I am often asked elementary questions about how it is that some paintings are better than others, what kind of thing art is, not as a matter of personal reaction, but as a matter of objective analysis, and whether it is justified to be critical of anything called art.
These come fairly frequently and are such basic questions that I decided I would put a collection of answers on the Web so I don’t have to repeat myself and so I can focus more on critiques and details rather than covering the basics again and again.
I often am asked questions about the nature and origins of modernism, whose fault it is, whether all cultures are equal and a number of others, and I’ll cover those too.
The answers to many of these questions should be obvious, and they would be if we didn’t have schools and museums teaching people absurd things for the past hundred years. That’s where the Net can help make up for the terrible state of the arts and art education.
Online museums like GoodArt.org and the Art Renewal Center site can help and so can online discussions like the ones on the GoodArt Discussion List. Whether you agree or disagree, I love to hear from people about this stuff, so please with your best thoughts.
I have tried to put these questions in some kind of order so that the conclusions of one question tend to feed into the premises of others further below, so if you want to whole picture, you can just read the whole thing from top to bottom.
Otherwise you may wish to jump straight to the question that is on your mind…
You sound like you would like to change the educational system into some narrow-minded dogmatic affair rather than an open-minded pursuit of the truth, is that true? Don’t you just want to shut out the study of other cultures?
A common way of describing a definition is to delimit its genus (the general class of things to which it belongs) and differentia (how this particular class of things differs from the others of its genus). The genus of art is “works of expression”. This includes a broad variety of expressive things such as journalism, ordinary speech, temper tantrums, clothing styles, technical manuals, and of course art. The identifying characteristic of expressive works (of all kinds, not just art) is that they convey information by the intentional manipulation of a medium (as opposed to the way we discover information by just observing things directly which we might call “observation” rather than expression).
Art comes in several types, most commonly distinguished by the medium in which the artist does his work. Art made by the creation of visual images on a surface can be created by painting or drawing. Sculpture is art created by the manipulation of three dimensional shapes in some medium like marble, bronze, glass, clay, or plastic. Music is art created by the manipulation of sound, generating patterns of things like melody, harmony, rhythm, and instrumentation. Literature (including poetry) is art created through the manipulation of words. Dance is art created through the motions of the human body. Drama (such as plays, movies, and opera) is a composite art form in which a variety of media (sound, words, sets, etc.) are combined. They all have in common the manipulation of a medium in order to create works that express some idea, but they have some qualities in common with one another that they do not share with other forms of expression.
How does art differ from these other kinds of expression? In other words, what is it that painting, sculpture, music, literature, and drama have in common with one another which is not in common with other kinds of expression? The difference between these classes has to do with the method of expression (as opposed to the content or the medium of the expression). Specifically, the way that art accomplishes its expression is through the manipulation of a medium as a selective recreation of some aspect of reality. That is to say that the artist “fictionalizes” reality in order to highlight some idea he thinks is important, and to diminish ones he considers irrelevant to his intended message. The artist’s message is paramount in this selection rather than a slavish devotion to describing the concrete state of affairs. This doesn’t mean that an artist must not or should not present his subject through use of a highly realistic style (though of course he can do that if he wishes since realistic styles in some media offer powerful advantages). The artist selects patterns of design or style according to the intended meaning and if he’s a good one, based on an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of his medium and the craft of manipulating it. There are millions of possible styles, that work and millions more possible subjects and subtleties of meaning, and trillions of possible combinations of these, let alone the vast numbers of possible combinations of technique and detail. Despite this vast scope of possible subjects, designs, compositions, and styles, the number of possibilities is not infinite. Some things do not fit this definition, and not all accomplish a given goal as well as others.
One common notion (spread throughout society in he 20th century) is that art cannot be defined, cannot be “limited” by definitions, and that anything that “expands the definition of art” is good. My perspective is directly contrary to this view, and I should point out that nobody has ever demonstrated that these strange notions about the definition of art have never been proven (or really even explained coherently). Alas, they have repeated them billions of times with an air of authority that has beguiled many people into believing some very strange things.
What Makes Good Art Good and Bad Art Bad?
This is an important question but it is one that requires a bit more general context to answer adequately, and that is the answer to the question “What makes anything good or bad?”. My answer is that you can only say that something is good in the context of a purpose or goal that it facilitates or inhibits. For example, you can only say that a hammer, a chair, or a bucket is “good” by reference to the purpose of the thing, namely, to pound things, to provide a platform to sit on, or to hold some substance. To understand how the thing is effective at accomplishing the goal it is necessary to understand the features of the thing that make it more or less effective at being that kind of thing. Hammers need to be suited to the size of the person using them and the things being hammered, a heavy head, a strong handle, etc. A good chair needs to be the right size, of sturdy construction, have a comfortable seat, and so on. A good bucket will be free of holes, be easy to carry around, be of sturdy materials, etc. These are appropriate standards because they are the qualities that result in the achievement of the intended goals of the kind of thing. We should judge each kind of thing on the basis of its own purpose. What I mean by that is that we should not judge chairs on the basis of how well they carry water, hammers on the basis of how comfortable they are to sit on, or buckets based on how well they pound nails into wood. This is not to say that you can’t sit on a hammer or pound a nail with a bucket, but that these are not the proper criteria on which to base an evaluation as to whether they are good things of their kind.
Now let’s see what this tells us about the visual arts. What is the purpose of art? Some would say that the purpose of art is “anything”, “nothing’, or “impossible to define”, but that’s as foolish as claiming that chairs, hammers, or buckets can be used for anything or that they are impossible to define. Art exists in order to express ideas, and it does this through a specific means (means different from those used in journalism, temper tantrums, or exposition) which is to selectively recreate some aspect of reality in order to represent the idea. Some might call this “fictionalizing” or “stylizing”. This means that good art (which would include any art whether painting, drawing, sculpture, literature, music, drama or what have you) is any art which is very effective at expressing its idea and accomplishes that expression through the means peculiar to art, but not if it happens some other way, like with a press release or a punch in the stomach. If the expression is weak, vague, unclear, or prone to misinterpretation then it is not an effective means to the goal of expression either.
Scoping down a bit to the particulars of drawing and painting, there are thousands of visual, design, and implementation tools that an artist can bring to the task of expressing himself through drawing and painting, and I can’t get into each one in depth since that would require a number of books full of analysis to even describe briefly. To generalize though, a good painting or drawing has a good compositional design that helps direct the attention of the viewer in ways that advance his expressive purpose. It has the lines, colors, and patterns which were intended by the artist (as opposed to being hampered by the presence of random factors or accidents which inhibit the intended expression). The subject matter should be interesting visually, emotionally, and intellectually in order to catch and hold the attention of the viewer since one can’t express anything to someone who is repelled or disinterested. It may use a host of optional techniques to advance its expressive purpose such as illusion, storytelling, familiar objects, selective focus (making more important elements sharper and less important ones more muddled), they might call upon mythic symbolism, effective manipulation of the surface (for example making it smooth, bumpy, catching the light in certain ways, etc.), excellence in reproducing realistic portrayals of things to induce suspension of disbelief, repetition, the generation of sensory pleasure or discontent through colors and patterns (for example, some shapes and patterns are pleasant, some are fuzzy or obscure, and others are unpleasant or upsetting), and any number of other tools which an artist can call upon to generate his desired effect. This isn’t some kind of cookie cutter recipe, but as in the case of cookies, although there’s no universal recipe, there are also potentially more good ones yet to be discovered, some (like chocolate chip) that are known to work, and others (like cookies made of rocks or rat poison) that clearly don’t and never will no matter how hard or sincerely one might try.
