art theory

One reason to embrace the crisis

Given the wild historicist philosophising to which historians of the old school were inclined, it is small wonder modern-day historians eschew theory-making as such.  It is also regrettable because it is an act of over-compensation:  an exaggeration in the opposite direction.  After all, history is supposed to teach us something about the world: trying to draw conclusions about general mechanisms of how things work really should lie at the heart of its inquiry.

C. V. Wedgwood does this rather well.  Her way of interpreting some mechanisms of history is ambitious and thought provoking, without being wild — perhaps because it is couched in economic and psychological terms rather then the vague “civilization” or “progress” or “gender construction” or “Orientalism”.  The author’s seemingly “sweeping” observations strike us with their profoundly common sense.  Such as her observation that the cause of the decline of the Catholic church in the Netherlands in the 15th century was a brain-drain from the church to the professions,  a brain-drain caused by… the rapidly improving opportunities in trade and industry.  She thus suggests the existence of a fascinating cultural/economic mechanism (also proposed by someone else to explain America’s cultural decline during the Gilded Age):  that a society’s economic success can be bad for its art.

One can see the mechanism at work in our own time:  the last 50 years in the “first world” have seen fantastic opportunities in banking, finance, technology, real estate and marketing and that’s where all talent went; by contrast, the fields of artistic production (painting, sculpture, literature) and art management (museum directors, theater directors, critics, scholars) have failed to attract the best talent; which has resulted in the sort of production we have seen:  uninspired, shallow, derivative, technically poor, gimmicky.  In culturally more successful periods (such as the Renaissance) artistic production attracted talent which may equally well have been deployed in science or engineering (and often was:  Leonardo was a anatomist, Michelangelo a builder, Cellini an engineer).  By contrast, twentieth century art looks like something produced by people whose alternative economic options were on the scale of selling pimple remedies via mail order in small town newspapers.

Perhaps when at last the true (economic) “decline of the West” finally sets in, talent will begin trickling back to art.

Embrace the crisis.


Reading Soseki: a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft

Without seeing Glenn Gould’s 37 pages of notes on Kusa Makura (Three-cornered world) — the book became something of an obsession for him — it is hard to guess what it was that he loved about it.  Did he like the reflections on the similarities and differences of poetry and painting?  (But Lessing’s Laocoon has already made it amply plain that nothing interesting can be said about the matter:  the two can not be any more usefully or meaningfully compared than recreational swimming and differential equations can).  Did he believe in the existence of moral or artistic truth?  (But what on earth is an “artistic truth”?)  Or did Gould really think the work accurately represented the process of the creation of a work of art? (I find it unconvincing, probably because Soseki was not a painter and therefore had no clue what he was writing about).  

All of Kusa makura‘s hero’s reflections on art are 19th century claptrap and can only bore and exhaust someone like me who knows that a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft; that great art has nothing to do with moral truth, or artistic truth, or any otherwise truth, but everything to do with technique; that it need not describe or discuss or reveal human feelings at all only manipulate successfully the human cognitive system; and who, like me, does not believe that a great artist either is or needs to be spiritually different from “most people” (which the novel repeatedly claims, “as an artist I am more sensitive” etc.).  GIGO (“garbage in garbage out”) describes the meditations of Kusa makura rather well:  starting out from false first principles one can only arrive at nonsense conclusions. It describes our modern art theory, too:  what wonder we have the art we do given that we had started out with all that nonsense?

Soseki’s meditations on art aside, several sections of the novel are extraordinarily beautiful, and its last chapter is absolutely breathtaking.  In English, this beauty owes as much to the translator (Alan Turney) as it does to the original:  much of it is verbal; consider how beautifully this poem is translated:

Your obi worked loose and flutters in the breeze,
But once again ’tis for pretence and not spring’s passion it unwinds.
The maker’s name, though woven into silk,
Is, like your heart, unreadable.

But there is also that special je ne se quoi aspect of it — that it infuses the reader with a profound sadness on the one hand and on the other urges him to out the book down and reflect.  (Magic Mountain has the same effect and, not surprisingly, it was Gould’s other most favorite novel).  That the chapter portrays a universal archetype — the departure of a soldier — has more to do with its impact than one is at first inclined to believe.


Art theories do not fade away, they are overthrown

System instability will set us free

 

We have an entrenched art theory which fails to deliver.

This art theory is buttressed by a lot of sunk cost (“investments” in garbage misunderstood as valuable art, “investment” in reputations based on having promoted the said theory of art); and by the way museums, galleries, and state funding operate (they invest money according to this theory); providing in the process funds to recipients who can use those funds in turn to extract even more on the same principles; and to defend those principles: i.e. to suppress any alternative theory of art since that might see the public and gallery money going elsewhere.

