David Thompson
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July 28, 2013

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Ronan

The Guardian's Michele Hanson wishes fear and misery on people she doesn't know.

I'm amazed she's so blatant about it. Someone should hold a mirror in front of her.

David

I’m amazed she’s so blatant about it. Someone should hold a mirror in front of her.

Yes, it’s odd how people who keep telling us how much they care about others often reveal less edifying feelings. In some cases it’s almost as if the ostentatious caring, or alleged caring, is actually a pretext for much uglier sentiments.

A license, perhaps. Or a fig leaf.

Ted S., Catskill Mtns., NY, USA

Yes, it’s challenging, very challenging. After all, it must be challenging - otherwise it would just be, erm, fatuous and juvenile. And that can’t be the case. Heavens, no. Being, as she is, so enlightened and so much better than the herd, Ms Dwyer’s excremental transgression will no doubt rattle the bourgeois rube and blow his tiny mind.

Just this past Friday, TCM here in the States showed François Truffaut's Day For Night, which is one of the best films ever made about moviemaking, and one of the most accessible movies for people who aren't into art-house stuff that Truffaut made. After the movie, the presenter commented that Jean-Luc Godard apparently hated the movie because it was the most bourgeois thing Truffaut had done.

Heaven forbid people not be "challenged". Well, I suppose you could claim Day For Night challenges people like Godard. Art is supposed to be transgressive, but only against the tastes of the bourgeois, not the tastes of the Godards of the world.

David

transgressive, but only against the tastes of the bourgeois,

Bingo. And so the relationship with the public is essentially condescending. Those awful, stuffy bourgeois people, the ones paying for the Arts Council with their taxes, must be challenged and transgressed. For their own good.

dicentra

In a Cornell writing course, fellow student was heard to sneer at Monet, because any moron can buy it as a calendar, fer cryinoutloud.

The merits of Monet's artwork are rendered irrelevant by its commercial success, apparently, because BOURGEOIS SELLOUT.

David

Iconoclasm, or rather ersatz iconoclasm, is now expected – all but insisted upon - by art educators, pundits and even government ministers. Apparently one must be “challenging” and “subversive” in order to fit in. “Subverting” and “interrogating” some bourgeois this or that is still very much in fashion, and best done ostentatiously. See, for instance, this, where we learn that a thing being “beautiful” is grounds for “scathing criticism.” Which suggests that, among such people, actual iconoclasm is unlikely to take place, or indeed be welcome. And the default image of some pearl-clutching Telegraph reader aghast at plaster vaginas or someone shitting in a bucket is comically self-flattering. As Fabian Tassano notes,

What taboos shall we break, or toy with breaking, this time? Mediocratic ideology has so many buttons to press. As is often the case, the official party line contains an inversion of this. In theory, it is awfully easy (and rewarding) to shock ‘conservatives’. The popular image is of a Colonel Gusset-Smythe type, spluttering into his gin and tonic. In reality such types, if they ever existed, have died out… In practice, the person spluttering into their G&T, or fainting in the aisles, is now much more likely to be a Guardian than a Telegraph reader.

As half the entries in the archives here will demonstrate. And while the exponents and enthusiasts of such tat congratulate themselves on their daring, while imagining we still live in the 1950s, a more obvious conformity and uptightness lies closer to home. Draw attention to the Arts Council’s parasitism and arrogance, or their policy of racial favouritism, and wait for the defensive squealing to begin. Or mock a “transgressive” artist’s work and wait for their own haughty peevishness to make your case for you.

dicentra

"Challenging traditional notions of beauty" and the like has been going on for a good century.

The really interesting stuff has already been done. Andy Warhol prolly topped it off, before most of the current crop of morons was born.

Now it's all DERIVATIVE!

No Anxiety of Influence here—move along. The past has been walled off with bricks and spiders.

D

Do these alleged artists ever reach any actual conclusions? Do they even attempt any sort of point?

they might transform other institutionalised ideas about the world

Which ones, I wonder? Why? Should the fact that one can crap in public come as a surprise the the intended audience? Do they expect people to be shocked that the general common-sense rule that one shouldn't crap in public won't actually stop idiots from doing it? I guess they successfully challenged my assumption that no one would do something so asinine. Mission accomplished.

