Thursday, July 25, 2019

But, Is It Art?

If art is the canary in the cultural coal mine, it’s time to get packing. Yesterday, David Brooks offered some comments on the current state of the art world. I would say, art market, but those who cobbled together the list of influential contemporary artists do not care about the market, any more than they care about art.

The major requirements for inclusion on the list are: fulfilling a diversity quota and seeing art as propaganda. You might recall that great totalitarian dictatorships, especially those of the Communist persuasion, insisted that art teach a proper socialist lesson. Today’s artists, living in a world ruled by thought police, do their best to hew to the party line, and to advance the revolutionary cause. 

It takes a special level of stupid to think that Marxist Revolution is the wave of the future, but, alas, these artists have attained it. 

Dare I say, artists are not philosophers. They are not propagandists. They ought not to pretend that they are. One suspects that the deeper meaning of their political harangues is that they do not know how to draw.

The issue Brooks raises is simple: Is any of this stuff really art?

Curiously, we can say the same about the $91,000,000 Jeff Koons toy bunny and the work of an artist who calls himself Kaws. I have expounded at length about both in prior posts. 

Brooks remarks:

Most of the pieces selected are intellectual concepts or political attitudes expressed through video, photographs, installations or words. In 1982, for example, Jenny Holzer put the words “Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise” on a digital billboard in Times Square. In 1985, Barbara Kruger took an image of a ventriloquist’s dummy and printed “When I Hear the Word Culture, I Take Out My Checkbook” across its face.

Ideologically driven art is not art. It is advertising. It is not designed to provide anything resembling an aesthetic pleasure, but to tell you what to think. And to persuade you that all right thinking people think as you think.

Brooks writes:

Most of the artists have adopted a similar pose: political provocateur. The works are less beautiful creations to be experienced and more often political statements to be decoded. In 1989, for example, Cady Noland made a silk-screen of the famous photo of Lee Harvey Oswald getting shot. There are eight large bullet holes across his body and there’s an American flag stuffed in his mouth.

And naturally the artists promote what they call sexual politics. It closely resembles pornography, but don’t tell anyone:

The most provocative pieces are in the realm of sexual politics, where the art world has had its biggest influence. Jeff Koons is recognized here for “Ilona on Top,” a painting showing him having sex with the porn star who would become his wife.

And, of course, pornographic presentations of the female body are supposed to portray female empowerment. Seriously, these people should learn how to think:

Several works redefine female power. In 1974, the artist Lynda Benglis posed naked with a dildo between her legs. In 1972, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro and others created “Womanhouse,” a living feminist manifesto. In 1993, Catherine Opie created “Self-Portrait/Cutting,” in which someone has carved two stick figures and a house into her back with a knife or razor. The figures depict an idyllic domestic dream that was hard for lesbians to realize at the time.

One is revolted by the idea that self-mutilation is being made into an artistic statement. Do we really want to encourage young girls to cut themselves?

So, art is no longer art. It is a way for artists to harangue their audience with jejune political opinions. It allows artists to escape the shackles of drawing and painting and sculpture in order to present themselves as great philosophers. Unfortunately, none of them know how to think, any more than they know how to draw. The thing is: if they compare their doodles with the works of the great artists they will know immediately that they do not know how to draw. Since they know nothing about philosophy they can continue to pretend that they know how to think.

So far, we are onboard with Brooks. But then he yields to his unfortunate habit of offering up pseudo-profundities masquerading as pseudo-science.

By his lights, the purpose of art is to educate the emotions. Allow him his thought and his appeal to scientific authority:

The absence of that emotional range reminds you that one of the things art has traditionally done is educate the emotions. Lisa Feldman Barrett and other neuroscientists argue that emotions aren’t baked into our nature as things all humans share. They are constructed by culture — art and music, and relationships. When we see the depth of psychological expression in a Rembrandt portrait, or experience the intimacy of a mother and daughter in a Mary Cassatt, we’re not gaining a new fact, but we’re experiencing a new emotion. We’re widening the repertoire of ways we can feel and can communicate feelings to others.

As for whether emotions are constructed by culture, this feels like the pseudo-science that has explained, with the utmost seriousness, that gender is socially constructed. The neuroscientists would have done better to begin by noting that many emotions are universal, and thus, were produced by nature, not culture. All humans have a sense of shame. All humans experience grief and anguish. All human beings can immediately recognize fear and anger and love when they see them on someone else’s face. We don't need art to teach us how to feel shame and anguish, or even maternal affection.

