Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Nonexistence of Art?

One perennial essay topic is the General Debunking, or finding a sacred cow to gore. Here is a fine example of the genre: A Treatise on the Nonexistence of Art.
Art is mostly fraud perpetrated by narcissistic academic quacks on a public easily gulled. They should be prosecuted. This is as true of literature as of painting and sculpture. If modern sculpture were placed in a junkyard, art critics couldn’t find it. Most of what we are told are great works are great works only because we are told that they are.
Well that's clear enough! There are certainly narcissistic academic quacks and there are certainly fraudulent artworks and yes, it is quite likely that a lot of modern sculpture could be easily lost in a junkyard. So the only word there that one should really question is the word "mostly." Is art mostly fraud? Partially fraud? Just a little bit fraud? After some irrelevancies, the argument starts to go south:
Art has nothing to do with what the thing looks like, and certainly nothing to do with beauty. If it did, an indistinguishable copy would serve as well as the original. But no. The point is not to look at the thing, but to feel superior for owning it, and how can you do that when every mutt in Boise can get an equally good one for $37?
The visual arts certainly have to do with how the object looks, denying that is silly. As for beauty, that is the subjective experience of art and the perception of beauty has a lot to do with context, experience and training. Yes, a lot of collectors might feel superior for owning a great piece of art, but the international art market certainly denies the claim that someone in Boise can get something equally good for $37.

The essay goes on, flinging spaghetti on every surface hoping some will stick, but making very few actual points. For example:
You see the critic’s progression. To maintain superiority, he has to appreciate ever worse daubs, so that he can be increasingly alone in his exalted insight. The up-and-coming critic goes through Mondrian, who painted what would normally be considered linoleum patterns, and arrives at Kandinsky, who sold his drop-cloths.
There is nothing worse than Kandinsky. The critic who appreciates him has reached the pinnacle.
A classic instance of "begging the question" in the correct use of the phrase, meaning an argument that assumes its conclusion. Modern art consists of "ever worse daubs" so the critic who appreciates them merely demonstrates his hypocritical fraudulence. Here is train of thought that we have flirted with occasionally:
Art critics can’t even recognize art. Suppose you went on a castle crawl in England and found an original, unknown play by Shakespeare, a really good one, like King Lear if it combed its hair and put on a clean shirt. Suppose that you copied it out and sent it to fifty publishing houses and Shakespearean scholars, saying that you were a graduate student trying to imitate the bard’s style, and what did they think of it?
This seems like a nice thought experiment so why hasn't someone gone ahead and done it? If you find an actual undiscovered manuscript by Shakespeare, a brigade of scholars would leap into action to trace the provenance. But at this point, it is quite unlikely. So perhaps you could just run off a convincing fake? Ah, now that would be rather difficult, wouldn't it? So the experiment is pretty much an empty threat. What has been done is to create some fake pseudo-science papers, which proved easy to do. Some of them were even published. But faking a genuine work of art? I rather suspect that is a logical impossibility. The act of faking art will result in a fraud, not a genuine work of art.

Unfortunately the writer ends up by settling on an empty distinction, between "literature" and "writing," neither of which he defines.

I was trying to explain to someone how one goes about composing a piece of music and described it in these terms: While it would be nice if everyone enjoyed it and gave me lots of money, that is actually completely irrelevant to the art object itself and the act of creating it. If you are trying to guess what will sell, you might or might not create something that will sell, but you will almost certainly create something that is not a good piece of music. Mind you, I am still puzzling over the strange nexus of the creative originality AND the commercial success of the Beatles. But let's set that aside!

If people like my music and want to perform it, I am delighted. If it communicates something important to them, I am delighted. If they perceive it as beautiful, or expressive, I am delighted. But I don't aim for any of these results when I am composing. I am trying to explore something about the nature of music, or one aspect of it. I am not trying to express how I am feeling at the moment, or generally. I am not trying to express my "philosophy." I am just trying to write a piece of music. I am trying to tread new ground, if I can find any. I am trying to see where a certain idea or sound leads. I am composing! Most of the time, the idea doesn't lead anywhere or proves to be empty or a feeble echo of some other piece of music. At that point, you throw it away and start again. There are lots of things that can provide an "inspiration" such as a random sound you hear, or a bird singing, or a strange rhythmic effect. Anything, really. But the inspiration is just a kind of happenstance.

Composers have influences too, but that is such an enormous topic that I am going to deftly sidestep it!

Let's have a nice envoi. Here is a musical work of art one can have few doubts about. It is a suite for solo cello written at a time when there were no suites for solo cello (only viola da gamba). It is a masterpiece likely written when J. S. Bach was in charge of the music in Köthen for a minor noble. We know nothing about performances. Though editions were published from the first quarter of the 19th century, the suites did not catch on until Pablo Casals' advocacy of them through performances in the 1930s. The Netherlands Bach Society's unpretentious survey of Bach provides us with an excellent video performance.


Maury said...

Bearing in mind the writer cited has as his tome Fred On Everything we must mark him as the polymath of the downtrodden. Leaving aside his self published insights, I will again state this is an anti Art age. De Tocqueville warned about this and Nietzsche said something along the lines that teaching the masses to read and write was the death of letters. Speaking in military terms it is a disadvantageous landscape for appeals to elite anything when even rulers bow rhetorically to the majority vote. The populace is now the political Deus.

So to me the hill to defend and if necessary die on is the hill extolling the right of everyone in the populace to speak freely and the right of audiences to choose their entertainment freely. If great art cannot succeed on that hill it won't survive long anyway.