But it is impossible to make objective judgments! You are just arrogantly asserting your opinions as fact, aren’t you?
That’s more an accusation than a question, but it’s one of the common ones I encounter.
The whole nature of evaluating the goodness or badness of something arises from how that thing relates to some purpose or goal. Is a rain storm good or bad? Well, that depends on whether you are a farmer hoping for a drought to break or a backpacker hoping to keep his sleeping bag dry. The goodness or badness isn’t an intrinsic property of the thing itself (as if there’s drop of goodness or evil somewhere inside the thing), but rather how the properties of the thing relate to some contextual goal against which it is being judged. It is important to note that this is not in any way the same thing as a relativist view of the good. The fact that something impedes or promotes a goal is a matter of objective fact which can be studied and evaluated and there are right and wrong answers to the question. It’s not just a matter of subjective or relativist opinion, it’s a matter of objective fact.
When it comes to man-made objects there are some special considerations that become relevant which make no sense when it comes to natural phenomena. You can’t ask a question about the qualities of a natural object with regard to their purpose or “goal orientation”. A stone is hard not because it seeks to serve some purpose but because that’s just how stones are. The moon is grey because of the nature of the materials that make it up, not in order to achieve some goal. By contrast, you can ask such questions about man-made objects and situations. The head of a hammer is hard because it increases the impact of the head when it hits something. A wheel is round so that it will roll smoothly. Most manmade things are created as they are in order to achieve some goal, and to evaluate such things the proper way to do it is by measuring it against that goal. To use Aristotle’s example, the reason we have knives is for cutting things. To that end we say that knives are good knives if they facilitate cutting better than others. A strong and sharp blade, a comfortable handle, and so on are key features of a good knife. In some cases a knife might have a special purpose such as cutting fruit, meat, metal, or in fighting with people, and in those cases additional properties might be good criteria for judging the goodness of a knife such as its size (not too big or small for the thing that is intended to be cut), creating a jagged cut or a smooth one (jagged perhaps being better for fighting since it would be more painful but worse for fruit). The point here is that depending on the purpose one intends for some man-made object, different properties might be good or bad even though you can still make generalizations about that class of objects.
Now let’s consider how this applies to art. In general the purpose of art is to express ideas, and in particular it is the expression of ideas by the means of selective recreation of aspects of reality (as opposed to other means of expression of ideas like journalism, exposition, lecturing, screaming, etc.). Given that general goal, there are some general things you can say about any of the arts with regard to what makes for good art.
One is a set of issues related to the circumstances of its creation. For example, if the artist has excellent control over his medium (you could call it “craftsmanship”) his ideas are more effectively transferred to the medium. Weak craftsmanship means that the effectiveness of the expression will be undermined.
Another is cultural context, which is how the work relates to the cultural context of the audience. What I mean by this is that a poem written in Chinese is going to be meaningless to most Americans so if you hope to express something to them it would be best to write your poem in English. The same goes for traditional matters of the medium. We should not pretend that the audience has never seen a painting, sculpture, novel, or string quartet before. We should make accurate assumptions about audience understanding and experience in making art for them if our art is to be of maximum efficacy.
Another is sensory accessibility, which has to do with the ability of the audience of the work to apprehend it effectively. A painting too large or too small to see, a symphony too quiet to hear, or a sculpture in a room too dark to see or feel would be ineffective in expressing their artistic ideas.
Another is comprehensibility, which is the property of the work that allows the audience to comprehend the intended expression. A work of art whose comprehension depends on esoteric knowledge (like what the artist had for breakfast for example) can’t very effectively express anything to anyone but him. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this as long as the artist and his promoters remember who the art is for. A work intended for the comprehension of a single person doesn’t belong in a museum. A work exclusively intended for the comprehension of Masai warriors belongs where those people can see it, not in some American museum. It isn’t accomplishing its artistic goal anywhere else.
Another general category has to do with pure sensory factors regarding the pleasure or discomfort of experiencing the work. Pleasant colors, somber hues, harmonious sounds, discordant notes, murky or confusing patterns, beautiful sculptural materials, and so on can on a very general level imply something about the work that may or may not be compatible with the meaning that is being expressed.
There’s also another general issue of “design unity” which allows a work to hang together with a coherent meaning rather than having divergent styles, distractions, and inconsistent meanings. I am sure that you can think of more principles of this general kind, but I wanted to just point out a few examples to give you an idea of what these kinds of principles are and how they can relate in a general way to the quality of an artwork and how they can be objectively evaluated.
As we consider specific arts by themselves such as painting, there are several general kinds of issues which lend power to the expression or detract from it. For example, the effective use of composition to highlight important aspects of the work and minimize unimportant ones (and influence the order in which the work is experienced) is a key tool of the artist. Another is the choice of subject as appropriate to the idea being expressed. Another is the effectiveness of the use of color in setting moods, bringing attention to aspects of the painting, and diminishing attention on unimportant parts. Another is the use of illusion to create a sense of reality or unreality of a scene, there are a lot of ways of doing this. There are others specific to painting, but I think you get the idea, and I’m sure you can come up with more yourself for the other arts.
Lastly, we can consider the effectiveness of various properties of a painting with a specific subject in mind and ask whether in a particular case the design, composition, color, brushwork, craftsmanship, selection of subject, etc. effectively accomplish the expressive goal of the work or not. It is hard to make firm generalizations about this because there are so many options to pick from, but on its own terms you can judge how effectively a work pursues its own particular expressive goals using its own particular combination of artistic tools.
This is not just a matter of how you feel about the work or whether you like it (though such emotional reactions are an important indication of if and how an artist is using his medium to express things to you). To evaluate the objective quality of a work of art one needs to determine what the expressive goal is (which ideally should be easily determinable by looking at it rather than having to reading a biography of the artist or even the little plaque next to the painting) and then judge how the tools of the medium are used to pursue that goal. Again, this is not a matter of emotional preference, nor arbitrary preference, nor conformance to some kind of formal set of rules, it is a matter of judging the effectiveness of the work through an analysis of how the artistic tools are used. The tools themselves have properties, and therefore there are right and wrong ways to use them and formal methods much of the time provide useful formulas for using them with maximal effectiveness, but that’s not anything like claiming that there’s some kind of static formula by which an artist can use a cookie cutter to pound out works by just applying a recipe without thinking and judging the consequences. It is also different from the idea that creativity is a matter of ignoring and eliminating considerations regarding the properties of the conceptual and physical tools that create art, the nature of art, the medium in which the art is expressed, and the audience’s needs and abilities. Real creativity consists of discovering effective ways of using these tools in order to achieve the most effective kind of expression.