Do they think it's shocking to do something that everyone literally has to do every week? What will they do next, breathe oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide at the audience? Never mind, I shouldn't tempt them with ideas for their next challenging performance.

I've come to the conclusion that if a piece of art does not provide some sort of pleasure, enjoyment or at least meaningful emotional reaction without explanatory text, it's pretty much worthless. Certainly there are artistic works that are more meaningful if you have context for them, but generally they evoke something or provide aesthetic pleasure whether you have the additional information or not.

dicentra

I've come to the conclusion that if a piece of art does not provide some sort of pleasure, enjoyment or at least meaningful emotional reaction without explanatory text, it's pretty much worthless.

People consume art for different reasons: some people want something pretty to look at, some people want to admire the craftsmanship, and some want intellectual stimulation.

Contemporary art is supposed to emphasize Art As Concept, which has nothing to do with beauty and skill. "Hey, let's subject this Very Ordinary Prosaic Thing To Aesthetic Contemplation."

Which, that's not a problem when it's done well. But today's wannabes reckon that whatever twaddle crosses the threshold of their imagination is worthy of aesthetic contemplation, and their narcissism prevents them from further discernment.

D

Which, that's not a problem when it's done well.

I'm no modern art connoisseur. Could you cite an example of the Art As Concept idea where it's done well?

AC1

Mondrian?

Of course he was surpassed by Alexey Pajitnov ;)

David

Of course he was surpassed by Alexey Pajitnov ;)

Pajitnov’s creativity has brought much more pleasure to the world.

D

Well, from my cursory refresher, Mondrian's work doesn't do much for me. I don't get the abstract idea of beauty from his later work, but it does seem to have meant that to Mondrian, at least. That's more than you can say for the "we have no expectations" crowd.

I am indeed a fan of Mr. Pajitnov, though. Interesting that you would imply that a video game started out as art! Settles the old "can video games be art" debate pretty quickly.

dicentra

Ah! Time to drag out Ortega y Gasset, from my days as a grad student in Spanish Lit.

"The Dehumanization of Art," written around 100 years ago, seeks to explain why the common folk don't like Monet and other impressionists.

He presented a thought exercise: Imagine that you are looking out the window at a garden. When you focus your eyes on the garden, the garden is the "subject" of your admiration, and the window is the medium through which you see the garden. In this mode, the window is essentially invisible, whereas the features of the garden are well defined. You can distinguish the individual flowers, identify the species, etc.

Now focus your eyes on the window. The garden is no longer identifiable as such: all you see are colors, shapes, lines. As you focus on the medium, the subject loses its identity and is reduced to an abstraction.

As it turns out, all paintings consist of abstract elements—color, shape, line, contrast, composition, texture—but in the realistic paintings, these elements take a back seat to the recognizable subjects: the landscape, the person, the event.

With the advent of photography, painters were no longer needed to record things in photographic detail, so they began to make their paintings more "painterly"; that is, to emphasize painting qua painting. That's when brushstrokes became visible, when blending colors optically by putting them side by side on the painting (Seurat), and then finally abstracting everything down to nothing BUT line, shape, color, texture, form. No recognizable subject at all.

Mondrian's paintings are about line, color, and composition. Picasso maintained recognizable subjects but decided to "unfold" all of the sides of a three-dimensional object and present them flattened out, which dehumanized them somewhat.

This mosaic, BTW, is an abstract design: http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-2504478/stock-photo-a-fountain-in-casablanca-morocco-with-this-beautiful-mosaic.html

And so is this one: http://www.lancejordancreations.com/images/content/f_stone3.jpg

Line, shape, color, texture—all of them contributed to the excellence of a Rembrandt, but now in the abstract era, the human-recognizable element is removed, leaving only the outlines.

It's not for everyone, but that's what's going on.

Or was.

Nowadays, it's about adolescent self-indulgence and narcissism and shocking the squares.

Matt

Nowadays, it's about adolescent self-indulgence and narcissism and shocking the squares.

These days, I think the only thing that would shock the "squares" is genuine self-reflection and an honest admission of what self-indulgent no-talent narcissists they are.

What will they do next, breathe oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide at the audience? Never mind, I shouldn't tempt them with ideas for their next challenging performance.