As an aside on Fred, he would have been on solider ground if he had said for $37 a Boise resident could buy an art book or two that contained the greatest art of a famous museum. Or several CD box sets containing many of the masterpieces played in top concert halls. So what has happened is that great art is as accessible as Fred's blog and it levels everything at any given moment. It is only that Fred's tome won't survive long while the masterpieces will that differentiates them, but that is beyond the view of the ant.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think we agree on all points! I put this post up because I think that the intelligent and sympathetic criticism of art needs to be rescued from the legions of the woke before they completely destroy it. But Fred ain't helping!

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

There are actually a few ways to respond to Reed. Setting up some kind of contrast between contemporary art critics and plumbers seems appealing but the straw man aspect of it involves something like the reception history of Jane Austen. A lot of the established highbrows of her time and after regarded her work as trivial. Her work nevertheless became hugely popular in penny editions, an aspect of her literary popularity that is sometimes skimmed over. Coal miners, it turned out, could appreciate her novels as much as refined ladies because in Austen's time she was writing about lower rather than upper classes for the time period she worked in.

Critics do play a significant role in reception history now but the critic as we know it is a relatively modern development. As Jacques Ellul put it, the aristocracy didn't need arts critics to tell them what they liked and they were musically literate and artistically literate enough as patrons to tell artists and musicians what they wanted and to then expect to get that.

Putting it nicely, Reed hasn't mentioned anything that wasn't better argued in Jacques Ellul's The Empire of Non-Sense about the critic as the stockbroker and PR agent of modernist art.

Now someone like Noah Berlatsky could say that without the critic to designate it as such there is simply no art, and that is a more "positive" variation on Reed's point about the role of critics and journalists in contemporary art. Berlatsky's complaint has been that "everyone" writes about Game of Thrones and that criticism itself has devolved too much into PR copy for whatever corporate big dogs are shilling. I wonder if Berlatsky is open to the idea that this was probably what criticism has always been.

But that's not all it has been. I can write 21,000 words about Koshkin's contrapuntal cycle but compared to an official music journalist writing about it what I've blogged might as well not exist in terms of formal music criticism. The positive is I can write about anything I want, the flip side is that as a journalist once put it to me, the institutional press only takes itself seriously.

Maury said...

I agree that Fred isn't helping but there is a difference between saying that art should be ignored because it ain't any good and art should be censored and purged as ideologues contend. Actually the comments to Fred's now 5 years old rant were fairly balanced. In the past though it was easier for radicals and rulers to wipe out art because of the lack of easy copying. Now even deleting something from the entire net does not affect any physical media which, for art of any notoriety, has spread worldwide.

Anonymous said...

I'm starting to think there are two types of philistinism, one that is the more traditional uneducated ignorance, and the more recent willful neglect of art's virtues. The Enlightenment view of asserting reason over faith is finding its way into the idea that a physical/literal worldview construction is vastly superior to the faith-driven ethos of centuries past.

Thinking about questions and art are a way to advance intellectually as a human race and reflect on the nature of existence. Sometimes art does not give answers, and that is totally fine with me. The thinking is the important bit. And he disillusionment of the author of the article is no surprise to me, as the Western world is in collective retreat from God and religion.

I hope this kind of makes sense, and apologies for the rant but I wrote this down quickly, and the idea of a world without art, or its appreciation, is deeply troubling to me.

Bryan Townsend said...

Good heavens, I never noticed that the original article was five years old!

Wenatchee, that is a very good point that the profession of art critic only came along with the middle class consumption of art. The aristocracy had no need of them. Nowadays much of what appears in the mainstream is not criticism of any kind, but mere promotion. What should the best role for art criticism be? Education? That runs right up against the progressive project as it ignores or denies their efforts to decolonize art while canceling out "whiteness."

Yes, Maury, now what seems to suppress art is not the elimination of copies but rather the pushing of everything to one side, out of consideration, because of the sheer volume of what is popular.

Anonymous, I see the intense narcissism of our time as an important factor in the denigration of real art. Any art that requires understanding, education or training to appreciate is too much trouble for people only interested in their personal quirks. Art is really the antidote to that if given a chance.

Dex Quire said...

Funny to see Fred in his anti-art mode since he deploys great art in his essays and novels. HL Mencken, right in the thick of the beginning of the modernist movement in art, also like to denounce art with great art and humor. Art is something human beings have always done. Eric Hoffer noted the wonder that the great art on the European cave walls was so accomplished; there is, he said, in effect, no progress in art, just expansion. Yes there is a lot of flim flam in contemporary art but that does not mean art does not exist; it just goes with the territory. Art is a lot of things - technique, assembly, selection, representation, but mainly it is a way of seeing, in partnership with the imagination. The end of all art - a painting, a book, a poem, a sculpture, a piece of music -- is the creation of a world, or an inexhaustible event.

By the way, Bryan ... how do we get to sample some of your creations? I am a guitar player and I would be very interested to see hear or otherwise learn about your work ...

Dex Quire said...

p.s. I forgot to mention -- I would also say to Fred: I was raised around artists (modernists all); your art loving plumber might just also love Kandinsky, Miro, and those blurry impressionists as much or even more than do the callous sophisticates. And your average junk yard owner has a pretty good eye for junk yard art and himself might be a skilled welder who even makes some of it.... just saying ....

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for your comment Dex and welcome to the Music Salon. As for my own performances and compositions I think they will turn up if you type "Townsend" into the search engine on the right. Here are some to get you started:

Dex Quire said...

Bryan I really liked your 'Recuerdos'; you have a lovely tremelo ... ; I'm enjoying your guitar/violin pieces and look forward to exploring more ... I also have to applaud your selecting rare (and/or rarefied) pieces for concert repertoire ... cheers - DQ

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the lovely compliment.