There’s one more kind of criteria on which art ought to be judged and that is the nature of the message itself. Some works of art express ideas which are true and others are false. Some promote views which are good and others which are evil. Some tend to enlighten the viewer and others tend to degrade his character. This evaluation is different from the issue of pure artistic quality, but it is not an irrelevant question, and it is one that generally gets too little attention these days as nihilists seek to eliminate all such evaluations from life. For example, there’s something wrong with an otherwise excellent painting that promotes the idea that ignorance is bliss that isn’t wrong with an equally excellent painting that promotes the idea that ignorance is a cage.
Alas, the 20th century art world was ruled by people teaching that there are no right and wrong ways to create art, that no art is better or worse than any other, that creativity means ignoring the properties of the medium and the audience, pretending that they either don’t exist or can be anything, and that novelty is itself the goal of art, not the actual artistic expression of ideas. This whole line of thinking is nonsense, and fortunately, the world seems to be slowly turning away from that view. When it comes to “arrogance”, which is more arrogant, to observe the facts and draw rational conclusions from them or to insist that understanding is impossible and that anyone who claims to know anything is wrong (and a terrible person!) merely because of the claim to know anything at all? That’s arrogance of the kind that condemned Galileo, and it’s alive today in our artistic institutions, and it needs to be exposed for what it is…arrogant, strutting, self-righteous ignorance and error.
Isn’t there something incomprehensible, magical, or mystical about art?
Art can be subtle, complex, hard to understand, or difficult to explain, but there’s nothing literally magical about it and nothing about it which inherently defies analysis. I think the reason some people believe this is that art (good art anyway) often excites the emotions, and people think (or feel) that emotions are incomprehensible, magical, or beyond explaining, and because of this error and the relationship between art and emotion, they conclude that art is therefore similarly incomprehensible, magical, etc. Both the logic of this linkage and the premise of emotions being magical or incomprehensible are erroneous.
Another flawed idea is that rational analysis and emotions are opposites and that indulging in one must come at the expense of the other. They fear that “peering behind the curtain” might destroy the potential for emotional enjoyment In practical terms, I don’t find that knowing more about how a painting, novel, movie, or symphony was made (which constitutes a decrease in the amount of “mystery” surrounding it) diminishes my ability to appreciate it. On the contrary, the more I know about the best works the more I appreciate them.
If art is beyond comprehension then how can anyone know that this is so? Not only is that a logical impossibility, but this sounds like the assertion of the existence of some kind of mystical mystery qualities that only the truly enlightened can see. Such assertions have been a standard trick of charlatans for thousands of years. They leave the victim of the charlatan in a position of intellectual dependence, and ready to have his pockets picked. They also have the “convenient” property of being impermeable to question and criticism or even of explanation. It’s a “magical” justification for imposing intellectual dependency upon the victim of bad ideas, and a license to lie for the “experts” who can just make up any idea they wish and it is magically “true” somehow.
Another argument I often encounter is the idea that if a factual description of something cannot directly substitute for a direct experience of it then the factual description can’t be true. That’s not the appropriate standard for determining the truth of such descriptions. It’s such an obvious error it’s almost hard to explain it coherently, but I run into it rather regularly.
I’m not saying that art doesn’t have or can’t have subtle and wonderful qualities, or even ones that it is hard to explain in perfect detail, but that’s a different thing from claiming that it has some magical quality that inherently defies understanding.
Why is this even an issue? Why not just enjoy art without rocking the boat?
I hope that the above discussion outlines what makes a work of art good, but I think there’s another issue that deserves attention which is why this issue isn’t completely obvious to everyone. After all, plumbers don’t sit around wondering whether or not there is such a thing as good plumbing and they sure don’t go around denying that there’s such a thing. Unfortunately, this is exactly what so many docents, professors, and journalists have been doing for past hundred years. There is a movement which has been dominant in academia for a long time which teaches that art is undefinable, inexplicable, and beyond evaluation as good and bad. Since none of this can be rationally justified, these ideas are preached like unquestioned dogma in our schools, museums, and in the press. Whether you buy the point of view I have expressed above or not, you should ask yourself whether this “Art is undefinable”/”Art is all good”/”Everything is art”/”Art is whatever anyone says it is” philosophy has ever been proven to you or whether it was just repeated over and over or put forth in an intimidating manner where the implication was that if you didn’t accept it you must be some unenlightened philistine.
This philosophy has damaged the art world tremendously. It has removed the teaching of actual skills from the educational system. It has dried up most markets for good art. It has created a self-sustaining, self-congratulatory, anti-intellectual segment of society dedicated to the eradication of good art and art in general. These ideas stunt the development of young artists, poison public discourse on art, obscure an accurate history of the arts, and keep excellent works of art off museum walls and in the basement. Finger painting and oddball piles of trash (or worse) are given press coverage and vast amounts of museum space, while brilliant masterpieces are kept in the basement, and student copyists are kept outside (copying masterpieces was once a typical part of a young artist’s training). In short, the movement to eliminate art, to confuse the public, and to re-write history is horribly damaging, and not merely some esoteric belief with no real world impact.
Openly challenging these bad ideas is the only way that we can overcome the destruction of the art world and start the rebuilding. Of course this means conflict, of course it means hurt feelings, of course it means confronting error, and of course it will mean that careers based on those false ideas will be put at risk, but it is also the right thing to do and I am determined to fight for improvement even if it means some people will have their ideas challenged and even if it means some people will be mad at me. It’s well worth the trouble to keep on rocking the boat, and I intend to continue to rock even harder.
How can you judge the art of other cultures? Aren’t all cultures equal? Aren’t you advocating an arrogant pro-Western position that puts down those from other parts of the world?
While cultural barriers can sometimes constitute an impediment to certain kinds of art (for example, literature in a language you don’t understand), there’s nothing inherent in a difference in cultures that makes it impossible for people from outside it to understand and judge its cultural products. I have heard a few arguments to the contrary and I can’t encyclopedically list them here and provide rebuttals to each one, but I must say that none of them have been even slightly convincing. It is eminently possible to observe what foreigners do, see if it works well, recognize its value, and adopt useful ways if they seem desirable or reject it as worse than what we already are doing. Clearly this happens all the time in all but the most insular societies. To claim that such cross-cultural understanding is impossible is not only unjustified, but if we really accepted that notion it would justify a rather extreme kind of provincialism verging on xenophobia.
There are three ways to approach foreign ideas and cultural products (such as art). One is to mindlessly mindlessly reject them as incomprehensible, strange, evil, and foreign. Another is to mindlessly accept them as “all good” or “beyond evaluation”. I see both of these as wrong for the same reason…they both forbid the use of the the mind and instead judge the ideas based on where they came from rather than their merit. The third approach (which is the one I advocate) is to reject both of these false alternatives and instead to intelligently evaluate the works and let the chips fall where they may. That’s not arrogant, that is even-handed, open-minded, and respectful of that which deserves respect.
Isn’t art inherently subjective and therefore impossible to evaluate in any general way?