As a result, I am afraid, we are never going to have decent art again — as long as the present system exists.


Why write?

To please Andrew —————-

 

Her last letter to me ended with the usual exhortation for me to please write.  You do it so well, she said, it is all so interesting, you tell us all those things we ignoramuses don’t know.  [Tricky words from a university professor, published novelist, and someone rather famous in her own country — especially when such words are addressed to someone entirely unknown, anonymous, and without credentials].

Ah, yes, well, thank you.   I guess all those years of traveling and reading, of living an odd lifestyle in all sorts of odd places where other people who share my interests do not usually go, let alone live, have not been entirely in vain…  why, given the gift of the lifestyle, of the first-hand experience, it would have been proof of utter imbecility of me if I did not make at least some independent observations…  so perhaps I did figure out a thing or two which may not have occurred to others, not because those others are dim, but because these things simply could not have occurred to them — because there haven’t been there, they haven’t seen what I have seen.  So perhaps I do have something to say, however insignificant it may be.

But I don’t seem able to explain it — no one seems to understand what I think I am trying to explain…  or even notice that it just might be any way important.  Or care.  The fault must be entirely mine, of course — if a speaker isn’t getting through to a crowd, it isn’t the crowd’s fault — but the truth is that I am no longer worried about it… it doesn’t seem to matter to me anymore if anyone does understand.  Or care.

I do write, of course — like you, I have been writing all my life.  I have been writing as an aid in thinking — I don’t seem to understand what I think until I see what I write —  but I have never cared to be published, for some odd reason I have never been ambitious that way. It just doesn’t seem such a big deal to me to be on a book shelf or to be mentioned in a newspaper or in a book review.  (I was once a fashion model; my mother kept all the magazines and calendars in which I featured, but I trashed them all the moment I received them. If anything, I was embarrassed by them).

It is true that at one point I did publish a successful blog and that when I did it, at the time, I did go out of my way to promote it.  But I didn’t do it for fame or to shine or to exist (some people seem to exist only to the extent that they exist in other people’s minds, but I have always felt secure in the knowledge that I exist, even on five-day solitary hikes in the mountains):  I did it because I imagined that the internet, then young, offered a way for like minds to meet, to find each other, to talk.  In the end I am not sure that I succeeded in proving that:  I am not sure I really found any “like” minds…  I know I found plenty enough “unlike” minds.  I have met others, too, who have been gentle and generous — like you — but, I repeat, even in those cases I don’t think I have met any “like” minds.

If anything, talking to people on that blog about art and literature I have discovered what I have been discovering all my life, that I don’t really understand other people.  A scientist-philosopher once published a huge hit of a paper in which he argued that we (“we, cognitive scientists”, that is) could never understand what it was like to be a bat on account of the animal’s unique sensory system (echolocation).  Be that as it may, I find that I cannot imagine what it is like to be other people!

I have spent the last two years reading memoirs and letters of many prominent thinkers and I have discovered that their likes and dislikes, their desires and ambitions and fears were all very odd to me — as was the way they reasoned about them.  I am sure the feeling is mutual and this disparity, this gulf, is one reason perhaps why I seem unable to explain myself; and the conviction of the vastness of this gulf, now stronger then ever, is the main reason why I no longer try to explain.  I mean…  if by some miracle I managed to convince someone that the theory of art he has learned in art 101 and which everyone seems to accept and which fuels all the furious production and all the auction house bidding and all the museum building and going… if I convinced someone that there was something fundamentally wrong with that theory…  that it was only a plausibly sounding falsehood…  and, if response to all my argument, a light lit up in their heads saying “aha!”, would they really understand that which I am trying to say?  Or would they understand something completely different and would I have any clue as to what they got out of the conversation?

And — why should I worry about that at all?

 


How success kills the goose

How success kills the goose!

Kto słucha nie błądzi was for many months my favorite program on Polish Radio (the last undumbed-down cultural radio on earth). It was also proof that it is possible to talk intelligently about quality in art – in this case, recordings of classical music.

The format was very good: three musicologists with engaging personalities and pleasant voices discussed six different recordings of a single work of music “blind” — i. e. not knowing who the performers were — and choose the best.  The program was run on a very high level — this was professionals talking to one another, talking like professionals (“talking shop”) and not minding that someone listening might not know some terms.  It’s such a wonderful rarity to hear a program which is not aimed at the 10th grade and below (such programs don’t seem to be produced anymore) — I counted the days between the programs and on occasion cancelled a date in order to hear it.

