(an alternative account of the rise — and place — of contemporary art)
Does contemporary art “make us think”?
Reading Lawrence Weschler’s brilliant Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, I am slightly bored. The problem is not the writing – it’s superb – but the topic which turns out to be, as it is, alas, too often the case with Weschler, an item of contemporary art. The writing is superb, but how much can one do with the topic: it is a privately operated museum in LA which liberally and confusingly mixes fact and fiction. Weschler gushes:
The visitor to the Museum of Jurassic Technology continually finds himself shimmering between wondering at (the marvels of nature) and wondering whether (any of this could possibly be true). And it’s that very shimmer, the capacity for such delicious confusion, Wilson sometimes seems to suggest, that may constitute the most wonderful thing about the human being.
Elsewhere Weschler calls this confusion “tension” and suggests it is “aesthetic”.
Anyone trained in experimental science is bound to be underwhelmed: if you study strings, for instance, or prions, you are constantly wondering at (the universe) and whether (the theory put forth to explain it can be true): yet, mostly, it isn’t actually made up. (Hoax in science is to be eradicated, not celebrated). To me, at any rate, the mysteries of science – trying in earnest to learn something about the world we live in – seem a lot more relevant than the contrived conundrums posed by the Jurassic Museum which strike me as fake. More importantly, perhaps, the intellectual tools used to address the mysteries of science are a lot more sophisticated – it actually takes considerable training to as much as follow a scientific argument, a claim which cannot be made about the Jurassic displays.
The simple truth is that, while contemporary art purports to make us think, to me, at least, science does so a lot better.
Aesthetic rapture versus “words, words, words”
Weschler’s book illustrates one interesting feature of contemporary art: that it occasions huge floods of words, words usually a lot more interesting than the art itself. Think of Warhol’s Monroe: no one can possibly claim the work is much to look at, but, boy can we talk about it (reproduction, pop art, suicide, flatness, commodity culture, elitist-pop, color/mood, denial of inner sensation). It’s almost as if the visual insignificance of contemporary art was precisely the element that facilitated talk. A mathematician might write it like this:
P = 1/V
where V = visual power of a work of art
and P = its verbiage-generating potential
The existence of this inverse relationship seems to be confirmed by the existence of arts where high visual appeal goes hand in hand with negligible verbiage-potential. And thus, Bryson, in the introduction to his Looking at the Overlooked, complains about the “lack of variety and complexity of discussion surrounding, for instance, Raphael”. He then goes on to give us 185 pages of complex and varied discussion of Dutch still life. This is perhaps “modern” (“contemporary”?) of him: the art itself did not require such discussion to thrive for three centuries. Huge amounts of it were painted, vast fortunes made (and lost) in dealing in it, middle class homes were filled with it to the brim and – not one essay on the aesthetic tension in buns and cheese! Other such arts – which flowered for centuries without their Brysons – come to mind: tapestries, carpets, tobacco boxes, micro-mosaics, Meissen porcelain.
By contrast, it would be very difficult to imagine any of the material found in our museums of contemporary art to thrive without extensive verbal support.
Perhaps a prominent critic’s comment about one contemporary exhibition can be extended to the whole genre: “very clever, but precious little aesthetic rapture”: where aesthetic rapture supports Dutch still life, for instance, contemporary art seems mostly supported by its power of to generate clever verbiage.
Kinds of minds
I appreciate the controversial nature of the last statement. “How do you define aesthetic rapture”? will be the immediate line of attack. (“How do you define beauty”?) History of European art is littered with the detritus of precisely this debate.
The debate has failed for the same reason for which the great promise of phenomenology has never been fulfilled. Phenomenology arose initially as a kind of epistemological project which proposed to arrive at some convincing understanding of the universe by starting out with precise description of the human experience of it, which was a brilliant idea, except, it turns out, that individual descriptions of experience do not coincide. In a great simplification, what Husserl might describe as his experience of red might strike Brentano as wrong or unfamiliar. The conclusion which seems to have been drawn from this discrepancy is that our conscious states – emotional states – aesthetic states – are vague and illusory and therefore cannot have epistemological value.
It is a false conclusion. My impressions is the only thing I have: if I can’t rely them for relevant epistemological input, I might as well never get out of bed. Rather, the correct conclusion is that, as individuals, we experience qualitatively different conscious responses to the same phenomena. And thus, Weschler seems completely bowled over by the Jurassic Museum while to me it seems little more than a gimmick. Conversely, I expect, that while I am simply astonished by Gerrit’s still lives, Weschler probably finds them indifferent. Yet, that I do, does not invalidate Weschler’s response. Nor vice-versa: that Weschler feels one way does not mean I should (or shouldn’t) feel some other way; or that I might or might not. My experiences are as valid for me as his are to him.
Which would seem to make any discussion of our internal states meaningless – except to the extent that it might broaden our capacity for tolerance – for instance, there are people who actually feel better when they beat their wives; while we should not condone wife-beating we can perhaps as a result of this finding see psychopaths as unfortunate victims of nature and in need of help; except, if it were not for one curious fact: that conscious responses to the same phenomena appear to run in hordes. However you may feel about x – however you may experience color red – chances are that someone – and in a world of 6 billion people probably a very large number of people – experiences the same thing just the way you do, or closely enough for you to recognize it.