In a word, no. Of course we experience art in a direct and tangible way that might be expressed in specific emotional ways, but how is that different from anything else we experience in life? Just to pick another highly emotional non-artistic observation, many of us have a very strong personal emotional reaction against the idea of touching snakes and spiders, but does this make us incapable of making rational evaluation about their danger or practical uses or dangers? Certainly not. To chose a more man-made example, someone might have strong personal feelings about a wedding ring, but this does not (necessarily) impede his ability to evaluate its financial value, its material composition, or craftsmanship. Likewise, it is quite possible to set aside our personal prejudices (if we wish to) and evaluate works of art based on their objective qualities rather than merely how we react to them at a personal or emotional level.
Just to be clear, there is nothing at all wrong with or dubious about our personal experiences of works of art, and such reactions can be very valuable in determining what is going on in a work of art, but such reactions are not the same thing as an objective evaluation of the work.
How can you lump together all of these different styles and movements and call them “Modernist”?
I generally do (unless I am talking about narrow sectarian disputes) talk about “modernism” as a very broad general category that encompasses a number of different fashions and sects that have developed over the past 100 years or so. The reason I do so is because I don’t consider the differences between the various movements to be significant relevant to their opposition to good art. Whether a given movement opposes good art on the grounds that tradition is bad, or that clarity of meaning is bad, or that skill is bad, or that flat canvas is bad, or that white males are bad, or that the old masters were bad, or what have you, the “sides” are still the same… genuinely good art on one side and an endless parade of arguments against it on the other. It is natural that such an irrational and unfounded attack on art would have to constantly be shifting positions and following fashions as one after another failed argument falls. That is exactly what we have seen over the course of the modernist era…each particular kind of charlatanry arises, has its day in the sun, and fades into obscurity as it fails to accomplish its expressive goal.
Look at it this way, if one was to explain what is wrong with quack medicines and why people are taken in by them, would one carefully distinguish between sellers of snake oil, magnetic bracelets, and homeopathy? Or would one generalize about them all together? Of course this would be almost certain to raise the ire of practitioners of one or the other of these “cures”, but that doesn’t mean that the broader issues aren’t basically the same for all of the sub-categories. I’m doing the same thing when I talk about abstract expressionism, pop art, post-modernism, and all the rest by a single name rather than enumerating each individual sub-category one at a time.
But weren’t the Modernists important and influential?
From a purely historical point of view, there’s no way to understand what was going on in the 20th century without understanding the prominence, (lack of) quality of these paintings, and how they pulled the wool over people’s eyes. It is true that people like Greenberg, Picasso, Pollock, Cage, Schoenberg, Rothko, Duchamp, and Warhol illustrate what was going on for 100 years, but that doesn’t make what the produced or promoted something good or worthwhile. While modernism has indeed had some significance in the history of art for a time, that in no way implies that what modernists have been up to was actually good or artistically important. Fame and historic significance are not the same as making great art. The history of the 20th century wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the activities of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot, but that doesn’t mean that they were good.
How can you say bad things about Picasso, Pollock, and Rothko? They were great artistic geniuses!
I can say bad things about them because they were not geniuses and because they didn’t create good art. In fact, they made their fortunes based on the idea of producing things that were not even close to being good art, or art at all. Instead, they one way or another produced poor or non-art and “got away with it”. There are objective ways of measuring the value of art (as I outlined above) and none of these “geniuses” came close to creating good art. The fact that they were famous and that many people have said and written nice things about them is no proof that they were geniuses or even artists. Objective truth is the proper measure of genius, not fame.
Isn’t it impolite to be critical of any art? Wouldn’t it be better if we were always positive about it all?
It is true that feelings can be hurt when art is criticized. So what? What is more important, understanding and spreading the truth or soothing the hurt feelings of hacks and those who have become convinced for whatever reasons to adopt an emotional attachment to their work? There’s no need to be overly rude, but the idea that one should never make anyone upset by departing from an erroneous orthodoxy is a recipe for intellectual stagnation and the perpetual spread of error. That’s a lot worse than the risk of making someone upset.
In any other area of human endeavor it is plain why we should not adopt this Pollyanna point of view. If we refused to distinguish between good doctors and incompetent or quacks, what would happen to the medical professions? If we failed to distinguish between good chefs and rotten ones, what would our food be like? Should it come as any surprise that the art world has, since adopting the relativist creed, degenerated in just the way that you would expect? You couldn’t only conclude that there is a benefit from soothing the feelings of those who are in error by telling them that they are right if you thought that there was not thing to be gained by an understanding of the truth and nothing to be lost by the spread of falsehood. I shouldn’t have to explain why I think otherwise.
To make matters worse, many forms of this argument are actually examples of the “appeal to pity” fallacy (also known as argumentum ad misercordium), where the idea is essentially that the poor artist or defender of modern art is so wrong and so psychologically fragile that it would be cruel to argue against them.
Aren’t you just repeating the cultural ideas you were taught and not thinking for yourself?
To answer directly, no. I went to public schools that taught me that Picasso was the greatest painter ever, and that John Cage was the most brilliant composer. We even listened to a “recording” of his famous 4’33” of silence. I watched TV and read books, magazines, and newspapers that preached the same kinds of things. Believe me, I arrived at these positions through my own independent thinking, not because I was being taught some kind of realist dogma.
Be that as it may, this is actually an example of the ad hominem fallacy. What if I had been the son of a pair of realist painters? What if I went to better schools that would never teach the absurdities I mentioned? Would that make my positions any less true than they already are? Of course not, this is just an attack on me personally rather than on the validity of what I have to say.
Certainly not. Some are far more advanced than others. Of course, culture is a broad amalgam of ideas and practices and as such, there’s a lot of complex detail in how one would go about making such general judgments about them, but that doesn’t mean that it is always hard to do.
Would you apply this to other cultural characteristics as well? For example, is the transportation system of any culture the equal of any other? What about food production and preparation? Or public health measures? Or political systems? Are they all equally desirable? If not then the culture that includes excellent examples of these things is objectively superior to those with poor examples of those things.
Does this mean that more advanced cultures are perfect and impossible to improve? Certainly not. Does this mean that generally inferior cultures can have nothing of value for more advanced ones to adopt? Certainly not. What it does mean is that we should not adopt the notion that we must unquestioningly accept every idea we are presented with (whether it has its origins in our own culture or some other one). Instead we should evaluate each one rationally and accept the good and reject the bad regardless of whether we “inherited” it from the culture of our ancestors or not. This applies as much to art as it does to pizza, imported cars, and clever turns of phrase and for the same reasons.
Aren’t you just advocating traditionalism?
No. Traditionalism (at least in the sense I am using it here) is the preference for things because they are old or because they follow traditions. I couldn’t care less whether a work of art is new or old or whether it uses old techniques and materials or new ones. (Well, I do care as a matter of intellectual curiosity, but not when it comes to issues of artistic merit.) What matters to me is the ultimate expressive effectiveness of a work however it was done. Now I do think that over the past 2500 years humanity has learned a thing or two about how to create great artistic expressions and an artist who wishes to do so would benefit from learning all he can from those who have come before, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t learn newer and better things or that novelty is bad. It just means that many artistic methods have already been discovered and that learning what is already known is the best foundation for moving forward.