Unsurprisingly, the speakers’ choices usually coincided with mine. The revelation of the performers at the end of the program also rarely surprised: some performers really are predictably head-and-shoulders above the rest (Gould, Richter, Abbado, Bernstein); but it was pleasant to discover surprising facts, such as that Dudamel actually can conduct (when he’s not conducting a youth orchestra), that Shostakovich played his 2nd Piano Concerto wrong – but better than the score, etc.); and above all it was a lesson in listening: I have been listening to classical music almost “professionally” for forty years now, so it’s no surprise I can hear most of what the musicologists can; but not all – and to learn what they heard and I did not was fascinating.

For an aesthetictist, the program was also a goldmine of observations in the matter of taste: it illustrated that the opinions of those in the business (all participants are musicians and musicologists) are far less divergent than those of the clueless general population (whose preferences being random mean nothing), but that they too face the barrier of personal taste. Yet, at that level of sophistication, the barrier is not a barrier: one cannot help but respects an educated divergent taste.

Like me, the public probably liked to hear what kinds of small details, undetectable to their untrained ears, the musicologists heard in the recordings and why they liked them (or not) — and it grew and grew by the week. But the public liking was the program’s undoing: the organizers – classical radio stations are so happy to have a runaway hit – decided to make it a program with live audience in the studio — and thereby… killed it. The participants began to play to the galleries — unnecessarily showing off their erudition, making pointless jokes and, when they had nothing to say, making things up — lying, to call a spade a spade — as if debates of art and music needed any more lies and fabrication.

(The aestheticist’s lesson here is that taste and perception can be discussed on a very high level but probably not in groups larger than three).

This — the perversion of the author/performer (in this case, the musicologists) is one way in which success kills a good program; the uncalled-for broadening of the audience is another.  A Japanese stand-up comedian whose program I once sponsored on Japanese TV told me he stopped enjoying the work the moment his ratings went over 5%. “Suddenly, he said, I discovered that my audience didn’t get my jokes”. His jokes were intelligent and required both wit and lots of erudition to get — the qualified audience size was naturally limited. But as the show became more popular, it began to struggle to reach its new audience, and after some attempts at educating the audience first and then at dumbing-down the content, the host asked us to take him off the air.

Dear Kto słucha nie błądzi : for your own good, today I won’t be tuning in this Sunday.


How a visit to your local potter proves that art history is bunk

[I seem unable to stop interrupting myself]

At least the grand-sweep art history in which one style emerges out of another and artists are forever breaking, surpassing, and overthrowing.  The potter’s work was what is usually termed “interesting” — “inept” would be impolite; perhaps “naif” would be a good word; though certainly “ugly” would still apply.  In short, it was like the rest of the “searching”, “exploring”, “overthrowing” and “challenging””work” out there.  The sort of work whose technical ineptitude is explained away by gushing reviewers as due to it being so very new — “in early stages of development”.

Curious to know why she makes what she makes, I engaged her in conversation about her work and discovered that she had never been to the local museums to look at the pottery there (the city sports one of the best tile museums in the world); has never heard of of Izniks (one of the world’s top three museum for Iznik pottery is only five kilometers away from her studio); and had a vague notion that Chinese export-porcelain had been made by the Portuguese.

I had a strong sense of a deja vu:  a piano teacher had once confessed to me at the Suvarnabhumi airport — confessed without the slightest suggestion of embarrassment — that she had never heard of Domenico Scarlatti.

Conclusion:  if it looks like the work of an ignoramus, it probably is.  If you don’t know the past, you aren’t overthrowing it, are you? 

(Corollary 1:  And if you knew it, you probably wouldn’t be).

(Corollary 2:  If you don’t remember the past, you can’t even repeat it).


More concering the female ankle — or what Evolutionary Psychologists and Aesthetic Theorists could learn from Marketing Research

Part 2 of 3

[With Sir C’s forebearance]

This research paper says ankles are among the body features least paid attention to by potential sexual partners. Like all such papers by evolutionary psychologists, it fails to address the question no marketing researcher would ever overlook: does the aggregate data in fact obstruct the structure of the phenomenon (“market”)? That is to say, does aesthetic interest in ankles define a certain population — one among whom the ankle is a significant item? (Perhaps even “the most significant”?).

This writer’s self-observation suggests: yes.