Perhaps, instead, we could convince them it would be far more challenging to stop breathing in oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide? A daring rejection of the banal bourgeoisie indulgence in respiration! Maybe a full hour long presentation of such, personally, by the artist?

D

Thanks for the art lesson! Very enlightening. I guess one of my issues with the style you're talking about is the same issue I have with lots of other art, which is that it's art made primarily for artists, secondarily for people who put a lot of effort into art appreciation, and not really for anyone else. It's reminiscent in that way of all the movies about moviemaking, the TV shows about making TV, and all the writing about writers or writing.

I certainly don't begrudge the art world some navel-gazing. Certainly there's some legitimate insight to be gained there -- art that deals with the creative process, inspiration, etc. could be good. But it seems that the art world has disappeared into itself. It's as though all TV shows were about making other TV shows, until you have shows about making shows about making shows, and abstract shows where people sit around talking about ideas for shows about making shows about making shows. The artist shouldn't be excluded from the art, certainly, but I feel like the art world has forgotten how to look outward. I'm sure there was some interesting commentary on art itself and the artistic process in the works of, say, the 17th or 18th centuries, but it was probably incorporated with other ideas that non-painters could relate to. It seems that artists have lost touch with the parts of themselves that they share with non-artists and only focus on the parts that they share with other artists. That's my baffled onlooker's opinion, anyway. Thanks again for the shorthand art history.

D

Perhaps, instead, we could convince them it would be far more challenging to stop breathing in oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide?

You know, I read somewhere that the liquid oxygen thing they did in The Abyss is actually possible, and that a person could survive doing it. I might actually pay to see an artist submerge himself in some of that stuff and breathe it onstage.

dicentra

it's art made primarily for artists

BINGO!

They're trying, most of all, to impress their fancy friends, who are impressed by an ever-narrower range of things.

Mostly, they just want that warm glow of self-satisfaction that comes from knowing that The Unwashed Masses Would Hate This.

D

I've read some people argue that the old representational style of art hasn't disappeared, but has changed into the making of beautiful objects for commerce. For example, an Aston Martin Vanquish is a beautiful thing to behold, and as an aesthetic experience is far better than any modern art I saw at the museum the last time I visited.

There's an odd feeling that if the item exists in a large quantity, that its artistic merit is lessened. One painting may be art, but ten thousand identical paintings are only kitsch. Maybe that's part of the fetish of performance art -- since it can't be reproduced exactly without the artist's involvement, it keeps his role central even after the art has already been experienced by others. It reminds me of the way sheet music for Broadway musicals can only be rented, must be returned at the end of the performance, and is always handwritten by some union group somewhere.

On the other hand we have many items of great beauty available to us for mass consumption in these times; even the trash can in my kitchen is a lovely chrome designed to look as good as possible given the color scheme. This trend will only increase when 3D printers become widely available.

It may be that the ostentatious forms of art have largely run their course. We have enough wealth now to beautify almost everything around us; maybe we no longer need paintings and sculptures in the way we did previously to enrich our aesthetic lives. Or, on the other hand, maybe we've become coarse to the purer forms of beauty and no longer appreciate them or expect them.

Whatever the case, I'm pretty sure our understanding won't be much advanced by people crapping on stage.

David

Or, on the other hand, maybe we’ve become coarse to the purer forms of beauty and no longer appreciate them or expect them.

I’d say aesthetic appreciation is actually much more widespread and casual, making the idea of art as a standalone thing - something apart from (and supposedly above) the mainstream commercial world – almost quaint and superfluous. And very often, simply inadequate to the task.

Beauty may be harder to find in galleries of contemporary work, and beauty may be dismissed as something to “interrogate” and “problematise” by many students and educators; but, we, the public, no longer rely on people who call themselves “artists” to make visually pleasing things. They don’t have a monopoly, thanks to the commercial world that so many of them pretend to disdain. As you say, beauty is available in vast quantities, from well-designed kitchen bins to smartphone interfaces. The people who designed my phone and your kitchen bin weren’t trying to challenge or transgress the customer. They weren’t fretting about how shocking or intellectual we’d think they are. They were trying to make us smile, or play, or just drool with desire. Which is no small feat, really.