The reason this question comes up is that modernists have been for the past hundred years promoting a false alternative. They say that one can either be tied down by old-fashioned ideas/skills/practices/themes/etc. and prefer them because they are traditional OR one can throw the whole thing in the garbage and start “fresh” by adopting the dogma of modernism which considers novelty to be the prime (or perhaps only) virtue. This is curious for two reasons. One is that nobody takes that other position…it’s a straw man. Second, after 100 years, the modernist tradition is no longer new. All the stunts have been tried. Blank canvases, silent piano solos, random smearings of paint, random drippings of paint, random swirlings of paint, random selection of materials, selection of fecal matter as the medium…you name it, it has been tried, so now what? Curiously enough, the only novelty left is to create genuinely good art using good techniques…a practice mostly abandoned for the last 100 years.
What matters to me that the works, techniques, and subjects be good, not that they be new or old. My recognition that most recent art has been bad and that much of the older stuff has been better is not a matter of principled preference, but an observation of historical.
For what it is worth, there are growing number of professional artists taking on the challenge of learning genuinely good artistic ideas and practices. You can see examples of their work at http://www.artrenewal.org/articles/2003/Living_Masters/masters1.asp and learn a bit more about the growing number of ateliers that train them at http://www.artrenewal.org/asp/database/atelier_list.asp
What about decorative design, isn’t that art?
No. Design and decoration can be wonderful and excellent things, but they are not art per se. One thing that can sometimes complicate this is that design and decoration can sometimes include works of art inside them (for example, a wallpaper might include images of an artistic painting as one of its elements, or an interior designer might hang a work of art on a wall as part of his design of a room), but that doesn’t make the design a work of art any more than a frame that contains a painting is a work of art merely because it surrounds one. The purpose of design and decoration is to embellish something to make it more useful, pleasing, or attractive. This is true whether we are talking about rugs, flatware, wallpaper, or furniture. The purpose of art is not embellishment, but expression in its own right, and that’s the core of the difference between the two.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that decoration and design are wonderful things, and I am very much interested in them, but they are a different kind of thing than art is even though they may be created using some similar skills.
What about illustration, isn’t that art?
It can be. I think that this distinction between art and illustration is a rather weak one that was created in order to segregate the insane world of modernism from the practical needs of people to use artistic communication in conjunction with ad campaigns, books, and so on. When someone paints a great painting of a woman washing her hair with Head and Shoulders he might be doing it for a commercial purpose, but he’s still making art (if he does it right, that is). When someone illustrates a chapter of a book, or makes a poster to promote a movie he is still doing everything a conventional artist does and he is still doing it the same way, he’s just doing it for a commercial/product promotional reason rather than some other one, and I don’t think that there’s anything unworthy about that. The existence of talented “illustrators” in the 20th century in fact has been the carrier of much of the good knowledge and technique from the time before modernism to the present day. That they often had to work for commercial interests like magazines, book publishers, and ad agencies says nothing about the quality of their work (other than that people with genuine expressive needs recognized their value) and it says a lot about the fact that such people were mostly shunned by the rest of the “fine art” world. The “rehabilitation” of Norman Rockwell in recent years has been a good sign in this regard.
What about fantasy art and comic books/graphic novels? Aren’t they art too?
If they are competently done (as described above) they certainly can be. Fantasy art differs from other painting and drawing only in subject matter. Comics/graphic novels might more formally be said to contain many works of art (with the overall book being more properly thought of as literature with a strong emphasis on illustration), but that’s a rather trivial difference and it misses the key point, that the individual drawings or paintings in a comic/graphic novel can indeed be art.
What about photography, isn’t that art?
No. My position is that photography, which can indeed be a wonderful and excellent thing, is not actually an art form per se. A photographer can be more accurately said to “document” something by showing the audience exactly what was there (when well done, he does this using some of the same techniques that an artist might such as composition, selecting contrast levels, etc.) rather than recreating what was there in light of an expressive goal which allows a great deal of freedom to adjust what is there and how it looks which is unavailable to the photographer. That being the case, since the goals of a photographer and an artist are different (one being to document what is there and the other to express an idea effectively) they should be judged by different standards. I hate to repeat myself, but my position on this seems to be consistently misunderstood. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with photography. Photography is a wonderful thing. It’s just not the same kind of thing as art is, that’s all.
Aren’t you just advocating photo realism?
No. Photo realism is the slavish copying of what the artist sees in reality, rather than stylizing or fictionalizing it as I described above. The difference between photo realism (which by the way, can certainly demonstrate an impressive level of skill and hard work if it is well done) and art is the same difference as exists in the written world between journalism and literature. Both use the same medium, but one reports what is and the other expresses the meaning intended the artist through his selective recreation of the facts.
Wasn’t the development of photography to blame for the development of Modernism?
I don’t believe so, although it did reduce size of the market for some of the skills that a good painter needs to develop.
One reason I don’t think that photography is to blame is that the purpose of art is not the reproduction of what the artist sees in a journalistic manner. Now, there are good reasons to want that kind of thing (documenting what things looked like and so on) and indeed the camera took over part of this work from the expert draftsmen who used to do it, but in their capacity of journalistic or photo realistic renderings of reality, they weren’t creating art in the first place. A camera can’t create art, and therefore it is not competitive with art and can’t replace it.
Another reason I don’t think that photography had a role in the demise of good art is that similar degradations happened in all of the arts around the same time. Music, sculpture, and literature had their encounters with atonality, formless blobs, and Gertrude Stein (oops, I repeated byself!) around the same time that the world of painting and drawing were disintegrating as well. Even outside of the world of art entirely we can see the better and more civilized ideas of the 19th century in politics, science, and philosophy falling into Nazism, Communism, nihilism, relativism, existentialism, and irrationalism of all kinds at about the same time. It was a general breakdown of the confidence (in certain circles) in reason, truth, justice, and achievement, and it impacted the culture of the West in general and not just in the visual arts. In particular, this trend was set in motion by the philosophers, starting with David Hume and Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. It took a long time for their influences to filter all the way through to ordinary artists and their patrons (about 100 years) but once it did, it set the stage for intellectual stagnation across the board.
Why do so many people defend the bad stuff and attack the good stuff? What makes them do it?
I don’t think there’s any single simple answer to this question. Since this is a broad cultural issue the reasons for their actions are quite diverse, but I can point to a few strong influences that started and sustained the trend away from the production and appreciation of good art in the past 100 or so years.
One psychological origin of this kind of thing has to do with self image and how one’s self-image can seem to be threatened by seeing great achievements. There’s a certain mind set which upon seeing any great thing, be it a painting, a skyscraper, or a nicely tended flower garden, reacts as if encountering an insult. A great symphony is perceived as a rebuke: “You couldn’t have written or performed this! You are worthless.” or “You can’t even comprehend what a computer chip is, let alone build one. You are stupid!” or “You can’t run as fast as this Olympian! You are a pathetic weakling!”, and such people develop a hatred for such things and seek to diminish the esteem with which the rest of us evaluate them. Alas, a great many of these people end up in academia where they aren’t called upon to accomplish great things, and where they can sabotage greatness and accomplishment by teaching it implicitly or explicitly to new generations. They get paid for it too.