If so, then comes the crunch question: if so, then what else is unique about this sub-group? Surely, they are not all balding six-foot-five, paper-skinned descendants of East European gentry with a strong interest in martial arts, European opera, glazed pottery, and Japanese classics? And if not — are there any features they share? And significantly: not just taste features — i.e. “all ankle lovers prefer blonds” (clearly not true)– but “do all ankle-lovers have ankles themselves?” or: “do all ankle-lovers happen to have an extra-long middle finger in the right hand?”) The marketer will also want to know — I should say chiefly want to know — how to reach them — what media they watch, what magazines they read, etc.

Can you see what I am driving at? Taste as a hidden structure of humanity!

In my view, Evolutionary Psychologists, like aestheticists (and all academics in general), would benefit greatly from a course or two in marketing research. For instance, publications of the World Coffee Council would teach them that:

a) the entire coffee-drinker population in the world can be divided into several very specific groups (fewer than ten) — with respect to the particular coffee flavor each group prefers;

b) that members of those groups are found all over the world — but not evenly; they are in fact spread lumpily: for instance, the preference for a coffee taste described by professional tasters as “burnt rubber” shows up all over the globe, even in (still) mostly coffee-less China, but is a significant plurality in only two nations on earth: Poland and the UK (strong stuff, eh?); not the majority, mind you, as in “50% +1”; but significant plurality, meaning the largest of the many minorities, one usually large enough to dictate its tastes to others (it determines what gets put on supermarket shelves);

c) each such group consists, in different proportions, of a hard-core (can’t sell them a milky cappucino if their life depended on it) ; and hangers on (can drink any coffee, generally prefer burnt rubber, but happy to try whatever everyone else is having at the moment); the hangers on can be sold a different product, the hard-core — only once;

d) the special gifts required to make a coffee-taster (a natural gift is required followed by intensive training) disqualify a person from telling you what they like: people who have tasted a great deal of coffee often can’t make up their mind and, in private, actually turn out to be tea- or juice-drinkers; or else consume such a wide variety of coffees that they do not fall into any of the broad categories themselves; in other words, the process of training an expert, both sharpens ones taste and, in a sense, ruins it.

It is my hunch, based on years of conducting marketing research, that not only does the taste in ankles, but the tastes in opera and painting and architecture run the same way: many islands of mutually incompatible, probably hard-wired taste-preferences (“Ankles!” “Boobs!”); and between them a sea of hangers on, who happen to say they like X because their mother did, or their girlfriend does, and have some familiarity with it and some sentiment for it, but who really don’t have anything that could be called taste of their own (“I used to like candy but now like booze”); and swimming within this sea: “experts” — near-omnivores, seeing everything, baffled by it all, and never understood by anyone else who cannot imagine what it is like to know more than they do.


The remarkable disappearance of the female ankle

Part 1 of 3

[Once again, we interrupt the usual programming, to bring you our recent reflections of the Sir-C-hates-to-read’em variety]

The sudden arrival of summer has caused the fair sex to drop excess clothing and appear before us (nearly) as nature has made them. And nature has made them, it would appear — incredibly! — without the — talocrural joint — sans the synovial hinge — sine angulus, in short — nature has made them — ankleless!

The aesthete’s eye is amazed to see that by and large the human female leg does not, after all, appear to sport the narrow waist of his imagination — as the divinely-shaped, and heavenly-delicious porcine trotter does; but instead the female foot appears to connect directly to the calf, without any attempt at defined ligature, or modulation; in the style of the Doric column, the Egyptian pylon, the pachyderm leg, or the modern parking-lot carrying support-column. Can this be possible? To explain his misconception, the aesthete has gone back to search the various Roman and Renaissance Venuses and to his surprise has discovered that among them, too, the ankle is — notably missing. (Unbelievable, but true).  (See above).

Now, the aesthete knows form personal experience — observation of several significant others — that, in principle, the female ankle does exist; but he is now compelled to admit that it would appear to be a commodity in severe shortage.

His fetish — if that’s what it is — the aesthete does not spend excessive amounts of time slobbering over his significant other’s ankles; but he will generally and instantly lose interest in anyone shown to lack a well-turned one — isn’t his alone: he remembers others commenting on women’s ankles — fine-ankled Rajasthani upper-class women; deftly-brushed Edo-era floating-world habitues — and wonders why such an interest should exist. Clearly, fine ankles are far more rare than agreeable faces — could it be that a good ankle is harder to make? Is a fine ankle and indication of good carpentry — a better tool for running and jumping? (Desirable for one’s offspring). Or is it the opposite — that an unsightly ankle is an indication of bad health? (A swollen ankle is the one most obvious indication of circulation problems).

As many aesthetic preferences do, the ankle-interest appears to have speciating effects: those who pay attention to ankles appear to have good ankles themselves!