This is, of course, predicted by Theory of Evolution. If the human emotional apparatus is a result of evolution, it has arisen as a result of breeding-and-survival competition between different brain models; and, if the human emotional apparatus is still evolving, then, per force, there must exist different emotional brain models within the human population today. In fact, we know that different emotional models exist – introverts/extroverts, for instance – we just refuse to accept the possibility that such different emotional models might produce/experience different aesthetic states in response to art.
Now, we can take this view back to our suggested difference between “contemporary”, that is to say verbiage-generating art, and aesthetic-rapture producing art. For all my respect for Weschler, his powerful intellect, and his superb writing skills (his essay on light in LA was one of he most beautiful pieces of prose I have ever read), when it comes to looking at art, it seems, he and I have different brains. He goes for verbiage, I go for the rapture stuff.
And so you can perhaps guess already what my response to the attack – “How do you define aesthetic rapture”? – would be. And it would be something embarrassingly Zen-like: if you have to ask, you will never know. Verbiage-oriented people probably have no inkling. And if so, then, well, the only way to advance in our discussion of the aesthetic experience is to exclude them as being beyond the pale of the discussion. Not beyond the pale as human beings, of course, but beyond the pale as relevant participants in any discussion of aesthetic rapture. Just the way physicists exclude bankers from technical discussions of black holes.
Art genre as an apartheid tribalism
I suppose that, on this view, an art genre, say a Dutch still life, is a kind of exercise in apartheid tribalism: we aesthetic-rapture still-life-ists produce, show to each other, and trade stuff that (to borrow Jonathan Spence’s brilliant formulation concerning religious people and holy texts) “fits like a key in the lock of our mind”; while they – contemporary talkers – do the same with “contemporary art”. There is probably only limited common ground between the two. This is reflected by many facts; for instance, the usual institutional separation between contemporary art museums and all other museums; or the inability of some ancient languages to assimilate contemporary art into their traditional art terminology (e.g. the Japanese, among whom there are a great number of enthusiastic contemporary art people, are unable to call contemporary art “geijutsu”, which is the word they have invented as a holding category for things like ink paintings, netske carvings, lacquer inlays, and so forth; and feel compelled to call contemporary art… “aato”).
[A small footnote: geijutsu, a term at least 500 years old in Japan, preserves in Japanese the same meaning which the word “art” had in Europe as recently as the 18th century, when we wrote things like “the engineer undermined the walls of the defending city through expert exercise of his art” – it means, essentially, “skill”. “Skill”, not “gab”.]
In short — they do their thing, we do ours. And why not? Should chess players object to anyone playing checkers? God no: for one thing, we don’t want the checkers-players spoiling our game with their ideas of a good game (simple, fast, etc.) You contemporary guys want to do your thing? We’re happy for you. (Checkers players commenting on chess may be just the problem highlighted by Rape of the Masters. Although the title claims the problem is political correctness, it is, in my opinion, mistaken; in fact, the problem described in the book is contemporary-art-style verbalization about aesthetic art).
Falsifying the existence of a discontinuity
In light of this apparent discontinuity between aesthetic and contemporary arts, it is curious that we, in Europe, should insist on producing historical narratives pretending that contemporary art somehow evolved or grew out of everything that has gone before: that there is any kind of connecting thread – never mind logic or compunction – between, say, Raphael and the Jurassic Museum. The appearance of contemporary art should really be seen as an arrival of new men, a rise to prominence of a new mind-type, a new sort of activity; and their successful colonization of state cultural budgets for their use. Of course, it is possible to see how the contemporary art mind needs the reference to Raphael if it is going to appropriate the state art budget: that budget is often created with the idea of promoting some sort of new Raphaels and therefore the contemporary artist has to claim a connection with the same. This has been achieved through various means, including a subversion of the traditional meaning of the term “art” (as mentioned above). But economic expediency is one thing, objective truth another.
Administrative sources of the success of contemporary art
If there really does exist such a dramatic discontinuity between the aesthetic and contemporary arts, how was contemporary art able to arrive at its present prominence? I think one explanation is precisely its ability to generate impressive verbiage. The biggest actual shift in European art of the last 150 years has been the rise of the bureaucratic decision-maker. Until about the middle of the nineteenth century state art budgets, to the extent that they existed, were directed by the rulers themselves – Dukes, Popes, Emperors, Kings, who pretended (some with more success than others) to the role of a connoisseur. “More blue”, said Julius to Michelangelo, and who was there to question him? “Yessir”, replied Michelangelo. (Who was he to question Julius? Translation: the boss’s aesthetic response was sufficient justification for the state’s art budget: no more words were necessary). Today, an artist negotiates with a bureaucrat who may or may not understand what he is doing, but who must, whatever he decides, produce a good paper trail justifying his decision. At this, contemporary art is far better than aesthetic art. It just sounds a lot safer, as well as more impressive, to say that “this exhibit questions our assumptions about blah blah blah and inspires the audience to blah blah blah” than to say “Huysum’s carnations rock and the audience will love them”. Translation: more bureaucrats means more paperwork; which means more verbiage; which means more art that can inspire it. In short, more bureaucracy = more “contemporary art”.