Egalitarianism has long been prized as a social good in the West, and many people take an otherwise good interpretation of this principle (that when it comes to legal and moral evaluation nobody is above the law or above moral evaluation) and pervert it into something very strange… that all people (and by inference all products of their work) are of equal worth. This is transparently false of course, and those who are determined to abide by such a principle twist themselves into pretzels trying to reconcile their ideas with the fact that the world doesn’t conform to their false principle. One form this takes is the claim that all art is equally good. That must be true of all artists are equally good. In some cases these people also feel compelled to find offsetting faults in great artists. They are likely to say things like “Sure X was a great painter, but he was also a child molester.” or “Sure X made great symphonies, but he stole money from his brother.” often with little or no evidence, and with no small amount of glee. In a way, this is very much like the syndrome I described in the last paragraph. They find themselves compelled to find the “feet of clay” of great men and their works in order to make themselves feel better about their own shortcomings.
There’s also a whole philosophical and psychological tradition that admonishes us against self-interest, pride, reason, objectivity, judgment, and certainty, which reinforces and is reinforced by the psychology above. This is exemplified by people like Hume, Kant, Hegel, James, Dewey, Schopenhauer, Freud, Camus, Skinner, and Rorty. Their philosophical and psychological writings are not read or understood by most people, but they have been strongly influential among academics who digest their excuses for the abandonment of virtue and the promotion of the worthless to equal status. There’s also a political philosophy of egalitarianism that intrudes here as well. If all people are to be considered politically equal, should we not therefore refuse to recognize any distinctions in quality between their works as well? Of course not, and of course the ideas of the philosophers I mentioned are hopelessly flawed as well (for reasons beyond the scope of this little document), but such notions can serve as a “cover” for the kinds of psychological feelings I mentioned above standing in the place of serious thought.
There’s an old saying that “Those who can do, those who can’t teach.” and there’s a lot of truth to it. Our educational institutions abound with people who can’t accomplish much and many of them know this. They have the psychological aversion to greatness I mentioned above, and worse, they have a strong desire to promote these views through their positions as teachers. This has had a strong influence on a broad swath of the educated public which is spoon fed these kinds of ideas from the time they are five years old through graduate school and since they are rarely exposed to any alternate point of view, a great many just accept these errors without thinking about them very much.
A lot of this mess can also be written off to plain old-fashioned laziness as well. Is it easier to smear paint on a canvas than to learn to draw and paint? Is it easier to deny that any knowledge is possible than to actually learn what can be known? Is it easier to to let someone else do the thinking for you when it comes to determining whether Mondrian is better than Bouguereau? Is it easier to just go along with the popular fad of the day than to stick to your guns and earn the displeasure of those whom you need to work with? The answers are obvious.
There are also some strong financial and institutional forces propping up modernist art. Unlike real art which takes a lot of time and effort to create and which is rather self-explanatory in its meaning, modern “art” can be produced quickly and cheaply without any talent or preparation, and even more importantly, it can’t exist without a sizable population of critics and experts who “explain” the work to everyone else. In the world of modern “art” the role of the marketing channel and the official experts is much inflated and it should be no surprise that they would prefer “art” in which their contribution is essential and in which the contribution of the artist is minimized. Furthermore, when it comes to filling customer orders, which would be most financially beneficial? A case where a long waiting list of customers develops and the artist can only crank out a single work in months, or the case where he could create twenty in an afternoon? Now, some people attribute the whole development of modernism to this factor, but I do not. I think it is a relatively minor one since the same pressures were evident in ancient times and nothing like modernism ever developed. People have to be prepared to accept nonsense before they will allow themselves to be taken in by this kind of business practice.
In the past few centuries a great deal of social progress has come in the West as a result of the casting down of authority figures and powerful institutions. First, the Catholic Church was removed from its dominant role in Europe. Later the monarchies were de fanged or eliminated throughout Europe. Superstitions were overthrown as new scientific kinds of understanding took root. To some, around the end of the 19th century (and even today) the idea took root that what made things like the elimination of European Monarchy was not just that monarchy isn’t a good idea, but rather than casting down of all authority figures of all kinds was a good idea for its own sake. That’s why we have seen a steady stream of attempts to discredit every kind of authority whether in religion, government, science, media, or the arts. What was once a healthy skepticism about monarchy has since mutated into a nihilistic skepticism about anyone and everyone who claims to know anything. Of course, this dovetails nicely with many of the other influences I have been describing here.
Socially, there’s a well-known syndrome summed up in the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes. In the story, the crooks spread a story around that only those who were intelligent and competent could see the wonderful new clothes they were making for the emperor, and since people hate to be thought poorly of by their peers, everyone insisted that he could see the clothes even though they were not there at all. Similarly, the charlatans of the modern art world tell everyone that those who can’t see the excellence of modern art have something wrong with them. They are “philistines”, “unrefined”, or “stupid”. This kind of bullying intimidates a lot of people into setting aside their own honest judgment and instead parroting the positions they have been told are the way for intelligent and stylish people to think.
Lastly, for some time there has been a rather monopolistic control over the official institutions of artistic information…schools, museums, foundations, and the media by modernists who in general have shut out competing points of view. They had strong reasons for doing this, either they are completely right or they are horribly wrong and they can’t tolerate having little boys around to ask embarrassing questions that they can’t answer. Worse yet, these are not just hubs of education for the country, but also for money. For a long time it has been nearly impossible to get a position in teaching or journalism without holding the standard modernist leanings. This is one area where I think recent changes have been positive. Because of the Internet and other alternative media, it is now impossible to shut up little boys who can shake things upfor the emperor, and that is bound to change things a lot for the better.
Art is all about style, so how can you advocate anything that is out of style right now as being good/true or anything that it in style right now as being bad/false? That’s a direct contradiction!
If you think about it, all styles are “out” except for the current one aren’t they? So by that logic what is in style right could never change to anything else could it?
Be that as it may, the problem here is with the assertion (sometimes an implicit one) that what determines the good/true is some kind of consensus and that by definition anything that it popular is good/true and anything that is unpopular is therefore false/bad. This is a version of the the argumentum ad populum fallacy in which the claim is that whatever if popular is therefore true.
Anyway, we are witnessing a rebirth of interest in realism which draws on much of the best of the western tradition in order to make the next step after this unfortunate 20th century dead end. So will this new surge in popularity in realism make it therefore be good by this argument? Will it also make the modernist stuff bad by the same reasoning? I don’t buy that kind of fallacious reasoning myself, but this line of argument leads directly to an obvious contradiction.
Why don’t you give equal time to [whatever racial/ethnic group] art? We should promote pride in our racial/ethnic heritage, not just the art of white people.
No you shouldn’t. If one wants to understand how best to create artistic expressions (or at least to understand how it is done) one should look at the best examples of it, not the ones that happen to have been done by people who happen to have looked a little bit like you. It is racist to attribute virtue to an activity merely because your ancestors or members of your race did them.
