, because eating your sweetheart on toast is generally not smiled upon in most societies.
Art as artifact, as in something that does not occur in nature is not the same thing as art as a work of art intended to be art.
Artifact ≠ Art
However, in the category of art, there is a hierarchy. What this is, of course, is where people have arguments. But, the fact that there are discrepancies does not mean that anything anyone wants to be art may be art. Chefs may argue about the value of a certain spice or a particular procedure. But, they aren’t going to serve your microwavable breakfast burrito as high cuisine. They know what goes into making food. They don’t care that you like microwavable breakfast burritos. That may make them feel a little sad, actually.
I do not know why, but there are many people who insist that the only way to know anything about art is to not know anything about art. And no, they are not reciting a Zen koan. What they mean is this: if one is not educated in what goes into art, how to read a piece, the technical and procedural aspects, one can appreciate what it says more purely. Their souls are untainted by all that educational nonsense involving reading and study and discipline like that. It’s a very romantic idea, that one can only view art tabula rasa, and suddenly be projected into enlightenment. Knowing nothing, one can suddenly see with clarity and before you can say abracadabra, they have reached art nirvana.
‘Round these parts, we call that bullshit.
First of all, this objection to art would only work in a case of absolute, infantile purity. One would have to have no experience at all to come in with this state. Just because you do not knowing anything about art, does not mean that a person is not coming in with biases and experience. This would completely ruin a real blank-slate experience. In fact, those arguing for this position usually have strong biases. They may think that all art people are poseurs, all art critics are snobs who hate humans, and all art that isn’t strictly representational is blasphemy (with a capital S in the inevitable Scream). Usually, they make some claim that all non-representational art is anti-spiritual (despite this being empirically untrue). They come with many biases already in place, and so are not experiencing the art on its own terms, allowing it to speak to the person in the way that they advocate. They may see themselves as pure souls, but it’s simply untrue. The more self-insistent they are upon this subject the less it is so. How can you really be having a pure, tabula rasa experience if you are consciously thinking of yourself as this pure character, and therefore bringing a bias from the start? It’s absurd. The only way this would work is if a person had no contact with the outside world, and no idea that there even is art at all, and suddenly ended up in a museum. My guess, however, is that this person would just feel overwhelmed and confused, and would still not have this art-nirvana experience.
So, after fully establishing that these viewers are not doing what they think they are doing, there is a second problem. Why in art would it be preferable to know less about the subject in order to understand it? If you cannot speak a language, you cannot appreciate it more for your lack of understanding. If you have never studied cooking, you cannot appreciate the variations in taste, texture, contrast, et cetera, as you would if you were a chef or a food critic. If you have never studied music, you simply cannot appreciate the complexities of a composition in the same way that a musician would. This is obvious, and yet people constantly assume that their lack of education in (predominantly studio) art gives them an advantage. This goes back to their whole purity issue, but one has to question why this is the case. If you cannot speak a language, wouldn’t you trust a translator? You certainly wouldn’t attack a translator for spoiling your pure experience with a language you do not understand. I think that anyone noticing this exchange would see the observer as somewhat of an idiot, and also very rude. And yet people act this way in galleries and toward artists all the time. The artist could be enthusiastic at the beauty she is seeing, and excitedly trying and show this world to another. But, shouting clichés at the artist or art lover is supposedly the purer response.
The fact remains that, like it or not, art is an actual discipline that requires study, work, and more work. Like science, language, philosophy or anything else, one simply cannot have a reasonable opinion without knowing something of art itself. And, to understand art, one needs to ask questions. What do we know about the design? What do we know about color theory? What was the historical context? What was the school of thought? What is the psychological impact? What was the philosophical background? What is the science behind the colors and composition? Where was it made? How was it made? What is art for? And who the hell is this artist guy, anyway?
You cannot burst into a gallery and suddenly know everything about art any more than they can burst into a science colloquium with the background of one college survey class and debate quantum physics. While art is not an empirical science, it does have a discipline.
This brings me back to the purpose of this tangent. Yes, there is discrepancy in art. However, these arguments are not about whether or not anything abstract is from Satan’s bowels. The discrepancies are about relatively small points, individual artists and their worth. And to make these arguments, one has to study art. This means reading.
Art is not elitist. It just requires some work, just like anything else. The point is, anyone can enjoy art if they decide to study. The discipline is open to all. There are public libraries everywhere, as well as the internet. Someone who does not understand Japanese and will not study Japanese may enjoy the sound of some words, but will never be able to deconstruct Basho in the original text. It won’t happen.
So, how can one understand what makes art good art? And how does this apply to literature, movies, music, and so on? Well, that’s the issue. But, the answer is probably lurking in some good books.