Friday, October 12, 2012

Quality and Fakery

As one so often does, I ran across something funny on the internet. Here is how to get more FaceBook 'likes'. But after laughing, a thought occurred to me. This is actually telling us something important about quality versus fakery. Before we got all relativized and tuned in and post-structuralized, we had a pretty good grip on what was real and what was fake.

Actual friends: real.
FaceBook 'friends': fake.

Whipping cream to make whipped cream: Real.
Buying a can of 


Real art: 

Fake art:

Real music:

Fake music:

David Hume was of the opinion that aesthetics and ethics were linked and I'm starting to see what he was getting at. We do actually know what the right thing to do is nearly all the time. It is just that we often don't want to do it so we expend incredible amounts of effort trying to rationalize what we do want to do. I suspect that the same holds with aesthetics as well. I'll bet that most of you looked at the painting by Vermeer I put up above and thought, yep, that's the real thing all right. And then you looked at Andy Warhol's soup cans and thought, nope, that's pretty much just junk, isn't it? Unless, of course, you have had academic training, in which case you can find any number of complex reasons why the Warhol is really very, very important art. Right? Here is how you go about that:
Danto argues that Warhol’s Brillo Boxes of 1964 were literally three dimensional photographs of the products—an extension of what Andy had done with the Soup Cans— stacked in columns just as if they were for sale. Perceived and exhibited, the “Brillo Box” became, in Danto’s eyes, the first “post-historical work” that demands something other than eyes. Danto’s question was no longer “What is art?” but rather “Given two indiscernible objects, one a work of art and the other not, wherein are they different?” The reference is, of course, to his grocery boxes as against their counterparts in the real world. Warhol’s boxes are silkscreen photographs of the latter, in three dimensions, and for all intensive purposes perfect copies of the originals. Danto declares we have reached “the end of art”, at the time when the line between art objects and ordinary objects are invisible. [from here]
I'm sure you are noticing that I made quite a different contrast with the painting than I did with the musical examples. It is for subtlety like that, that the Internet comes to the Music Salon! In painting, the obvious contrast to make a simple point about real art versus fake art is to put Vermeer against Warhol. Warhol wasn't interested in craftsmanship, but Vermeer was and one of the traditional aesthetic criteria is quality of craftsmanship. But when I was looking for a musical contrast, I couldn't put Bach up against Steve Reich, a reasonable analogue to Warhol in music, because it wouldn't work the same way. Composers can't just silkscreen popular culture and advertising the way painters can. Instead, even with process or 'minimal' music there is still a lot of craftsmanship in both the composing and the performance. I suppose a better equivalent would be taking the McDonald's theme and turning it into a bunch of tape loops, which is a Warholian thing to do, but I think the songwriter's lawyers would be all over you like white on rice. Mind you, the rappers do something like this with sampling, so I suppose I could have gone there. But a much, much better contrast is between any real piece of music and a piece of New Age mush. I suppose the painterly equivalent would have been something like this:

Aren't those deer cute! <sarc off>

There are a lot of ways to finesse 'real' versus 'fake', but I'm going to stop right here because if I go on, I might start talking like Arthur Danto, who is a pretty smart guy. I just don't agree with his aesthetics. So I'm going to stick with my point that, just as we almost always know what the right thing to do is, while contorting ourselves into rationalizing what we want to do instead, the same applies to music. Don't we really know that most of what we hear is fake music or crappy music? And that's why they have all those pretty lights and people leaping about? Sure we do!


Nathan Shirley said...

Brilliant post, I challenge anyone to find a better music blog on the internet!

This gets back to the old 'art' vs 'entertainment' question, but on a deeper level factoring in ivory tower navel-gazing and commercialism. You could also look at the artist vs the artisan.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Nathan! I do try and find fresh perspectives on things.

One very important thing I learned from studying philosophy is that a lot of arguments are presented (and won) by means of concealed assumptions or premises. This is how someone like Danto can get to the point of talking about "post-historical work" and "the end of art". I think notions like these are confused and nonsensical. Neither history nor art has come to an end! An image of a can of soup is just an image of a can of soup.

In my aesthetics and criticism, I simply refuse the assumptions and premises hidden behind a lot of thinking about the arts and try to see and hear things as they are.