AC1

Yes, I run a business. Pleasing a potential customer enough so they hand over their own money is NO MEAN FEAT.

> Interesting that you would imply that a video game started out as art!

No Video games are just an interactive Art-form. Visually pleasing (TICK), Emotional connection (TICK). What else COULD they be?

David

Pleasing a potential customer enough so they hand over their own money is NO MEAN FEAT.

Absolutely. The commercial world now provides what artists are, or were, expected to deliver - the kind of aesthetic engagement that so many artists have abandoned in favour of pseudo-intellectual posturing and delusions of gravitas. The Art’s Council’s Director of Visual Art Peter Heslip doesn’t seem overly interested in visual aesthetics. Instead, he talks about how “art in 2013 is by its very nature challenging, not always easy to grasp.” That word again, challenging. That’s just how things are now, apparently. So get used to it, suckers. “It’s often intellectual but I think anyone who spends enough time just seeing knows it’s richly rewarding.” So rewarding, in fact, that the public must be coerced to fund it.

“Artists should be cherished and supported,” says he. Seemingly regardless of what those artists actually do and whether anyone wants it.

AC1

Artists are more important than the plebs you see... That's why taxpayers should be extorted and coerced so "artists" who the public won't willingly pay for can keep a certain lifestyle.

David

Artists are more important than the plebs you see...

What galls, I think, is the readiness to imply that if we, the public, don’t swoon at the art on offer it must be due to our inadequacy. Because “the work” is so intellectual and challenging, you see. And so the sculptor Anish Kapoor whines about how we, the British public, are “afraid of anything intellectual” and that’s why we’re not falling over ourselves to keep on subsidising his work. How dumb and villainous we are. And the substandard performance artist Stefanie Elrick, who has her body scratched with needles, tells us that those who doubt her artistic potency must be squeamish, “uneasy” and “frightened of losing their co-ordinates.” And then there’s this, from the artist Michael Craig-Martin opining in the Guardian,

For many this is the first time in their lives they have come across against something that does not find a comfortable place in their picture of things, something that resists their understanding. It is a very unnerving feeling, and they often dismiss the work as rubbish or the artist as fraudulent. Could it be the consequence of a failure in their education?

And so if you aren’t impressed you must either be stuffy and aghast or simply too stupid to grasp the unspeakable brilliance of our subsidy-seeking caste. Because the artist is never incompetent, or fraudulent, or comically unaware. The egotistical delusion is a thing to behold. And I think you have to wonder in what other sphere that level of habitual self-flattery would be accepted as normal and unremarkable, and would pass without challenge. Outside of the Clown Quarter of academia, another nest of lefties, I can’t offhand think of one.

[ Edited. ]

D

I wonder if this is related to our culture's overall shift away from ideas like ordinate love and objective value. If a beautiful object doesn't deserve to be admired because of its beauty, but we know that it is admired, then perhaps we start to feel curious about what exactly about it causes that reaction, what the minimum parameters might be to get that reaction, what other reactions can we get, etc.

If objects cannot have objective value, then we're adrift in a sea of objects that elicit various reactions for no obvious reason. Perhaps some of this artistic foolishness is due to treating human emotions like they're a black box -- we can't possibly know what the internal process is, we only feed it various inputs and we get various outputs, and we're just trying lots of different unusual inputs to see what kinds of outputs we can get.

I guess from that perspective a lot of this junk makes more sense; we know what reaction a beautiful painting gets from a typical person, but we don't know what reaction would occur if we showed them naked people crapping on a stage. Thus the latter is more interesting to explore than the former.

Perhaps that's why art from a culture that believed strongly in objective value was so much more enjoyable, and why corporate creations are so often more pleasing as well (money being a form of objective value).

It seems to me to be a real loss for a culture to act as though "human nature" either does not exist or is unknowable. I just listened to a "Les Miserables" audiobook, and I was struck by how much inherent understanding of humanity one author could have. I think we've lost a lot of that, especially the artists.

Franklin

I'd like to comment on this thread in more detail later, but for now, with your host's permission, allow me to direct D's attention to a talk I delivered a couple of years ago that speaks to the excellent point he brings up.