*

[Incidentally, while looking for an illustration for this post I discovered that the category of photo which could be described as “a female ankle unuglified by some sort of an ill-conceived tattoo” appears to have gone extinct; closer inspection revealed that all those photos sported non-ankles; presumably the tattoo was there as a form of disguise].

*

[It is hard to suspect Greek sculptors and Italian Renaissance painters of not having liked a good ankle; and therefore its general absence from the European cannon must be explained by the Annibale Carracci Phenomenon (ACP):  among his early paintings there is an early ugly, chunky nymph, the sort amateur-porn websites call “amateur BBW” (big-beautiful-woman); “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” crowed one of the well-known art theorists about it – I can’t be bothered to remember which; and wrongly:  the story of the painting, it turns out, was that young Annibale had neither the money nor the  fame with which to attract a proper model; and the model for the painting was one of his cousins who agreed, reluctantly, to bare for free; in short, the artists do not paint what they think is beautiful; they paint what they can].


Kinds of minds — that new taste is not the taste of a new age, but the taste of new men

The expression Kinds of Minds appears frequently in this blog — usually in connection with aesthetic musings — reflections on the the subject of why some people like what others do not.

It is as frequently objected to by my readers who generously — and in keeping with their very good democratic instincts — object to the idea that human beings might somehow be born unequal.

My respect to them, and my assurance that I, too, share in their belief that all humans MUST BE EQUAL BEFORE THE LAW.

In other ways, of course, we are all profoundly unequal and all of us, the most committed democrats included, recognize this fact:  we all know that some of us are born extro- and others introvert, some homo- and some hetero– ahem – vert, that some are thrill-seekers and others prefer afternoons at home with a book, etc. (And this is as it must be: if the human mind is a result of evolution and if evolution is still continuing then different kinds of minds — different genetic mutations in the structure of the brain — simply must be present in the population competing with each other — because this is the only way evolution can ever work).

In our everyday life, we all accept this as a simple fact of life without attaching any special ideological value judgment to it. Yet, somehow, when it comes to discussion of aesthetics — perhaps because to so many people it seems to lie so close to politics — many of us feel obliged to pretend that we are all equally free to like anything at all; that there is only one kind of human mind; and only one art to match it.

This ideological commitment to an obviously false theory of mind leads to a series of failures in theoretical consideration of art: theorists fail to see, for instance, that two different kinds of art may well have been designed to appeal to two different kinds of minds and that therefore they need not have anything in common at all. So, while — surely — it must be apparent that the sort of painting found at this show in Warsaw has — aesthetically speaking — practically nothing in common with the kind of painting found in this room, and that therefore any attempt to say something — anything — true about both kinds of painting simultaneously must end up in banalities (“painting is the application of pigment to a surface”) or gibberish (“painting is a way of being absorbing the universe and of being absorbed it”); yet such “theories of art” and “theories of painting” continue to be generated. 

Predictably, we are drowned in theoretical banalities and nonsense.

It also leads to a false perception of history. And thus, for instance, the great change in European visual arts which took place in the early twentieth century, and which has been ceaselessly praised by some as revolutionary and equally ceaselessly derided by others as a perverse embrace of ugliness, is commonly interpreted by theorists as either a natural progression (e.g. “cubism” somehow — by some sort of inevitable law — follows from “expressionism”); or as reflecting ideological changes in the European society (e.g. “awareness of quantum mechanics causes cubism”); while the true cause for that change in art may simply have been demographic: the economic transformation of the West has brought to the fore new demographic groups which have heretofore not had the opportunity to engage in high art and have therefore not been seen in it.

Seen in this light, new taste is not the taste of the new age but the taste of new men. 

Consider how much more sense this statement makes!


How personal is the aesthetic experience?

Huang Tinjian, image swiped from Xinblog

Sir C, who hates theory, writes me that my articles on art appreciation are useless.  “Above all”, he says, “an aesthetic experience is personal: specific to a time, place, family, and body of experience. “

Is it, though? If I find myself appreciating the art of a man from the other side of the planet dead these one thousand years — isn’t there something universal at work?  If I read today Mi Fu’s thousand-year old commentary on Su Shi’s calligraphy and it strikes a deep cord with me — indeed, I am struck with the impression that Mi Fu’s is in fact putting into words my own experience isn’t there something un-Polish/Chinese, un-20th/11th-century, un-my/his-family, un-this/that-place about it?  Is this not… fascinating?  Does this not fly in the face of the established theories of art and culture?  Does this not tell us something about human nature and the nature of art — moreover, something under-noticed and undiscussed?  Given the cultural-construct nature of current art theories, is this not a refreshingly novel point of view?