Conventional racism is the attribution of racial fault on others, but the opposite of unearned racial/cultural guilt isn’t unearned racial/cultural pride. Those two are in essence the same idea… that you can tell how someone thinks, how smart he is, how valuable his work is, and how good he is by how he looks, and I reject the idea in both of its incarnations. The right alternative to “conventional racism” is a rejection of the notion that race has anything to do with virtue. The right alternative to the kind of anti-western/anti-white/anti-male bias entrenched in the “multicultural” movements is not to keep the idea (that personal moral and intellectual virtue can be had merely by having the right parents) but invert the evaluation, it is to scrap the whole idea that people and their ideas should be judged on the basis of the nationality, ethnicity, or race. We should hand out praise and condemnation of others (and ourselves) because of issues of right and wrong instead.
My position is not some kind of racist egotism that seeks to suppress anything no matter how good if it didn’t come from someone with white skin. It is an objective evaluation of the situation. The problem in academia today is not “including” other cultures. I think that including a cosmopolitan study of the rest of the world is a good thing, and in fact, it is particularly Western thing. The trick here is that the educational system is substituting the study of Western culture and history with distractions of going through the motions of studying other cultures (or rather, absurdly unrealistic idealized versions of them designed to make them appear far better than they are). I can explain why it is important that students should have a substantial understanding of ancient Greek culture and history. Can you tell me why a student ought to understand Cherokee culture and history? I’m not saying that there’s something inherently bad about learning about Indian tribes. I’m saying that it is a minor and optional topic of study, not one that ought to be placed at the core of how we understand the world and educate our children, and I think that’s true whether you are of Cherokee, Chippewa, French, or Maori ancestry.
The fact is that “educators” are out there turning kids against the United States, against capitalism, against science, and against good art, and their favorite tools are the theory of “cultural relativism”/”multiculturalism” and moral and epistemological relativism. Such ideas tend to immunize kids against believing or even being able to understand the scientific, industrial, and politically liberal culture of the United States. Look at the “liberal” support that Islamic militants are getting on our college campuses. They don’t like these guys because they are liberals. They are among the most sexist, militaristic, racist, and religious nutcases on the face of the earth. They like them because they are the enemies of the United States, and for no other reason. They are using the same fallacious reasoning to turn them away from good art as well and for the same reasons.
Lastly (as if it needed to be mentioned at all), there’s no reason to think that the success with which people from this or that racial/ethnic group cannot fully understand or create art of the best kind will differ at all. Yo Yo Ma’s ancestors were not cello players, but he does an excellent job. Placido Domingo’s ancestors didn’t sing in Italian operas and neither did Sumi Jo’s, but they both do it exceedingly well. To insinuate otherwise is obviously racist, but you would be amazed at how often I hear it.
You sound like you would like to change the educational system into some narrow-minded dogmatic affair rather than an open-minded pursuit of the truth, is that true? Don’t you just want to shut out the study of other cultures?
What I have a problem with is art history which omits the entire Western artistic tradition or limits it to modernism and a selective reading of pre-modern work doctored to justify the dominance of modernism. I think that a proper history of art ought to focus on the progression of techniques from early Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Academic, and Modern eras, and address what was going on elsewhere and at other times in special subjects like primitive art, oriental art, and so on. The Western tradition has a great deal to offer those who study it, far more than any other, and it ought to serve as the core of the art curriculum.
I don’t think that the complaints from people demanding that their own particular ancestors should be featured should have any bearing on what is chosen as a subject for study in our schools. We should study Greek art for example, not because there are a lot of descendants of ancient Greece applying political pressure to the curriculum committee, or because lots of people have Greek ancestors, but because historically and aesthetically, what the Greeks did was very important.
Many students at my daughter’s school for example spend years studying dead Indian cultures, ones which no longer exist, left no written record, and had no significant influence on anything since their dissolution, and have never heard a word about George Washington, have never heard of Thomas Jefferson, have no idea what the Civil War was about, can’t tell a Greek from a Roman, know nothing about the history of the Catholic church, or the Byzantine Empire, or Russia, or the Reformation. The point is that they don’t want to teach the children anything about the culture of the West. If you don’t understand a culture you can’t defend or participate in it can you? For them, their “culture” becomes nothing more than boy bands, McDonald’s, and thong underwear. The reason that the schools pick the Indians (or some other distant group) as a core focus is not because it their accomplishments were artistically good, or pedagogically enlightening, or historically interesting, but because it was unrelated to western culture which is still being erased from the history books and the minds of students. I think that a good education in the arts should expose kids to a very broad variety of art, giving special attention to the progression from cave paintings and pre-Greek developments to Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Greek art, how that developed in the medieval era, the renaissance, later academic, and modernist periods. It would also be useful to look (probably later on in the curriculum) at independent traditions such as those of China, Japan, and even some primitive tribes. I would not completely ignore these less advanced and less historically significant cultures and styles at all, I just wouldn’t make them the centerpiece of the study, and I wouldn’t completely leave out the greatest aesthetic tradition in all of history (19th century Academic painting and sculpture and Romantic music) as if it didn’t matter or was something people need to be shielded from.
If students were studying the history of aviation, I would have them spend their time primarily on events in the United States and Europe, but because that just happens to be where most of the important historical events happened, not because I have something against people who lived elsewhere.
As for being open to the truth and refraining from dogmatism, I think that children should indeed be encouraged to have open minds, however being taught to unthinkingly reject (or remain ignorant of) western culture is not open-minded, and that is what most children are being taught today, and that’s what I oppose.
What can we do to make things better?
There are a lot of things you can do to help, here are a few…
1. Get the government out of the arts, especially financially. The government generally doesn’t do a very good job of determining where its money goes, and a whole class of political hacks has gained control of this money and used to to support their modernist cause. The sums of money made available are massive and they strongly influence the direction of art. Your voting and letters can help move the government in the right direction… out of the arts.
2. Speak up when you see modernists asserting their positions and make it clear that you don’t agree. They are usually very tied to the idea that they are right because people agree with them no matter how absurd the ideas they are expressing are. They usually find it infuriating that anyone would disagree with them and they usually try to bully anyone who disagrees into submission. Be strong!
3. Patronize the good stuff. Regardless of the amount of money you have to spend, whether it is posters, books, CDs, or antique masterpieces, the more you buy and the more you show to others, the more the trend will pull away from the Modernist mess. It will create more of a market for more contemporary artists, more of a market for galleries and museums, and shrink demand for the bad stuff. This practice will also help you learn more about good art, find more about it, and that will make you a more informed and confident advocate for good art.
4. Avoid the bad stuff. Our artistic institutions are constantly putting on exhibitions of rotten art. Avoid it! Don’t let them count you as an attendee. Don’t buy posters, calendars, or appointment books with bad art on them. Don’t buy bad contemporary art. Don’t attend concerts by terrible composers. If there’s a program with some good parts and some bad parts (they do that all the time here in Los Angeles), walk out for a drink during the bad parts. Don’t send your kid to study art at a university, send him to an atelier instead. Don’t feed the beast either by participation or by contributing money.
5. Improve your own understanding. Read books, browse the Web (especially at the Art Renewal Center), take painting lessons, enroll in an atelier, and visit good museums showing good art. The more you learn, the more effective you will be at spreading the good word.