David

Franklin’s essay is well worth a squint. This caught my eye:

At this point, a lot of artists chicken out. One way to chicken out is to make art that has intellectual justifications instead of visual ones. If the work fails as art, at least it provoked a discussion or made you think about some issue, so the rationale goes… Figuring out how to make something good and different, when it’s not obvious how to do so, requires courage.

And actual talent, of course. The reliance on intellectual justification is often – very often – an excuse for a lack of aesthetic ability. Lofty excuses are fairly easy to throw together or swipe from somewhere else. Making something that’s evidently beautiful - and which therefore doesn’t need reams of exposition - is much, much harder. I’m fairly sure that Franklin or I could cobble together some impenetrable rationalisation for a typical piece of crap, lending it a fake gravitas (at least among the credulous), as could several readers of this blog. Making an image or object that would be recognised as beautiful with or without explanatory notes would, I think, escape me.

dicentra

We have enough wealth now to beautify almost everything around us;

Except that our ancestors' everyday stuff was often much more decorated than ours. Look at the carvings on rifle butts, the intricate scrollwork on the pedal-powered sewing machines, the detailed engravings on product labels. Most buildings had fantastic detail work on the ceilings and doorways.

Ironically, this was when that kind of decoration was more expensive and took much, much longer to do. Women sat around by the evening fireplace embroidering hankies, tablecloths, pillowcases, skirt hems. The carpenters and blacksmiths first built something utilitarian, then they or someone else decorated the handles and feet.

Your sleek chrome wastebasket may be plenty pleasing aesthetically, but if it had been handmade 200 years ago, it also would have been painstakingly adorned.

Streamlining still carries connotations of futurism, modernity, efficiency, utilitarianism.

And disposability. Who's going to spend weeks decorating a wastebasket that will end up in the landfill within a few years?

Mags

Streamlining still carries connotations of futurism, modernity, efficiency, utilitarianism.

And it's easy to clean.

WTP

Except that our ancestors' everyday stuff was often much more decorated than ours. Look at the carvings on rifle butts, the intricate scrollwork on the pedal-powered sewing machines, the detailed engravings on product labels. Most buildings had fantastic detail work on the ceilings and doorways.

Yes, but we have more tattoos.

AC1

>money being a form of objective value

Moving well off topic, it's always been relative both in temporal and individual terms.

Value is always personal, otherwise there would be no buyers and sellers!

D

Value is always personal

Well, I mean money makes for an objective measure of interest in particular art or artistic objects, I guess. The sculpture that sells 100 units and makes $2000 will probably not be considered successful; the sculpture that sells 10000 units and makes $200000 will be considered more successful and most likely be produced again.

I put that situation in opposition to the government-funded stage crapping-type "art" wherein there is no failure condition, the audience having been "challenged" by witnessing it and the way it "interrogated" its "subject."

Steve

"...we don't know what reaction would occur if we showed them naked people crapping on a stage..."

Actually I'm pretty sure that I know what reaction would occur in most people - disgust, revulsion, pity etc.

"...Most buildings had fantastic detail work on the ceilings and doorways..."

Not true. Many buildings that survive do. That's because they were large impressive buildings for wealthy, important people. Historically most buildings that people inhabited were utilitarian - something about spending all daylight hours toiling in fields and factories possibly had something to do with this; the fact that all available craftsmen were busily carving 500 representations of the baby Jesus into the local church may also have played a part.

jimmy

"But today's wannabes reckon that whatever twaddle crosses the threshold of their imagination is worthy of aesthetic contemplation, and their narcissism prevents them from further discernment."

Yes. I know of some of these types at the art school I attend.

Last night was the opening of the school's student exhibition, where students can offer for sale work generated over the course of the last 2 1/2 years at whatever price they ask. One work present literally consists of a small, roughly A4 size piece of astroturf, with a nondescript blob of plaster embedded with 4 egg-yolk-like shapes placed on top. It's just as exciting as it sounds. There is absolutely no sign of skill or craftmanship. The asking price for this stuff is $600, which makes it the most expensive and perhaps the most banal and insulting piece available for purchase. The difference between 'it' and, say, some random rubbish from a building site is that the school has given it the green light as a piece of art. It's a depressing acknowledgment of the state of the institution's standards that this dross goes unchallenged. It's like they want to be seen as a place that promotes mediocrity and 'cultural hucksterism'.

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