Besides, do you really believe that the great paintings of the Madonna and child were designed to teach us to feel for babies. Don't we know that babies are constructed to elicit certain feelings? The neuroscientists have indulged a gross overgeneralization and oversimplification. However good the painting-- the best being by artists like Giotto and Duccio--its purpose is not about maternal affection, but about transcending maternal affection and the mother infant bond.

Clearly, different cultures offer different ways to express such emotions, but the point of culture is not to teach us how to feel, but to tell us what we should do. Culture is an ethical construct, shared locally, not universally. Emotion is trying to tell us something. We should learn how to read our emotions for the indications they give us into the life situations we are facing. We should certainly not be indulging our unfortunate tendency to return to adolescence and to wallow in our deep feelings.

As for helping us to get in touch with our feelings, we know that Brooks has recently found new love in the arms of a younger woman. That is, a woman who is considerably younger than the wife he discarded. And we also know that he wrote a book blaming it on God. We would have preferred that he take the more moral path and accept responsibility for his actions. 

We would have been happier still if he had not gotten suckered in by the new enlightened politically correct and highly therapeutic exaltation of the power of human emotion. The inner worlds of emotion and feeling are traditionally women’s worlds. How Brooks managed to get himself caught in a world that is unfamiliar, I can only surmise. Is he telling us that he is willing to feel more womanly feelings, the better to commune with his new young wife? If so, he would have done better to keep it to itself.

As for the ethical purpose of art, we should begin by noting that art is a bastard child of religion. Literary criticism, for example, is a bastard child of Biblical exegesis. The difference between art and religion is not that difficult to understand. 

Religions create communities and cultures. The word “religion” comes from a  Latin word that means: to bind together. Religions set down the rules that you need to follow in order to belong to a community. They tell you what rules to follow, though they offer you, in Biblical Scripture, the option of exercising free will by not following them.

Art serves a slightly different purpose. If I may, art dramatizes moral dilemmas. It shows what happens when an individual facing a difficult, if not insoluble moral dilemma, makes or does not make a choice. How can Hamlet, for example, do the ghost’s bidding when he is far from certain that the dead King Hamlet is really his father? Should he avenge the murder of a cuckold, when the murderer might have been his real father? Caught on the horns of dilemma, Hamlet fails. He is not up to the task. He does not fully understand the cause of his ambivalence. But his play does not tell us what to do if we are faced with a similar dilemma. It might be telling us not to rely on art for moral teaching. To be clear, if an artist harangues us with political thought, he is not producing art.

As for the connection between emotion and art, we leave Brooks in the shade and refer to Aristotle, who wrote the book about it. What do we feel when we watch a tragedy? We first feel that we could be the tragic hero, that we could find ourselves in a similar bind or face a similar dilemma. Aristotle calls this “phobos” meaning, intense fear. 

But then, Aristotle continues, we as spectators, recognize that we have merely projected ourselves onto the tragic hero. We are not Oedipus and we are not Hamlet. This produces what he calls a catharsis, an emotional cleanse, whereby our fear dissipates and we are left feeling pity for someone who is not at all just like us.

Art is certainly not about teaching us to feel, or better, it is not designed to help Brooks to feel his new wife’s feelings. If men and women have different emotions, perhaps we ought to respect the difference and not pretend to feel what the other one feels.

Perhaps today’s neuroscientists want to teach us all to feel more deeply. It is sexual politics disguised as science. It tells us nothing about art or even about human emotion. 


David Foster said...

"Lisa Feldman Barrett and other neuroscientists argue that emotions aren’t baked into our nature as things all humans share. They are constructed by culture — art and music, and relationships."

Do these neuroscientists provide any actual support for this assertion? Because it seems to me to be false. Indeed, I'd suggest that *animals* probably share human emotions to a considerable degree, albeit with different triggers.

UbuMaccabee said...

Great writing, Stuart. Worthy of Ruskin and Berenson.

whitney said...

"As for the ethical purpose of art, we should begin by noting that art is a bastard child of religion. Literary criticism, for example, is a bastard child of Biblical exegesis"


UbuMaccabee said...

Whitney, I agree. If you went to the Louvre and had no background in Judaism or Christianity, let alone Greek and Roman mythology, nothing would make any sense. You'd just have bodies doing stuff in funny outfits. Based on the conversations I hear among viewers to art museums, I would say that serious religious instruction is almost non-existent. Pity. Judith and Holofernes is on another level when you know the story.

Jeff Koons is for people with the religion of the last man: shallow nihilism.

Sam L. said...

Davit Brooks??? He's on my "Do Not Bother To Read" list. Art? As far as I can tell, most "artists" are poseurs. Call me a philistine, but I just have no interest.