6. Complain! If your school is teaching lies about art, complain. If your kids are being mis-educated, complain! If your local symphony only plays rotten “modern” music (or plays it at all), complain! If your favorite painting at your favorite museum has been moved to storage in order to make room for a modernist work, complain! The squeaky wheel gets the grease!
7. If you are able, create great works of art yourself. Excellence in skills and execution is one of the things we have that the modernists don’t. and we should use it as much as possible.
8. Join the GoodArt mailing list. We have a lively discussion of a bread scope of artistic issues via email. You can read all about the list and how to sign up athttps://www.goodart.org/goodart.htm
9. Join and financially contribute to the Art Renewal Center and other good groups. ARC does a lot of good, both through its website and other activities (read all about it athttp://www.artrenewal.org/ or contribute at http://www.artrenewal.org/membership.asp).
How can you call for removal of government support for the arts? Wouldn’t it help if we were able to divert more government money to better kinds of art?
What we need is not more socialism for the museums and symphonies or government regulation of record companies and schools. What we need instead is to replace the mis-education system that removes the audiences from the symphonies, museums, art schools, and galleries. What we need to do is shrink the vast resources at their disposal and keep on plugging away trying to educate people about the good stuff. We don’t need socialism to support us. We just need the support for modernism that is extracted from the public by force to be eliminated. Suffice it to say that in cases where some genuinely desirable task is completed by the expenditure of government money, you always see manipulation of the process by those seeking special favors from the government. Generally the question in these genuinely desirable areas is not over whether the project will happen at all, but whether the government (with its typical lack of accountability, inefficiency, corruption, and power mongering) will do it or whether relatively more efficient and accountable private interests will do it.
There’s another issue I should mention here too, and that is one of fairness. Though I love classical music and want to see it continue to be available in live performances, I know that my preferences are not shared by everyone. Some people prefer rock, jazz, country, rap, bluegrass, pretentious modernist cacophonies, and other kinds of music. What business does the government have forcing those people to support the production of my kind of music? I have no problem for footing my own bill if they foot their own. The same goes for art museums. All government money does is boost prices for art above where they would otherwise be, and then dilute the concentration of the good stuff by creating more museums than the market demand would support (assuming that that private funding couldn’t justify as many museums as we have now). They don’t on the whole make more good art or make it more available than it ought to be. There are a number of legitimate activities the government needs to do (police, courts, the military, etc.) and whether you call it a tax or not, people need to pay for those things. That’s quite different from having the government tax people to pay for music, paintings, medical care, roads, or education. that doesn’t mean that these things are unimportant or bad, on the contrary, providing them is much too important a task to be left to the government. We should take personal responsibility for our needs and our cultural development, not rely on the police to force them on us. Many people resent (and rightly so) being asked to pay for the arts AGAIN after they are already charged for it through the tax system, and I don’t blame them, especially when they see how that money is being squandered.
Society and the government aren’t the same thing. The government is needed to make sure that criminals and invaders don’t deprive us of our freedom. There’s no reason to pin the entire mass of our social needs on the government. Other institutions can do a far better, more efficient, and more morally sound job of providing our other needs. Furthermore, a society in which the citizens have to be forced to provide for their critical needs against their will can neither be democratic nor can it really survive for long if the only ones who want these good things are a powerful minority that is forcing these good things on the unwilling public. A strong society with just relations between citizens should feel no need to force its citizens to participate in constructive social activities. It is weak ones without public support that need to use force to make people conform.
Perhaps the real issue here is one of integrity. Perhaps people SAY that they want strong and vigorous arts and many other things, but they are just too inconsistent to follow through on their desire. If so then the problem is that the public lacks the integrity to do what they know to be right. There are two ways to deal with lack of integrity. One is to cultivate integrity by giving people more opportunities to exercise it and boosting the rewards for integrity and the negative consequences for lack of it. The other way is to write people off and enforce “choices” on people so that they have no say in what happens and making it so that they never actually have to make choices or abide by them. This latter approach doesn’t cure a lack of integrity, it makes integrity impossible by removing choice and freedom from the equation and replacing them with obedience to authority.
Under which scheme do you think moral choices and integrity will thrive and in which will it be seen as an irrelevant or even harmful quality? Obedience or integrity: Which do you think should guide your actions? In a society which has replaced integrity with obedience, what kind of government do you think will develop? A principled one whose officials will themselves exercise integrity despite never having seen or benefited from it in the past? Or a despotic one where grabbing power and obeying the leader is all that matters? What is culture if not an aggregation of a large number of individuals? What claim does a government have to claim a right to form culture if not the assent of a large number of individuals? Do you think that the publicly funded art we have today makes us more “whole” or less? Or does it encourage racial and cultural strife through its messages and establish a system whereby the common people are forced to support a tiny elite whose wasteful nonsense they will rarely see and would almost universally object to? Do you look to government bureaucrats for your noble goals, your self-respect, and your personal aspirations? I sure don’t. I look for them to keep me safe and get out of my way as I select my own aspirations, goals, and notions of nobility. I guess that’s why I hold them so dear. They are my own, not ones imposed upon me by force because of where I happened to have been born.
But shouldn’t the government at least fund “communal” art activities that go beyond the scope of any individual?
Since I don’t even think there is such a thing as communal art I don’t know quite how to respond to that. Art is made by individual people, not groups. Multiple artists might cooperate on some large-scale project, but each of them is still using his own insights and making his own judgments alone. One thing is certain, forcing people to support such “communal art” against their will is not a way to generate genuine support for it, nor a way to get people to feel more involved in their social and cultural lives. If it is imposed on them by know-it-alls who think that people are sheep you won’t end up with a unified and cooperative community of free people, you will have masters and servants, each despising the other.
Recognized art experts disagree with you! Who are you to disregard their opinions?
Recognized by whom? I think for myself, and everyone should. If there’s reason to think that some expert has something to teach me then by all means I should learn from him, but in this case those “recognized experts” are wrong. This is a form of the argumentum ad verecundium fallacy and should be rejected for that reason alone, but if that’s not enough for you, the proof of their error can be seen above in the sections on what art is and how we ought to evaluate it.
If you had been born in some other country or in some other cultural setting you wouldn’t have these ideas, so why should I believe they are valid?
This is really just another example of the ad hominem fallacy, arguing that since I was born in a particular place my ideas must be wrong. It’s possible that if I was born in some primitive tribe I might be illiterate, does that mean I can’t read now? Or that you can’t tell if I can? It’s possible that if I were born in Berkeley or Siberia I might have never been exposed to any of the learning I have benefited from on the arts too, but who cares where I was born? What matters here is whether or not what I am saying is true, and that this argument is just a way of avoiding addressing that question.
Aren’t you just advocating Nazism? After all, Hitler loved realist art.
No. Obviously. Hitler wore pants. Does that make anyone who wears pants is a Nazi too?
What Hitler knew (and Stalin too!) was that good art has the power to communicate with people in important ways and that what he called “degenerate art” didn’t. He was right about that even though he was horribly wrong about a host of other things. Hitler also used good artistic expression as a powerful tool to promote his Nazi viewpoint but it was generally the message, not the medium that was flawed.