So in my previous post I said that I did not know whether or not that awesome picture is art or not. Which might seem strange to some– it seems the definition of art is pretty subjective these days. This is a popular idea, and I admit, the assertion has it’s charms.
While it may be satisfying in some abstract way, the more you muse on the subject, the more shallow the victory becomes. If art is, you know, something you can define just by declarative statements– (ie. “it’s art because I say it’s art!”) then you don’t’ really need artists so much as you need critics– or, God help us, gatekeepers of good taste. The art world is plagued with a problem of too many gatekeepers and not enough demonstrations of true art. These days every artist is his or her own gateway to good taste, that is, spends more energy defining what is good– what is art, instead of revealing what art is though her work.
This just reminds the artist that it’s not OUR JOB to decide what’s good– it’s our job to make good art. The decision is always “how do I approach Good?” That means we have to go out there to find out what *good* really means– and by good, I don’t mean popular. Almost all well funded, government sponsored art is “popular” and I don’t even mean that everybody likes it. I mean that everybody is willing to “say” that they like it, if only to look edumacated. But they couldn’t’ tell you want makes good art if you put them in an art gallery with a whole library worthy of the research. Largely because they will read the wrong books looking for the definition– most of the time.
These days, there isn’t much difference in the definition between art and porn– except that we all know they are different– most of the time.
So what to do, when all those inspired people who generate “modern art” aren’t really inspiring in the classical sense, rather than inspiring feelings of “I could do better than that with my toddler using finger paints!” Or, “Please, O, please someone admit that Dada is dead before I scream.” Think about it. We haven’t moved beyond the work of the last century yet– and I’m even talking about work over a century old.
I say that relativism as a well has run dry. We need to get our bearings and explore first principles anew.
Why is it that I, a fairly ornery American mutt with pretentions of education and so on, can find both art from my “home cultures” and alien cultures so different from my worldview yet also attractive? How is it that some guy at the Chicago Museum of Modern art (for example) , who went through a similar education as I did… can create something ugly, violent and hateful– and yet we can’t call it what it is– but must call it art because it is hanging on a wall in a gallery or museum?
Somehow, we have gotten to the realm where art has turned on itself and become Orwellian– that which inspires you to run away screaming is now suddenly the pinnacle of civilization– the rarefied air of what what is best in all of us?!
Nope. Not buying it.
I think there’s a hidden mechanism at work here. We KNOW what beauty is. No one had to teach us. We know what balanced forms are. No one ever even had to tell us color was real. Even the colorblind know that color is real– even if we can’t’ really prove it. (Actually, you *can* but that’s another show.) Beauty is something you discover, not create. Even the artist is more of an explorer than the creator of an entirely new thing.
Yes, our understanding needed refinement- but you knew it when you see it, and even if you couldn’t explain what balance was you could point to what elements were balanced, and teach by example. There are zillions of examples of this– and most artists these days don’t bother with them because many of them don’t believe they exist.
Does this set of facts, that these phenomenon are freely observable in our own experience– and that we share this experience, describe something real? Doesn’t that say something to us about the nature of reality? Doesn’t’ it also say something about the nature of beauty itself?
Yes. Beauty exists. It is real. It even exists outside our own minds, just as our deepest sense of these things tells us. If beauty exists, then so must Art. If Art is a thing in and of itself, it must have a definition, that which distinguishes it from other things. Without those kinds of distinctions, the whole world- the whole universe- is big senseless mess and there really is no point of being inspired, and there certainly isn’t anything Good to be inspired by.
The secret is, we crave those definitions. Think about a young child first learning about the world. They want to know Why? How? What? Where? Those are the building blocks of all that is, and how we know what is. That is, the dimensions of our ability to know and think. And yes, it is relevant to Art. Because Art is that which inspires us through subtle means toward the attainment of the Good.
The reason why our modern culture hates the Good, is because that implies badness or at least unfit, or things that are less than perfectly good. All these things are unacceptable because the thing that anybody fears most is judgment. I’m not even talking about prejudice. Prejudice is all about not giving a thing/person/phenomenon it’s due. This is about using your mind and finding a thing unfit for cause.
Those grand architects of Modern Thought (which dictates how modern art is applied, since it is a part and parcel of it’s propaganda) are not immune. In fact, those that are most immured to Modern Thought are the most thin-skinned. Why? Because when you believe in nothing, you have no defense. You can say something arbitrarily bad about anything. You can’t refute the mighty snark. There is no defense, because ultimately there is no reason or logic. So it’s basically all about who can insult your mother the most convincingly.
Yet it is judgment that separates art from the crap. And even those who are kidding themselves have to have some way to separate the Inside Art or Approved Art, from the Unapproved Art. Naturally, they cannot call it judgment– but as much as they revile the concept of standards– they do have criterion for rejection. Usually, it’s a combination of whether or not the art is “on message” and who the artist knows. If there literally no criterion to choose between one thing and not another, there would be no reason for those critics to exist– and we can’t have that.
No one has thought for a while, why it is that so many people love Shakespeare. He never would have become so popular if he hadn’t been well loved by many generations. I really don’t think it was because everyone had spent so much time saying “It’s good” that people just believed it. Why? Because even teenagers will read Shakespeare– and like it. Most of them don’t admit it to anyone who looks like an adult, however. This, despite the fact that they are conditioned by both environment, and contrarian hormones to hate everything in good taste– unless it’s so compellingly good that they are moved despite themselves.
I only know this because I have vivid memories about being a teenager, and I knew people who would tell me things they wouldn’t tell their best friends. Because they knew I did not spread things around– who would I tell? I didn’t have many friends, though I knew a lot of people. Yet those friends I would be utterly faithful to– and I ignored everyone else. My reputation grew and I had no idea why or how until the day before I graduated, and the whole school was following me around asking me for my autograph in their yearbooks. They really had no reason to lie to me, because I tended to use my own judgment than follow the rumor mill. Most of those people started off hating me, yet they still knew that I did not disparage the truth as spoken.
High school has taught me more about the way the modern world works than I ever wanted to know. Because it is ultimately what the public schools condition people to do– follow the herd of people they are grouped with and mindlessly agree with them, so the dreaded snark isn’t used against them. There is no grounds for the intellect, because that doesn’t help you in the status wars, because everybody knows that reason is lame– because snark comes before thought. It’s a reflex. It shows you who’s the toughest.
Some people learn early that the Snark is just a game of status like everything else, and you either participate in it or be a victim of it. Or you can simply say, “Nope. Not buying it. I’m using observable facts. Don’t bother trying to impress me. INSPIRE me instead. Touch my heart, not my rage.”
And that, is Art.